Ms. Benjamin tells Paul Jay her story, from suburban Long Island to a life of activism
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to a new episode of Reality Asserts Itself.
JAY: Well, the “young lady” President Obama referred to is now in our studio. And now joining us is Medea Benjamin.
Thanks for joining us, Medea.
MEDEA BENJAMIN, COFOUNDER, CODE PINK AND GLOBAL EXCHANGE: Thank you.
JAY: Medea Benjamin is perhaps one of the nation’s most prominent antiwar activists. She cofounded the women’s-led grassroots activist group Code Pink in 2002. She’s–also was cofounder and former codirector of Global Exchange, an international human rights organization in which Medea emerged as a key figure in the anti-sweatshop campaigns to change the garment and shoe industry. She worked for ten years as an economist, a nutritionist in Latin America and Africa for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the Swedish International Development Agency. And she’s written many books, including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.
Thanks very much for joining us.
BENJAMIN: Nice to be here, Paul.
JAY: And I should add you’re also a favorite target of Glenn Beck. But we’ll get to that later, later in the interviews.
So, as most of you know who watch Reality Asserts Itself, we start with a personal back story of our guest, a little bit about why they think what they think.
So tell us a little bit about growing up, the household you grew up in. Politically, what kind of household was it? Would your parents be surprised that you grew up to be this prominent antiwar activist? What did they expect of you?
BENJAMIN: Well, first I’ve just got to comment on “the young lady” from Obama, because when I go back to tell my story, I was born in 1952, so that makes me over 60. And I grew up in a very sort of normal suburban Long Island household, Jewish parents. They weren’t very political. And when I look back, I couldn’t even say if they were Democrat or Republican. I think it didn’t really matter very much. They voted, but they weren’t involved in politics. And what they wanted from me was that I marry a Jewish doctor. That was the extent of it. And had kids. And then my life changed because the world was changing around me.
JAY: Okay. Well, before you move on, you’re born, you know, at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism, House Un-American Activities Committee. And the narrative one grows up with in those days is one of America is going to save the world from the horrible evil, and the beacon on the hill. And the whole idea of being a dissenter is not just marginalized; it’s on the edge of being criminalized. That’s the general culture at the time, of the ’50s. Your parents kind of go wittingly, unwittingly–are–go along with that. You’re raised in that. You go to school, put your hand on your–and say, I pledge allegiance to the flag.
BENJAMIN: You jump under the tables when there’s the drill that the Soviets are going to come to bomb us. Sure, that was definitely the atmosphere I grew up in.
I don’t think it affected my life all that much, because my family wasn’t political. I mean, they were more concerned about when five o’clock came, it was happy hour, and they were quite into partying and pretty much into their business world and friends and of the–going to temple was just something we did on the weekend more for socializing. So I would say that until I went into middle school, politics didn’t enter into my life very much.
JAY: But you internalize the general narrative.
BENJAMIN: I never really internalized the general narrative, because–
BENJAMIN: –I was a rebel from the time I was born. My mother says the first thing I learned how to say was, I’ll do it myself. I was always questioning, always questioning. So I never really accepted that narrative either. I always wondered, you know, why was it that we were being taught to be afraid of somebody, of a country that was thousands of miles away. And I didn’t really buy into the narrative from early on.
JAY: Well, as you start to become more mature and more conscious, you know, you start becoming 11, 12, 13–and it’s not very long before the Vietnam War starts.
BENJAMIN: Yeah. And it didn’t affect me until I got into high school, because that’s when my peers were starting to be drafted, and especially my sister’s peers, ’cause she was two years older than I was. And so it was really–I mean, I heard about it, I saw it on the news, but when it really starts affecting you is when you know people who are getting shipped off to Vietnam. And that’s when it really started striking me of, wait, you know, why are these friends of mine being told that they should go fight an enemy that’s thousands of miles away that we really know nothing about?
JAY: So in high school, you organized an antiwar group. So what gets into you? What I mean by that is a lot of people knew people that were being shipped overseas and had these things happen to them, but they don’t start to organize. You do.
BENJAMIN: Well, what really hit me was my sister’s boyfriend, who was sent off to Vietnam. And he was on the football team, a really nice, all-American kind of guy, and six months later he sent her the ear of a Vietcong as a souvenir, with a–to wear it around her neck. And that really struck me. That was one of those pivotal moments when I said, something’s really crazy if you think somebody else’s body part, a dead person’s body part is something you should probably wear. This ain’t right.
JAY: How’d your sister react to that?
BENJAMIN: My sister showed it to me and then stuck it in her drawer and never took it out again, and in the end did not continue her relationship with this guy, who turned out to, you know, be totally changed by this experience.
And in the meantime there were also racial issues in my school. It had been a white community where black families started moving in, and it didn’t go down well in the school with black and white kids. In those days we didn’t have guns, thank goodness, but we had knives, and people were really, you know, knifing each other in the halls of the school.
JAY: On a racial basis.
BENJAMIN: On a racial basis. And so my school had riot police in the halls. And between seeing people stab each other around race issues, and around the Vietnam issues, I just started realizing something was very wrong, started researching and learning, talking to people, and began organizing.
JAY: You’re now what? Fifteen?
BENJAMIN: I’m now about 15, yeah.
JAY: Start with the race issues. And how did you react? This must have been a shock for you, this starts happening. Had you encountered anything like this before? And what sparked it?
BENJAMIN: Well, what sparked the fights,–
BENJAMIN: –or what sparked my own–. The fights? Well, it was a very redneck community, and it was a pretty poor community. And when black families started moving in, there was the whole issue about what’s this going to do to property prices, and the parents of a lot of my friends in school saying, you know, this is not good for our community. And I think they got it from their parents, the redneck kids, and immediately started taking out their aggression against the black kids, many of whom had just moved into the community where–or started to be bused into the community. So it was racial tensions flaring and–.
JAY: And in the country, the civil rights movement rising. How aware are you of that?
BENJAMIN: Well, I became aware of it once I started seeing the fights going on in my school. I started getting more involved in it and realizing that this was part of something that was happening all over the country and that I wanted to be on the side that I thought was the side of justice. And so I was siding with the new black girls in my class and learning from them what it was like coming into a white school.
JAY: And were you targeted or marginalized by some of the white racist kids?
BENJAMIN: Yeah. Yeah. But I found and created a group that tried to bridge that gap.
JAY: Which was what?
BENJAMIN: It was unitarians, Jews, some of the–.
JAY: An actual formal group [crosstalk]
BENJAMIN: A formal–.
JAY: Called what?
BENJAMIN: A group that we created. It was a–we started among the women, the girls, and started actually through the gym class, where there had been a lot of the fights erupting. So yeah.
JAY: What made you think to do that? I mean, had you seen some models of organizing somewhere?
BENJAMIN: Well, actually, I got beat up by one of the girls in the gym class, and it wasn’t a fun experience, and it was one of the black girls. And I went to get some help to try to–from the counselor to try to deal with it and realized that this was part of a much larger thing and that it wasn’t about me. It was about a part of a bigger movement that was happening. And I then wanted to sit down with that girl and talk it through, which we did. And out of that came this group.
JAY: So then from there comes the antiwar organizing.
BENJAMIN: Yeah, the antiwar organizing. I realize that we need to educate people in the schools, because there were a lot of pro-Vietnam kids in the school, and that we needed to create a visible presence.
JAY: Pro-Vietnam War.
BENJAMIN: Pro-Vietnam War, yeah.
JAY: And these are also kids with parents in the military.
BENJAMIN: Yeah, parents in the military, and these kids had brothers in the military. So we created a group that learned peace songs and started singing outside of school and organizing walkouts from school. We even went so far as to realize that this was happening at a national level–how do you have a voice at the national level?–and started working on the campaign of a very strong antiwar candidate, and his name was Al Lowenstein, and got involved in his campaign.
JAY: Talk about the walkout. I mean, how much support was growing for you in the school for the organizing?
BENJAMIN: Well, first we were about four of us. And it was growing. And people were learning as we went along. And we did a number of walkouts, and we started coordinating them with other schools in the area. And as we organize, we got a lot more support and a lot of antagonism. So I did learn at an early age that when you stick your neck out, you’re going to get a lot of negative attention.
JAY: And you were okay with that.
BENJAMIN: And I was okay with it. And it made me stronger. And I became head of my student newspaper and the student yearbook and became involved in trying to shape how the students–what they were reading, what was coming out from our school. And I learned that I could be persuasive in talking to people, and that organizing was an important part of educating.
JAY: So in terms of your formative years and pivotal moments in terms of your outlook, what’s the next big event for you?
BENJAMIN: I went off to college, and it was the ’60s, when so much was happening to question the entire world. It wasn’t just questioning Vietnam. It was questioning capitalism. It was questioning the way we live together. It was questioning how we learned. It was questioning our relationships with anybody over 30.
And I dropped out of school after the first semester. I went to Tufts University, but it didn’t seem right to me. I joined the Student for a Democratic Society (SDS). I started doing organizing in the school. And I felt like Tufts University was part of the problem, because they had a diplomatic school called the Fletcher School, and I thought at that time I wanted to be a diplomat. So I went and sat in on the classes. And it was all about the Cold War, and it was war games, and it was teaching us how to conquer other people. And I felt that the whole school was caught up in that mindset, and I didn’t want to be there. So I dropped out and decided that I wasn’t going to pay anybody to teach me. I was going to travel around the world and learn and spent the next four years traveling.
JAY: And how are your parents with all of this?
BENJAMIN: Well, for a while they didn’t know. They thought I was at a semester overseas. And I tried to keep that secret for a while, until I realized that it was important to try to move them along as well. And I must say it took me many years. My parents thought I was going through a phase, and they kept waiting for that phase to be over, till the day they died, I think. Never married the Jewish doctor, never had the more traditional life that they had wanted.
JAY: Now, you were born with a fairly traditional name. Susan is your name. But you renamed yourself Medea. When and why?
BENJAMIN: When I turned 18 and I went off to school at Tufts, I felt that 18 was a transition period for people and that they should then look back and see if their names fit them. And I looked back, and I was Suzy, I was the little Suzy, and there were always Susans, and I didn’t like my name. I felt that it didn’t reflect who I was and that I was going to change my name.
So I had been reading Greek myths at the time, and I would try a different name every month and tell everybody to call me, okay, now I’m Io, and now I’m whatever the name of the month was. And when it got to Medea, I really liked the name. I mean, I knew that there was the version of Medea that she was a woman with magical powers who didn’t use them to the best ends, let’s say.
JAY: Yeah. I mean, doesn’t she have a–her boyfriend/husband betrays her, so she kills her kids.
BENJAMIN: Yeah. But, you know, that was one version. I mean, another version said it was–because she had magical powers, it was blamed on her. But then I started looking at the name, and the name actually means a lot of things in different languages, in different cultures. And I just thought it was actually a pretty name. So I kept that name.
JAY: And it’s been your name since.
BENJAMIN: It’s been my name since.
JAY: So you leave college. You go traveling around the world. So in terms of–traveling around the world often changes the way someone looks at the world, especially when you start breaking all the old habits, you get away from home. I personally found it can be very transforming. It kind of frees your brain up to look at things again. Was that like that for you?
BENJAMIN: Well, it made me not only look at the world very differently; it made me look at my own country very differently. Traveling in Latin America, I learned a history of U.S. intervention in Latin America that I never knew before. Traveling throughout Europe, I found other cultures and peoples and met immigrants from Africa who told me about U.S. influence in Africa. And I was just fascinated by the kinds of ways that people looked at the United States.
And so I traveled throughout Europe. I went into Africa.
JAY: And along the way, you pick up, like, four or five languages.
BENJAMIN: I studied languages just on the street, I ended up learning a lot of languages, I worked my way along with everything from picking grapes to teaching English, and finally realized that I wanted to work in Africa with poor communities that were trying to liberate themselves or had just liberated themselves from colonialism, and that I needed a skill, that I couldn’t just show up and say, okay, you know, I’m going to do physical labor or teach English, that I really should learn something that I could give back. And that’s when I decided to quickly get an undergraduate degree and then get a graduate degree in public health nutrition.
JAY: How quickly?
BENJAMIN: I did that all very quickly.
JAY: How quickly?
BENJAMIN: I’d say I did the undergraduate degree in about a year, and then I did the graduate degree in another year. I did a degree at Columbia that would normally take about three years. I did it in one year.
JAY: This is ’cause you worked hard. It’s ’cause you’re a smart cookie.
BENJAMIN: It was because I decided that that’s the only amount of time that I would dedicate to it. I would take all the classes that I could take and just get it done, because I knew I wanted to go back to Africa. And I just felt once I had a skill and a graduate degree, it would be easier for me to get the kind of work I wanted.
JAY: So are you already at this point mostly a political being, in the sense that that’s what’s driving you and making most of your life decisions?
BENJAMIN: I think so. I had a teacher when I was at Columbia doing the master’s degree who taught me to look at the food situation from a very political point of view. And I told her, you know, radicalized me. She said, you’re crazy; you came in here radical. I think having traveled around the world, I really looked at the U.S. as a country that was trying to impose its political and economic will on a lot of other countries around the world, and always coming from the point of the view of the underdog. It didn’t seem right to me. And I guess at that point I was already an activist.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to pick this up in part two of our interview with Medea Benjamin on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. Please join us for that.
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