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All In A Day's Work
M edea Benjamin began her political life in high school with a fascination for global events that eventually landed her a job with the United Nations. Soon fed up with the bureaucracy, she began imagining an entity that combined policy analysis and action. She then worked with the Institute of Food and Development Policy, but was again frustrated with the lack of direct action in her work. In 1988, with Kirstin Maller and Kevin Danaher, she founded Global Exchange. Benjamin has been a significant presence in the movement for global peace and justice for over a decade.
CRANE: When you are knocking on Starbucks’ door, where is your leverage? Why are they motivated to listen to you?
BENJAMIN: We’ve learned over the years that we can encourage companies to do the right thing. We write letters, get people to write letters, try to have meetings, introduce shareholder resolutions, and are almost always unsuccessful until we start doing more intense pressure campaigns. That usually includes demonstrations in front of retail outlets, bringing workers who are harmed by that corporation’s policies to the United States to tour talking about what’s actually happening. In the case of Starbucks, it would be coffee farmers from Central America. In the case of Nike, we brought factory workers from Indonesia. It’s when we get the exposés out in the media or when we get to the level of protest that includes a physical presence in front of their stores, that we tend to start getting the leverage we need. Now we have developed enough of a reputation that when we write the letters to the companies, they want to sit down with us immediately to talk, but we usually don’t get too far until we start real action campaigns.
Let’s take the case of Nike, for instance. Whom did you bring from Indonesia?
The first time we brought a young woman in her early twenties who’d been working in a factory for seven years. We took her to the Nike flagship store in Portland, Oregon, which is right next to their headquarters. We went to Washington, DC. We went from campus to campus. But probably the most impact was when we went to Nike’s home base in Beaverton, Oregon.
This woman had been working for Nike for 7 years, basically 7 days a week—12, 14, even 16 hours a day. She’d never tried on a pair of Nike sneakers in her life. She could never have owned them. It would have cost her about three or four months salary. From there we went to Nike headquarters, what they call a campus, and they had the police lined up to try to keep us out.
There was me and this factory worker. I’m about five feet tall and this woman was about five feet tall. We had one interpreter with us, another woman who was about five feet tall. Nike saw us as the most ominous threesome that you can imagine. They had the police from Beaverton, they had the police from Portland, and they had called in an extra contingent of security guards from other Nike stores. It was hilarious to see three tiny women surrounded by legions of security guards. Of course, the reason they were afraid is that we were also being followed by cameras—“20/20,” CBS, ABC.
Why doesn’t the mainstream media collude with the corporations? How come they are covering this in the first place?
They usually don’t cover it. We, as well as many other groups around the U.S., do this kind of work every day and what you hear about is the rarity. We’re always having to devise new and interesting tactics that the media might be more willing to cover. The media gets tired after a couple months of a campaign and you call them up and say, “Okay, now we’re bringing a worker from Vietnam,” and they say, “We already covered the worker from Indonesia and she’s going to say the same thing, so what’s new?” It’s very frustrating. In order to get things on the media we have to be inventive.
Why does the United States let you set up an Occupation Watch storefront in Baghdad where you will keep an eye on them. It seems very unlikely that you would get away with that.
The U.S. says that it is promoting democracy in Iraq. Yet there are many examples of hypocrisy in U.S. policy. Iraqi friends who have been in exile opposing Saddam Hussein for decades are now opposing the U.S. occupation and can’t get back into their own country. We feel it’s important to call the U.S. government on its hypocrisy and to insist on opening a center where people can come to complain about the abuses of the U.S. military or with complaints about labor rights, if they’re working for a Haliburton subsidiary. If the U.S. doesn’t allow this center to function, then I think we come back to the United States and have a campaign, saying, “What kind of democracy is it, that the United States shuts down an effort to support democratic rights and workers’ rights and women’s rights?” I’ve been astounded by how much you can actually get away with when you challenge the powers that be.
Where does Code Pink fit with all you’ve just told me?
When the Bush administration was planning the war against Iraq, we came together as a group of women and said, “This has just gone too far.” We decided that we had to do something visible. There was going to be a hearing of the Armed Services Committee and Donald Rumsfeld was going to be testifying before Congress on the reasons to go to war. That was in September. We decided that we couldn’t pass that up. But we knew that the senators who would be questioning the secretary of defense would not be asking the real questions. Isn’t this about oil? Why are you timing it at election time? Isn’t this going to make our families less safe? All of those questions. Diane Wilson and I decided to go to that hearing and start questioning Donald Rumsfeld. We managed to get in right behind a row of generals.
How did you manage that?
It was a public hearing. Most people didn’t know it was public. We got there about four hours beforehand and we were the first ones in line. Usually, they only take a very small group and then tell you it’s full and stick you in an overflow room where you can’t have any impact. But we were there so early, we were dressed really nicely, we had our banners tucked in our Washington Post newspapers, we looked like we were either reporters or maybe somebody working in a think tank in Washington. So we got inside and as soon as Donald Rumsfeld started droning on and on about why we had to go to war, we jumped up. Each of us had a banner we held up that said, “UN inspections, not U.S. war,” and then we started asking the questions that weren’t being asked.
So you interrupted the proceedings?
We interrupted the proceedings. We started yelling out, “Mr. Rumsfeld, we have some questions for you,” and started asking the questions. It was the first time in this part of the build up around Iraq that there was that visible an opposition in such a forum.
Was this televised live?
Yes. Because they were not expecting this, it took a long time for security to come and pull us out of there. It went out all over the place. It was on CNN, CSPAN, NPR. It was on the front page of the Washington Post , the New York Times , the San Francisco Chronicle , the major papers around the country carried this on the front page. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been doing protests all my life. This one went everywhere. People were sending me front-page photos from the South China News , San Pablo Journal , from all over the world. I’ve heard since then that it gave such inspiration to people all over to see two women interrupting these generals when they are talking about the reasons to go to war.
Were you calling yourselves Code Pink yet?
That was getting our feet wet. Then we decided to do a Code Pink vigil where we would have a presence every day in front of the White House. We planned to do it 24 hours a day until March 8, International Women’s Day, if we hadn’t been successful before that. The really difficult thing was that we didn’t know how cold it was in Washington. Also, when we started we were going to do a fast as well. So the first week was miserable. We were hungry and cold. It was pouring rain. We weren’t allowed to have a tent or a tarp. The police said no sleeping bags either. Then they said we weren’t allowed to be in the park at night. Yet we never broke the vigil. Women came from all over the country to join us. There were always women out there.
How many women?
Different groups would take a day. So Women for International Peace and Freedom would take a day and maybe bring ten women with them. We would get some of the unions to take a day. It wasn’t just women. Men would come too. So some days there would be 5 people, some days 10, 15, 20 people. We weren’t allowed to have more than 25 people in the park. So we carried on the vigil, but we didn’t just stand in front of the White House, we also had actions in Washington all the time. We’d go out to the homes of some of the Democratic representatives who were refusing to stand up against Bush and do “wake up calls” in the morning with pots and pans. We went to Daschel’s house, for example, and said, “Wake up, the American people don’t want this war.”
We went to Donald Rumsfeld’s house several times, once we found out where he lived. It was Christmas season. We’d sing Christmas carols. We would ask him to send toys to the Iraqi kids instead of bombs. We walked with a procession of about 150 people to his house singing special Christmas carols that we made up about Iraq and then we set up a table with fruitcake and cider and toys for the Iraqi children and asked Donald Rumsfeld and his wife Joyce to come out and join us, which they didn’t do.
The Secret Service went wild when we started announcing that we were going to do something at his house. They called us up and said, “You Code Pink ladies, we have been easy on you.” Easy on us. They kept arresting us even when we were in front of the White House. They arrested one of our main Code Pink women and she was banned from Washington, DC for an entire year. They said, “We’ve been easy on you. But now you’ve gone too far. Doing this in front of Donald Rumsfeld’s home, advertising to the world where he lives, now any terrorist can go and blow up his house.” We started laughing. C’Mon. If we can find out where Donald Rumsfeld lives, I think anybody who wanted to blow him up could find out where he lives. They gave us a really hard time. They said, “Now the FBI is investigating you. They’re going to be on your tail everywhere you go and whatever you do.”
But we went anyway. We went back to his house the day after the war started dressed up as victims of war. There were young high school girls and boys, college age students, and a bunch of older women. We put fake blood and mud all over ourselves, we tore our clothing, we were carrying babies, dolls with their heads torn off. Some of the boys were dressed up in military camouflage uniforms with their heads and arms bandaged and we started walking down the street. One sign said “Dirty War” with blood all over it and the other sign said “Dirty Hands” and we had pictures of Rumsfeld, Bush, and Cheney. Those of us with the “Dirty War” sign started walking down the street, moaning, wailing, and screaming. It just came from a place within us; we had no idea it was going to come out. Screaming at the top of our lungs. We were walking down this main street in Washington, DC—Connecticut Avenue—crying hysterically. It was real crying at that point.
We did several of those kinds of demonstrations in the first week of the war. I had been in Washington, DC for five months. I’d left my two children, I’d left my husband. When the war started I went home on the airplane dressed like that. I wore a sign saying “civilian casualty.” I had people in the airport—men—wanting to punch me. They said, “How could you be doing that at a time when our boys are over there?” Acting like somehow showing my empathy for the civilians was an unpatriotic thing to do. I remember standing in the airport in Washington, DC dressed in these bloody clothes standing next to CNN showing the bombing. People were all smiling, watching the bombing, but as soon as I came up there standing next to the television looking like a victim of that bombing, suddenly they found that very offensive.
So anyway, we really did a lot to try to stop the war. We felt tremendous despair once the war started. Then we had to bounce back again, as everyone in our movement has had to bounce back again to continue to try to build momentum.
What keeps you going?
I have a very close relationship with a woman who’s a farmer in Honduras. I wrote a book on her life many years ago called Don ’ t Be Afraid, Gringo . She is a poor farmer who has been fighting everything, from trying to get land for landless peasants to trying to get her government to stop supporting death squads to the most recent crisis that has hit them as coffee farmers. The Maquiladoras have become one of the only options now that people can’t make money from the land. She and I have maintained a wonderful friendship over the years. I always remember her saying to me that it was the luxury of the privileged to be discouraged, to burn out, to decide not to be part of a social justice movement. That for somebody like her, it was her life. She had no options. So whenever I’m feeling discouraged, feeling like I would love to live in another country, that I can’t put up with this government any longer, I give her a call, or I write to her, and feel again that sense of, “What other option is there?”
It comes down to the fact that this is where change has to take place. If it doesn’t take place in the United States, it will be difficult for it to take place anywhere else. If the most committed of us leave the struggle, what do we have left?
Carolyn Crane is a radio and print journalist living in California. Her radio features have aired across the U.S. and Canada, and can be found at www.leftcoastradio. org.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.