Peace champion advocates direct action
Jason Houk, 27.12.2012 16:40
According to Medea Benjamin, her experiences growing up in Long Island, New York in the turbulent 1960s had a powerful impact on her worldview. Racial tensions and the war in Vietnam divided her community as well as the country. “Activism kind of chose me,” she said. “Issues around racism, injustice and war were part of my high school years and really affected my thinking about how messed up the world is.”
Photo by Helga Motley
“To this day, I’ve never had a sip of coffee. When I was young, I thought, this world is really messed up — what is it adults do that makes it so bad? Maybe it’s the coffee,” she quips.
In October, local nonprofit Peace House honored Benjamin, who co-founded activist groups Global Exchange and CODEPINK, with the Marjorie Kellogg National Peacemaker Award. The award honored her 30 years of work as an advocate for peace and social justice. Benjamin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and is the recipient of the 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize.
Together with her husband Kevin Danaher, Benjamin co-founded Global Exchange, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic, and environmental justice around the world. Benjamin’s efforts with CODEPINK began in 2002. Millions organized and marched against the US invasion of Iraq. “We showed that we had the capacity to mobilize large numbers,” said Benjamin. “During the Obama administration, participation in the peace movement has decreased.”
As a community organizer, Benjamin recognizes the challenges of getting the word out. She organizes high-profile publicity stunts to promote her goals. “We write lots of articles that don’t get printed. We have lots of meetings with elected officials that don’t go anywhere. Sometimes CODEPINK is criticized for standing up at congressional hearings and speaking up, or for sitting in congressional offices and refusing to move. When they say ‘thats kind of rude’ or it ‘hurts your cause,’ we just say, ‘You know what’s rude? Killing innocent people is really rude.’”
While Benjamin agrees that letters to the editor, signing online petitions, and meeting with congressional representatives are all great tactics, they should be part of a larger strategy that involves direct actions. Benjamin insists that direct action is a tool that must be used. “We are at such a disadvantage when fighting the big powers who have so much money behind them. We have to use every nonviolent tool in the toolshed. It’s important that people show that they are willing to go to jail for their beliefs, that they are willing to stand their ground.”
Along with direct actions, Benjamin agrees that it is critical to build credibility to be taken seriously. “We have to show that we have a lot of depth to what we do. That it’s just not about the caroling or the flash mobs, the fun stuff; it is also that we are up late at night doing our research. We have to show how serious we are in a variety of ways.”
Overall, Benjamin says that tactics that work the best are the ones that folks have fun with. “I think about how important it is to use joy and humor in our protests. We want young people to get involved and see that this kind of work can be fun and is not just about being miserable about the state of the world.”
To build a successful movement, Benjamin explains that it’s important to employ a variety of strategies in a smart and principled fashion. “We have campaigns that have real strategies to them. Who are the people who have the ability to change policy and how are we going to influence them?” She recommends that every action be part the larger plan that moves the campaign forward. “If it’s part of a broader campaign that has a lot of facets to it, we can have the fun and the joy and the seriousness and be taken seriously at the same time.”
Benjamin encourages everyone to do what they can, but above all to take action. “For some people, it might be they only have the time or interest in writing that letter to the editor or doing their online support or giving some funds to an organization that is doing good work. People who have more time and feel stronger commitment can take it to the next level. There are a lot of things that people can do. The most important thing is to start somewhere and keep trying to push yourself to do one more thing.”
To be more successful, Benjamin points out that organizers must understand how all our actions are part of the larger movement. “I think we have to look at it holistically and recognize how connected all of our issues are, and if you are working on one of them then you are contributing to the whole.”
As Benjamin puts it, we need to learn how to buy local, how to build local currencies, how to build up community-supported agriculture, and how to bring our commitments in the broader environmental consciousness to the way we live our lives.
Benjamin reflects on the Occupy movement for its ability to inspire many new activists, but recognizes that movements need structure. “I thought the Occupy movement was fantastic and brought so many new people in. We said that the beauty of it was leaderless and didn’t have a particular focus, but in the end you need some focus and you need some leaders. Occupy inspired so many fresh ideas and fresh ways of doing things, but it had so many problems to it that it ended up being dispersed into lots of smaller movements that have a specific focus to them.”
When looking to the future, Benjamin has much hope in the growing efforts of young people around the world in the fights against tyranny and social injustice. “I look around the world and I see tremendous youth movements. I was in Tahrir Square during the uprising in Egypt and it was fantastic to see these young people who stood their ground in the face of snipers and government thugs and they just wouldn’t leave. They created a revolution.”
Benjamin takes inspiration from the successful student movements in Chile and Quebec where thousands of people took to the streets, forcing their governments to back down on tuition hikes. She believes the student debt crisis is just the spark to inspire a renewed student movement here in the United States. “The storm has been brewing for such a long time and I think the student debt issue has a tremendous impact. Students are going to have to rise up.”
Looking to inspire young people to get involved, Benjamin says, “I think what we have to do is keep educating and keep getting new people involved. Reach out to young people and train them. Give them skills they can use to organize.”
“We haven’t seen the tipping point yet,” reflects Benjamin. “Everybody knows that the main issue in this country is jobs. The time is ripe in this economic crisis for us to mobilize around the idea of jobs in the US, drop the outsourcing, and buy local. There are many communities around the country that are doing it on a small scale.”
“Its going to happen, we just never know when and how.”
Jason Houk is an organizer with Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice. He is news director of KSKQ 89.5 FM, a community radio station based in Ashland, Oregon. He is the recipient of the 2010 Hal Jamison Independent Media Award.