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April 2004
In Search of Global Justice and Harmony

The Satya Interview with Medea Benjamin

 

Alert: Code… PINK!

Code RED! Code ORANGE! Code…PINK? Is President Bush suddenly experiencing a change of heart and implementing a Homeland Security Advisory pigment that promotes peace? Alas, he isn’t, but a savvy group of women are: in the fall of 2002, they initiated a peace group in response to the threat of war and Bush’s color-coded alert system. Rather than informing the public of the threat level of a terrorist attack, the ladies of Code Pink: Women for Peace chose a color which represents many things, but namely “the dawn of a new era when cooperation and negotiation prevail over force.”

It all began as a women-initiated grassroots movement promoting peace and social justice through nonviolent direct action. Responding to war, economic collapse, and the loss of civil liberties, participants of Code Pink have swayed minds through their flashy, hot-pink infested protesting. Whether it is buttons, T-shirts, umbrellas, or nail polish, protesters always have some shade of pink displayed on their bodies. Code Pink’s first show of color was on November 17th, 2002 in Washington, DC, when Medea Benjamin, Starhawk, Jodie Evans, and Diane Wilson led approximately 100 women in a march through the streets that ended in front of the White House and kept a post there for four months. Their vigil culminated on March 8th, International Women’s Day, with a march, a concert, and other activities.

Since that initial action, Code Pink has expanded to include nearly 100 active communities and international sects as far as Costa Rica, Norway, and India. A spinoff of Code Pink, slyly dubbed “Pink Slip Bush,” involves women wearing pink slips as much as it involves giving one to President Bush. In response to the 2.4 million Americans who have lost their jobs since Bush took office, the ladies of “Pink Slip Bush” hope to give him a taste of his own medicine. They have marched through Washington wearing only pink slips and held 40-foot banners of hot pink slips with slogans such as “Bush Lies, Fire Him!” and “Give Bush a Pink Slip.”

The ladies also sent the first all-women peace delegation to Iraq in February 2003 to open an Occupation Watch Center. Medea Benjamin helped open the center to monitor human rights abuses by U.S. occupying forces in Iraq.

Code Pink also plans on being a major operative in the March For Women’s Lives (and freedom of choice) on April 25th in Washington, DC. The march is a call to action for the Bush administration to stop wearing away women’s rights and to recognize a safe, legal abortion option and the right to freely access birth control. They will also be holding a Pink Slip Art Auction between 5 and 7 p.m. at Mimi’s American Bistro in Washington after the march to help fund the Pink Slip Bush operative. For details on events, see www.codepink4peace.org. —Amy Laughlin

Medea Benjamin is the founding director of Global Exchange, an international social, environmental, and economic justice organization that since 1988 has worked to increase awareness in the U.S. of global issues, through political campaigns, educational programs abroad, and promoting a fair trade marketplace, to name a few. A tireless peace activist, she also co-founded Code Pink last year in response to the Bush administration’s color-coded terror alert system and the war in Iraq.

Medea ran as the Green Party candidate in 2000 for U.S. Senate in California, and worked for a decade in Latin America and Africa as an economist and nutritionist for, among others, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. More recently, she traveled to Afghanistan on a trip connecting four Americans who lost loved ones on 9/11 with people there who lost relatives to U.S. bombs—an effort that led to the creation of a compensation fund for Afghan victims, the first real recognition by the U.S government of civilian casualties—and to Iraq, to establish the Occupation Watch International Center in Baghdad (www.occupationwatch.org). She also serves as an advisor for the UN Development Program, and has authored several books, including Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart (Perennial, 1989).

Clearly a busy woman and seasoned activist, Medea took time recently to share with Rachel Cernansky a few of her thoughts on the relationship between violence and activism, and some of her own experiences working for social and global justice.

How do you define violence in relation to activism?
I distinguish property destruction and violence as two separate things—violence being against people as opposed to property destruction. But I think property destruction can lead to violence, and therefore I have a problem with that as well.

Because of the consequences, but not the act itself?
It depends what the act is. Property destruction can be writing graffiti on a window, which certainly is not a violent act, but if it means breaking a window where people can get hurt and then police [get involved], it can lead to consequences that are violent.

So what do you see as the most effective means to create change?
I think in general, we are best bringing people into a movement by positive messages and commitment to nonviolence. We have to reflect the kind of world we want to see. And if the world we want to see is [full of] joyful actions, positive energy and an inviting atmosphere, then those are the kinds of means we should use to get there.

That reminds me of a quote I read in an article about a feminist movement in Bolivia (Mujeres Creando—“Women Creating”). There’s writing on the wall that says: Be careful with the present you are creating—it should look like the future you dream of.
That’s beautiful.

In terms of communicating a message to the widest audience, what kind of tactics do you see as effective and successful?
There’re all different kinds of tactics. There’s the more sedate kind—getting people to do things over the Internet, like MoveOn has been so successful in doing; and to sign petitions, write letters, visit Congresspeople. There’s the step up—getting people out to mass demonstrations. There are direct actions that don’t require as many people but can be effective, like shutting down the offices of Bechtel for war profiteering, or interrupting Donald Rumsfeld in the Armed Services Committee like we did as part of Code Pink.

Then there are visible depictions of our issues—from hanging giant banners to creating beautiful human images: 1,000 people getting together to physically form the message like the word “Peace”. There’re actions that try to get the media to be more truthful in their coverage—protesting in front of Fox News, confronting Bill O’Reilly, creating our alternative media.

The main thing is to continue to look for creative ways to take action, to not discourage other methods that you personally might not be moved to do, and perhaps most importantly to coordinate our actions in a more thoughtful, orchestrated way—so, like an orchestra, there are different musicians playing different instruments and the sum total is not clashing or competing, but making more beautiful music together. Oftentimes people take their strategies too much like dogma and don’t realize that sometimes the inside and outside strategies can and should work in coordination—people trying to get accredited to lobby on the inside at meetings of the World Bank or Congress, for example, with people on the outside doing other forms of action.

Could you talk a little about Global Exchange and Code Pink?
We started Global Exchange, now 15 years old, as a way to motivate Americans to get involved in global issues. We do that in a variety of ways. One is to try to get them out of their small, everyday circle of activities and see the world from a different vantage point—through our “Reality Tours” to another part of the world, for example, to see the world through the eyes of a farmer in Haiti, or a woman working in an electronics factory on the U.S.-Mexico border. We are always pushing for people to see the importance of connecting with other people around the world who are fighting for similar things—food for their children, for healthcare when they’re sick, for a world that revolves around helping each other to meet human needs and preserve this beautiful planet, and not for corporate greed. We opened up Fair Trade stores to show a model of what commerce could be like; and have now expanded that to organizing Green Festivals where people starting sustainable and worker-friendly businesses can meet with the activist community.

Then we have more political campaigns, focusing on issues of the moment: it was South African apartheid when we first formed Global Exchange; we worked on U.S. support for wars in Central America in our early years; the work we’re doing today, post-September 11, is around security issues and trying to stop the U.S. from perpetrating more violence.

Code Pink is a women-led group that we started in the buildup to the war in Iraq. It took off like wildfire with women and male allies all over the country joining. The idea was a play on the color-coded alert system of the Bush administration. We call on people to take preemptive strikes for peace. We have been doing all kinds of actions in just the year we’ve been in existence, and now have about 100 groups around the country. Some continue to work on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, some groups work on civil liberties; and now many are coming together to work around the elections. We’ll also be launching two other campaigns, one against war profiteers, particularly Halliburton. With the other, these issues of nonviolence really come into play—it’s a campaign around the Hummer, a vehicle that [sparks] this violent reaction every time I see it on our roads, like I want to jump out and slash tires.

Do you consider yourself a pacifist?
You know, I don’t. Because I do feel that there are times when I would condone violence.

I think about it on a case by case basis. I was very close to people in South Africa under the apartheid regime who believed in and wanted to follow a path of nonviolence, and when they were living under a regime that was perpetrating so much violence on them daily, found themselves forced, in a way, to use violence as a last resort. The anti-apartheid movement that was in essence nonviolent, did have a small armed wing that was committed to not targeting civilians, and I couldn’t condemn that. I certainly understand why people would use violent methods, and so far in my life I haven’t been in a situation where I felt justified in responding violently, but I can understand people who do.

I’ve seen a similar situation in the case of East Timor, when the military violence against them was so strong that forming a guerilla movement to overthrow the Indonesian occupiers seemed justified. So I have over the years understood and appreciated movements that did use violence as a last resort, so I guess I can’t call myself a pacifist.

What role do you think Americans play in their government’s violent activity overseas?
Well the fact that our government can have hundreds of military bases overseas, covert operations all over the world, can be killing innocent civilians in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and the majority of the U.S. population either doesn’t know about it or is unconcerned, is a tremendous failing of us as individuals, as citizens, as a nation. We can blame it on the media, but at some point we’ve got to own up to the fact that there are people in other parts of the world who have less access than we have to sources of information, and work hard to find out the truth. We can’t allow ourselves to get off the hook by our own ignorance. We are seen throughout the world as being responsible for what our government does because we call ourselves a democracy. So if George Bush, for example, carries out acts of violence, we are responsible, and we are held responsible for that in the eyes of many people around the world. And if for nothing else but our own safety, we should be concerned and play a more active role in trying to change government policy so that our policies do indeed reflect our will as a nation.

Do you differentiate between, for lack of better words, “active” and “passive” violence? Sweatshop violence, for example, or killing for oil, animal abuse on factory farms, etc.—that we support, if indirectly, with our political votes or consumer dollars.
Well they’re different things, but they are both indicative of a world based on injustice and violence. If you look at just the simple fact that we in this world allow children to die of hunger every day, that’s a form of extreme violence being perpetuated, every day, every hour, every second. That we allow ourselves to live in a world where people are dying at an epidemic rate from AIDS, medicines exist to alleviate their suffering, and we allow pharmaceutical companies to keep those medicines from people who need them, shows that we are not just living in a world of daily violence but have allowed ourselves to be participants in that violence. So I guess in a sense I don’t distinguish between those, what you call the active and passive, because I see it as all part of a larger system that has as its roots such severe inequalities that lead to violence.

I understand you’ve been involved in the peace process between the Zapatista rebels and the Mexican government. Could you give an overview of the conflict there? And then, how you got involved.
The Zapatista uprising happened on January 1 of 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was going into effect. It was a desperate call by the most oppressed people in the region, the indigenous population. These kinds of trade agreements were making it impossible for families—family farmers—to continue to survive. It had already led to the tremendous impoverishment of the indigenous population, but NAFTA would wipe them out. I felt that was a call we had to heed, that people who were trying to eke out a living from a little piece of land were going to be flooded with corn from corporate farms subsidized by the U.S. government was something we couldn’t tolerate. And if the indigenous people had felt so threatened that they would take up old hunting rifles—some didn’t even have guns that worked, they had fake wooden guns—if there was such a level of desperation, then I felt the world had to pay attention.

I first saw it on television and my reaction was to get on a plane to Chiapas. I was part of the first group that landed in Chiapas days after the uprising to support the indigenous community. The amazing thing was we ended up becoming human shields in indigenous communities, so that the Mexican military could not come in and wipe these people out—like they had done in Guatemala, where hundreds of villages were wiped off the face of the earth by government violence. I think it’s a tribute to the international community and the Mexicans who listened to that call, and decided to not allow another massacre to occur and force the Mexican government to deal with the Zapatistas in a different way.

Did they?
They did. There have been years and years of negotiations since then, unfortunately interspersed with some periods of violence but certainly not the kind that could have been had it not been for the outcry of others.

What’s the situation there now?
It’s kind of a stalemate at this point. There’s not been a total reorientation of government and economic priorities so that indigenous people can have the land they need and make a living, but on the other hand, there are zones still controlled by the Zapatistas, where they have implemented a lot of positive reforms internally that give people a sense of empowerment. I think indigenous communities all over the world have felt empowered by their actions.

What would you say are some of the more controversial actions you’ve been involved in? Most successful?
The most successful have been some of the big actions, like the shutting down of the WTO [meetings], first in Seattle and then in Cancun. Those are so rewarding because they not only force a change in policy but they also engage many thousands of people to work together for a common goal, which is really essential… I feel the way to make social change is through building movements, and so actions that really help to build large numbers of people I think are ultimately the most successful.

We’ve done all kinds of actions over the years. For example, we spearheaded the fight against Nike sweatshops, and then moved on to some of the clothing manufacturers like the Gap, and forced major changes in the way that some of these companies do business. We’ve pushed companies like Starbucks to carry a line of fair trade coffee that ensures farmers will be fairly rewarded for their work. We’ve worked on getting compensation for victims of U.S. violence overseas, like in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have been successful in helping quite a number of families to at least get some medical assistance or rebuild their homes.

Did you get any negative response from that last campaign you mentioned, getting compensation for victims of U.S. violence?
Oh yeah. When we did a campaign to get support for the victims of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, we had tremendous backlash from other Americans who felt that was unpatriotic, that we were supporting Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, [and] how dare we make a comparison between victims of the World Trade Center and victims of U.S. bombings.

We constantly get that. Not only nasty letters and phone calls, but death threats. When we did work around Cuba, trying to improve relations between the U.S. and lift the restrictions on our Constitutional right to travel to Cuba, we had to be escorted to the plane by military escorts because of the death threats we received. So over the years we’ve certainly faced violent responses to what we’ve been doing.

What do you suggest to people in the struggle for social change who start to feel ineffectual and close to giving up, and in becoming desperate to see results may resort to more violent or controversial tactics?
Well I love the beautiful quote you mentioned, so I’ll start with that. I tell people to try to imagine how their actions will be seen by someone in middle America who they would like to bring over to their side. Is this going to bring people into their movement, or turn people off? And to try to go through scenarios of how this action will really lead to advancing the goal. Is it just a sign of frustration; is it something that will make you feel better; or does it really play out to something that’s going to build the movement? I think in this day and age we’re not going to make change through armed revolution. We did that in the founding of this country; groups like the Zapatistas have tried it in more recent years. But the power of our adversaries is military power and violence; we have to have another kind of power. We’ll never be able to compete when it comes to violence. So we’ve got to build our movement in the area where we have strength, and that’s coming from a place of compassion, a place of kindness, a place of love. So if that is our strength, then our strategies and our tactics have to build on that strength.

That’s a great point—“will it make you feel better” versus “will it help the movement.”
Yeah. Yesterday I was driving from San Diego to Los Angeles, and there was a big black Hummer on one side and another one right in front of me. I felt trapped and angry, and one part of me says, I can’t just let these cars drive next to me and not show how disgusted I feel. The only thing I could think of was to give ‘em the finger. And I thought, Well that might make me feel good, but is that going to make them more apt to sell their Hummer? I don’t think so. They’d probably feel prouder of their Hummer. So I refrained; and really thought about what is an appropriate reaction—when you see something like a Hummer that really makes you mad, that symbolizes for me violence, destruction of the planet, disregard for the welfare of everybody else, militarization of our society, it’s so easy to let yourself respond in a violent fashion. And yet when you stop and really contemplate what you are trying to do, are you trying to get more people to say, “Oh I won’t buy that car”? If so, the actions you take have to all lead in that direction. It’s got to be strategic. So in that case, for example, when we see Hummers: covering them in pink ribbon that say things like, “Can’t you drive something more sustainable?” “Stop driving us to war,” “Hummers are a bummer”—things like that, but in a pretty pink wrapping kind of a way—that is getting the message out but hopefully in a way that a person will be more open to listening to.

Do you have one or two heroes that you always come back to?
They tend to be individuals I have met over the years that are not the famous people. There’s a woman, Elvia Alvarado, she’s a peasant woman from Honduras. I wrote a book called Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo that’s based on her life. She is an example of a poor woman who has spent her life fighting to get land for other landless peasants. Two of her children died from malnutrition. She’s like a sister to me; and I oftentimes think, when I’m in a certain situation, what would Elvia do? There’s many people like that who are my mentors or heroes. Sometimes I’ll call them and say, “What would you do in this situation, how would you react?” and get pretty amazing responses from people from totally different cultures, in totally different settings. Women like Diane Wilson who’s a fisherwoman from Texas, she’s wonderful, she comes from a total place of heart. Diane and I often communicate and say, “Okay, did you hear about this, what are we going to do about this one?”

And so I think my heroes are not so much the people that might be known to your readers, but people that I have met and come to admire, through my work.

To learn more about Global Exchange, visit www.globalexchange.org.

 


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