WAF-024 Medea Benjamin 11-6-2014

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WAF-024 Medea Benjamin 11-6-2014
Medea Benjamin ( Interviewee )
Derick Gomez ( Interviewer )
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United States of America -- Florida -- Alachua

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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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WAF-024 Medea Benjamin ( SPOHP )


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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins 241 Pugh Hall Digital Humanities Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 352 846 19 83 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP rec ommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview t ranscripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript is writte n with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format . I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections . SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. December 201 4


WAF 024 Interviewee: Medea Benjamin Interviewer: Derick Gomez Date: November 6, 2014 G: Hello, my name is Derick Gomez and it is November 6, 2014. The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and the University of Florida have the honor of welcoming Medea Benjamin, co founder of Code Pink and Global Exchange on decades now , strong code of ethics. Can you tell me a little bit more about where that came from? B: Well, unlike today where the militar y is volunteer here , I saw the students outside with the ROTC and their guns , and they were practicing their different maneuvers with the 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 , the military and to be sent over to Vietnam to fight. My older sister, two years older than me, had a boyfriend who was drafted in the military. A nd h e would write her letters. The letters got more and more disturbing as the months went by . A nd then maybe six months into his deployment in Vietnam, he sent her back a souvenir and it was 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 in my eyes , who would think that another human b eing s body part would be a souvenir. I got


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 2 involved then, started an anti war group in my high school, started looking out to connect with other groups. Got involved in politics cause I found there was a congressperson who was running for office on an an ti war ticket and I started volunteering on his campaign. So at the age of sixteen, I was su ddenly an activist , and I guess G: Okay. youth more di peace movement and anything D: It makes all the difference in the world. When I was young, the heart and soul of the peace movement was you ng people because we had a stake in it. Now the heart and soul of th e peace movement is pe ople my age; it s people in their sixties. It s 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 , an d there were people who thought, wait, Iraq had nothing to do with the attack on the Wo rld 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, years now and we haven The U.S. is involved in the w ar and And I thought, wow, you know , it took us a long time in Vietnam to stop that war,


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 3 long time to stop these wars. B not there, they dropped out. So now , ing. We have in my organization called Code Pink, which is a play on the color coded was code yellow, orange, red, and it was supposed to make people aware that there was a more or less danger of a terrorist attack . B any sense terrorist attack. P thought it was just a way to keep people at a constant state of fear , and that w e should have a different color coded alert system, which is why we chose Code Pink. W e said, we have to find the people who attacked us on 9/11 but not invade countries that had nothing to do with it. S o we created this Code Pink alert. Today , there is a ne w crop of young people who have joined Code Pink who said, we have to create a youth movement. A nd they started out by writing a manifesto called There is N o Future in War written document that goes through how the wars a re really affecting their lives, s hidden fro m people. For example, they talk ab out student debt and say, we could spending all this money on war. A nd they talk about the lack of jobs for young people wh en they finish college or when they get out of high school and say, we could be creating so w that the military is the worst job creator. If you put a billion dollar s n


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 4 thousand, seven hundred jobs, according to a University of Massachusetts study, but if you put it into education, healthcare, green energy, or any other sector, , in some cases, twice as many jobs, in s ome cases even more than that. S o they go through that. They look at different ways that militarization of our society has affected youth with the high level of criminalization of young people, the high level of imprisonment of young people, the violence in our society in general and how war co ntributes to that, and then they end up saying that their generation has basically only known war. That since the time they were aware of people, this has become normal. A nd they say war sh ould not be the norm; peace should be the norm. So t hey wrote this very beautifully 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 , campus connec tions to war. For example, the u niversities, often in their engineering departments, get contracts from the military , and a lot of those c ontracts are to create more and more new and more lethal weapons for higher Northrop Grumma n or Lockhe ed Martin or some of th e major weapons manufacturers. S connections to what General Eisenhower back in the 1950 s called the military industrial complex, which is stronger than it ever was. And students are getting more involved now in finding those co nnections and seeing ways that they c ould


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 5 try to start moving their u niversities away from being part of that military industrial complex. G: Okay. What would you say to students who are disillusioned with the system , since both the Democratic and the Repu blican P arty, the two major parties in the h are pretty on the same page about that issue, which, a lot of students have started to rally around? B: Students, I think in this last election, voted in very become very disillusioned and cynical , different on how they wanna spend taxpayer money, but when it com es to issues better to call it the military industrial congressional caucus . The weapons t hem to put some part of their weapons manufacturing in every single congressional district. A nd that way , e Pentagon budget, the congress people will say, oh no , in my district. The other thing they do is , they lobby and they give money to the congress people in their districts. So there is this symbiotic relationship between the congress peop le, the weapons manufacturers. A symbiotic relationship betw een the Pen tagon and the weapon s manufacturers themselves because they leave government office, they become board members or they get high paid jobs w ithin the military, not only the weapons manuf acturers but the contractors , cause that is huge business now with priv atization of many


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 6 of the functions of the military. I mean , just look under the period of George Bush . T he Vice President Dick Cheney was the head of a company called Halli burton th at got a five billion dollar no bid contract, which means nobody else got to try to get this contract befor e the w ar in Iraq even started and then afterwards got be made and , unfortunately, the Democrats and the R epublicans are part of the problem. I would say th at we have to look at who has the ear or of the president as well re briefed daily by the Pentagon. kill people, to make war. T h , but a lot of times, the natural, but there has to be another countervailing force. There has to be somebody else that gets the ear of the presid ent as much as the Pentagon does , s who play that role of the countervailing force, who are out on the streets organizing rallies saying , no war, who are in the offices of their congre ss people saying , spend money on books not bombs, who are calling up the hotline of the White H both parties are part of the war machine and we have yet to build up a strong, effective citizen movement against war. G: What i s the relevance of the citizen movement, grassroots movement in the age after Citizens United when money has i nfiltrated the political systems so deeply? Can you talk a little bit about that?


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 7 B: Well , ust one more obstacle in our path. I think 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 , obstacles [l aughter] and that we have to overcome them. And we will , because citizens movements are the things that really change history, whether you look at how did slavery end, how did women get the right to vote, how have gays and lesbians gained rights to something that was unthinkable a couple of years ago, which is the right to mar riage. movements. How did we get an eight hour day in this country? How did we get vacation time? How did we There is only really one answer and that is o unfortunate that much of the organiz ing is done in what we can call silos. people who are working on environmental issues , which are critical to whether on what yo u refer to as Citizen s United, which is the huge obstacle on money and politics and how do we get public financing of campaigns. There are people that are working on issues of job creation and a living wage. Th are working on issues of war and peace . Many of those issues are just so connected to each other urselves to say, I am an environmentalist , period. No. I am an environmentalist who believes in a democratic proce money in politics. Who believes that we should spending less money on the


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 8 Pentagon and more in finding solutions t o our fossil fuel addiction and I also whether they came to this country recently or decades ago, connect all of these issues to show that we are human beings that care about the futu re of our planet and care about each other movements for social justice that are connected to each other and I just be a lot more effective in the way that we organize. G: Okay. I know on e of the big criticisms of the Occupy M ovement was that it was unfocused. How , palate of issues, how do you remain organized? How do you remain cohesive in the vision towards a better future? B: I think by b uilding coalitions where you have groups that are working on one p iece of the pie. My passion, I might say, would be money in politics , really focused on that , on different issues. We saw it come out in a beautiful way in North Carolina in what has been called Moral Mondays , where people have realized that these i ssues need to be connected. T hey met every Monday and brought the issues Others are to form peace and j ustice coalitions that are citywide, that are state wide. I moved to Washington, D.C. about five years ago after my children id, I want to focus myself full time now on activism , and I make sure that as my activism because I have the luxury now of being able to do it full time that I connect the


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 9 issue in my work , so that I put most of my focus onto the issues of war and peace . B ut I also am involved in local things around Washington, D.C. like gentrification , where so many of the black families that have been there for decades are now getting priced out of living in their own city. I put energy into environmental issues. Just this week, people came to town from around the country who were involved in fracking , and I went out at seven in the morning every day to their demonstrations to make sure that I was there to say , right on! It was a lot of young people , and it really m ade me cry to see them blocking the entrances of the Federal Energy Commission and locking arm s and getting arrested. I think s our future , and what a privilege it is for me to be there in support of that movement. So I think, really , by many differen t ways that we can show our support if we think about it in holistic terms. G: personally have experienced a lot of police in timidation both here and abroad. H ow do you remai n motivated when you have the police and the military often trying to crush movements? B: I have had many problems both at home and overse as in terms of police brutality against peaceful protestors , or military who are just killing peaceful protestors in s e us as the community there to preserve and protect and not as the enemy. One thing is to stop the militarization of our police forces. I get absolutely disgusted when I see these tanks, these M RAPs in our communities. I mean , I get livid, like I want to


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 10 jump off my bicycle or out of my car and run over there and stand there and you know, stop, get out of here! We should not accept the militarization of our police forces. We should not accept police abuse of peaceful protestors. We should not accept police shooting down young men, especially men of color in communities around this country. We have to ge t involved as citizens, to have citizen review boards of police activities , to change policing policies. And in the meantime, I feel like in Washington, D.C. since I have been there, I have actually formed good relationships with the police. A nd that has h elped a lot in trying to stop them from arresting us in brutal ways, in treating us fairly. Many of the poli ce are my friends. I mentioned how I was just out at seven in the morning in front of the Federal Energy Commission and the Chief of Police was ther e and he said, Medea, I congratulations. Would you like to see the pictures of my grandchildren? And he takes out his phone and he shows me the pictures of his grandchildren , and this is lik are blocking the entrance. We had a good laugh and we hugged each other and I said, this is the way it should be. The police should be people who are members of our community, who protect us when we need protection, who yes, remove us arrested. But they really should be our friends. I also saw an amazing action that was put on in Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown was so brutally killed by the police. It was a protest in front of the police station. A nd there the police had been known for being so abusive, particularly of the black population. Instead of


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 11 going there and yelling and screaming at them, which I certainly understand and would do were I a young person who had be en so abused in that community b ut this was put on by the faith based community. What they decided to do was to go up and form a line in front of the police at the police station and they would talk individually to each police person and tell them stories. It was one of the was happening in the c ommunity. The police were there sort of stoic, like , not gonna break me. The way these reverends, rabbis, and Imams were talki ng to the police, telling them, I heard this story about a young family where the young man just went out to get some milk and bring it back home an d he was stopped by the police. A nd the y go through the story of what happened, that that young man is now in prison, that young man was the one who actually was , and really personalizing this, and I saw police start crying . I saw police break down, I saw their jaws quivering while they were hearing these stories and the tears rolling down their eyes, and I thought, you know , that is power. That is powerful. So storytelling, as you know, is very powerful. Humanizing t hings is very powerful , and treating each other as humans is really powerful. G: Okay. move past that and to try, perhaps different approaches like the one that you just said? Sometimes I know that things can seem very desperate and that someone who has a rock in their hand?


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 12 B: private proper country. The tea party dumping the tea overboard: But I would tell people to think about whether building a movement or it s hurting the building of a moveme nt. When you think about it, most of the things like taking a rock and throwing it into a whatever police car. It usually is giving the media what they want in terms of focusing on the movement as a violent movement. It often tim es makes people afraid to come out and join, especially people who want to come out who might have t putting their kids at risk. I think we want to build movements where people can feel like if they want to be with the group doing the civil disobedience , they can chose to that . B disobedience , t hey can choose to do that as well. I think we wanna build important to have the conversations about, does property violence, does the sometimes and do things that I later regret doi ng because the emotion is there, to take a moment, reflect. I think music is really important in the moveme nt. really angry, like I want to


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 13 down and it calms down the people around me and that it changes the mood , was such an integral part of that movement. If you look at the South African Anti Apartheid movement, singing was central to that movement. In fact, they sang in five part h armony which was really something glorious to listen to. But we should do a lot more singing in our movements. G: Okay, so you brought up a little bit of historical social movements. What are some of the heroes that you have from some of those mov ements a nd just in general that doing? B: Well , sometimes the heroes tend to be people that we know about, like the Nelson Mandela types . B wo known but give me so much inspiration. For example, there was a woman named Elvia Alvarado from Honduras who I met when I was researching the wars that w nd she ha d gotten picked up by the U.S. military there, s he was put into prison and was tortured. I heard about the story and I went down to meet her and I found out she was actually an act ivist, a poor peasant woman who s e main goal in life was to land , so they could grow their own food. In doing this, she was risking her life on , and police were in the pocket s of those landowners. So this is a woman who has never used a computer, has never had


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 14 a cellphone in her life , and she is one of the most amazing organizers that could that she had discovered , getting those people out by w ord of mouth. At three a suddenly sees herself surrounded by all these people , confronting hundreds of peopl e including children and old people and families. Sometimes it would work that that large presence would keep the police from just coming in and shooting at people. She has had her share of horrible things in her life. Her daughter was shot, her young chil dren before she was an organizer died her, how do you keep coming ou t day after day and doing this? D l uxury of getting children alive and that has really nourished me for many years now , y vacation. I should have that same burning sense of mission that Elvia Alvarado had and it does keep me going. G: l. I know that your ba ckground was for a while in NGO s and international aid organizations. How did that help create the person that you are today? B: Well , I always thought when I was young that hunger was just appalling. How could we have these supermarkets full of food but there were people going


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 15 hungry? I studied public health and nutrition and I thought I would go around the world teaching people or helping peopl e to feed themselves , and I realized as I went around the world that mothers kn ow how to feed their children. I just a question of , do they have the land they need to grow the food? Do they have the jobs they need to make the money they need to p ay for food? And that a lot of that is political. So I started to recognize that it really is about how we organize o ur societies. I think those aid o rganizations are like Band Aids. I mportant. I mean, you cut yourself, you want a Band Aid ing to stop people from getting the wounds. If you are constantly pulling people out of the lake and helping them to get resuscitated much l arger questions. So I got di sillusioned working through NGO s and the United Nations and wanted to work more on the larger political issues. But I still believe that humanitarian aid is very important. I would say , thoug h, that we have allowed the NGO s to t very good job of it. To make change , you nee d the kind of passion that the Occupy M doing this and then a clock I say, okay, time to go , NGO s take away the brightest , most passionate peop le and put them into these nine to five jobs. S o I left the NGO movement and I helped to create Code Pink because I wanted to work with people that do this work because they are


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 16 committed to change. I understand that people need jobs. W ell unfortunately, sometimes y ou gotta take the job as a waitress and do this stuff at night and the collectively. Live simply. Find ways to make time in your life so that you can do the activist work. But I thi nk NGOs in some ways are part of the problem , and that people should find ways to do this work separate from being part of a hierarchical , paid and not paid NGO movement. G: You brought up how the NGOs and the international aid organizations kind of take a little bit from the activism Obama being elected took a lot out of the peace movement. Can you talk a little bit of activi sm, especially anti war activism in the Obama era? B: Well , during the Bush era, we had a large movement, a huge movement. I mean , even 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 to our other lives. Instead , we found that we had hundreds of thousands of people that wanted to be part of just our group alone. We had three hundred thousand people on our mailing list before we even knew what to do wi th the mailing list. We had over three hundred Code Pink local groups without even saying, we wanna go out there and create these local groups. It was just people felt a great desire to join up not with just our organization, but any peace group they could find. Obama came in and it all just fizzled. People thought, be a peace president. They were so glad to get rid of eight years of George


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 17 Bush. Also, then the economic crisi s happened and a lot of people found themselves more concerned about domestic issues: saving their homes, student , but d part of that is because the Obama administration was very smart. They continued the policies of the Bush administration but they did it in different ways. Instead of more boots on the ground, they started using drone warfare, killing people by remote con trol. were killing thousands of people in places we had never declared war , like in warfare, writing a book about it, and then going out around the country to hundreds of cities and talking to people about it. A nd I think we actually managed to do a number of things. We managed to change public opinion that was very favorable towards drones to becoming les s and less favorable. We managed to force the government to start talking about this secret program and admit that less civilians. But it still is secret wars that are going on which makes it much more difficult to organize , and now we have a horrible group , ISIS , that is out So a population in the United States that had become very anti war after thirteen years of endless wars has s uddenly switched and become pro war again, supporting the b ombing of Syria and Iraq again to build an anti war movement, to go out and tell people, look, ISIS is


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 18 terri ble but this is not the answer. T his is counterproductive ISIS by saying, look , the W est and the war against Islam and of more recruits once the U.S. started bombing. We have to show people that the weapons the United States is putting into the mix is actually ending up in the hands of extrem ist groups like Al Qaeda affiliates and ISIS , and we have to promote political solutions. Unfortunately, I think people tend to say, oh , e military solutions. Just look over the last thirteen years. W now, all over the Middle East, m orphed into different groups . A nd we really need to go b ack and solutions like forcing our allies , Turkey, Saudi Arabia, to cut off funds to these extremist groups, to stop the weapons being sent to these groups, to stop the recru its from getting there. Go back to the negotiating table that was happening in Geneva between the Syrian Government and the rebels. The solutions are government to find these political solutions. G: Do you see there ever being an end to the war that the United States is currently in, especially when the authorization of use of force that was signed into effect by George W. Bush thirteen years ago was so ambiguous and allows for just the continuation of war for such a long time? D o you see this ever ending?


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 19 B: Well , now , and they probably will go ahead giving Obama anot her green light that will be a green light that will be continued dangerous , giving all of this authori ty to a president and having a C ongress that really has done very little to have. In fact , executive branch. So it s part of what we the people have to do, is to say that we want a Congress that acts as a check on t he executive. We want a Congress that acts as a check on the state of perpetual war. We want a Congress that cuts the budget of the Pen tagon and puts it into the life affirming activities that we need to improve the lives of citizens. We just had an electi on where the majority of heir lives are improving and they blame it on the party in power: the Democrats and Obama. What we need to say is that we r fifty percent of our discretionary funds on the military. That has to shift and that money has to go into things like infrastructure projects, green energy, things that will actually move our country into a positive direction and make people feel like th eir future can be better than the future of their parents , which is not what this generation feels right now. G: eally great. Thank you so much. T hat was great. B: Thank you so much, it wa s a pleasure.


WAF 024; Ben jamin; Page 20 G: It was a real pleasure. [End of Transcript ] Transcribed by: Jennifer Thelusma February 3, 2015 Audit edited by: Jessica Taylor February 3, 2015 Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, April 2, 2015

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