History and the People Who Make it: Medea Benjamin (Part 2)

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 26th in a series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Medea Benjamin was interviewed by Derick Gomez [G] in 2014; the first part of this transcript was featured in the March 2015 Iguana.

B: I moved to Washington, D.C. about five years ago after my children finished college. I put most of my focus onto issues of war and peace. But I also am involved in local things, like gentrification, where so many black families that have been there for decades are getting priced out of their own city.

Just this week, people came to town from around the country who were involved in fracking, and I went out at 7 [AM] to their demonstrations to say, right on!  It was a lot of young people, and it made me cry to see them blocking the entrances of the Federal Energy Commission, locking arms and getting arrested.  I think, that’s our future.

G: You have experienced a lot of police intimidation here and abroad.

B: I have had many problems at home and overseas in terms of police brutality against peaceful protestors, or military who are killing peaceful protestors. It scares away a lot of people. It’s important that we force our police to see us as the community that they’re there to preserve and protect, not as the enemy.

One thing is to stop the militarization of our police. I get absolutely disgusted when I see these tanks, these MRAPs in our communities. I want to jump off my bicycle or get out of my car and run over there and, you know, say “stop, get out of here!”

We should not accept militarization of our police forces, police abuse of peaceful protestors, police shooting down young men, especially men of color. We have to have citizen review boards, to change policing policies. 

In Washington, I have formed good relationships with police. That has helped a lot to stop them from arresting us in brutal ways, in treating us fairly. At the Federal Energy Commission, the Chief of Police was there and he said, Medea, I saw that you’re a grandmother now, congratulations. He takes out his phone and shows me pictures of his grandchildren. This is like five minutes before he’s gonna order the arrest of these young people blocking the entrance. We hugged each other and I said, this is the way it should be. The police should be members of our community, who protect us when we need protection, who, yes, remove us when we are sitting there doing civil disobedience.

I saw an amazing action in Ferguson, Missouri in front of the police station, put on by the faith based community. They decided to form a line and talk individually to each police person and tell them stories of what was happening in the community. The police were sort of stoic, like, you’re not gonna break me. These reverends, rabbis, and imams were talking to the police, telling them this story about a family where the young man just went out to get some milk and he was stopped by the police. That young man, who was paying for his grandmother’s apartment, is now in prison. She can no longer afford to live there.

I saw police start crying. I saw their jaws quivering and the tears rolling down, and I thought, that is power. Treating each other as humans is really powerful.

G: What suggestions would you give to someone who’s young and angry?

B: I totally understand the anger. Think about whether it’s building a movement or it’s hurting the movement. Taking a rock and throwing it into a—whatever—McDonald’s, Starbucks, a police car, usually is giving the media what they want, focusing on the movement as violent. It oftentimes makes people afraid to join, especially people who might have immigration issues, can’t be arrested. Who might want to bring their family out, and don’t feel like they can without putting their kids at risk.

We want to build movements where people can do civil disobedience. But if they want to be with the group not doing civil disobedience, they can choose that as well. We wanna build movements taking the moral high ground. So, it’s important to have conversations about, does property violence, does the angry mode build or not? That’s not to say that I don’t get really angry sometimes and do things that I later regret because the emotion is there.

Music is really important in the movement. When I feel myself getting really angry, like I want to take somebody and shake ‘em, I start singing. Singing calms me down and it calms down people around me and it changes the mood.

Singing in the Civil Rights Movement was such an integral part of that movement. Look at the South African anti-apartheid movement, singing was central –  they sang in five part harmony which was really something glorious to listen to.

G: What are some of the heroes that you have?

B: Sometimes, heroes tend to be people that we know about, like Nelson Mandela. But I think more of ordinary folks I’ve met who are not well known but give me so much inspiration. For example, there was a woman named Elvia Alvarado from Honduras I met when I was researching the wars we’re waging in Central America. She had gotten picked up by the U.S. military there, put into prison and tortured.

I went down to meet her and found out she was an activist, a poor peasant woman whose main goal was to get land that wasn’t being used into the hands of people who didn’t have land so they could grow their own food. She was risking her life, because the landowners, even if they weren’t using the land, didn’t want anybody to take it over, and police were in the pockets of those landowners.

This woman has never used a computer, never had a cellphone, and she could get hundreds of people out at three o’clock in the morning by word of mouth. At three o’clock—and I’ve been out with her—  the police and landowners would be confronting hundreds of people including children and old people and families.

Sometimes that large presence would keep the police from shooting. Her daughter was shot, her young children — before she was an organizer — died from malnutrition, and she’s seen many of her colleagues shot. I would say to her, how do you keep coming out day after day and doing this? Don’t you get depressed? She said, I don’t have the luxury of getting depressed, of stopping. I have to do this because we’re trying to feed ourselves, to keep our children alive.

That has nourished me for many years now. I should have that same burning sense of mission that Elvia Alvarado had and it does keep me going.

G: Your background was in NGOs and international aid organizations. How did that help create the person that you are today? 

B: I studied public health and nutrition and thought I would go around the world teaching or helping people to feed themselves. I realized as I went around the world that mothers know how to feed their children.

It’s really a question of, do they have the land they need to grow the food? Do they have jobs to make money to pay for food? It really is about how we organize our societies. Aid organizations are like Band-Aids – you cut yourself, you want a band-aid, but it’s not going to stop people from getting wounds. If you are constantly pulling people out of the lake and helping them to get resuscitated, you wanna ask, who’s the bastard throwing these people in the lake?

I still believe that humanitarian aid is very important. We have allowed NGOs to take the role of institutionalizing change and it doesn’t do a very good job of it. To make change, you need the kind of passion that the Occupy Movement had.Passion makes social movements tick. In some ways, NGOs take the brightest, most passionate people and put them into these nine-to-five jobs.

I left the NGO movement and helped create Code Pink because I wanted to work with people that do this because they are committed to change. If you’re passionate, you find a way to do it. Live collectively. Live simply. Find ways to make time so that you can do the activist work.

G: You’ve said Obama being elected took a lot out of the peace movement.

B: During the Bush era, we had a huge movement. Code Pink, we never even wanted to become an organization. We thought we were gonna do a couple actions, government was gonna change its mind and we’d go on to our other lives. Instead, we had three hundred thousand people on our mailing list before we knew what to do with the mailing list. We had over three hundred Code Pink local groups. People felt a great desire to join any peace group they could find.

Obama came in and it all fizzled. People thought, he’s going to get us out of Iraq, he’s gonna be a peace president. The economic crisis happened and a lot of people found themselves more concerned about saving their homes, student debt issues, working to save other people’s homes. There wasn’t a peace movement anymore. Part of that is because Obama continued the policies of Bush, but in different ways. They started using drone warfare, killing people by remote control, in secret.  Most Americans didn’t know we were killing thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. 

That’s why I got involved in researching drone warfare, writing a book about it, and going to hundreds of cities and talking about it. We managed to change public opinion, to force the government to talk about this secret program and admit civilians were being killed. Secret wars make it much more difficult to organize, and now we have a horrible group, ISIS, out there beheading people.

So a population in the U.S. that had become very anti-war after thirteen years of endless wars has switched and become pro-war again.We have to start all over, to build an anti-war movement, to tell people, look, ISIS is terrible but this is counterproductive. It’s actually justifying ISIS saying, look, we’re fighting the West and the war against Islam. They’re gaining thousands more recruits once the U.S. started bombing.

We have to show people that the weapons the United States is putting into the mix actually end up in the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates and ISIS. We have to promote political solutions. People say, oh, you’re so naïve if you think there can be political solutions. We have to say, you’re naïve if you think there are military solutions. Over the last thirteen years, we haven’t eliminated extremism, we help [it] proliferate all over north Africa, all over the Middle East.

We need political solutions like forcing our allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, to cut off funds to these extremist groups, to stop weapons being sent to these groups, to stop recruits from getting there. Go back to negotiating in Geneva between the Syrian government and the rebels. The solutions are political.

Part of what we the people have to do, is to say that we want a Congress that acts as a check on the executive, on perpetual war. We want a Congress that cuts the budget of the Pentagon and puts it into life-affirming activities that improve the lives of citizens.

We can’t improve the lives of the people while we spend over 50 percent of our discretionary funds on the military. That money has to go into things like infrastructure projects, green energy, things that will move our country into a positive direction and make people feel their future can be better than the future of their parents, which is not what this generation feels right now.

Go to http://ufdc.ufl.edu/l/AA00030951/ for the full transcript of this interview. The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.

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