Meet the Woman Who Stood Up to Obama and Made World News: A Conversation with Peace Activist Medea Benjamin

Human Rights

“I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw?”—President Obama on Medea Benjamin

By now, the world knows Medea Benjamin as either the woman who challenged—or heckled—President Obama last Thursday during his speech on drones and Guantanamo Bay.

“People think you’re rude and crazy,” a CNN reporter told Benjamin, the co-founder of two global peace organizations, CodePink and Global Exchange. But Benjamin, already well-known among peace activists and political progressives (she was a major force during Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign) has also inspired legions of new fans astonished that someone had the nerve—or the passion—to stand up to one of the most powerful men on earth.

Now Benjamin has been trying to turn her moment in the mainstream media spotlight to the issues that brought her to the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. on Thursday in the first place. We talked to her about what happened and the issues that fuel her activism and her next steps.

Evelyn Nieves: Were you surprised that President Obama actually addressed you on Thursday rather than simply give the nod to the Secret Service to nab you as soon as you spoke out? Do you think it signals a president who is willing to listen? How does his response compare with other presidents and leaders whom you've publicly challenged in the same way?

Medea Benjamin: Many politicians try to ignore or belittle the folks who interrupt them. I think President Obama is just a really good politician who recognizes that it is better to address the person than have them dragged out. I was grateful that he said that my voice was worth listening to, though it was quite surreal because as the president and I were “dialoguing,” I was surrounded by army, FBI and Secret Service threatening to arrest me and drag me out.

But every time they touched me I said that the president was talking to me, and if they made a scene by pulling me out, they would really regret it. That bought me some valuable time.

Nieves: You spoke up when President Obama mentioned Guantanamo, which has yet to infiltrate the American consciousness despite the growing crisis there. What are you hoping your exchange with the president will do to foster outrage and pressure to finally close Gitmo and release innocent detainees? 

Benjamin: These detainees are in desperate straits. It’s both a humanitarian and a political crisis. Despite the force-feeding, some of these men could start to die, and this could unleash another huge wave of anti-American riots around the Muslim world. So something must be done right away. 

The president is saying that Congress is to blame, and yes, Congress has placed ridiculous roadblocks to closing Guantanamo. But Congress also put in place a waiver system that the president could use immediately to release the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release. He did announce a lifting of the self-imposed ban on repatriating prisoners to Yemen, and that is positive. But he needs to go beyond nice words and bureaucratic measures: He needs to immediately start authorizing some releases, so that the prisoners will see progress and stop the hunger strike. Then we can tackle the larger issue of giving fair trials to the remaining prisoners. 

In the meantime, my colleagues and I at CodePink will be doing more to keep up the pressure, working with the Guantanamo lawyers and groups like Witness Against Torture, Amnesty, The World Can’t Wait and National Religious Campaign Against Torture. We’re planning more protests and civil disobedience at the White House, a vigil at the gates of the Guantanamo prison itself, a delegation to Yemen to meet with family members and government officials. We’ve got many plans. 

Nieves: You've written a book on drones, another subject that has not permeated the public consciousness to the extent that it might given its profound repercussions. In brief, what do you want the public to know about drones? What do you want the president to do about drones?

Benjamin: The president said he uses drones when capture is not possible, but that’s just not true. The drones have been an alternative to capture. I think we should stop using these killer drones. They have led to the death of so many innocent people. They have become a recruiting tool for extremists and only guarantee what the president said he is against: a state of perpetual war. We should address terrorism through better policing, better defense mechanisms here at home and more robust and creative diplomacy.

Nieves: What's your next step? Do you really think you'll get into speeches now that the whole world will be looking for the woman in pink?

Benjamin: Probably, but I won’t be in pink. And if not me, it will be one of my colleagues. Until the policies change, we’ll still be like fleas, biting at the heels of the powerful. Or perhaps more like gadflies.

Nieves: How do you do what you do? People are in awe of your boundless energy and willingness to put yourself out there. How many times have you been arrested, for instance? How long do you think you can do this (i.e. public protest)?

Benjamin: It’s so funny that the president called me a "young lady," since I turned 60 this year. But thankfully, I still have lots of energy and a passion for justice. I really don’t like getting arrested, and yes, I’ve been arrested many, many times. Unfortunately, it seems to come with the territory. But I think of the great company I’m in with my heroes throughout the ages. I love the Annie Feeney song called "Have You Been To Jail For Justice?" She says:

“Was it Cesar Chavez? Maybe it was Dorothy Day.

 Some will say Dr. King or Gandhi set them on their way.

No matter who your mentors are it's pretty plain to see.

That, if you've been to jail for justice, you're in good company.”

And I love to sing in jail—great acoustics.  

Nieves: Not everyone can be a public citizen to your extent. What are your recommendations for the faint of heart? What do you suggest a newbie activist do in the cause of, say, Gitmo closure? Or any cause for peace? 

Benjamin: Start out within your comfort zone and then keep pushing yourself to the next step. Sign petitions. Call the White House (202-456-1414) and your congressperson/senators. Make donations to peace groups you admire. Those are great individual acts. But you’ll be more powerful as part of a group. Join a local peace group and or start your won.

Re: Gitmo, go to the thrift store to buy an orange T-shirt, make a CLOSE GITMO sign, download some of our flyers and stand in front of a federal building. Invite the press to come talk to you. From there it can snowball, if you keep pushing, reaching out to new allies, using the collective wisdom and ideas.

And while we’re dealing with deadly serious issues, make sure to inject some joy and creativity into your actions—for that’s what keeps people engaged.

Nieves: You're now loved and hated more than ever. In China, you'd be under house arrest or followed everywhere you go. What do you intend to do differently now that, decades later, you're a household voice/face/name?

Benjamin: We activists have our 15 minutes of fame every now and then, and then we go right back to the more tedious work of organizing. I’m still on a book tour for my book Drone Warfare, and I really enjoy speaking to community groups and students. I’ll be leaving for Yemen soon, and then probably to the gates of Guantanamo. We’re organizing an international conference on drones in London in November. We’re constantly meeting with those in Congress—and asking for meetings with folks at the White House.

Someone started a petition asking President Obama to invite me to the White House for a beer. But I’d prefer a few mojitos with real Cuban rum—and a toast to changing another failed policy: the 50-year-old embargo on Cuba.

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