How Many People Would You Risk Jail For?

Gianpiero Petriglieri talks leadership and activism with Carola Rackete

Sea captain Carola Rackete became a public figure when she docked a migrant rescue ship in the port of Lampedusa, Italy, without authorization, and was promptly arrested by the Italian authorities, causing a wave of solidarity to form around her. Her conversation with Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, about change-making in challenging times, has been edited for length and clarity.

“It was actually clear to us as an organization that we would get into that situation.”

Gianpiero: I first heard about you in June 2019, when you became the protagonist of an episode that provoked a lot of controversy in Europe — particularly in Italy, my home country. Just to remind everyone, you’re the captain of the Sea-Watch 3, the ship of a Dutch NGO. You rescued 53 people off the coast of Libya, then engaged in a two-week standoff with the Italian government, which refused to let you dock in Lampedusa, a small island off the southern coast of Sicily. Eventually the situation on board had deteriorated so much, you were forced to dock, which led to your arrest.

Later, the Italian courts declared your arrest unlawful because you were acting in accordance with maritime law. Your experience struck many chords for me personally and professionally. I am Sicilian, have lived and worked across Europe for the last 20 years, and am based in France, so I identify as European. And I’m a scholar of leadership and mobility, so I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for many reasons.

Because it’s easy to dwell on the dramatic moments of leadership, yet those moments are often snapshots of a larger story, right? The story of Carola Rackete’s life and work — that’s the story I’m sure has deeper roots, and bigger dreams that I’d love to hear about.

Let’s start by talking about the moment when the lights dim, and the spotlight goes off. In the days after that midnight docking, you were placed on house arrest in Lampedusa, in a house with no access to the media firestorm that ensued around “La Capitana,” as you came to be known. What was going on in your mind during that time?

Carola: Well, it was a strange situation because the whole time we were working as part of a team, all 22 crew members on board. The stress levels were high and we had to cooperate well together. And suddenly, during the arrest, I was taken out of the team. I felt a strong, strange feeling of having abandoned them, and I was also wondering how were they dealing with things on the ship, what was happening to them. That concerned me quite a lot after I was placed on house arrest. And then, of course, the meetings with lawyers and trying to understand how things would develop.

It was actually clear to us as an organization that we would get into that situation. But of course, while the situation was maybe a surprise for many people across Europe, it was actually clear to us as an organization that we would get into that situation. So we did have a lot of preparation. I expected that we would have legal proceedings after this mission because criminalization against sea rescue had been going on for at least two years before that. So I was, in a way, prepared for the legal implications. I was not, however, prepared for the media response. I think it was good for me that in the moments after the arrest I was sheltered from all the news coverage and from seeing what people were saying across Europe.

Gianpiero: You became a symbol.

Carola: I think this particular moment became a story of its own, which isn’t really connected to me as an actual person, because it focuses on a very small part of who I am as a person. But I think society needs these types of stories, because people are always looking for stories of humanity and kindness. We have a lot of discussions about people being only driven by economic interests, everyone just looking out for themselves. And at the same time, society only works, and humans have only evolved, because of mutual aid, because we’re actually very, very good at cooperating. So if there’s a story about somebody actually doing something kind and helpful, taking care of other people, it resonates.

Gianpiero: As you say, in those stories, we see the moment of kindness. The leader doing what’s right. We see heroism. It’s an interesting theme in leadership because often we see people who are under threat or under pressure actually doing the opposite. They may know the right thing, but they become unkind, isolated. Your story was a reminder that that doesn’t have to be the case. How did you prepare? Or maybe I should ask what prepared you?

Carola: We are all formed by the situations we have lived through. Our socialization and education and our past experiences. I have volunteered in the Mediterranean Sea for one or two months every year since 2016. That same year, I took on the role of captain on the Sea-Watch 2, because someone had just stepped down. I witnessed several shipwrecks — times when we were just too late. We were still cooperating very much with the Italian Coast Guard, which was doing a fantastic job at rescuing people and actually said they would like to go out and rescue again, but they were forbidden to do so.

Same with the Italian military. We saw people who had died just a few hours before, because we were too late, a lot of young people in particular. It gives you an understanding that all of us — or people like me, let’s say — who come of age without any real concern for the safety of their lives are incredibly privileged and lucky. When you realize that type of privilege, I think you feel the moral responsibility to share something or to give something back.

“If you say, I can rescue a few people from those conditions and in the worst case I will go to jail for a few years, I really think it’s worth it….”

And then in 2017, when the criminalization of sea rescue started, the crew of the ship IUVENTA was arrested and some of my friends had criminal investigations open against them. I started to wonder: Where do you draw the line? I started thinking, if you could rescue 100 people, would it not be worth going to jail for 20 years? What if you rescued 50 people, if you rescued 10 people, where do you draw the line? And then you start to think that you will end up in an Italian jail (if you have to go at all), which is a fairly safe place compared to what these people have experienced in their lives, how they grew up, where they grew up, how they have lived. When they pass through Libya, nearly all of them are subjected to extreme human rights abuses. We hear constant cases of kidnapping, people being tortured to extract ransom from their families, slavery, sexual abuse…. And if you say, I can rescue a few people from those conditions and in the worst case I will go to jail for a few years, I really think it’s worth it.

I had a lot of time to think about that. It wasn’t a decision I made within a few minutes or a few days. Since 2017 we knew the criminalization was getting worse, and I think each and every person who stepped on a ship thought about the potential consequences.

Gianpiero: What were you doing before working on these ships?

Carola: After graduating from maritime college in 2011, I started working for the German Polar Research Institute. I went to the North Pole on my very first voyage as a dock officer. That was nine years ago. I’m still very interested in polar ecosystems. They are extremely beautiful and so fragile. You see the climate breakdown just by being there. You see the ice melting in the Arctic. You have the incredible opportunity to speak to all the scientists, to the sea ice physicists, to climate researchers. And they tell you that reporting on the data isn’t enough because they’ve been doing that for 30 years. What’s lacking is political action. And that’s when I became interested in thinking about how that political action could happen. I worked for Greenpeace for a while, then I studied ecology. Now I hold a master’s degree in protected area management. It was in 2015 when a friend from Greenpeace told me about the sea rescue vessels in the Mediterranean. Interestingly, quite a lot of people from environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd have volunteered in the Mediterranean Sea. There’s quite a strong connection between people engaged in these topics.

Gianpiero: Why? And what makes people move from one crisis to the other?

Carola: In 2015/2016 the immediate need for rescue teams was urgent, and I think that’s why many people went there. Also, when you rescue people from these rubber boats, you see directly the result of your action, which is something we do not often have the privilege of seeing in most of our other work, because it’s often very long-term or the results we see are quite small. So seeing the sea rescue and having a visible result of your work is something many of the volunteers value.

The motivation people have is incredibly important for the outcome of their work. If you don’t believe that your job is really important, if you don’t believe for example, that selling mobile phones or producing better cars really improves things in society, then it’s hard to find motivation. But if you rescue people from a sinking boat and you see the gratitude and you see the happiness and you see the difference between a dead person and a living person…then of course, it’s really, really easy to find the motivation.

Gianpiero: In those kinds of situations you really have a sense of purpose, you can almost touch it. The impact of your work is immediately visible, you’re not having to imagine it in five years, 10 years, 15 years. That’s interesting as it pertains to the roots of courage. The possibility of making a difference in the moment somehow allows that courage to step into that uncertainty, to take that risk — the risk to stay kind when the cost is high.

“The possibility of crossing boundaries was the promise of Europe. I find myself struggling with what happened.”

What struck me as I was following your story was the changing meaning of boundaries in Europe. I’m of a generation that came of age with the fall of the Berlin Wall. I felt a moment of freedom and triumph for my generation. The possibility of moving out, crossing boundaries was the ultimate aspiration, the promise of Europe. In middle age I find myself struggling with what happened. How did my generation fail to uphold the ideals that people like me benefited from? What struck me was the symbolism of you on that ship at the border of the EU. Here you have a mobile leader in charge in some way. You’re a product of the European ideal. You’re educated, your mobile, you have the kind of privileges I’ve also benefited from. And then suddenly you’re volunteering in the Mediterranean and then you have dozens of displaced people, which is also a product of European history and of European policies. And what you did became a crisis of consciousness for people. Do we embrace the mobile? Do we embrace the displaced we have created, or do we reject them?

Carola: The Geneva Convention on Refugee Rights was drafted and signed after the Second World War, after a period of historical cruelty and many human rights abuses carried out first and foremost by the Nazis in Germany. But despite the fact that all these nations have signed these conventions and laws, they’re not adhering to them anymore. So we’re not even asking for anything very progressive, just that the European Union sticks to the laws they signed. It’s really quite sad. Everyone is just asking them to stick to the convention of the laws they signed. Just do the things you agreed to do. Look at the Fridays for Future activists, they’re just saying “stick to the Paris agreement, just stick to the laws.” It’s the bare minimum of what people are asking for.

That’s the point in history we are at. We’re not even asking for progressive or really radical things, which I think we should be asking for. Why are we in an environmental breakdown? Why is there this huge inequality in economic income, in possibilities around the globe? It really lies in the fact that we have allowed ourselves to become disconnected from nature, to see ourselves outside of the natural system, saying that we as humans are superior to the rest of the biosphere, we can exploit everything, we can use up all the resources and we will survive and will be fine. But it’s all coming back to us. We’re losing biodiversity at an astonishing rate. The climate is spiraling out of control. Soil is being depleted, the water is dirty, the seas are overfished…. We have allowed ourselves to exploit nature, and we’ve allowed people who are different from us to be seen as inferior and allowed them to be exploited.

I think what we need to change, and what we really need to ask for is that we see the value not only in all human beings, but in all life. So the same way that corporations have personhood rights, the way that a ship can have personal rights legally, nature needs to have legal rights. In the past, we have fought for the rights of women. We have fought for the rights of Black people. I think we’re really at a point where we need to ask for something more progressive, which is giving nature itself rights, giving a forest the right to itself, giving a river a right to itself. All these living beings can only continue to live in this world if we recognize that they have a right to their existence and to their being. So not only asking for governments to stick to the laws they have signed already, but going a lot further than that.

Gianpiero: Do you think of yourself as a leader? Beyond having been a captain of a ship?

“What we need is people to take a more active role in forming the society they’re part of.”

Carola: I always hope there will be a system of distributed leadership in the future, more than there is now. We have a natural tendency as humans, to look for charismatic leaders who show us the right way so we just have to follow…. But I think what we need is people to take a more active role in forming the society they’re part of. Where they’re not just every-four-year-voters, or consumers, but where people have more agency, more political power within their communities, and feel like they’re actually part of the democracies they’re in.

Personally, I’m mainly interested in nature conservation and biodiversity protection, but I’m also working across movements trying to show people the connections between the climate crisis, biodiversity decline, global injustice, etc. I do think there is a real need for transformative change. We have to restructure our societies. We have to reduce resource consumption and energy consumption on a global scale, and somehow work towards a society where people are able to see the connections and understand the underlying causes.

A really interesting question to imagine is: how can people who are working in traditional businesses, who are very profit-focused, how can they, within that system, make a difference? How could those businesses turn around so that they provide services that society needs instead of producing goods that destroy the biosphere, that just encourage over-consumption? It’s difficult, especially having grown up in a system of perpetual growth, to say that maybe my career doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m part of a business that doesn’t create any social good. And really asking yourself, with all the skills you have, couldn’t you do something different?

Everyone has to do something. This is the only planet we can live on at the moment.

I think it’s a question of leadership as well. Not only, “how can I lead within that system,” but, “are we heading in the right direction?” What direction does society need to go in? What is business for? What is prosperity? What is important in life? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. Because this is a special moment in human history. And this business of “let’s just go back to normal” doesn’t work. We need to shift direction. Every one of us needs to do that, no matter where we are in the system.


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