In 2013, United States President Barack Obama spoke in Washington, D.C., on the issue of national security and drone policy. Not long into his speech, a woman got up and asked him to close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She was Medea Benjamin, one of the founders of the activist group CODEPINK. She was relentless. She interrupted Obama thrice. Medea Benjamin, who is 10 years older than Obama, was nonplussed when he called her a “young lady”. Fear does not seem to be part of her lexicon. With Medea Benjamin undaunted, Obama said: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
Medea Benjamin is a long-distance activist. With degrees in public health and economics, she went to work in Latin America for various international development organisations. This brought her to Cuba in 1979, where she lived for four years. In 1983, she co-founded Global Exchange in San Francisco. The group became one of the pillars of the fair trade and anti-sweatshop movement. In 2000, as a result of her work with Global Exchange and in the anti-globalisation movement, she ran for U.S. Senate from California on the Green Party ticket. After 9/11 and before the U.S. illegal war on Iraq, she and some of her friends formed CODEPINK. She would later say that they chose that colour “to turn the colour pink on its head from being this nice, feminine, sweet colour to one that was very energetic, bold and determined”. Pink is the colour of the activists, who are a regular presence at various protests in the U.S.
CODEPINK and Medea Benjamin have a broad international perspective. They are often found at solidarity events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Japan, Korea, Palestine and elsewhere. Delegations of women go from the U.S. to meet with women activists elsewhere to develop a common understanding of warfare. During her trips abroad, Medea Benjamin is often asked why the U.S. women’s movement is so weak on questions of anti-imperialism. “I mumble excuses,” she wrote in 2006. “I say that millions have come out to protest against the war, but get demoralised when our government refuses to listen.” Her own interactions with Obama suggest the deafness in the halls of power. In Brazil, she met an organiser from the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). “The struggle has to come from within,” said the organiser, “and you in the U.S. have more freedom to organise than we ever had. But U.S. women need to feel the support of their sisters overseas, just like we have had tremendous international support.”
Medea Benjamin’s most recent books are grounded in her anti-imperialist feminist perspetive— Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (2012) and Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection (2016). She spoke to Frontline in the aftermath of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. She had been to protest at both the conventions. Excerpts.
Medea, thanks for speaking to Frontline. I want to get some early history of CODEPINK. After 9/11, when the Bush administration began its wars abroad and its domestic repression, what was the mood among U.S. dissident activists?
It was clear to many activists right after 9/11 that the tragedy was going to be used as a justification for invading not only Afghanistan, but also Iraq, a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Many of us who were involved in a variety of other progressive issues, such as the environment or labour rights movements, began organising to stop the invasion of Iraq. CODEPINK is a good example of that, as it was hatched at an environmental retreat for women organised by the group Bioneers. During the lunch break, while commiserating about the war in Afghanistan, the pending invasion in Iraq, and the fear-mongering of George Bush’s colour-coded terrorist alert system, a group of us came up with the idea for CODEPINK. Our goal was to push women all over the country to rise up to say no to the invasion of Iraq. We joined with groups all over the country to create a powerful movement that mobilised millions of people to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, George Bush’s plans had already been cemented. Today, we continue to see the disastrous results of that invasion.
Since 2001, the U.S. has been at war. CODEPINK and you have been a part of the domestic resistance to these wars. What has been the reaction to your protests?
It is not easy standing up against militarism in a country that so glorifies warfare and warriors, even when they engage in unwinnable wars of choice. The architects of the Iraq war and the soldiers who fought there, for example, are still held up as heroes even though the invasion was a horrific foreign policy blunder that has devastated the Iraqi people and the region as a whole. There is no accountability. On the contrary, those of us who opposed the Iraq war and continue to oppose U.S. overseas interventions are often treated as outcasts, as downright un-American.
Despite this glorification of the military, people in the U.S. have grown war-weary and to some extent war-wise. They understand that the U.S. should not be engaged in trying to socially engineer other societies, but they have been willing to accept the low-level warfare that the U.S. engages in—drone wars and covert special operations —and the U.S. military bases scattered around the world, the bloated military budget, and the funding of repressive regimes. The racist nature of U.S. society makes most Americans willing to accept the “collateral damage” of killing innocent people if they are people of colour living thousands of miles away.
Every time there is a terrorist attack in a predominantly white country, the public retreats back into an acceptance of an aggressive military response and its accompanying Islamophobia. So, just when we think there is a new consensus against war, the consensus falls apart. Unfortunately, people are easily manipulated by fear. Especially during an election cycle, the call for a strong military response to terrorism is a crowd-pleaser on both sides of the aisle. The issues taken up by CODEPINK run the gamut from closing the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to ending the U.S. subsidy to repressive regimes such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. There are few victories on these fronts inside the U.S. The broad liberal-Left consensus is on issues such as women’s reproductive health and gay rights, but there is no liberal-Left agreement on foreign policy.
What kind of gains has CODEPINK been able to make on these very difficult areas of disagreement with the liberal establishment?
Our victories are indeed few and partial, but they are real nonetheless and help us to keep going. Given that most prisoners in Guantanamo are held for years without charges or trials, we celebrate every time a prisoner is released and reunited with his family. Sometimes, we have developed a personal relationship with the family or the prisoner himself, which makes his release all the more meaningful. Sometimes, we have been able to secure compensation for the families of innocent people killed in U.S. drone attacks, which in no way replaces the loss of a loved one but at least allows widows to feed their children and forces the government to acknowledge that it has killed innocent people.
We have had victories in our campaigns to boycott Israeli settlement products or companies working in the settlements, including Sodastream and the cosmetic company AHAVA. The growing movement against the U.S. support for the Israeli government, especially among college students, gives us hope.
And the two major successes for diplomacy in the past year—the historic nuclear deal with Iran and the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba—are both issues we have worked feverishly on and consider great achievements. An area where we really wish we could make inroads is reducing the enormous Pentagon budget to free up funds for human needs and tackling the climate crisis, but that’s one issue we’ll just have to keep chipping away at.
You have recently written a book on the U.S.’ ties to Saudi Arabia—“Kingdom of the Unjust”. Pressure from the peace movement and others has recently resulted in the release of the 28 pages in the Congressional report on 9/11. It shows a messy reality, that there was significant contact between the Saudi embassy and the men who conducted the attack on 9/11. There is no smoking gun here, only that there was contact. This release [of the Congressional report], which has been demanded ever since the report was first released, has made little impact. Why do you think it has made so little impact and what does this tell us about the Saudi role in U.S. foreign policy?
The release of the previously classified 28 pages was timed brilliantly by the Obama administration to have the least impact possible. After 14 years of pressure from 9/11 families, the 28 pages were released on a Friday afternoon just before Congress was going away on its summer recess and the Democratic and Republican conventions were about to begin. It was also released with a flurry of help from the Washington, D.C., lobby groups that are paid by the Saudi government to spin it as a “non-story”. If you took the 28 pages and instead of Saudi Arabia substituted the word Iran, this would have been seen as enough reason to go to war with Iran. But it’s Saudi Arabia, a country that has been a U.S. ally since its formation in the 1930s, a country that the U.S. has depended on for oil, and a country that has become the number one purchaser of U.S. weapons. My new book on Saudi Arabia is designed to help spark outrage against the cosy but toxic U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Speaking of outrage, in the United Kingdom, the Chilcot Inquiry recently submitted its massive report on the lies of the Blair administration in the lead-up to the war on Iraq. There has been no real outcry for a Chilcot-type inquiry in the U.S., which had a much larger role in the lead-up to what U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “an illegal war”. Why has there been no real demand for such an inquiry in the U.S.?
Norman Mailer once called this country the United States of Amnesia. With the 24-hour news cycle, we have a short attention span. Also, being the only superpower means “never having to say you’re sorry”. CODEPINK is one of the few groups still trying to hold the U.S. leaders of the Iraq invasion accountable by shaming them when they speak in public and attempting to make “citizens’ arrests”. We are also calling for a Chilcot-type inquiry here, and will be doing it ourselves in the form of a tribunal, in the fall. But unfortunately, the Obama administration has refused to “look back” to hold the war-makers accountable and without the official imprimatur, our efforts will merely be symbolic.
The two main political parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—just finished their conventions, where they nominated their respective presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump). You went to protest at both conventions. What was the mood at each of the conventions?
There were major divisions in both conventions, with the anti-Trump Republicans feeling disenfranchised and the anti-Clinton Democrats feeling the same way. The anti-establishment sentiment throughout this nation is enormous, but there is also a strong bipartisan celebration of militarism, which is disappointing. For the Left, there were spirited anti-Clinton protests at the Democratic Convention and a sense of defiance against the Clinton “machine” and the dirty insider politics that WikiLeaks helped reveal. No matter what happens in November, the “Bernie Revolution” has helped bring a new cadre of young people into the movement that will have positive repercussions in the future.
I am glad you are optimistic about the Bernie Revolution. Nonetheless, every four years in the U.S., there is a demand for the Left to line up behind the Democratic candidate because the Republicans’ policies are seen to be dangerous in domestic and international terms. Bernie himself has endorsed Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is, no doubt, an erratic and offensive person. But the choice then comes to Hillary Clinton, who has been not only an instrument of the banks but also a leader in American wars of the past decade. In the book “False Choices: the Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton”, you have an essay entitled “Pink-Slipping Hillary”. It is an indictment of her foreign policy. Given this, how do you react to the demand from the liberals to support the “lesser evil”?
As an organisation, CODEPINK doesn’t endorse candidates. We pressure all the candidates to adopt a peace platform and we protest their policies that we disagree with. We know that many progressives will vote, albeit reluctantly, for Hillary Clinton, while others will vote for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. We respect the individual decisions that people make in the voting booth, but we encourage them to already look beyond the election in November and make a commitment to being active on the issues they care most about and addressing the root problems that have poisoned our electoral process. We call for “no honeymoon” for the new President or Congress. Vote for whomever you want, but remember that it’s critical to build a strong movement in the streets and in the suites.
We know there will be a hawk in the White House this November, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Trump. There are no illusions this time, like there were with Obama. So let’s get started building a new anti-war movement, one that is diverse, intergenerational, and closely linked with other key struggles, from Black Lives Matter to environmental justice to countering anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia. That is the only way we’ll have a vibrant peace movement that can counter the tremendous force of a military-industrial complex that profits from keeping us in a state of perpetual war.