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In the pink

Medea Benjamin is probably best known outside the US for her disruption of a series of high-profile events with then-defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others. She is co-founder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace. Gabriel Carlyle spoke to her at a meeting of the Drones Campaign Network in Birmingham.

 

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Medea Benjamin. PHOTO: Code Pink

PN: What have been the main achievements of the US peace movement since 11 September 2001?

MB: Successes? We moved public opinion from being radically pro-war in the beginning – both in terms of attacking Afghanistan and Iraq – to being overwhelmingly anti-war within the first couple of years and made the war an issue during the presidential elections.

Building an anti-war movement that became extremely strong, able to bring hundreds of thousands of people out onto the streets on many occasions and building up local anti-war groups in just about every medium and large city in the United States.
I think stopping the war with Iran – and I want to find some wood to knock on right now – because we did a lot of work in the past to stop the US from attacking Iran and created quite a significant coalition and put pressure on very pro-war officials in Congress to turn them around.

Those would be the successes.

The failures are that we weren’t able to stop the wars before eight years in the case of Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan is still going on. And we’ve allowed violence to be spread through drone warfare and other covert actions to places like Yemen and Somalia. We couldn’t stop the US from intervening in a violent way in the case of Libya. We weren’t able to transform that overwhelming anti-war sentiment into a reality of stopping the wars earlier on.

And let me just add that on the positive side in the case of Israel-Palestine we are slowly starting to change the narrative, which has been so pro-Israeli government in the US. There is now beginning to be room for a different voice and the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] campaign has been building pretty rapidly in the past couple of years.

PN: Here in the UK, the anti-war movement has struggled to combine both an energised and engaged grassroots base on the one hand, and coherence and staying power on the other. How have the groups that you’ve been involved with dealt with this tension?

MB: Well, we had a very vibrant anti-war movement under the Bush years, and that movement just fell apart when Obama came in. So it wasn’t even a question of numbers versus sustainability but of: “What happened to the anti war movement?”

It was a combination of factors that led to this tremendous decline in the movement but part of it was that people had become so tired after sustaining an incredible level of activity for eight years that they just didn’t want to keep doing it and wanted to project their hopes on Barack Obama – that perhaps he was even going to do things that he didn’t say, like end the war in Afghanistan. And then the financial crisis hit and we haven’t been able to rebuild our base. We’ve been losing our base, and we’ve not been able to sustain it because of this combination of factors.

PN: Many UK activists that I’ve spoken to seem to think that it will be difficult to get any traction on the issues that they’re working on – whether that’s climate change or war and peace issues – until there’s been a resolution to the current financial crisis. How should the peace movement be engaging with groups like UK Uncut or the Occupy movement?

MB: One of the positive ways that we’ve done this is to go down to the local level and form coalitions that then put pressure on city governments and mayors to pass resolutions saying that we need those war dollars here at home to deal with the critical issues that we’re facing, like cuts in budgets for schools and health care and all of the other kinds of services that people want and need.

We’ve also been going to the occupations since the Occupy movement started and bringing up the issues of the war budget, doing teach-ins and educating a lot of young people, which we hadn’t had the opportunity to do for a long time. We explained how impossible it is to get any of the things that they’d like to see in this country if we don’t have significant cuts to the Pentagon budget.

So I think that we have a new opportunity that we didn’t have before and that there is a lot of receptivity to this issue of “we can’t afford these wars any more because of the financial crisis”.

Even two years ago in Congress the Pentagon budget was a sacred cow. You could not touch it and there was a freeze on social spending. There was a freeze on everything except for the Pentagon budget. So we were there saying: “Freeze the Pentagon budget”. Of course we wanted to dramatically cut it, but we wanted to at least start by freezing it.

Now it’s a totally different situation and there are definite cuts happening to the Pentagon budget. It’s a time to call for deeper cuts, but we are [where we are]. The financial crisis is so grave that that sacred cow is no longer sacred.

PN: What are Code Pink’s plans for 2012?

MB: We’re very intimately involved in the Occupy movement. We feel that this is a new opportunity to get people actively engaged in the anti-war issues and to connect these to the issues of the financial crisis, of corporate greed. We’re making connections for people between the 1% [of the super-rich] and the war profiteers – corporations like Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, General Atomics, Boeing and Halliburton.

We think that we have an opportunity now to be very visible during the presidential race and push this message of saying “bring the war dollars home, cut the Pentagon budget”.

We have unfortunate new opportunities in that our legislature just passed – and our president signed – a defence bill that included outrageous calls for continued indefinite detention of prisoners, as in Guantanamo Bay, and allows for the military to arrest and detain people on US soil, which previously had been prohibited. So there is more interest now in these issues and we can link up with groups that are concerned with civil liberties, including libertarians.

We’re not a women-only group but we are a women-led group and we’re leading a movement in the US called “Women Occupy” where we can get together as women and talk about how we relate to the Occupy movement.

And we’re also taking on the Israel-Palestine issue in a larger way and organising Occupy AIPAC – AIPAC being one of the strongest pro-Israeli government lobbies in the United States – and continuing to help build the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.

In May, we have a NATO meeting, for the first time in a long time – perhaps ever - on US soil, so we will be organising around that. And we have two big [party] conventions, the Republican and the Democratic conventions, coming up in the summer time and we will be joining with the Occupy Movement to organise big encampments outside these to make the issues of the war and the war profiteering visible.

PN: Sounds like a busy year!

MB: One more thing is that we’re coming out with a book on drones and will be doing a 100-city tour around the United States educating people about drones and hopefully working with people in the UK and elsewhere to launch an international campaign to try to rein in the drones.

PN: You’ve been an activist for a long time. How have you avoided burning out?

MB: We build really wonderful communities and work with people that inspire us and have support groups that cheer us up when we feel down.

Personally, I’m able to get out of the United States from time to time and come to places like this [Birmingham] or visit our friends in Latin America or go to the Middle East and be inspired by other activists, and see the US from a different perspective.

This enables me to renew the sense of responsibility [you feel] when you understand how US policies not only affect people directly in places like the Middle East and the United States but really have such an impact globally.

So I think [the answer is] a sense of real responsibility tempered with positive community. And we do try to make some of this work fun. We have singing and flash mobs and humour in our work and without that I don’t think I could keep doing it!

Medea Benjamin is a cofounder of both CODEPINK and the international human rights organisation Global Exchange. Medea’s book on drone warfare will be reviewed in PN later this year. More info on Codepink: www.codepink.org