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Search of Global Justice and Harmony The Satya Interview with Medea
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
To learn more about Global Exchange, visit www.globalexchange.org.