Leading Creative Action for Social Change: Medea Benjamin
Next Tuesday, September 28, Medea Benjamin will be arraigned in court in Virginia, accused of trespassing in the home of Erik Prince, the founder and C.E.O. of the notorious private security contractor Blackwater (now Xe). Five days later, Benjamin will appear in Nyack, New York, to receive the 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize, an honor initiated in 1979 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to recognize unheralded persons or groups working in the United States in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was very involved with FOR, and was serving as a member of FOR’s Advisory Council at the time of his death. FOR’s MLK award honors those who make a significant contribution to the furtherance of Dr. King’s nonviolent approach to transforming racial, economic, and social injustice.
Fellowship of Reconciliation: For many years, you worked on economic development and health issues with NGOs and U.N. agencies. How did you come to focus on human rights and ending war?
Medea Benjamin: Actually, that’s where I started out, as a young woman in high school, during the Vietnam war. My sister’s boyfriend had sent her the ear of a Vietcong a war souvenir to wear around her neck. That shocked me, and led me to form an anti-war group in my high school.
After college, I was fortunate to get a job with the United Nations. I worked in Africa for many years, and became active in a campaign to force Nestlé to cease their practice of pressuring poor women to stop breastfeeding and to purchase their infant formula instead. It was a great campaign that forced Nestlé to adopt the first-ever corporate Code of Conduct.
I went on to take on the United Fruit and Dole Corporations for their terrible labor practices in Central America, and also Nike and the largest clothing companies for what they were doing to workers around the world. In fact, we sued 27 of those companies, which was unprecedented, and settled for millions of dollars of back wages for thousands of workers.
FOR: Much of this work was led by Global Exchange, which you cofounded in 1988, correct?
Benjamin: Yes, it was through Global Exchange that I got involved in the sweatshop issue and took on Nike and all those huge clothing companies. We helped bring the fair trade label to the United States, the label you see on products like coffee, tea and chocolate today.
FOR: The Gap was one of those 27 companies, and is headquartered in San Francisco — the same city where Global Exchange has been based since its inception. As you know, San Francisco is not a very large city — its population is less than a million. What was it like for you to go head-to-head with that major corporation inside your own city?
Benjamin: That’s a very insightful question! The Gap’s founder and chairman, Donald Fisher, had his hands in most of the philanthropic enterprises in San Francisco. People were very angry at us for targeting them because he was a major funder of public institutions in our community. We also got a backlash from taking on Levi Strauss, since the Levi family is based in San Francisco too!
FOR: What led to the creation of CODEPINK?
Benjamin: One of the most exciting things at Global Exchange was the creation of a global movement. We were part of the planning for the historic shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999. We were building a massive global movement, which was manifested in the first World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001.
We were feeling part of something truly historic; then 9/11 happened. That changed everything for me. I didn’t feel I could continue on the path of addressing economic change when our administration was on the path of bombing Afghanistan.
I went to Afghanistan just after the bombing began, and found all these civilians being killed or displaced. The so-called “smart bombs” were killing and injuring countless people. I came back from that trip very disturbed. I then returned to Afghanistan with an amazing group of 9/11 family members who wanted to meet their counterparts: meaning victims of violence, and in this case violence perpetrated by the U.S.
While we were protesting the bombings in Afghanistan, the drumbeat started for launching another war: in Iraq. And during that time I was in a meeting of women, and we started talking about the imminent war, and the Bush administration’s color-coding of “threats” — its “Code Orange” and “Code Red.” Someone said in jest that we should create a “Code Pink.”
So we did. We felt that it was important for us as women to create a women-led response to all the male, testosterone-raging violence, which we saw from George Bush to Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein—
We did a few actions in Washington, and we honestly didn’t mean it to become another “organization.” We all had our hands full with other work. But it took off quickly. We’ve grown to 200,000 people on our list. We had at our height over 300 local groups: many of them have fallen along the way since Obama was elected, but while many other peace groups have disappeared in the past few years, CODEPINK has survived and is building back up.
FOR: What is your sense of the health of the peace movement? You noted that many anti-war groups lost energy after President Obama’s election: how can we mobilize people to regain momentum?
Benjamin: It’s starting to turn around now. We see more local groups being revitalized, and more people coming out to vigils and demonstrations around the nation. Right now, we’re putting a lot of our CODEPINK energy into a big rally on October 2nd called One Nation: Working Together. This is an opportunity for us to try to remedy some of the biggest problems of the peace movement, i.e. that it’s predominately white and elderly, and that it’s disconnected from the problems many people are dealing with in their daily lives. The One Nation rally is being led by labor coalitions and civil rights organizations, which makes this a perfect opportunity to make alliances between those justice groups and the anti-war movement.
One of our new CODEPINK campaigns is called “Bring our war dollars home!” We want to bring attention to all the budget cuts that people are dealing with in their communities while we continue to increase funding to the military. Over a trillion dollars a year is being spent on the U.S. military, which is making it impossible to deal with all the economic crises that we face in our communities. We are working with members of Congress like Rep. Barney Frank, who has called for a 25% cut in the military U.S. budget.
FOR: How do you decide whether to focus your advocacy on the government or on multinational corporations? They have both been targets of your campaigns, and I understand your primary focus to be changing policy in Washington — but then there was the recent news of your “Pinkwater” arrest where you focused on Blackwater!
Benjamin: We think it’s important to work on both government policies and corporations.
For instance, CODEPINK has a big focus on the Middle East. We organized the Gaza Freedom March last year, which pressured the U.S., Israeli, and Egyptian governments to end the blockade of Gaza. And we also organize a “Stolen Beauty” boycott of the Israeli cosmetics company AHAVA for the company’s role in supporting the Israeli occupation.
We’re now focused on the role of AIPAC — the lobby group that has a stranglehold on U.S. policy in the Middle East — and we’re working to gather Middle East peace activists in Washington from May 22-24, 2011 for a “MOVE OVER AIPAC” event. During that effort we will put forward the kind of policies that we want to see in terms of the Middle East, and show AIPAC as the dinosaur that it is, representing an old-fashioned policy in terms of Israel and Iran.
Speaking of Iran, I’ve really enjoyed with working with FOR on its efforts to prevent war with Iran, and I appreciate the leadership role that FOR has taken in the work on Iran. In fact, FOR helped me and my CODEPINK allies to travel to Iran in December 2008, for which I am very grateful.
So Middle East policy and the Afghan war are some of the long-term issues we work on, but we also leave room for immediate action on relevant things that we hear about. Last month, I heard that Erik Prince, the C.E.O. of Blackwater, with all of the lawsuits against him, would be leaving the U.S. with his family and moving to the United Arab Emirates. I was shocked. He has taken a billion dollars of our tax money — and with all of these legal actions against him, he was moving out of the country. How can somebody get away with that?!
So I found out where he lived, in McLean, Virginia, and went there with a couple of CODEPINK colleagues to take a photo with an “Adios Diablo Prince” sign. But his family was there when we arrived! I got invited into their house and then got accused of trespassing, and arrested. We have a court appearance on September 28, which will give us an opportunity to spotlight the terrible crimes that Blackwater has committed.
FOR: What do you see as the particular role of faith communities in the peace movement?
Benjamin: As an American Jew, I have been excited about organizing with the Jewish community around this work, especially with respect to the Middle East. And I feel that it’s the faith-based communities that provide a lot of the grounding to the peace work in general.
It’s unfortunate there is often a divide between the faith-based groups and the secular groups in the peace movement. Both have so much to learn from each other. Sometimes the secular groups are too angry and their rallies are off-putting because they are so negative. The faith-based groups tend to have a lot more positive spirit to their gatherings. Faith-based groups can bring a foundation and soulfulness to the work that is very grounding.
And on the other hand, the faith-based folks can sometimes be boring! (Laughs.) It’s a fine line, because these are very serious issues that we take up: torture, war, rape, violence, and abuse. But if we are to attract young people, we need to make the work fun and creative.
FOR: Where do you find hope in the midst of these painful and difficult issues?
Benjamin: I find it in the communities of people that I work with. The CODEPINK community has given me a lot of joy and inspiration. The faith-based community has given me a deep perspective. My friends overseas who work in such dire conditions have given me a sense of responsibility. Every time I think that I’m tired, and that I need some rest and some days off, I think of the women of Iraq who I’ve befriended, and whose lives have been turned upside down by the U.S. invasion. I think of my peasant friends in Central America who continue to feed their families on a couple of dollars a day, and who don’t have the luxury of taking time off.
I am also inspired by my friends from South Africa to Latin America, who have shown that organizing can not only change individual conditions, but can create sweeping changes on a national level. Some of my friends who were once part of protest movements are now in power and doing path-breaking work — like incorporating the rights of nature or women’s equality into their constitutions.
FOR: What are some of your upcoming campaigns that you would invite FOR members to support?
Benjamin: Our first is the “Bring the War Dollars Home” campaign. We want to bring this to the Conference of Mayors next year. We need to get communities and cities to pass resolutions about this. If we get enough cities to pass resolutions, the head of the Conference said he will bring it up at the 2011 national gathering.
In terms of Congress, we have our “Bring the Troops Home from Afghanistan” campaign, and we need to get more members of Congress to support this effort being led by Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Jim McGovern. Another piece of legislation that is being totally neglected by our movement addresses the role of private security contractors. Titled the Stop Outsourcing Security Act, it was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and I think it’s very important to get that piece of legislation passed to cut off private security contractors.
We also see the increased use of drones in modern-day warfare, which has resulted in the murder of hundreds of civilians, mostly in Pakistan. But we are also using drones in Somalia and Yemen. CODEPINK is part of a campaign to stop this very dangerous trend, and we are regularly protesting at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada where drones are being piloted.
And just as FOR has continued taking people to places of conflict, like Iran and Colombia, we at CODEPINK will continue to take people to places like Gaza where they can see for themselves the suffering of the people and come home to work ever more fervently for peace.
Past Recipients of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Prize
The King Peace Prize
Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick (Louisiana/ New York; d. 1987)
Fay Honey Knopp (Shoreham, VT; d. 1995)
Robert C. Aldridge (Santa Clara, CA)
Septima Poinsette Clark (Charleston, SC; d. 1987)
Pete Seeger & Toshi Seeger (Beacon, NY)
Shelley Douglass & Jim Douglass (Birmingham, AL)
Miles Horton (New Market, TN)
Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen (Seattle, WA)
Maurice McCrackin (Cincinnati, OH; d. 1997)
Carl Upchurch (Bexley, OH; d. 2003)
Randall Kehler (Colrain, MA)
Glenn Smiley (Glendale, CA; d. 1993)
Charles Alphin (Atlanta, GA); Sam Day (Madison, WI; d. 2001)
One Day at a Time (founded by Henry T. Wells, Philadelphia, PA)
Daniel Alejandrez (Santa Cruz, CA)
Margaret Moseley (Cape Cod, MA; d. 1997)
Louis Coleman (Louisville, KY; d. 2008)
Ken Brown (North Manchester, IN)
Edith Bush (West Palm Beach, FL)
Kay Camp (Haverford, PA; d. 2006)
Dustin Washington (Seattle, WA)
Margaret Lawrence (Pomona, CA)
|2006||Walter Wink & June Keener Wink (Sandisfield, MA)|
|2007||Samina Faheem Sundas & American Muslim Voice (Palo Alto, CA)|
|2008||George Lakey (Philadelphia, PA)|
|2009||Cynthia Brown (Durham, NC)|
Medea Benjamin (San Francisco, CA)