Marching on

When President Obama announced in mid-October that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year, Medea Benjamin didn’t feel like celebrating. She felt like crying.

“I have a very hard time reacting to this, because I’m so sad about what’s happened to Iraq,” said Benjamin, recalling several Iraqi friends who had been killed during the war. “I feel a piece of me has died. There’s no joy in any of this.”

It’s the culmination of a near-decade-long effort for Benjamin, a co-founder of the female-driven activism group Code Pink.

Once so focused on the goings-on in the Middle East — staging regular Capitol Hill demonstrations, including during then-President George W. Bush’s second inauguration and against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) on her support for the war — the group has since expanded its focus.

Code Pink and Occupy Wall Street

Involved in the popular Occupy Wall Street movement since Day One, Code Pink members have participated in occupations around America. Benjamin said the state of the U.S. economy and the war overseas are closely linked.

“We can’t afford the war. Now, with Occupy Wall Street, it’s certainly an important tie-in to say part of the reason for this fiscal crisis is all the money that we’re spending on a bloated military,” she said. “It’s really more about what it’s costing us, and isn’t this part of what’s creating the economic crisis?

“We try to bring in the anti-war message,” Benjamin added. She dismissed the idea that the OWS message could be different from Code Pink’s central mission.

“It’s not outside of our mandate,” she said. “We feel very much aligned to what the message of [Occupy] Wall Street is.”

Banding together

This makes sense for University of Michigan political science Professor Michael Heaney, who has been studying activism groups like Code Pink for years.

Code Pink is “one of a small number of organizations that hasn’t gone away, and the reason why they haven’t gone away is because they’re not about issues,” he said. 

Instead, the heart of Code Pink is gender identity and political involvement.

“It’s about women’s active engagement in political issues,” Heaney said. “It’s not necessarily really about any particular issue; it’s about being a woman and being active in politics.

“Basically this is an organization of people who are against war, aggressive U.S. foreign policy, civil-liberties violations in America, against big corporations doing bad things. They’re ideologically unified as leftist political positions.”

In fact, expanding their central mission away from the war and affiliating with a movement like OWS might contribute to Code Pink’s long-term viability, experts said.

“It might not matter that Code Pink itself has sort of a multipronged agenda as opposed to the laser focus on Iraq,” said George Washington University political science Professor John Sides. “As long as the kind of ideas they are pushing are shared by others, then in some sense they’re becoming part of a coalition.”

As such coalitions grow, they are able to put pressure on politicians, Sides said.

Code Pink’s beginnings

While Code Pink has grown to several hundred thousand members, the organization arose from humble beginnings.

“We started out without any intention of becoming an organization,” Benjamin said. “We were just a couple of very upset women that had come together at a meeting around the environment … [The United States] had just invaded Afghanistan and talked about invading Iraq. A couple of us said, ‘Let’s go to Washington and try to do something about this.’”

Benjamin and her colleagues demonstrated outside the Capitol and disrupted a congressional hearing as then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified that the United States should invade Iraq.

Motivated by the cause, Benjamin and a group of 10 women then traveled to Iraq before the invasion. They were struck by Saddam Hussein’s repressive government, but also by how developed and well-educated the populace was.

There, Benjamin and her colleagues helped start an organization with Iraqi women called Occupation Watch. The American women also held a four-month vigil in front of the White House in protest of U.S. troops entering Iraq.

Inspired by the government’s color-coded emergency alert system, Code Pink was born. Members traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan many times and organized large rallies around the world in protest of the war.

Code Pink operated on a shoestring budget, funded through member donations, Benjamin said. Its focus branched out to protests involving Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Bahrain and Syria.

 Getting through to politicians

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) sees such demonstrations as imperative.

“I think it’s very important that members of Congress hear from their constituents in their districts and understand that whatever the protest is about — whether it’s the end of the war, income inequality, whether it’s about the huge economic disparities on Wall Street — that members hear [it],” she said.

“I always say [we need] what I call ‘street heat,’ because the only way elected officials are going to respond is when they hear from the public, when they hear the democracy is really working. Many people are saying, ‘It’s about time.’ We’re glad that it’s becoming more vocal, we’re having more people participating, the coalitions are building.”

It’s this groundswell of activism that Benjamin says will help propel Code Pink’s messages even further as the organization looks to new challenges.

“We feel like we’re no longer one of the few voices out in the wilderness, that we’re part of something much larger now. And that amplifies our voice,” she said.

The future

Code Pink remains focused on accountability regarding U.S. involvement in the Middle East and the treatment of the people there.

The group continues to schedule demonstrations at events where former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld appear. The old guard is not alone on Code Pink’s hit list, though.

“The Obama administration is responsible [for] discarding the rule of law just like George Bush did,” Benjamin said, referring to the ongoing use of drone strikes in the Middle East.

Code Pink will continue to protest against companies that manufacture robotic weapons, she said, and is focused on creating rules for the use of such machines in combat.

“I think there’s going to have to be some conventions put in place,” she said.

Though she regrets that more people didn’t listen to Code Pink’s early protests against the Iraq war, Benjamin sees a new platform for her organization via Occupy Wall Street and, with that, greater opportunities to share its voice.

“There’s tremendous momentum, and who knows where it’s going,” she said. “There’s something really exciting about not knowing where it’s going, but just knowing that there’s so many possibilities.”