Benjamin began her political life in high school with a fascination
for global events that eventually landed her a job with the United
Nations. Soon fed up with the bureaucracy, she began imagining an
entity that combined policy analysis and action. She then worked
with the Institute of Food and Development Policy, but was again
frustrated with the lack of direct action in her work. In 1988,
with Kirstin Maller and Kevin Danaher, she founded Global Exchange.
Benjamin has been a significant presence in the movement for global
peace and justice for over a decade.
When you are knocking on Starbucks’ door, where
is your leverage? Why are they motivated to listen to you?
We’ve learned over the years that we can encourage companies
to do the right thing. We write letters, get people to write letters,
try to have meetings, introduce shareholder resolutions, and are
almost always unsuccessful until we start doing more intense pressure
campaigns. That usually includes demonstrations in front of retail
outlets, bringing workers who are harmed by that corporation’s
policies to the United States to tour talking about what’s
actually happening. In the case of Starbucks, it would be coffee
farmers from Central America. In the case of Nike, we brought factory
workers from Indonesia. It’s when we get the exposés out
in the media or when we get to the level of protest that includes
a physical presence in front of their stores, that we tend to start
getting the leverage we need. Now we have developed enough of a
reputation that when we write the letters to the companies, they
want to sit down with us immediately to talk, but we usually don’t
get too far until we start real action campaigns.
take the case of Nike, for instance. Whom did you bring from Indonesia?
first time we brought a young woman in her early twenties who’d
been working in a factory for seven years. We took her to the Nike
flagship store in Portland, Oregon, which is right next to their
headquarters. We went to Washington, DC. We went from campus to
campus. But probably the most impact was when we went to Nike’s
home base in Beaverton, Oregon.
woman had been working for Nike for 7 years, basically 7 days a
week—12, 14, even 16 hours a day. She’d never tried on
a pair of Nike sneakers in her life. She could never have owned
them. It would have cost her about three or four months salary.
From there we went to Nike headquarters, what they call a campus,
and they had the police lined up to try to keep us out.
many of you were there?
was me and this factory worker. I’m about five feet tall
and this woman was about five feet tall. We had one interpreter
with us, another woman who was about five feet tall. Nike saw us
as the most ominous threesome that you can imagine. They had the
police from Beaverton, they had the police from Portland, and they
had called in an extra contingent of security guards from other
Nike stores. It was hilarious to see three tiny women surrounded
by legions of security guards. Of course, the reason they were afraid
is that we were also being followed by cameras—“20/20,”
doesn’t the mainstream media collude with the corporations?
How come they are covering this in the first place?
usually don’t cover it. We, as well as many other groups around
the U.S., do this kind of work every day and what you hear about
is the rarity. We’re always having to devise new and interesting
tactics that the media might be more willing to cover. The media
gets tired after a couple months of a campaign and you call them
up and say, “Okay, now we’re bringing a worker from Vietnam,”
and they say, “We already covered the worker from Indonesia
and she’s going to say the same thing, so what’s new?”
It’s very frustrating. In order to get things on the media
we have to be inventive.
does the United States let you set up an Occupation Watch storefront
in Baghdad where you will keep an eye on them. It seems very unlikely
that you would get away with that.
U.S. says that it is promoting democracy in Iraq. Yet there are
many examples of hypocrisy in U.S. policy. Iraqi friends who have
been in exile opposing Saddam Hussein for decades are now opposing
the U.S. occupation and can’t get back into their own country.
We feel it’s important to call the U.S. government on its hypocrisy
and to insist on opening a center where people can come to complain
about the abuses of the U.S. military or with complaints about labor
rights, if they’re working for a Haliburton subsidiary. If
the U.S. doesn’t allow this center to function, then I think
we come back to the United States and have a campaign, saying, “What
kind of democracy is it, that the United States shuts down an effort
to support democratic rights and workers’ rights and women’s
rights?” I’ve been astounded by how much you can actually
get away with when you challenge the powers that be.
does Code Pink fit with all you’ve just told me?
the Bush administration was planning the war against Iraq, we came
together as a group of women and said, “This has just gone
too far.” We decided that we had to do something visible. There
was going to be a hearing of the Armed Services Committee and Donald
Rumsfeld was going to be testifying before Congress on the reasons
to go to war. That was in September. We decided that we couldn’t
pass that up. But we knew that the senators who would be questioning
the secretary of defense would not be asking the real questions.
Isn’t this about oil? Why are you timing it at election time?
Isn’t this going to make our families less safe? All of those
questions. Diane Wilson and I decided to go to that hearing and
start questioning Donald Rumsfeld. We managed to get in right behind
a row of generals.
did you manage that?
was a public hearing. Most people didn’t know it was public.
We got there about four hours beforehand and we were the first ones
in line. Usually, they only take a very small group and then tell
you it’s full and stick you in an overflow room where you can’t
have any impact. But we were there so early, we were dressed really
nicely, we had our banners tucked in our
newspapers, we looked like we were either reporters or maybe somebody
working in a think tank in Washington. So we got inside and as soon
as Donald Rumsfeld started droning on and on about why we had to
go to war, we jumped up. Each of us had a banner we held up that
said, “UN inspections, not U.S. war,” and then we started
asking the questions that weren’t being asked.
you interrupted the proceedings?
interrupted the proceedings. We started yelling out, “Mr. Rumsfeld,
we have some questions for you,” and started asking the questions.
It was the first time in this part of the build up around Iraq that
there was that visible an opposition in such a forum.
this televised live?
Because they were not expecting this, it took a long time for security
to come and pull us out of there. It went out all over the place.
It was on CNN, CSPAN, NPR. It was on the front page of the
New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle
the major papers around the country carried this on the front page.
I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been doing protests
all my life. This one went everywhere. People were sending me front-page
photos from the
South China News
San Pablo Journal
from all over the world. I’ve heard since then that it gave
such inspiration to people all over to see two women interrupting
these generals when they are talking about the reasons to go to
you calling yourselves Code Pink yet?
was getting our feet wet. Then we decided to do a Code Pink vigil
where we would have a presence every day in front of the White House.
We planned to do it 24 hours a day until March 8, International
Women’s Day, if we hadn’t been successful before that.
The really difficult thing was that we didn’t know how cold
it was in Washington. Also, when we started we were going to do
a fast as well. So the first week was miserable. We were hungry
and cold. It was pouring rain. We weren’t allowed to have a
tent or a tarp. The police said no sleeping bags either. Then they
said we weren’t allowed to be in the park at night. Yet we
never broke the vigil. Women came from all over the country to join
us. There were always women out there.
groups would take a day. So Women for International Peace and Freedom
would take a day and maybe bring ten women with them. We would get
some of the unions to take a day. It wasn’t just women. Men
would come too. So some days there would be 5 people, some days
10, 15, 20 people. We weren’t allowed to have more than 25
people in the park. So we carried on the vigil, but we didn’t
just stand in front of the White House, we also had actions in Washington
all the time. We’d go out to the homes of some of the Democratic
representatives who were refusing to stand up against Bush and do
“wake up calls” in the morning with pots and pans. We
went to Daschel’s house, for example, and said, “Wake
up, the American people don’t want this war.”
went to Donald Rumsfeld’s house several times, once we found
out where he lived. It was Christmas season. We’d sing Christmas
carols. We would ask him to send toys to the Iraqi kids instead
of bombs. We walked with a procession of about 150 people to his
house singing special Christmas carols that we made up about Iraq
and then we set up a table with fruitcake and cider and toys for
the Iraqi children and asked Donald Rumsfeld and his wife Joyce
to come out and join us, which they didn’t do.
Secret Service went wild when we started announcing that we were
going to do something at his house. They called us up and said,
“You Code Pink ladies, we have been easy on you.” Easy
on us. They kept arresting us even when we were in front of the
White House. They arrested one of our main Code Pink women and she
was banned from Washington, DC for an entire year. They said, “We’ve
been easy on you. But now you’ve gone too far. Doing this in
front of Donald Rumsfeld’s home, advertising to the world where
he lives, now any terrorist can go and blow up his house.”
We started laughing. C’Mon. If we can find out where Donald
Rumsfeld lives, I think anybody who wanted to blow him up could
find out where he lives. They gave us a really hard time. They said,
“Now the FBI is investigating you. They’re going to be
on your tail everywhere you go and whatever you do.”
we went anyway. We went back to his house the day after the war
started dressed up as victims of war. There were young high school
girls and boys, college age students, and a bunch of older women.
We put fake blood and mud all over ourselves, we tore our clothing,
we were carrying babies, dolls with their heads torn off. Some of
the boys were dressed up in military camouflage uniforms with their
heads and arms bandaged and we started walking down the street.
One sign said “Dirty War” with blood all over it and the
other sign said “Dirty Hands” and we had pictures of Rumsfeld,
Bush, and Cheney. Those of us with the “Dirty War” sign
started walking down the street, moaning, wailing, and screaming.
It just came from a place within us; we had no idea it was going
to come out. Screaming at the top of our lungs. We were walking
down this main street in Washington, DC—Connecticut Avenue—crying
hysterically. It was real crying at that point.
did several of those kinds of demonstrations in the first week of
the war. I had been in Washington, DC for five months. I’d
left my two children, I’d left my husband. When the war started
I went home on the airplane dressed like that. I wore a sign saying
“civilian casualty.” I had people in the airport—men—wanting
to punch me. They said, “How could you be doing that at a time
when our boys are over there?” Acting like somehow showing
my empathy for the civilians was an unpatriotic thing to do. I remember
standing in the airport in Washington, DC dressed in these bloody
clothes standing next to CNN showing the bombing. People were all
smiling, watching the bombing, but as soon as I came up there standing
next to the television looking like a victim of that bombing, suddenly
they found that very offensive.
anyway, we really did a lot to try to stop the war. We felt tremendous
despair once the war started. Then we had to bounce back again,
as everyone in our movement has had to bounce back again to continue
to try to build momentum.
keeps you going?
have a very close relationship with a woman who’s a farmer
in Honduras. I wrote a book on her life many years ago called
Be Afraid, Gringo
. She is a poor farmer who has been fighting
everything, from trying to get land for landless peasants to trying
to get her government to stop supporting death squads to the most
recent crisis that has hit them as coffee farmers. The Maquiladoras
have become one of the only options now that people can’t make
money from the land. She and I have maintained a wonderful friendship
over the years. I always remember her saying to me that it was the
luxury of the privileged to be discouraged, to burn out, to decide
not to be part of a social justice movement. That for somebody like
her, it was her life. She had no options. So whenever I’m feeling
discouraged, feeling like I would love to live in another country,
that I can’t put up with this government any longer, I give
her a call, or I write to her, and feel again that sense of, “What
other option is there?”
comes down to the fact that this is where change has to take place.
If it doesn’t take place in the United States, it will be difficult
for it to take place anywhere else. If the most committed of us
leave the struggle, what do we have left?
is a radio and print journalist living in California. Her radio features
have aired across the U.S. and Canada, and can be found at www.leftcoastradio.