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May 24, 2013

Interview with Code-Pink founder, Medea Benjamin After She "Heckled" Obama

By Dennis Bernstein

Code-Pink founder, Medea Benjamin, took President Barack Obama head-on during a major foreign policy speech the president was giving Thursday on drone policy and related issues. Benjamin demanded that the president close the Guantanamo Bay prison immediately.


An Interview with Code-Pink founder, Medea Benjamin, on why she disrupted a national foreign policy speech given May 23 by President Barack Obama

Code-Pink founder, Medea Benjamin, took President Barack Obama head-on during a major foreign policy speech the president was giving Thursday on drone policy and related issues. Benjamin demanded that the president close the Guantanamo Bay prison immediately.  

On at least three occasions, Benjamin engaged the president, ultimately forcing him off script. At one point, a frustrated Obama told the peace activist: "Why don't you sit down, and I will tell you exactly what I'm going to do... about Guantanamo." But soon Benjamin was back up on her feet again, definitely not satisfied with Obama's plan to send detainees to other countries. 

"Release them today!" she screamed, as security moved to eject her from the room. "You are commander in chief! ...  You can close Guantanamo today! ... You can release those 86 prisoners! ... It's been 11 years! ...  I love my country! ... I love the rule of law!" A s she was finally taken into custody by security,  Benjamin shouted --  "Abide by the rule of law! You're a constitutional lawyer!" She also confronted the president on the killing of a 16-year old American citizen.

I spoke to Benjamin right after she was released from federal custody, during a live broadcast on Pacifica Radio's Flashpoints Show. Benjamin said what she really wanted to tell the president if she had a little more time, the significance of the ongoing hunger strike by the detainees at Guantanamo, and why she believes the president should be tried for war crimes based on his extra-legal drone policy.

Here's what Medea really wanted to say had she been given the chance. Although, I think she got more time than most get in that position, and she wasn't even charged with a crime...

DBMedea, how are you feeling? You were taken into custody?

MB: I am doing great. I was held by people in the military base, the FBI, and the secret service, and questioned for a while about who I am and my motives. Then amazingly enough, I was let free with no charges.

DBWhat were you trying to tell the president?

MB: I got to speak three different times. When he was speaking about blaming Congress for not being able to close Guantanamo, I said he is the Commander-in-Chief so obviously has the ability to close Guantanamo today if he wanted to and release the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release -- so why isn't he doing that.  I got a chance to speak up again, talk about the drone strikes and ask why he isn't taking them out of the hands of the CIA. Why isn't he prohibiting signature strikes where people are killed just on the basis of suspicious activities? And why will he not apologize to, and compensate the families of the innocent victims of our drone strikes?  I got one more chance and asked who killed the 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and why?

DBThat's when you were arrested and taken into custody?

MB: Yes.

DB:  Obama made a major foreign policy speech today. He said something about Guantanamo. What is your response to what the president said?

MB: I was hoping we would get some significant changes because the rumors had been flying about real policy changes like the ones I just mentioned. Unfortunately what we got is more rhetoric that justifies the drone program.  He talked about Anwar al-Awlaki but refused to talk about his 16-year old son. He said the drone strikes are only used when we can't capture people, which is not true. I know many examples where it would have been simple to capture people, such as 16-year old Tariq Aziz from Pakistan, who was in the capital city of Islamabad at a public meeting in a public hotel. Instead of capturing him there, he was killed two days later by a drone strike.  

In Yemen there are many drone strikes that are very near the capital city were people could have easily been captured. There were many statements in the speech that weren't true. Unfortunately there were no significant policy changes except the restricting of the self-imposed ban on not releasing people from Guantanamo to Yemen.

DB:  You told Obama you wanted him to recognize the hunger strike. Why is it very important for the president of the United States to recognize the hunger strike?

MB: It's an absolute crisis. There are over 100 men in Guantanamo who haven't been eating, and they started over 100 days ago. They are being terribly force-fed in a way that even the American Medical Association calls torture.  They need some justice, not nice sounding words from President Obama. We [have] heard since before he was president that he was going to close Guantanamo. People are sick of hearing him say that. They want it closed.

DBMedea, you have many times put your body on the line. How does it feel? Were you frightened of being hurt?

MB: I was very scared going in there. I assumed that I would be recognized and kicked out. But I was there for two-and-a-half hours and nobody said anything to me, which sometimes makes me feel that I'm invisible. It was very scary to be in there and think about interrupting the President of the United States. It is not an easy thing to do, but I kept breathing deeply and thinking about the people I met in Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been so harmed by our policies. I thought about the people who have been hunger striking for over 100 days. I thought that maybe I could get it out if I thought about how meaningful it would be for the people who are suffering from our policies.

DBYou were there as a founder of Code Pink, a women-driven organization. Do you think women are playing a special role in trying to restrain these wars being expanded with advanced weaponry? What is the role of Code Pink and women in the context of a forever war?

MB: There are women who heed the original call by Julia Ward Howe for a Mothers Day to declare we will not raise our children to kill other mothers' children. We got together with mothers in Pakistan to hold hands and heed that call together in our different languages. But it is certainly not exclusively a women's issue. Today the president talked about the ethical and moral issues of the drone strikes. There certainly are, but he didn't get into them. This is an issue that people of faith must speak out against. It is also a huge legal issue. I wish the entire legal community were more vociferous about ways the administration is violating international law and the U.S. constitution.

DBYou have said that the President of the United States using extra-legal drone assassinations, killing children, makes him a candidate for a war-crimes investigation.

MB: Yes, there's an investigation by the United Nations going on now which will conclude in a couple of months. Certainly the U.S. actions like using devil taps that kill rescue workers is definitely a war crime. I look forward to seeing the UN response. The high court in Pakistan recently came out with a judgment, which said the U.S. drone strikes are war crimes.

DBIs there anything else you would want to say to the president? Maybe he's listening.

MB: There were two issues I didn't get a chance to talk about. One is how the over 800 foreign bases scattered around the world, particularly in places like Saudi Arabia, the holy lands, are making us more hated and should be closed. I also wanted to give a shout-out to Bradley Manning because were it not for him, we wouldn't know a lot of the information that our government has tried to hide from us.

DBHe was thoroughly abused under the authority of the President of the United States.

MB: Yes, he was kept in horrendous conditions in Quantico marine base and has not been given the right to a speedy trial. He is facing life in prison for trying to shed light on the war crimes of this administration.

DBMedea, thanks for your courage and for being with us today.

Submitters Website: http://www.flashpoints.net/

Submitters Bio:

Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and many other publications in the US and around the world. He is the recipient of the Art of Peace Award, the International Service Journalism Award from Friends World College, and six Project Censored awards for investigative reporting. In 2009, Pulse Media named him one of the “20 Top Global Media Figures.”

Bernstein is also a widely published poet, and the author, most recently, of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom, which received the 2012 Literary Achievement Award from Artist Embassy International. His poetry has appeared in the New York Quarterly, Chimaera, Bat City Review, The Progressive, Texas Observer, ZYZZYVA, etc

Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple , writes that Special Ed “…is art turned to us through the eyes of love.” Carol Smaldino says in The Huffington Post that the poems remind us how “…we are all connected to the sorrows as well as to the grandness of being human…”

Bernstein, who holds a master’s degree in Education, has also taught media literacy and special education, working in some of the poorest communities in New York City and New York State. Bernstein has also taught writing and reading literacy in various prisons in New York City and New York State, for the CCNY/John Jay College and Mercy College.