Politics

08.28.12

Medea Benjamin and Code Pink Protest the RNC in Tampa

Spunky Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin dishes to Lynn Waddell on the Republican National Convention protest scene in Tampa—and why her antiwar group started wearing vagina costumes.

Political activist Medea Benjamin has spent more than 30 years fighting for peace and social justice around the globe. In addition to Code Pink, she cofounded the international human-rights organization Global Exchange and was one of 1,000 women who were collectively nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She has authored eight books and previously worked as an economist and nutritionist with the United Nations and World Health Organization.

How does this measure up to past conventions as an activist?

I’ve been to the 2000, 2004, and 2008 conventions. I would say there are fewer protesters and more security. There are more police than protesters.

Why are there fewer protesters?

A lot of people didn’t come because of the storm. A lot of people who were driving and taking planes got scared away. They also got scared away by all the hype about violence and police presence and the intimidating pictures they saw of the police preparing.

For people living farther away, it’s not a convenient place to come. It’s not a very progressive community, and people are financially strapped these days. Another reason is they are just exasperated by the two-party system. They just feel like it isn’t worth it. 

At the same time, since Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, there was some anticipation that there would be a large crowd.

I think people did expect a large crowd because of Occupy Wall Street, but Occupy Wall Street tends to be very poor people. To get the funds to come all the way to Tampa is a really tough thing to do.

How has law enforcement treated protesters in comparison to past conventions? 

Police so far have been pretty subdued in terms of their presence at our protests, except that they are so intimidating in number. I think they have been given orders.  The chief of police came to our rally today, and she was very nice and tried to reassure us, but we’ve been surrounded by National Guard, police on bicycles, police on foot, police in cars and even tanks, and all the helicopters flying overhead, so it does have a dampening effect on us.

There also is the fact that each time there is a convention it seems we are kept farther and farther away from the convention-goers. Last night at the welcoming party it was ridiculous. It was like half the city of St. Petersburg was closed down. We as protesters couldn’t get near, and by law we are supposed to be able to get within sight and sound of the event.

And the barricades around town?

This is a like a war zone. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and it has a certain resemblance to that with barricades and fences everywhere. It makes you feel sort of like a terrorist, like you are convicted before an event even starts. There are a handful of black bloc kids, and they are like 18 or 19 years old. The worst I’ve seen them do on past occasions was smash a window or two. The insurance companies pay the businesses to replace the windows. But meanwhile, the city of Tampa is spending $50 million for what they call this threat and I think it’s such overkill.

Are you planning on demonstrating anywhere other than downtown protest zones?

We went tonight and last night to the Cuban Club, which is where some of the big parties were. Tonight there was a very big party with Marco Rubio and Condoleezza Rice. We are going to do our best to be outside and inside at the various fundraisers and other kinds of events that are happening. We were at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom gathering. We are going to tomorrow morning to the NRA’s skeet shootout.

What kind of response have you gotten?

Tonight we were dressed up as what we call Millionaires for Mitt, and we were dressed up in fancy outfits, wearing top hats and carrying champagne glasses. We were saying things like “Tax the poor we need more,” “We love Mitt,” and that kind of thing. People find it kind of amusing.

We are also focusing on the issue of the GOP’s war on women and trying to take away women’s reproductive rights, so we have been going around in our vagina costumes. We wore them to the Faith and Freedom Coalition [gathering]. We were the dancing vaginas. One of the things we have found is the surest way to make the police go away is try to get your picture in front of them wearing a vagina. They will blush and disappear. The whole horse brigade will leave. It is so funny that they get very intimidated by our vagina costumes. They also laugh and take their own photos of us. That’s what we try to do—make our points, but in a way that’s not too angry or dull. We try to be creative and satirical and try new ways to get the message across.

We felt like as a women’s-initiated and women-lead antiwar movement we’ve got to take on the issue of these attacks on women. So we incorporated that into our message here at the RNC.

What do you consider political attacks on women?

The budget of Paul Ryan that cuts essential services to poor woman and then he would like to cut Planned Parenthood that so many women rely on for health care. Legislator Lisa Brown in Michigan being censored for saying the word for "vagina" on the [Michigan] House floor. Of course, there is the Todd Akin famous comments about "legitimate rape." We feel that Ralph Reed himself is so powerful in the party. Rights that women of my generation fought for so many years and thought that we won are now having to be refought [for].

Are you worried that if Romney is elected that the Court could shift and overturn Roe v. Wade?

Yes, I think that is a possibly, but even without overturning Roe v. Wade there are so few poor communities these days that have access to reproductive-rights services that they are being eroded without even overturning Roe v. Wade. That’s a great concern for us. That is something that does distinguish between the Democrats and Republicans. Our messages about war budgeting and the money in politics are the same for both Democrats and Republicans. On the issue of women’s equality the Democrats are superior to Republicans.

Yet your recent book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, criticizes Obama’s foreign policy to the extent that you’ve been asked if you were trying to cost him the election. When it comes down to it, how do you reconcile the two issues?

I think in general both parties do not represent the needs of the American people. That our system is broken and that having so much wealthy donors’ money in politics has made it really hard to have a government that represents the majority of people’s interest. Whether it’s Obama or Mitt Romney, that is not going to change in the near future. So I feel that I’m like many Americans. I find a lot of people were enthusiastic about Obama three years ago but have definitely lost that enthusiasm. Maybe they will vote for him reluctantly and others will sit this one out and won’t bother to vote and then a small percentage will do what I’m doing and voting for a third-party candidate such as Jill Stein of the Green Party.

If you had 30 seconds at the podium inside the RNC convention, what would you say?

I would say our system is being corrupted by money and politics. We have to go back to the one person, one vote, corporations are not people, and that we also need to invest our money in rebuilding America and not endless wars.