History and the people who make it: Medea Benjamin (Part 1)

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 25th in a series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. Part 2 of this interview will follow in the next issue of the Iguana out April 8.

Medea Benjamin was interviewed by Derick Gomez [G] in 2014.

G: You’ve been an activist for several decades now, and it’s impossible not to admire your strong code of morality, your strong code of ethics. Can you tell me a little bit about where that came from?

B: It’s funny, just coming into here, I saw the students outside with the ROTC, and they were practicing their different maneuvers with guns. It made me very sad to see, and I just kind of flashed back to many decades ago when I was in school and there was a draft, and people didn’t have a choice.  They were forced to go into the military and to be sent over to Vietnam to fight. My older sister had a boyfriend who was drafted into the military.  And he would write her letters. The letters got more and more disturbing as the months went by.  And then maybe six months into his deployment in Vietnam, he sent her back an ear of a Viet Cong, and he said that this was a souvenir that she could put around her neck and wear as a necklace. I was just so shocked by it, just the whole concept that this nice boy who six months earlier was just one of us, had suddenly turned into kind of a monster, who would think that another human being’s body part would be a souvenir.

I got involved then, started an anti-war group in my high school, started looking out to connect with tother grops. Got involved in politics ‘cause there was a acongressperson who was running for office on an anti-war ticket and I started volunteering on his campaign.  So at the age of 16, I was suddenly an activist, and I guess I’ve been an activist ever since.

G:  Do you think that the fact that there’s not a draft now makes a lot of youth more disengaged from anything that’s a peace movement and anything that’s activism?

B: It makes all the difference in the world. When I was young, the heart and soul of the peace movement was young people because we had a stake in it. Now the heart and soul of the peace movement is people my age in their sixties. It’s Vietnam War veterans and it’s been so hard to build a movement.

Now I must say that during the years when George Bush was president, it was easier because there was the effort to drag us into a war, not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq. There were people who thought, wait, Iraq had nothing to do with the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. Why are we invading Iraq? And so we gained momentum and we got people out, hundreds of thousands of people out, and that included a lot of young people. 

But after the U.S. went to war anyway, young people got disillusioned. I remember young people coming up to me and saying, I’ve been out on the streets like for two years now and we haven’t gained anything! The U.S. is involved in the war and so I don’t think it’s worth continuing to go to protests or to organize on campus.

I thought, wow, you know, it took us a long time in Vietnam to stop that war, and it’s gonna take a long time to stop these wars. But since the youth don’t see directly the connection to their lives and they want immediate gratification and it’s not there, they dropped out.

We have in my organization—called Code Pink, which is a play on the color-coded terror alert system that George Bush put in place. It doesn’t exist anymore, but it was code yellow, orange, red, to make people aware that there was a more or less danger of a terrorist attack. But it didn’t make any sense because our government didn’t know when there was going to be a terrorist attack. People didn’t know what to do when the color code changed, and we thought it was just a way to keep people at a constant state of fear, and that we should have a different color-coded alert system. So we created this Code Pink alert. 

Today, a new crop of young people have joined Code Pink who said we have to create a youth movement. They started out by writing a manifesto called “There is no Future in War” and it’s really a very beautifully written document that goes through how the wars are affecting their lives, but it’s hidden from people. For example, they talk about student debt and say, we could all be going to school for free if we weren’t spending all this money on war. They talk about the lack of jobs for young people when they finish college or when they get out of high school and say we could be creating so many jobs.

Studies show that the military is the worst job creator. If you put a billion dollars into the military, you’ll only get about 11,700 jobs, according to a University of Massachusetts study, but if you put it into education, healthcare, green energy, or any other sector, you’ll create twice as many jobs, in some cases even more.

They look at different ways that militarization of our society has affected youth with the high level of criminalization [and] imprisonment of young people, the violence in our society in general and how war contributes to that, and they end up saying that their generation has basically only known war. Since the time they were aware, it’s been a constant state of war, and that for many, this has become normal.

They say war should not be the norm; peace should be the norm. So they’ve been going out to college campuses and trying to recruit young people to get involved around trying to stop militarization of their campuses, of their local police forces, trying to get ROTC off of campus, and other ways that they’re exposing the campus connections to war.

For example, the universities, often in engineering departments, get contracts from the military, and a lot of those contracts are to create more new and more lethal weapons for higher-tech wars. Or they find that their campus’s endowment fund is invested in Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin or some of the major weapons manufacturers.

There’s a lot of research to be done on campuses about the connections to what Eisenhower back in the 1950s called the military industrial complex, which is stronger than it ever was. Students are getting more involved now in finding those connections and seeing ways that they could start moving their universities away from being part of that.

G: What would you say to students who are disillusioned with the system since both the Democratic and Republican Parties haven’t spoken out about drones and are on the same page about that issue?

B:  Students, in this last election, voted in very low numbers because they’ve become very disillusioned and cynical, and they see that the two parties aren’t all that different. They’re somewhat different on social issues, they’re somewhat different on how they wanna spend taxpayer money, but when it comes to issues like war, they’re both part of the military industrial complex. It’s really better to call it the military industrial congressional caucus.

The weapons manufacturers are very smart. They put some part of their weapons manufacturing in every single congressional district. That way if there’s threats to cut the Pentagon budget, the congresspeople will say, oh no, you can’t cut that because it will affect jobs in my district. They lobby and they give money to the congresspeople in their districts.  So there is this symbiotic relationship between the congress people, the weapons manufacturers. And there’s also a very symbiotic relationship between the Pentagon and the weapons manufacturers themselves because when they leave government office, they become board members or they get high-paid jobs, not only the weapons manufacturers but the contractors ‘cause that is huge business now with privatization of many of the functions of the military. Under the period of George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney was head of a company called Halliburton that got a five billion dollar no-bid contract, which means nobody else got to try to get this contract before the war in Iraq even started, and then afterwards got billions. So there’s a lot of money to be made and unfortunately, the Democrats and the Republicans are part of the problem.

There has to be another countervailing force, somebody else that gets the ear of the president as much as the Pentagon does, and there isn’t. That’s why we need this grassroots movement of activists, who are out on the streets organizing rallies saying, no war, who are in the offices of their congresspeople saying, spend money on books not bombs, who are calling up the hotline of the White House to say, don’t drag us into more wars. We have yet to build up a strong, effective citizen movement against war.

G: What is the relevance of the grassroots movement after Citizens United when money has infiltrated the political systems so deeply?

B: We have to see these things not as impediments that make it impossible to make change, but as obstacles for us to overcome. In some ways, I think it’s exciting that we have these obstacles [laughter] and that we have to overcome them. And we will, because citizens’ movements really change history, whether you look at how slavery ended, how women got the vote, how gays and lesbians gained rights to something unthinkable a couple of years ago — the right to marriage. It’s because of citizens’ movements. How did we get an 8-hour day in this country? How did we get vacation time? How did we get these gains that workers have today? It’s through grassroots movements. There is only really one answer and that is organizing.

Search for “Medea Benjamin” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.

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