Although Medea Benjamin has been an activist for nearly four decades, most of the country didn’t come to know her until shortly before the Iraq war, when she infiltrated her way into congressional hearing rooms to shout down people like Donald Rumsfeld to protest the upcoming war.
She’s best known as the co-founder of the anti-war activist group Code Pink, which has a history of infiltrating and briefly disrupting events, including the Senate hearing of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the confirmation for CIA Director John Brennan, and most recently, Donald Trump during his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Benjamin is bipartisan in her targets. She also heckled President Obama three times during a speech he was giving on military policy in 2013, prompting the president to say, “the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
She’s also the author of a new book, “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.- Saudi Connection,” and is making several appearances in the Tampa Bay area this weekend to promote it. This reporter (who has known and covered Benjamin since we both lived in San Francisco in the mid 1990s) interviewed her on Thursday afternoon.
MP: Why Saudi Arabia?
MB: Well I realized that neither I, nor my progressive friends, knew anything about Saudi Arabia except that it was a mysterious kingdom that the U.S. was allied with. And the more I looked into it, the more I realized that we’re never going to stop these endless wars in the Middle East, or for that matter, get off the oil consumption, if we don’t confront this issue with Saudi Arabia. And the more I looked into it, the more appalled I became at how repressive this regime is, not only externally because we’ve been to Bahrain and saw how they crushed the Democratic uprising there. We’ve been to Yemen and seen how they’ve been involved in how they’ve created this catastrophe in Yemen, but also learned about how much they repress their own people, and the millions of migrant workers who have really built the desert up into what it is today.
MP: We’ve had a strong relationship with them for decades, transcending presidents and political parties. Should it be such a strong relationship?
MB: It shouldn’t be at all. It’s appalling that it is and it’s appalling that it’s gone on for such a long time, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, and it’s appalling that progressive folks who have been involved in an anti-war movement have not taken on this issue of Saudi Arabia, so it’s appalling on all kinds of levels. And I think especially now when the Saudis are involved in an internal conflict with Yemen, and the U.S. is providing the weapons and the logistical support for it, it’s really a time to say that enough is enough. And just this last week, after the administration announced that it was planning to sell another $1.5 billion worth of weapons, the Saudis go ahead and bomb Doctors Without Borders hospitals, a potato chip factory, a school, a residential neighborhood and how long can we not just allow this to happen but know that the blood is on our hands as Americans because we’re so intimately involved in all of this.
MP: You’re like the Zelig of activists because you’re always there in the mix. What’s it like to be this activist that’s always getting in the faces of the powerful for so many years?
MB:It’s been really fascinating being in Washington D.C., because the first time I went to a hearing I was still living in San Francisco, they (the Bush administration) were going to have Donald Rumsfeld testify about why we were going to go to war in Iraq. And I remember thinking that I thought I had to sneak in as a journalist, in a pants suit and a little pad of paper, carrying a copy of the Washington Post, because I didn’t even know that these were public hearings, and I got there really early to stand in line and nobody from the public showed up. Nobody was really going to these meetings, and it just amazed me because they were open to us and we weren’t taking advantage of the opportunity to confront these people. So I kind of got hooked on this, going to these hearings. We shut down several hearings. We shut down the hearing with General Petraeus. We shut down the hearing with CIA Director John Brennan and all you need is about 20 people to get into a hearing making a ruckus and they can’t even continue, so it’s been a great education to come from the Bay Area, where we don’t have that reverence for power, especially power that doesn’t deserve that reverence, and are willing to get arrested, willing to confront members of Congress, presidents, secretaries of state, defense ministers, weapons manufacturers, lobbyists for the NRA, any of these people, and then to bring our friends and colleagues in from around the country to join us. It’s created a different culture in Washington (where she’s lived since 2008).
MP: How would you describe America in terms of its social progress in 2016?
MB: We’ve certainly made gains in terms of a lot of social issues, rights for people in the in LGBTQ community, or women’s rights, I’m not denying that there’s been great progress in certain areas, but when it comes to our foreign policy, we have not evolved very much.
If you look at Obama’s foreign policy, it’s very similar to the one of the Bush administration. Nobody has come in and said, ‘Oh my goodness, we have 800 (military) bases around the world, what do we need them for? Let’s start closing them down.’ Or, ‘Oh my goodness, why are we giving taxpayer dollars to these repressive regimes like Egypt or Honduras, let’s just stop doing them.’ So it’s been very much the status quo that benefits the weapons manufacturers, and the military contractors. So I think we have to make a major shift in the way that we interact with the world.
MP: In 2012 you wrote “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control,” which was of the first books to look at the rise of robot warfare. Do you think enough Americans know and/or care what we’re doing overseas with our drone warfare program?
KB: When Code Pink started working on the issue, almost nobody knew about it because the government refused to even talk about it publicly. These were covert operations by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, and even when groups like the ACLU would take the government to court over the killing of innocent people, the government refused on national security grounds to even discuss the program, so at least that has changed over the years and reinforced our own government to tell us more about what they’re doing. I think unfortunately though, the media rarely gives us news of U.S. drone strikes or lets the the families of innocent victims get a chance to speak in mainstream media, and so people really haven’t developed empathy with the populations that have become the victims of our drone strikes. Because, it’s not just the missiles hit and kill a particular person, the threat of living under these drones that has been a sort of collective punishment for entire swaths of populations in places like Yemen and Pakistan, so not enough people know about it, and not enough people are upset enough about it to do something.
MP: What do you think of how the mainstream media is doing in covering news and politics?
MB:I think the media’s horrendous. I have to look toward alternative media or to overseas media to get any news that I feel has enough substance to it. The U.S. media keeps regurgitating the same issues, over and over and over, like, what did Donald Trump say today? I think it gets very boring and so narrow, so I think the media does us a tremendous disservice. Yet, despite that, it’s amazing how much Bernie Sanders was able to inspire people and build a movement when the media — at least in the beginning — pretty much ignored him, and it’s amazing that despite the lack of media to our issues, we are able to build movements. The Black Lives Matter movement has not only spread across the entire U.S., but it’s become international; and the environmental movement is a strong and ever-growing international movement. So I think that these movements that we create from the grassroots grow up pretty much despite the problems we have of a media that covers the wrong issues in the wrong way.
Medea Benjamin will be making five different appearances in the Tampa Bay area this weekend. You can find her schedule here. On Sunday, she will be speak at Unitarian Universalists in St. Petersburg (100 Mirror Lake Dr. N.) at 1 p.m., and at Inkwood Books in Tampa (216 S. Armenia Ave.) at 3:30 p.m.