Democracy in Crisis: Activist Medea Benjamin raises hell in the halls of power

Medea Benjamin. — photo by Baynard Woods

Medea Benjamin, the firebrand activist and author of a dozen odd books, looks surprisingly small in the midst of the lunchtime crowd jostling one another in the basement cafeteria of the the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Her pale face is framed by straight-cut bangs that are pretty darn close to pink in color.

I was surprised at her size because I’ve seen her twice at recent protests, and on both occasions she seemed to rise up and loom over the people around her, as if a projection of sheer will made her appear positively gargantuan.

But hunkered down at the long table, where she often sets up a makeshift office with other members of Code Pink, the radical feminist-oriented activist group, she seems almost invisible. That’s probably a good thing for someone who has made a career out of making trouble.

Across from her are an assistant and an intern working on laptops. A Code Pink sticker glowing on the back of one of their gleaming Macs reads “Make Out Not War.”

It’s hard to keep track of what they are talking about, there are so many projects and issues to deal with: a trip to Cuba, a book on Iran, mobilizing against the Senate health care bill, fighting the proposed increase in the Pentagon’s budget and advocating for a bill that would halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

“We were here running up and down in the halls all day yesterday and all night until the police kicked us out,” Benjamin says with a sly grin.

Benjamin, who is also the president of the Benjamin Fund, which reported a value of more than $12 million in 2013, started her career as an activist nearly 50 years ago, when she was in high school.

“My sister had a boyfriend who was sent off to Vietnam and about six months later sent her home the ear of a Viet Cong as a necklace to wear,” she says. “I was so disgusted by that, I remember throwing up and saying I’m going to become an anti-war activist.”

That was when Medea Benjamin was born. Before that, she was Susan. “I was studying Greek mythology right after I finished high school. I thought as soon as I was 18, I wanted to change my name,” she says.

At first she just liked the way the name sounded. Over the years, people who didn’t know she chose the name have always asked why someone would name their child after the queen who, in Euripides, kills her children when her husband leaves her. But Benjamin read about a different version of the myth where Medea didn’t actually kill her children — but was blamed for it because she was a powerful woman in a patriarchal society. She liked it.

She did not legally change her name, which gives an activist of her notoriety another kind of invisibility. That could come in handy for someone who estimates that she’s been locked up somewhere around 80 times.

“When I was doing work more on the economic issues, getting arrested outside a store or embarrassing a company would have almost immediate results. It was quite remarkable,” she says. “I would do a lot of work around the sweatshop issues and we would do demonstrations and get arrested outside the stores of The Gap or Nike.”

Global Exchange, which Benjamin founded with her partner, Kevin Danaher, helped organize the protests against the World Trade Organization, and she was arrested in Seattle in 1999. “We slowed down that entire global governance infrastructure,” she says.

In 2000, when she announced plans for demonstrations outside 30 different Starbucks to protest conditions in coffee fields, the company approached her before the demonstrations even happened and created a fair-trade certification program.

The government, she says, has been harder to sway. “They don’t have a brand they want to protect because there are so many interests at play.” She ran for the U.S. Senate herself in 2000, on the Green Party ticket, but says she isn’t interested in trying that again.

In an effort to stop the Iraq War, Benjamin and other activists founded Code Pink, a women-led radical group that uses costumes, satire and direct action to fight against militarism and defend human rights. When the group protested the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year, two members dressed as Klan members and greeted Sessions like an old friend. They were arrested and maybe expected to be. Desiree Fairooz, a librarian who was sitting beside Benjamin in the gallery, was also arrested during the hearing — for inadvertently laughing.

Code Pink is more radical than many of the groups, such as Indivisible, that have arisen in the wake of Trump’s election. Benjamin finds hope in the new wave of activists, but she has been around long enough to be a little skeptical. “You scratch beneath the surface of some of these organizations, you’ll find the Democratic party,” she says. She doesn’t mind working with Democratic activists, but fears they will fall away when the Democrats regain control in Washington.

Benjamin does light up a little bit when Sen. Bernie Sanders walks into the cafeteria to buy lunch, but it’s more like she’s recognized a friend than spotted a star.

And then it is cheerfully back to work, going over details of a video with Code Pink intern Kristina Brunner. Brunner, who lives in the Code Pink house in D.C., seems really, really excited about the work. But Benjamin, who has been fighting for so long, seems equally enthusiastic about, say, what they can do with Facebook Live.

Wondering how she maintained such passion for so long, I asked Benjamin about self care, a common topic among a younger generation of activists. Did she have any advice?

Her privilege, she says, requires her to keep working.

“Don’t stop long enough to get depressed. Don’t stop long enough to think you need self care,” she says. “I just keep going, because I learned really early on that it’s a luxury to feel like you’re so burned out you might have to stop.”

Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. Send tips to On Twitter @baynardwoods.

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