For anyone who feels that wars of choice, workers’ rights and civil liberties are important issues, the United States of America is a dark place. Especially since the 2000 “selection” of Republican George W. Bush as U.S. President, it seems that times are especially bad.
The gap between the rich and poor is widening. Corporate pollution is rampant. Oil drilling is expanding in places like Alaska. American intelligence officials are running a series of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and torturing terrorism suspects.
But there is some hope. People are coming together to fight all of this. One of these people is Medea Benjamin.
In 1988 she helped organized Global Exchange to fight for fair trade and human rights. In 2002 she founded Code Pink, an anti-war women’s organization. In both, she’s provided leadership and worked to energize what is hopefully a growing peace movement. She’s worked for the equal rights of underprivileged workers all around the world, as well as in the U.N. and the Green Party. She’s written several books and continues to fight to preserve basic human rights for us all.
This month Benjamin will make a few appearances on Maui. I recently spoke to her by phone about the state of the world and activism in general.
MAUITIMEWEEKLY: You majored in nutrition and have a masters in economics from Columbia. Those subjects seem very different from what you’re doing now. Why did you decide to take the path of the activist?
MEDEABENJAMIN: Actually, they are not that different. Everything is related to who gets what and how resources are distributed. In Iraq they have oil. Everything needs to be spread out evenly so that everyone has what they need. In our country we put so much into militarism instead of spreading our resources and people are going without.
You have to be one of the most involved and well known activists out there. When you first began to get involved did you plan on getting to this level?
I don’t think that I had any idea what I would be doing. I planned on working for the U.N., which I did, and get international development, but the more I saw the more frustrated I became. I was dealing with the band-aids, not the roots of what keep people poor.
I would teach a mother how to feed her child and I realized what was keeping them poor. If you want to get rid of poverty than you must change the policies that are creating it. I think I just organically evolved and chose to solve the macro problems rather than the micro.
Do you think that the fact that you went to college in Harlem, a very poor area, had any impact on your path in life?
Well, that is the case with many Ivy League schools. You can choose to stay within the Ivy League and not see what is going on around or you can get involved. I chose the latter. I got involved in a community-based clinic and saw how people lived in a very unrich city. I think that my eyes were already opened when I got there and I knew the reality.
It was actually my trips outside of the U.S., in high school, just as a tourist, that made me see our society differently. That affected my outlook and that is what lead to opening Global Exchange. You need motivation to change your reality.
There are major issues that our country faces. How can we, a country divided among liberals and conservatives, reach our common goal of helping our nation’s well-being?
Periodically events occur which give us an opening to work together that has nothing to do with partisanship. After Hurricane Katrina everyone felt appalled by the lack of government officiating. We saw so many years of neglect and in the U.S. more people have looked at how resources have been misused.
Since the hurricane, polls have shown that people want to use our resources in the U.S. and not in Iraq. It is hard to find people on a local level who think that the Iraq war is a good thing. Financially, people find the struggle overseas as needless. No matter what religious or political partisanship, we can come together as people to get the officials to listen to our priorities.
When you ran for a U.S. Senate seat in California on the Green Party ticket five years ago you won an impressive number of votes but didn’t come close to beating Democrat Dianne Feinstein. What did it accomplish by running for the Senate?
It accomplished a lot on different levels. For the Green Party, it created a lot of greens locals around California. Since then I have met many women who have since run for office. As a party we got a lot of issues out. It got Diane Feinstein to reconsider several issues. This was all pre-9/11 and we were focused on different issues. Now we have some new concerns. Much of that experience was about networking and now, as a result, it has helped to build the peace movement.
What do you think our nation’s common goal is and where do you think it will be by the next election?
Unfortunately, there will be further deterioration of economics. We see a continuing bleeding of jobs overseas. There is a serious deterioration of job opportunities and college opportunities. The price to go to college is going up and less people are able to attend. It is dividing the youth into the Haves and the Have Nots. You see it coming more and more as budgets are slashed to fund the military. Global warming will cause more devastation.
We see the fight for funds after Hurricane Katrina. There is a massive infrastructure failure around the country. With deteriorating schools and health care I see the thing coming to a head in terms of contradictions from the government. Our needs can be met by coming together in life-confirming activities instead of war.
In Hawai’i, a state that has many people coming here to escape reality, a fight by the Native Hawaiians for a Reinstated Hawaiian Government and an overwhelming “hang loose” attitude, how can we find motivation and support to get active and get involved?
As people lose key resources they should get more involved but instead they must work on survival. That is why it is so important for young people to get involved. There is a gap forming in our country. Young people and people [like me] whose kids have grown have time to put into activism. There is an intergenerational gap of people who get involved. But the people who are raising families have to worry about bills and providing for their family not activism.
To get motivation going in Hawai’i there should be a better outreach to a large number of people in the military. More soldiers are coming back feeling alienated and disgusted about the war. An outreach could get them involved in a peace movement. People could try to express themselves in creative ways instead of going to a boring rally or writing a letter to a senator.
In Hawai’i Global Exchange is doing a bike ride, talking to different groups in the community and creating community. Code Pink is [also] an example of how people come together because they have created community. That is really good motivation when someone is feeling depressed or overwhelmed.
As a country, what do you think is the biggest problem we face?
The biggest problem is that we don’t have an active citizenry. People aren’t getting involved in the issues so only a small group of people, especially those with money, are making the policies. If people were more active President Bush wouldn’t—well, he wouldn’t even be president—but he wouldn’t continue a war where people are dying everyday. The sentiment is there but people don’t do anything about it.
People say health care should be a human right but don’t fight for the uninsured. They say $5.15 is too little and there should be a livable wage but don’t join with [janitors and] workers and demand it. When asked they say clean environment is important but don’t actively work against corporate pollution and deteriorating policy.
How much of that is the media’s fault?
The media is dominated by the corporations and the public is left ignorant and misinformed. We must strengthen our independent news sources and push the Democrats, push the local community if we want to see anything change on the national level.
So what do we do?
The change must start at a local level. Give power back to local economy, buy from small businesses and stop giving support to places like Wal-Mart. These are things we can do locally that will have an impact nationally and ultimately globally. MTW