Posted on 16 February 2017 Return
Though probably best known for her disruptive behavior in committee hearings on Capitol Hill or interrupting a Donald Trump speech, Medea Benjamin’s activist “career” is 41 years long and filled with many battles, wins, and losses. Beginning with the Vietnam War, she has been a constant advocate of peace and justice. She co-founded two important activism organizations, Global Exchange (1988) and CODEPINK (2002), has been arrested numerous times, been subject to assault, stood fearlessly on the literal frontline of countless protests, and was one of the major organizers of the now-legendary WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. She is reviled by those she exposes or pressures, and loved by people around the globe who have been touched by her determination and love. Medea Benjamin is arguably one of the most important activists of our time.
What initially motivated you to become an activist and how did you start?
Well I grew up during the days of the Vietnam War. I was in high school in the 1960s when the war was raging and there was the draft of boyfriends and brothers who were being sent to fight in Vietnam, and my sister’s boyfriend was sent to fight and sent home the ear of a Viet Cong as a present for her to wear around her neck. And I was so horrified by it that I started getting involved in creating an antiwar group in my high school. And I’ve been at it ever since.
Was 9/11 a pivotal juncture that led you more towards human rights and peace actions?
Well it turned me toward working around relief, because before that I had been working more on, first, global justice issues in general, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and trade agreements; but I’d also been working on Latin America and Africa. So it was really 9/11 that forced me to focus my attention on the Middle East.
In looking at your Twitter account, you obviously follow a lot of issues. Practically speaking, how do you divide your time? How do you prioritize? I suppose I’m wondering what a week is like for you.
[Laughs] That’s a good question. In general I look at what is my government responsible for, because I feel that as a taxpayer and a citizen, that’s where I should put my concentration. And since my government is so big and involved in so many things domestically and around the world, that’s a more than full plate. But it would mean looking at the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, and the horrific aftermath of that. You have military interventions, and that got me looking at drone warfare* and how the U.S. has championed this new, horrible way of waging war from thousands of miles away without putting our soldiers at risk. It makes me involved in things like Guantanamo and the prison there, and the issues of indefinite detention and torture that my government’s been involved in.
More recently, in other parts of the world, for example on my way to Honduras – because the U.S. government has been involved in the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government there – just as I came back last week from Cuba where the U.S. has maintained an embargo for 60 years. So I would say, guided by U.S. government policies that I disagree with, trying to make them more in line with my values.
A lot of young activists read this publication, so I wanted to ask you: Where does the confidence to disrupt and approach people of high station come from? Were you always a confident person?
I think it comes from the opportunities to learn first-hand how these policies are impacting people. Because when you go to a place like Yemen and meet with the victims of drone strikes, or you go to Gaza and you see how the billions of dollars of U.S. money to the Israeli government are destroying the lives of people there, it makes you, not so much confident, but at least a profound sense of responsibility. And I think always of the people who don’t have the voice, who don’t have an opportunity to confront the powerful people who make these decisions, and it gives me more courage to be their voice.
I guess that’s one of the benefits – for want of a better word – of seeing the horrors firsthand.
That’s right. I need to have the firsthand experience to trust myself that I’m doing the right thing. To have that moral conviction and to counter the little voice in my head that always says, “Be polite. Don’t do this. You’ll get in trouble. Somebody’s going to come hurt you, dragging you out. You’ll have another arrest on your record.” All the negatives. There has to be another side that overcomes that. Remember Mohammed Yousef [a young Pakistani killed by U.S. drones]. Remember the Yemeni children. You know, something like that.
Just as an aside: How tall are you?
I’m five feet. And under a hundred pounds.
Wow, I didn’t realize you’re that small. Well, you have more guts than I have.
[Laughs] Well let me just say one other thing about that, which is the issue of privilege. And I am a white woman, U.S. citizen, and that grants me a lot of privilege. And as I get older, I can even add the white older woman to the moniker – that gives me even more privilege in the sense of police being more cautious. With privilege comes responsibility.
That’s something that Noam Chomsky often speaks about. How in the U.S. activists ask him, “Well, what can I do?” And in the Third World he never encounters that. We have more freedom here but don’t know what to do with it.
What are some of the biggest successes you’ve been involved with?
Well we worked for years on the issues of Iran, so the successful nuclear agreement  was a huge move in the right direction of focusing on diplomacy. I’ve worked on the issue of Cuba and the embargo for four decades already, so that’s exciting to see as the [U.S. and Cuba] have finally established diplomatic relations. We’ve had a number of successes in terms of helping to get people freed from prison, like Mohamed Soltan who was in prison under a life sentence in Egypt, after the coup there, and is now back in Virginia and a close friend of ours. There are companies that we have forced to change their policies. And a lot of those successes came before I focused on the Middle East. But I’ve worked on the issue of sweatshops. Changing the policies of big companies like the Gap and some shoe companies like Nike, and had a lot of influence on working conditions in U.S. factories overseas. We also brought the “Fair Trade” label to the U.S. and established it for coffee, tea, chocolate, and other products. Which has had a major impact on the producers of those products.
Would a message to young activists be that, for all those successes, they all take a hell of a lot of work, and some of it is menial and dull and not always in front of the cameras?
Well sure. Most of the work is behind the scenes, doing your research, educating yourself about the issues, putting out information to educate other people using social media, and getting the skills to do things like making short videos that can get out. We just had a video we made that reached over a million people. So yes, it’s behind-the-scenes work. What people often see is the actions we do. But that’s a minor part of our time. I think there’s nothing more important than educating people with a view to activism, and especially educating the younger generation and inspiring them. I’m really excited now, as I do get older, that I work every day with people who are in their 20s, and cheer them on as they go off to do the things that I would’ve done but don’t have to do because we have other people to do them. And it’s very exciting to be seeing that kind of enthusiasm among young people, and recognition that their actions can make a difference. But it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take dedication. And if you are taking on huge issues like the military-industrial complex, you’re not going to see changes – big, big changes – in a year or two years or maybe even a lifetime.
When I see you getting tossed around by security guys, you seem to stay reasonably in control. Do you ever “lose it”?
[Long pause] That’s a good question. I can think of maybe one or two times when I did, and felt very bad about the way that I had reacted. I have reflected on those times and try hard not to repeat that.
I see. Some fairly knowledgeable activists have said – using the word in the broadest sense – that there is a time for violent protest. Do you agree with that on any level?
I would certainly, myself, not engage in violent protest. But I think that people often confuse property damage with violence. And I don’t think property damage is the same as violence. It’s such a loaded question and there’s so many ways to answer it. I’m not living in Gaza with daily bombardment by the Israelis, and if I were I would probably resort to violence. Just because I can’t imagine how much I could take. But I’m not, and I have a lot of other methods to use that I much much prefer, and I don’t think using violence in this society is even strategic, much less the moral issue. I don’t think we gain anything with violence because our adversaries have such an advantage when it comes to violence. And I don’t think, a lot of times, separate from violence, even property damage is very strategic because I think it tends to turn people off and gives us a negative reputation. I have found that we get the upper hand when we do things in a creative, non-violent way. And also when we can, when appropriate, if we can add in things like singing and theater… I mean I love the pink [CODEPINK members wear pink to all events and actions] because it is disarming – a bunch of men and women wearing a lot of pink things can lower the level of confrontation. So I would say that all these years of activism have given me sense of the best ways to get the message across and get more people involved is to use creative, nonviolent action.
Would you have any idea how many times you’ve been arrested and how much time you’ve spent in detention?
I’ve probably been arrested about 60 times. And I have never spent more than a week in jail at a time.
With all that in your past, are you highly surveilled or harassed?
Amazingly not. When I come in from another country I have to go through the secondary screening process, but it’s more a waste of time than real questioning. I think by this time I’m well known, and that means that the authorities know I’m nonviolent, that any actions we do are not going to be violent. When we started this work we were much more surveilled. In fact, I used to have a Secret Service agent that was assigned to me personally. When we first started CODEPINK he called me every day and would say, “Hey Benjamin, what’s up today?” As the years went on they stopped watching me as they had other people to surveil.
You were mistreated when you were going through Egypt, at the airport, on one occasion, right?
Yes, I was beaten up and badly injured in Egypt on my way to Gaza, but I never got to Gaza because they never let me out of the Cairo airport.
So would you say that when you go overseas you’re more at risk?
Oh definitely. I’ve been beaten up and tear-gassed several times overseas, and deported. And really badly handled. So yes, I would say it’s more dangerous overseas.
Well, bearing that in mind, what are the toughest things young activists might expect to endure?
A sense of depression that things are so hard to change. A sense of isolation in that other people might think that you’re crazy for focusing so much on these issues instead of having more of a normal life. And I would say also there’s always a sense of… The hardest thing for me has been internal disputes within movements, and how difficult that is when you’re fighting with your own side. That’s very demoralizing. And I guess the slow pace of change.
I think when people start out as activists, they sometimes don’t realize that.
Oh, yes. They learn it quick. Especially young people.
You changed your first name – why did you choose the name Medea?
Well, it wasn’t anything particularly profound. I was in college, I didn’t like my name. I was reading Greek mythology and I had read several versions of the play Medea, and I liked the name and thought I would redeem the positive qualities of Medea.
* Medea Benjamin is the author of the book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, which can be purchased on the CODEPINK website www.codepink.org
POSTSCRIPT: Since the writing of this article, Impact Global has been informed that Medea Benjamin has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.http://www.codepink.org/announcement_medea_benjamin_nominated_for_the_nobel_peace_prize