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Janet Thomas: The Little County That Could

  • Written by Janet Thomas

The late Ben White

This past week I received an out-of-the-blue email from a woman asking if I would consider being interviewed about the 1999 WTO (World Trade Organization) demonstration in Seattle. It was an event that drew together union workers, farmers, environmental activists, social activists, animal rights activists, students, and other concerned citizens from all over the world in protest of the exploitative, destructive, and invasive elements of corporate capitalism on people, place, and planet.

I showed up there thanks to my island neighbor, activist Ben White who was creating large endangered-turtle costumes to be worn on the streets of WTO Seattle. Ben, who died from cancer in 2005, at the age of 54, was a highly committed longtime activist in support of saving species from extinction. I was commuting a few days a week to a job in Seattle, so I scheduled my commute accordingly to be on the streets of WTO Seattle. Doing so changed my life completely.

Yes, there were lots of environmental activists, mostly white and mostly young. But it was the farmers of all colors and all ages from all over the world who really got my attention. They were there at great personal expense to protest the corporatization of farming--a livelihood for which they had life-long love. Their presence opened my heart to compassion and my mind to curiosity. That WTO experience on N30, 1991, took me on a path of research that resulted in the book, “The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations.” It is a path from which I have never recovered. It is the path to our extinction and the ways in which it is fed by corporate greed and exploitation.

The awareness that resulted from researching and writing “Battle” had a massive impact on my life. The 23 years that have passed since WTO Seattle have resulted in nothing but greater and greater corporate greed and greater and greater destruction. “Money Over Life” is the way of this world and it is taking us--all of us--down. These days, with the COVID crisis and the continuing environmental crisis, I confess to an often-paralyzing depression and a heartbreak that does not go away.

Now, being asked to be interviewed regarding WTO Seattle is a shock of hope. I hope. What’s not a shock of hope is the huge hotel being planned for the last lovely view spot overlooking the Port of Friday Harbor. Please let us not darken the horizon of hope here at home. Do we really need more accommodations for tourists? And what about preserving and offering housing for those who connect and contribute to our community year-round? What about the real-time nurturing normality of it all?

I never bought property on the island because I never had the money. I also never thought that renting would become so expensive and so limited--thanks to the ever-increasing number of vacation rentals. Those of us who’ve always had to work to support our creative life (painters, sculptors, poets, dancers, writers etc.) could do so here because of available jobs and affordable places to rent.

That is the island I moved to in 1990. It was the island Ben White knew too---along with a wonderful population of artists in so many genres. Now that is the island that was, and we are left with the island that is. And, sadly, it reflects the world that is, too. Who knew that island-life would become more of a home (often part-time) for the wealthy, a la-la land for tourists, and an ever-decreasing number of sky-high rentals for the rest of us? (Full disclosure: I am most fortunate to rent an apartment I can afford.)

I interviewed a lot of people for “Battle in Seattle”-- from theologians to hard-core political activists. They all shared the same reaction to corporatized capitalism. It lines the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us and the earth itself. It is soulless, exploitative, and, yes, according to Noam Chomsky, “evil.”

I thought, back in 1999, that the WTO demonstrations in Seattle would create change. And as I did research for “The Battle in Seattle” my assumption deepened. Naivete and stupidity on my part. Now I’m feeling naïve and stupid about the Southern Resident orcas. Long held sacred by First Peoples of the Salish Sea, the SRKWs are one of the most intelligent and advanced marine mammals on earth. Being with them nurtured my healing from the nightmare of my youth. As their sea world became a nightmare for them, thanks to invasive members of the whale-watching industry, I literally could not believe my eyes. To see them dislocated from the feeding areas they relied upon for thousands of years, was incomprehensible to me. I know, I know, I wrote about this in my last piece for the San Juan Islander. But whale-watching season is almost upon us, and I so want the sacred Southern Residents to be protected. They feel symbolic of our ability to save ourselves.

The whale-watching industry has lots of other orca whales to share with their customers. For them to take an authentic stance on behalf of saving the very special Southern Residents from extinction would be greatly appreciated by so many and it could easily enhance their business--particularly with locals. As in so many small communities, residents often turn a blind eye to issues of distress that involve people they know and share community with. Saving the Southern Residents from extinction could become a community call that could unite us all in a cause that could be so deeply symbolic as well as a saving grace for the Southern Residents. I know I have friends who would take their friends and relations out whale-watching if the Southern Residents were being protected.

I also know there are non-profit organizations in this county that financially benefit from the whale-watching industry and do NOT speak up about the precarious plight of our Southern Resident neighbors. Money first, last, and always is consuming every possible part of the heart of humanity.

A dear island friend recently gave me the January 2022 edition of The Hightower LOWDOWN, a newsletter written and published by Jim Hightower. There is a Paul Hawken quote at the top of the front page: “The more corporations are in control, the more the world goes out of control.”

It is this that is defining the whale-watching industry in the San Juans. The profits may be miniscule in relationship to the earning of global corporations--but the toll taken is not. Losing a species to extinction because we humans are preventing them from eating for profit’s sake is a real and symbolic tragedy.

I am personally attacked on social media because of my passion for the survival of the Southern Resident orcas. The list of rationalizations re: their plight and the “causes” related to diminishing salmon etc. are true. But increasing the supply of salmon will take time and the Southern Residents do not have time. The most critical question becomes even more pertinent: Why are we preventing the SRKWs from readily accessing their quickly diminishing food supply of salmon in order to support the profits of a tourism industry?

Here we are, blessed beyond words to be living on this beautiful island in this extraordinary county and turning a blind eye to the survival of a sacred species. We could in fact, be highly recognized for doing and supporting everything possible to save the SRKWs. I suspect it would enhance the reputation of the county in ways that would benefit the tourism industry. These times really are a’changin’. People really do care about the environment and its ever-growing array of threatened species of animals and plants.

We are living in dire times. Everyone I know is suffering from the isolation of it all. How about we become the “COUNTY THAT CARES” and all come together in support of all life in our county. It is an endeavor that would give us hope in seemingly hopeless times, connection in disconnected times, and perhaps even joy in these joyless times.

I would love to go out on a boat to experience the magnificence of the natural world--as long as I am NOT contributing to any damage. And I would be happy to pay for it, too. Let’s become the Little County That Can save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction as well as preserve reasonable rent for our residents. Let the greedy truth be exposed and real care begin.

Inspiring Info About Ben White:


Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 30 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

Last modified onMonday, 11 April 2022 00:54

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