Noe Valley Voice October 2008

Medea Benjamin: Noe's Rebel with a Cause

By Lorraine Sanders

Being recognized at work is generally a good thing. Unless, of course, you're Sanchez Street resident Medea Benjamin. That's because Benjamin's work as an activist has, in recent years, involved actions like her appearance at last month's Republican National Convention, when she and Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans unfurled banners they'd smuggled in under their shirts during vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's speech.

"That's more of a concern now: how do I get in without being recognized?" muses Benjamin, who admits wearing her hair differently and hiding her signature pink attire under stuffy business suits to avoid getting noticed.

Not surprisingly, Benjamin and Evans were swiftly dragged out of the Sept. 3 event, security guards' hands clapped over their mouths, in a highly publicized scuffle that you can easily watch on You Tube. Both women were later released without incident, as they had gained access to the convention using legitimate passes and did nothing illegal.

"We were so close to her [Palin], I was worried that they might overreact and really hurt us," Benjamin says, recalling her thoughts just before raising a banner reading, "We Need a Peace V.P."

It's all in a day's work for Benjamin, 56, whose small stature, office cluttered with plumes of pink feathers, and easygoing demeanor make her at first seem an unlikely figure to end up assaulted at the hands of disgruntled strangers during political rallies, thrown into jail with the likes of Alice Walker, and arrested so many times that she can't assign a number to her run-ins with the police.

The co-founder of human rights advocacy organization Global Exchange, with husband Kevin Danaher, Kathie Klarreich, and Kirsten Moller, Benjamin has a long history of fighting for economic and social change. Through that organization, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Benjamin has been closely involved in efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, pressure Starbucks and other companies into selling fair trade coffee, and put an end to sweatshop labor practices employed by major world corporations.

Prior to founding Global Exchange, which operates a retail outpost on 24th Street near Noe, Benjamin spent a decade as an economist and nutritionist in Latin America and Africa, working through multiple organizations including the United Nations and the World Health Organization. She holds master's degrees in public health and economics, has authored eight books, and helped form the national coalition United for Peace and Justice.

In 2000, Benjamin ran unsuccessfully as the Green Party candidate for U.S. senator from California. In 2002, Benjamin and Evans co-founded Code Pink, whose name plays on the color coding system for identifying terrorist threats, in protest of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. And while the organization may have been founded in direct opposition to Bush administration policies, Benjamin is quick to point out that Code Pink has organized demonstrations and actions at events featuring prominent Democratic Party members, including Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"We're not about party politics, we're about ending war," Benjamin says.

When it comes to the Iraq War, Benjamin views it not simply as an ongoing display of violence that needs to end, but also as a major distraction from other issues of global and national importance.

"The core of the problem is that the U.S. is this overstretched empire, and what we want is to be a strong democracy. You can't be both.... Almost everything fits within that," she says.

Ask Benjamin how prolonged war affects the United States, and she is ready with a long list of complaints, among them the increased likelihood of violent conflict with Iran, failure to adequately address global warming, the lack of funds for education, the need for healthcare reform, the high price of gas, and the financial crisis on Wall Street. It's a heady list of issues for anyone to tackle, but for Benjamin, there's no other option.

"There's a saying that silence is complicity, and we've moved beyond that to say politeness is complicity," she says.

While the end goal is change through nonviolent means, Benjamin says public protest is a positive accomplishment in and of itself.

"With anything like [the Republican National Convention action], it's a success just that you got in, and you did some kind of display of opposition. They think they've got this fortress America thing going on, and part of [opposition] is to show that the emperor has no clothes. They've hyped up security, but really, it's so easy to penetrate," she says.

Being a woman can help, though it does present other challenges.

"There are advantages and disadvantages. With my advanced degrees, years of working for the United Nations, writing books, and lecturing, I would be taken more seriously as an expert if I were a man. On the other hand, as an activist, I have advantages as a woman--the police are not as rough with us, we tend to get away with more," she notes.

As the election nears and Code Pink ramps up its activities to register voters and maintain a presence at the season's bevy of political events and debates, Benjamin is working and traveling at a breakneck pace filled with appearances, demonstrations, and strategic meetings both here and abroad, including one with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which took place in late September. Not surprisingly, she looks forward to returning to her home in Noe Valley, where she's lived for the past 24 years.

Given the election year and Benjamin's left-leaning politics, it may surprise some that she has yet to decide which candidate will get her vote on Nov. 4.

She explains her indecision thusly:

"I'm going to wait and see how I feel, because with California as a, quote, safe state for Obama, it gives me a chance to vote for a candidate who more represents my views. If I lived in a swing state, I would probably vote for Obama. I really want him to win."