The Movement is in Silos -  Medea Benjamin on Reality Asserts Itself (pt 4/4)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on February 19, 2014. Ms. Benjamin tells Paul Jay that when it comes to integrating foreign policy issues in broad united fronts, Democratic Party allied unions try to block it.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. This is Reality Asserts Itself with Medea Benjamin, who joins us again in the studio.

JAY: So, one more time, Medea is cofounder of Code Pink, cofounder with Jodie Evans in 2002. And she’s the author of the book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So in the last segment, we left off talking about the state of the American antiwar movement. And you were talking about, you know, the way Obama and the Democratic Party sucked a lot of the air out of the antiwar movement.

But is there also a problem, especially internally, with the movement? I mean, with the financial and economic crisis of 2008, one would have thought maybe that would have been an upsurge of resistance against such massive unemployment, you know, millions of people losing their houses, and so on. Everybody knows how bad it got and for many people still is. In some of the urban centers in many, many cities across the country, including where we are, in Baltimore, it’s always been bad. Chronic poverty here is terrible.

Is there a problem with the movement that it gets segmented? So, like, you have–you know, you’ve done a lot of work on drones, and you have other people talking about minimum wage. But to really shift public opinion, does this not have to be somehow a more kind of integrated vision, and then mostly deal with these issues at a way that ordinary people really get? ‘Cause for most of the people we talk to in Baltimore, drones, foreign policy, like, it’s an abstraction.

BENJAMIN: Sure. Yes, it’s a huge problem that we’re in our own silos.

As Code Pink, we try to be in solidarity with lots of different movements. And so you’ll see last night we were out at one of the protests around the Keystone Pipeline. And we’ll go–we’re doing next week one that is trying to protect the bees. And then we’ll be doing the NSA stop spying. And then we’ll be at a minimum wage–increase the minimum wage rallies and union kinds of things. So we are all over the map in the sense that we see it as an integrated whole, and we like to be supportive of lots of different movements.

But our movement is too separated. And when it comes to trying to integrate the foreign policy issues, it’s very, very difficult. For example, the unions, I mean, there are so many unions that have union locals that are involved in creating weapons, and so they won’t take an antiwar position.

JAY: And you have union leadership so in bed with the Democratic Party leadership, you’re not allowed to critique foreign policy if it’s a Democratic Party president.

BENJAMIN: Right. So then there’s these beautiful coalitions that are brought together, bringing all kinds of different issues together to say, let’s all work to increase the minimum wage, and they barely want to invite the peace people into the room, because they don’t want to include that in the platform.

Now, we worked hard to get it in, and we have managed. And I would say we have a good relationship with lots of different campaigns that are going on. But in general you’re right.

And how do we address it? Well, take the drones, for example. We understand that partially because of the media not covering the issue of drone warfare and giving us lots of examples of these poor families who’ve been affected by it in places like Pakistan and Yemen, that there’s very little knowledge and sympathy in the United States.

That’s why we bring the issue in about are you concerned about our airspace being opened up to drones in 2015; and what is this going to mean for communities that are already oversurveilled, infiltrated by police agents; who is going to be targeted; and reach out to those communities. And we’ve had tremendous success in that, Paul.

So when I go out–and I’ve been to over 200 cities in the last year talking about drones–I bring sample resolutions that you can pass in your own community, say, you don’t want your police department to have access to drones unless there is a court order, there are regulations in place about how these can be used, our privacy is being protected.

And we’ve been tremendously successful in getting these passed on the statewide level. There are over 40 states that are in the process of passing or have passed regulations to limit the use. And so we’ve reached out to libertarians, to ACLU, to legal groups, to Muslim communities, to black community, and find tremendous response for that.

JAY: But is there a problem with focusing, in the drone discussion, too much on the drones?


JAY: And what I mean by that is this, is that, you know, Islamic extremists, al-Qaeda type forces, I mean, one has to believe that there are many of them that would like to blow things up in the United States and hit American targets. I mean, I don’t have any reason to see why that isn’t true.

One understands, if one studies this even a little bit, this is almost entirely the consequence of U.S. foreign policy to begin with, I mean, from inviting bin Laden to come to Afghanistan, to support for the Saudi Royal family that’s up to their eyeballs in this stuff, to creating the conditions through one-sided support for Israel. And, you know, the whole of American oil politics is all about get the oil and screw the Arab peoples.

Given all that, you then give rise to people that come with, to my mind, rather sociopathic responses, and even very self-destructive policies in terms of the interests of the Arab peoples. But they really do want to do some damage.

So once you get to that point in the argument, a lot of people say–and I think, you know, people have very mixed feelings about this, that it’s better to use drones over there than to have something blow up over here. And so this isn’t so much a defense of drones. If you don’t add to the argument you want to stop people from coming over here and blowing you up, get the hell out of the Middle East. Doesn’t that get a little lost in just the focus on drones?

BENJAMIN: Well, no, because what we’re doing is saying why this focus on drones that is the centerpiece of a counterterrorism policy, along with the commando raids and along with the cyberwars, is to say that it doesn’t work. And it’s not only ineffective in getting rid of extremism; it’s causing more. And so what are the alternatives? And then we have to talk about the alternatives.

So when we go around talking about this, one, we’re bringing it up in the civil liberties context, so that Americans care about it here at home, and two, we’re bringing it up in the context of how are we going to move ourselves away from perpetual war and away from a war economy.

So, yes, these all have to be put in context. And we try to do that–maybe not always successfully, but we do try to do it. And I think we’ve been amazingly successful in convincing a lot more Americans that drones are ineffective way of countering terrorism, because you see a precipitous drop in the polls from 2012 being over 80 percent of Americans supporting the use of drones to kill terrorist suspects overseas to about 60 percent now. That’s a big drop, given that this is a policy the administration and the right are in favor of.

And we’ve also been successful in forcing Obama to talk about this policy, a policy that was secret before, and in forcing some changes in the policy, so that right now there is supposedly a moratorium on the use of drones in Pakistan. And there’s been a decline in the number of drone strikes from a high in 2010 of 128 strikes in one year to only 26 strikes last year. So we’ve affected the policy.

JAY: And what do you think is the alternative? Let’s talk about Pakistan a little bit. You know, in the areas where al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban have strongholds, this is mostly where they’re hitting with the drones–of course, not only. What is the alternative?

BENJAMIN: The alternative is what’s happening right now, is for peace talks to happen. The Taliban are part of the society. They have to be reincorporated into society.

And how do terrorist groups end? They most of the time–in fact, there was a study done by the RAND Corporation that showed that 40 percent of 268, quote, terrorist groups that they looked at over the last 60 years ended by better policing. You capture people and you give them trials. Another 40 percent were through peace talks, negotiations, incorporating people into society. And only 7 percent was through military action.

We’ve been doing the military action for over 12 years now, so now we have to try something different.

JAY: Well, it seems to me President Obama actually proposed a pretty good solution, except he never did it. These things–it’s amazing how these things get said and then completely forgotten in terms of the mass media and the discourse.

And Bush did the same thing. After 9/11, he said what we need in Afghanistan is something like a Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Of course, it never happened. American troops chased the Taliban around the hills, and they left development up to Norway and Canada and Germany, and it spent very little time–.

BENJAMIN: Well, it spent a lot of–it misspent a lot of U.S. tax dollars in what was supposed to be nation-building, but most of the time didn’t build anything.

JAY: But it was mostly war-making. Yeah.

But then he said the same thing about Pakistan. His Pakistan policy was going to be a civilian upsurge in Pakistan as well. And the way to deal with the situation was to fight poverty in these areas of Pakistan.

And then, after saying all this, he never did it, and no one’s ever asked him, hey, what happened to your policy.

BENJAMIN: Well, look at Yemen, which is, after Pakistan, the second place where the drones are being used so much. There were maybe 200 groups that identify with extremist organizations when Obama started the drones in 2009. Now there’s over 1,000. And what’s the biggest problem in Yemen is poverty. And the U.S. has been focusing again on a failed strategy, one that we see failed in Pakistan, and now trying to implement that same thing in Yemen with the drone strikes. And with every single drone strikes, there are more and more people who join the ranks of extremist groups to try to seek revenge.

JAY: Let’s get back to the antiwar movement, ’cause there’s kind of two issues. One, we talked a bit about how the Democratic Party, both through the unions and others, as long as there’s a Democratic Party in power, in the White House, it takes the legs out of the antiwar movement, especially in united front building.

I remember there was something that the unions held, some rally. I think–was it–Al Sharpton or someone hosted it. And they wouldn’t allow anyone come to speak that was going to critique foreign policy.


JAY: You could talk about inequality in mild ways.

But there’s another issue, and this partly has to do with linking these movements together, is that not entirely, but to a large extent, you have such a racial divide in the American left and American movement. You know, you have white groups, and then you have black organizations, and, you know, you have a little bit of in-between. And you can see when some of the unions rallies, you see some of the more ordinary people come out and you see a fairly diverse–but at the leadership levels, mostly white. To really have a people’s movement in this country, that needs to be faced up to, doesn’t it?

BENJAMIN: Well, sure. I think the antiwar movement, when it was at the height of the movement under Bush, we got a lot of people in the black community to come out. And many of the leaders, the people who were the faces of the movement, were leaders in the black movement who told us–and I think it’s true–that the black community is the most antiwar community as a segment of the community in the United States. Now, that might have changed somewhat under Obama, because they support him as an individual, but the black community tends to be a very antiwar community, even though there are a lot of people from the black community in the U.S. military.

And I think that there’s a need to connect the issues of violence in our communities, whether it’s violence overseas and violence here at home, which brings a lot of support from the black communities in there.

And then there’s the bigger question, which is linking the amounts of money we spend on the military and what that does to rob our communities from resources we need to rebuild. And we have met many times, when Ben Jealous was the head of the NAACP, and he sees this totally. He says he was a conscientious objector from the time he was five years old. And he totally gets how the money going into the military is sucking money out of black communities, is keeping wages low, is part of the reason why we’re in this economic crisis. And that is something that we, as the antiwar community, have been trying to focus on.

JAY: King linked the two brilliantly.

BENJAMIN: Brilliantly. Totally he linked it.

And our problem is: how do you link that in reality? I mean, we can go and talk to people, and they understand that you can’t have a war economy and have the guns and butter at the same time. But when it comes to actually making changes, then we get stuck.

I think we get more stuck on the how do we get cuts to the military budget, because you see in the Congress that we have even Democrats don’t want to touch the military budget, and all of them want to continue to give increases to veterans’ benefits.

And then the military, the weapons industry is so brilliant in making weapons in every single congressional district in this country that even the Democrats will then say, well, don’t cut these tanks that the military doesn’t even need anymore, because those are jobs in my community.

JAY: So what do you see over the next two years or so?

BENJAMIN: Well, I see that we have momentum on our side because of where the American people are. And some people call it war weariness, which I think is true, but I also think there’s a war wiseness, where American people have learned that even if they want to help the Syrian people, for example, that U.S. military intervention is just going to make matters worse, because look at the record in Afghanistan, look at the record in Iraq. And that is something that is a positive development, in Americans not being very anxious to get involved in another war. And I think we have to build on that.

And part of building on that is to say that one of the reasons it allows us to get into these wars is because we have this strong military-industrial complex that does eat up so much of the pie, and then move towards how are we going to shrink that piece of the pie.

JAY: And how do you avoid or how do you deal with–let’s say it’s a Hillary running in ’16. You’re going to have, oh, women who want the first female president. You could–I don’t know who the Republican’s going to be, but let’s assume it’s going to be someone who’s going to surround themselves with John Bolton types and more of the neocon war hawks. So, you know, while Hillary is her own kind of war hawk, they seem to be more extremist than she would be. You could wind up having somewhat a same replay. How do you deal with that?

BENJAMIN: You know, I think we build up a movement that is not connected to the Democratic Party. There are libertarians right now who we work with on the issue of Iran and that joined us in trying to stop the war on Syria. They are now looking at their positions around Iran, and many of them are with us in saying it’s–we have to continue to hold back the forces of war there. I think that if we can build a movement that’s not tied at the hip to the Democratic Party, we will find allies in different sectors, and we will be able to peel off some of the Democrats who were afraid to speak up under Obama. So I feel the momentum is on our side.

I think that this empire cannot continue to devour itself and still be able to supply people’s needs at home. And those contradictions are becoming more and more apparent. I think we’re going to be able to insert the antiwar message more into movements, like movements for decent wages and a full employment in the United States, because the military is one of the worst industries–.

JAY: And, for that matter, climate change, for that matter.

BENJAMIN: And climate change. You look at the military, it’s the worst way to create jobs.

And I think it is going to be finding ways to make alliances across these different sectors, to have movements that are not Democratic Party-based movements, and that also have global alliances, because these are global issues. We had a big global movement that was building before 9/11 that also disintegrated. And I think that movement is building itself back up.

I know on the antiwar front we are recreating a lot of the connections that we had before. I’m on my way to Gaza with 100 women representing women from about 12 different countries, and we are purposely building up an international global women’s movement. So I think there’s lots of positive things that we can build on in the coming years.

JAY: Great. Well, thanks for joining us.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News and Reality Asserts Itself. And we’ll be back soon.

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Medea Benjamin is an American political activist who was the co-founder of Code Pink with Jodie Evans and others. Along with activist and author Kevin Danaher, she created the fair trade advocacy group Global Exchange. Benjamin was the Green Party candidate in California in 2000 for the United States Senate.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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