Tickled Pink

Chicago Free Speech Zone, December 2005

After opposing the war and other Bush administration policies for three years, CodePINK co-founder Medea Benjamin is making no secret of her joy over the streak of misfortune that has dogged the White House lately.

"We are seeing the unraveling," Benjamin said during a mid-September speech at Oak Park's Unity Temple. Then she listed the many signs that have her convinced that "the tide is turning," including Bush's declining popularity among so-called NASCAR dads and other core constituencies, a Zogby poll where a majority said the president should be impeached if he lied to the American public, infighting within the Republican party, and criminal probes of top administration officials.

Some prominent Republicans "came out in the Washington Post and said [Karl] Rove is now a liability," Benjamin said. "Bush is in trouble if his brain has become a liability " and now Bush is also a liability to his own party."

This may sound like standard Democratic operative talk, but Benjamin also threw darts at the other side of the aisle. "It would be nice if there was a strong party of opposition saying, ‘we're here,'" she deadpanned. She rejected John Kerry's proposal to bring 20,000 troops home by the end of the year as insufficient, and while she appreciated the war debate forced by senate Democrats earlier in the month, she still wished they had displayed a stronger backbone. “Notice that they didn't talk about withdrawal " it must be a male thing. Instead they used the word redeployment."

There are plenty of organizations spewing anti-war, anti-Bush rhetoric, but the dig at the foibles of masculinity is distinctively CodePINK. When Benjamin joined three other prominent female activists to found the group on November 2002, the idea was to "elevate the voices of women who don't get heard on foreign policy issues,” she said. The name CodePINK was a take-off on the color-coded Homeland Security terrorist threat advisories, and ever since the group's launch “we've been practically standing on our heads nude to get media attention. We do one outrageous thing after another."

CodePINK said hello to the world by holding a four-month vigil in front of the White House. Future stunts would include parading around Boston in lingerie laden with anti-war messages during the Democratic National Convention, and disrupting Bush's acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination at his party's New York confab. They also impersonated war victims, stumbling around D.C. moaning and covered
in fake blood and bandages.                                                                         

The high visibility resulting from these antics helped CodePINK grow into a global network with more than 200 chapters where men are also welcome. "CodePINK is not a women's group," said Pat Hunt, the local organizer who introduced Benjamin at the Oak Park event. "It's a state of mind."

Each chapter acts independently, connected by a California-based central, and always with a sense of humor. At the Sept. 24 mass demonstration on the National Mall, CodePINK women wore messages such as "No peace, no pussy" and sang improvised lyrics to "American Pie:"

"Why, why, Mr. President, why?
The levees all broke, now the water's too high
Spent all our cash on a war that's a lie
You don't care if poor people die
You don't care if Iraqis die
You don't care if our soldiers die
Just as long as your profits are high."

But CodePINK is about more than irreverence. Two days after the D.C. march, 36 members were arrested doing direct action in front of the White House. Last December, the group took a delegation of parents of fallen soldiers and 9/11 families to Iraq, delivering a message of peace and a few thousand dollars worth of aid; a year earlier, it joined other anti-war organizations to launch the International Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad.

Benjamin has been to Iraq several times, and unlike visiting U.S. politicians, she refuses to remain cocooned in the safety of the so-called Green Zone; instead she travels around the ravaged land and listens to what the locals have to say. What Iraqis have told her is not necessarily what the administration wants to hear: they want their infrastructure rebuilt, they are "desperate for ethnic reconciliation," and they want the troops out.

The mainstream media portrays the Sunni minority that benefited from Saddam Hussein's rule as the only ethnic group opposed to the U.S. presence, but Benjamin painted a different picture. According to her, the coalition that won a dominant share in Iraq's 275-seat National Assembly in January did so partly because it promised to end foreign occupation,  " a fact that was never mentioned in U.S. newscasts showing images of delighted Iraqis casting votes in a free election for the first time in more than 50 years.  At the time, polls showed that 82 percent of Sunnis and 69 percent of Shiites wanted U.S. forces to leave, she added.

Benjamin pointed out other facts that have been largely ignored by the American media: a petition calling for a withdrawal timetable, signed by one-third of the National Assembly in June; an August study commissioned by the UK's Department of Defense, which found that 82 percent of the Iraqi population was strongly opposed to the occupation. "I wonder sometimes, do we get the media that we deserve?" Benjamin asked. "Because people in other countries would shut if off if they saw the junk we get here."

"On CNN Europe I can get into a half-hour intellectual discussion," she went on. "And I can't get 15 second on CNN here ... unless we barge into a senate meeting and they're covering it." But with or without media support, Benjamin feels that the movement has reached a point where "the American people are saying, ‘troops out,' Iraqi people are saying, ‘troops out.' Our job is how to push our government to get the troops out."

Benjamin urged supporters to contact their Congress representatives  to demand a vote for House Resolution 55, known as the Homeward Bound Act - a binding resolution calling for President Bush to spell out a withdrawal plan and carry it out by next October. She placed even more weight on a bill introduced by Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern in early November " the first piece of legislation proposing to end funding for armed military operations or occupation.

"Another campaign is blossoming in some states around the National Guard," Benjamin said. A coalition of peace groups is working to place a binding initiative on the November 2006 ballot in Massachusetts, allowing voters to demand that the governor call for the return of all National Guard units from Iraq.  A bill requesting that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger do the same for the California National Guard is pending in Benjamin's home state, where 12 municipalities have also passed resolutions aimed at bringing the Guard home.

Thinking locally is a good policy, Benjamin said. It creates "a wedge between what people and local officials are saying, and what the governor is willing to do ... we have to create dilemmas for these elected officials " ‘are you going to side with us, or with George Bush and his lies?"

Benjamin cautioned that activists need to thread a fine line when demanding and end to the armed conflict. "We don't wanna say, ‘cut-and-run' ... it's not nice, and it sounds like we have no responsibility to the Iraqi people. We do have to pay Iraq to rebuild their infrastructure." She also advocated thinking beyond the current situation to stay one step ahead of future conflicts.

One of the ways to "stop the next war is to stop people from going to war," Benjamin said, echoing the title of the book she was officially here to promote. Counter-recruiting is about more than trying to drain the pool of potential military personnel, she added; it  can also "encourage young people to ask deeper questions [like] ‘should we be spending this money on war rather than education?'" And she railed against the No Child Left Behind Act, calling for the introduction of "legislation to say you should opt in to have [your child's] info given to a recruiter, not opt out."

After talking and answering questions for nearly two hours, Benjamin took a few minutes to plug the book she co-edited with CodePINK co-founder Jodie Evans. Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism is a collection of essays by women ranging from pundit Arianna Huffington and novelist Alice Walker to two Nobel Peace Laureates, land mine campaigner Jody Williams and Iran's Shirin Ebadi. "We have a couple of token guys in the book," Benjamin said. One of them is Camilo Mejia, a soldier who wrote a 52-page conscientious objector appeal and was court-martialed for refusing to return to Iraq.

In keeping with CodePINK's message of female empowerment and solidarity, Benjamin wants to educate U.S. women on the dangers facing their sisters in Iraq. "It irks me to no end how ignorant Americans are of Iraqi women,"  she said. Americans assume women were always oppressed in Iraq, but they used to have freedoms that were unheard of in other Middle Eastern countries, including the right to inheritance and divorce.

For all his faults, Saddam's secularism meant that women were allowed to be involved in all aspects of Iraqi society. The U.S. is "strengthening the hand of [fundamentalist] Islamists," Benjamin said. "Women in some professions are being targeted. The new constitution is very ambiguous about women ... they're very afraid their rights will go back 100 years."

Most of the women Benjamin spoke with in Iraq were "desperate for en end to the violence" so they can take to the streets to defend their rights, she said. To help highlight their plight, she is working to get some Shiite women who lost their sons in the battle that killed Casey Sheehan to come to the United States and demonstrate. She's also planning an International Women's Day action opposing U.S. support for repressive Middle Eastern regimes.

Traveling around the globe as an American working for peace while the country's leadership is on the war path can be dicey. Benjamin has faced some hostility; she has also been treated with extraordinary kindness.  During an October visit to Venezuela, she was invited by President Hugo Chavez to an event in honor of that nation's indigenous tribes.  At the ceremony, Chavez delivered an anti-American diatribe, then turned to Benjamin and the other U.S. activists in the audience.

"I want you to understand that when we talk about our problems with empire, we're not talking about the people living within that empire," Benjamin quoted him as saying. "Because we understand that within that country live the people of Martin Luther King. We recognize that people living in the country are victims of that empire ... because you can't be both an empire and a democracy."

Benjamin asked the audience to take to heart those words, spoken by a man who's been labeled by none other than George W. Bush as a tyrant, and embrace the "idea of us liberating ourselves and becoming, again, the people of Martin Luther King."