No Food to Free Willy

Photo by Jack GouldWhen Diana Mann began her hunger strike this past April to protest a proposed Navy sonar system that some fear will kill whales, dolphins and other sea life, her husband, other family members and closest friends asked her to reconsider. Meanwhile, scores of people phoned Mann anonymously with ringing declarations of support. And someone who apparently didn't like her position on the issue left a different message: he or she yanked the wiring out of the telephone box outside Mann's Belmont Shores condo, killing her phone and Internet service for a week.

Such is the life of a committed community activist. The chairwoman of ECO Link, a Long Beach-based umbrella group for dozens of environmental groups (including the Long Beach Surfrider Foundation and Orange County Sierra Club chapters chaired by her husband, family physician Dr. Gordon LaBedz), has been at the front lines of several battles over the years. She's denounced leaf blowers, the planned destruction of the Los Cerritos Wetlands and the planned construction of a Carnival Cruise Line terminal near the Queen Mary. She finished fourth in the April 1998 Long Beach City Council race won by Frank Colonna, the real-estate agent currently trying to kill two popular music clubs. A year later, Mann was arrested in the Long Beach council chambers and dragged to the police station in handcuffs for opposing city-imposed restrictions on citizen participation in public meetings.

Driving through San Francisco this past December, Mann heard a public-radio newscast regarding the Navy's plans for Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) —the loudest sound ever emitted in the world's oceans. Hoping to win National Marine Fisheries Service approval of a five-year permit to deploy LFAS in 80 percent of Earth's seas, the Navy claims the system is needed to detect the latest generation of quiet submarines. But marine biologists, acoustics experts, some members of Congress, such world-renowned conservationists as Jean-Michel Cousteau and even actor Pierce "007" Brosnan consider LFAS the world's loudest and most obnoxious boom box, producing blasts of sound underwater that are 10,000 times louder than space-shuttle rockets at liftoff and 200 billion times greater than the level of noise pollution already known to disturb marine mammals. Because many sea animals rely on their hearing for navigation and mating, critics fear LFAS will blow out the creatures' eardrums, scramble their brains and cause mass suicidal beachings. They blame Navy tests off the Bahamas in March 2000 for 14 different kinds of whales beaching themselves with hemorrhages in and around their ears (eight eventually died). The Navy responded that it was not testing LFAS but a different, midfrequency sonar system.

While the service is quick to defend LFAS, Mann says she's heard criticism from Navy sonar experts who claim LFAS is obsolete because of far-superior space-satellite tracking technology. A buddy of Mann's, California Earth Corps president and 30-year San Onofre nuclear plant foe Don May, thinks he knows why the Navy is pushing for a sonar system it apparently doesn't need: money. Defense contractors who stand to make billions off LFAS have no doubt dumped millions into lobbying efforts, May surmises. "It's a pork-barrel boondoggle," he said. "The Navy's rationale is total bull. Since the Cold War, who else has been building the new class of nuclear submarines? We're the only ones."

When Mann returned from the Bay Area, she decided she had to do something. She marked May 26 on her calendar for a protest and began organizing. She chose the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station for the demonstration because it's the nearest Navy facility likely to house subs outfitted with the proposed sonar. An added bonus: across the street are offices for Boeing, the defense giant that's in line to get a piece of the lucrative LFAS deal.

In the weeks leading up to the protest, Mann decided she had to do something dramatic to get the word out. On April 26, she started her planned 40-day hunger strike. Despite championing many causes over the years, this was the first time she'd stopped eating to promote one.

"The first three days were hell," Mann said. "Then it was okay."

She survived on water, juice and the water from boiled organic vegetables. She said that preparing food for her family actually helped her get through the hunger pangs. And she considered it worthwhile to let the public know the seriousness of the issue. "The thing is when I tell people the Navy's plans, they don't believe me," she said. "They don't believe someone could do such a horrible thing to the planet."

But even those who supported her cause opposed the fast. "A lot of us were really concerned and told her, 'Don't do it,'" May said. Among her staunchest critics were her two daughters and LaBedz, who nonetheless got dragged into providing medical assistance to his wife in a very weird way.

Friends had contacted Jerry Rubin, the Santa Monica peace activist (but not the Jerry Rubin of Chicago Seven fame), on Mann's behalf and asked if he consulted a doctor during his many hunger strikes. Rubin suggested Mann contact this great physician who had helped him survive over the years: Dr. Gordon LaBedz. Rubin did not know LaBedz is Mann's husband.

The May 26 protest at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station entrance drew about 50 people, most of whom had never participated in a demonstration before. Kristin Taylor—a Tustin fourth-grader who first got her class, then her school, and then schools in Orange and Los Angeles counties to send letters opposing LFAS—showed up with many of her classmates, all toting handmade posters. "On behalf of all children, I ask that you do your part to protect the whales," Kristin said. "The whales are crying."

Mann and her cohorts celebrated afterward by going out to lunch, where she took her "ceremonial first nibble." The vegetarian ended her hunger strike after 31 days because of intense pressure from family and friends. A smallish woman already, Mann lost nine pounds. To this day, she's only able to handle small amounts of food.

But she's now building her strength for a June 16 protest against LFAS and the possible lifting of the worldwide ban on whaling. Ironically, countries that support whaling (Japan, Norway, Russia) oppose LFAS. They fear it will destroy their stock.

Send letters opposing the Navy permit for LFAS to William Hogarth, Acting Administrator of Marine Fisheries Services, 1315 East-West Hwy., Silver Springs, MD 20910.


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