Medea Benjamin wasn’t even sure she was going to get into the building on Thursday, let alone hear President Obama say she is a “woman worth listening to.”
The 60-year-old had been given a pass by a friend to the president’s counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University, in which he was expected to address major new reforms in his foreign-policy strategy. A well-known antiwar activist and frequent heckler of powerful people, she wasn’t sure she’d get past security.
“If he had indeed made significant policy changes, I wasn’t going to say anything,” Benjamin, the founder of Code Pink told The Daily Beast on Thursday evening. “I would have preferred that option, but given that he didn’t make those kind of changes I was looking for, I was glad to be given the opportunity to speak out.”
“Speak out” she certainly did. As the president’s address pivoted from drones, which he vowed to reduce the use of, to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Benjamin stood up and began shouting unsolicited questions about the hunger strikes there, interrupting the speech and begging Obama to shut the prison down. “Why don’t you sit down,” the president replied, “and I will tell you exactly what I’m going to do.”
But Benjamin didn’t want to sit down. After Obama said Gitmo detainees must be cleared to go to other countries, she shouted at him to “release them today.” This time, Obama went even further off script. “Part of free speech is you being able to speak, but you also listening and me being able to speak,” he said. “I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about.”
“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
Not much later, Benjamin was removed from the auditorium. The Guantánamo heckler had made her point.
“It was funny that President Obama called me a young lady because I’m older than he is,” Benjamin said in an interview after the kerfuffle. “I grew up in the days of the Vietnam War, and recognized at an early age that we as citizens have to do more to stop our government from getting in overseas interventions that were unjust and lead to the deaths of so many of our soldiers as well.”
Benjamin said she was glad to be able to to speak, and that she wasn’t “beaten up and tortured, or thrown in prison.” But she said she had hoped she wouldn’t have to speak up at all, that the president would have announced in his address that said he was shutting down Guantánamo immediately.
So who is Medea Benjamin—and why should we listen to her, as Obama said? First of all, Medea was not the name she was given at birth, but one that she took “early in life,” as she says. She says she wanted to help “redeem” the name, which is associated with a Greek myth in which a mother kills her own two children. Benjamin, however, had read another version, one in which Medea was simply misunderstood. She herself is a mother of two daughters.
Benjamin is also a co-founder of Code Pink, a women-initiated grassroots organization working toward social justice and ending the overseas wars. She ran for the California Senate in 2000 as the Green Party candidate. In 2005, she was one of 1,000 women from 140 countries nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She also was honored in 2010 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S. interfaith peace organization, with the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize. She previously worked as an economist and a nutritionist with the World Health Organization. She is the author of eight books, including 2010’s Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.
All of those are lovely achievements, of course, but Benjamin is perhaps best known in Washington as someone who speaks her mind, even when she’s not invited to do so. Most recently, in December, shortly after the Newtown shootings, Benjamin managed to interrupt a press conference by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, carrying a sign declaring “NRA Blood on Your Hands.”
Called a serial protester by some, Benjamin also was a scourge of the Bush administration as well. In 2002, she protested as then–secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified on Capitol Hill about Iraq, and she was removed from the House gallery in 2006 when she interrupted a speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. At the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012, she held up signs calling former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a “war criminal.”
In 2007, she was part of a delegation that marched to the gate at the Cuban site of Guantánamo prison, a trip she will be making again soon with Code Pink. Benjamin said the organization is also planning a trip to Yemen, to meet with the families of some of the prisoners of Guantánamo, and one of her colleagues is also on a hunger strike to protest the detention facility.
As for Thursday’s interruption, Benjamin was not ruffled at all by being thrown out of the president’s speech. If she had the chance to finish, she says she would have inquired about why the U.S. keeps overseas bases in countries like Saudi Arabia, which she says are making the country “less safe.” And she also would have “given a shoutout” to Bradley Manning, the detained former soldier accused of sending classified military intelligence to WikiLeaks. “It would have been nice to thank him in that kind of venue,” Benjamin said.