Medea Benjamin interviewed on Keystone XL rally
On the Keystone XL event itself, the interviewer, Steve Malagodi, writes:
My take on the event? 15-20,000 max, and I think that's generous. Don't believe the hype from the orgs. I've been to enough of these things to judge a crowd. Freezing cold and windy. 26 degrees when I got out of Union Station that morning. It got up to maybe 35. Weather probably kept some of the locals away. Good mix of ages, but 99.99% Ivory Soap White. An acquaintance remarked that there were more people of color among the speakers than there were in the audience. Medea mentioned it too, so everybody is self conscious about it. Why? If Black people don't want to come to your party, then they don't want to come. Obama was golfing with some oil man in Florida while we were all freezing outside the WH. Otherwise unremarkable event, as far as I'm concerned, but we all showed up anyway, and that's good for at least bragging rights.
Following the "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington DC on Sunday, Steve Malagodi, a retired broadcaster and anti-war, environmental and human rights activist spoke with Medea Benjamin about her perspectives on the rally and activism in America today.
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STEVE MALAGODI: So, tell me your assessment of the rally yesterday.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I thought it was very inspiring to see so many people out there. I thought the participation of young people is great. Unfortunately I think it was predominantly white crowd, so there still needs to be a lot of work on creating more diverse movements. I think that the indigenous leaders were very powerful and the message is certainly an important one. I wrote a piece this morning about how ironic it was that as we walked around an empty White House, President Obama was playing golf with an oil man in Florida. And I don’t know how effective it is except the only thing we can do is to try, and part of that trying is mobilizing as large a base as we can get.
SM: Yes. One of the most interesting things for me was touched on very briefly by Reverend Yearwood when he talked about how the various movements are siloed, and when you say that it was a predominantly white crowd, it kind of speaks to that. As a founder of Global Exchange and as a very prominent member of Code Pink, siloing of issues has not really been your problem. How do we – or how do organizations promote a common vision to overcome that natural siloing tendency of organizations?
MB: Well, I think I’d like to address that in both the problem of siloing and the problem of partisanship, because they seem to go together oftentimes. And what I see is that there are organizations that are very closely tied to the Democratic Party that will only go so far in criticizing a Democratic president, and many of them happen to be organizations that are single-issue focuses as well. So how do you do that? Well I think yesterday’s rally was an attempt to take people who were Obama supporters and push them as far as they are comfortable in terms of putting pressure on a Democratic president that many of them still like very much. And then as far as bringing the issues together, I think in some instances, like in the antiwar movement, it’s out of a do-or-die situation at this point since there are so few people that are concerned about these foreign policy issues these days. If we don’t make joint common cause, we die. I think I’m answering that in such a roundabout rambling way, maybe I should start that whole thing all over again.
SM: It’s a very complicated problem. I mean, siloing happens because organizations need to fundraise; that’s what organizations do, and fundraising is going to tend to encourage partisanship because you don’t want to offend your fundraising base so it’s natural to be partisan. What you said is very true.
MB: Well then let me answer it – yeah, let me answer it bringing in what you said, because I think that brings up another issue to me. So, why are groups so siloed is multifaceted. One is that we tend to be led these days by groups that are nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, rather than real grassroots movements. And those NGOs have boards of directors, they have paid staff, they need to fundraise, they go to foundations to fundraise, those foundations have strings attached, there are issues they like and then issues they don’t like, and so that really constrains what organizations can do. Then there’s the overlapping issue of partisanship that some of these organizations, like the union movement, are very tied to the Democratic party and don’t want to alienate the party leadership, and you have other organizations that are direct – well, so many organizations have direct links to the Democratic party. So those are just some of the reasons. And another is that people want to see results for their work in the short term and so want to pick issues that can lead to quick victories and feel that the more focused you are, the more likely you are to get a victory. Even if it’s a small one, it makes people feel that they have accomplished something. So there’s many reasons.
SM: Yes. On the partisanship side of things, there’s a lot of focus put on the president, him or herself, and so if your partisan president is in office, you behave in one way, and if there’s a partisan person of your opponent in office, you behave another way. And yet, regardless of who’s in that office of the presidency, there is the ship of state. And let us suppose that Mr. Obama has the best of intentions. There is nevertheless this ship of state, which simply doesn’t respond to the desires of the presidency in a very responsive manner. There’s a lot of inertia in the ship of state. So, how do you move the ship of state with the force of popular movements. It often seems to me as though we’re trying to move this ship by crashing into it with a rowboat.
MB: (laughs) That’s a good analogy, and I guess that it seems sort of like what we’re doing. I think you eat at it from the outside, where as you’re trying to find your allies on the inside that would see it in your interest to do what you want them to do. And that’s what the environmental movement is doing. It’s taking a very kind of mainstream approach and doing rallies, what they call civil disobedience, some of the groups – I shouldn’t say the whole environmental movement because, I mean, people who are fighting the tar sands in Texas, for example, are doing some radical things with their treesits and hunger strikes and tying themselves to machinery, and really much more confrontational towards the corporate interest. Some of the national groups, however, are very uncomfortable with that strategy and are trying to do the more mainstream rallies like yesterday’s and civil disobedience that pre-plans with the police, and that’s very co-formy. You stand in front of the White House and get arrested and problem that that’s civil liberty is – So there are many ways I think that this particular environmental movement is trying to approach it, but the most predominant way is one that is friendly towards the White House rather than confrontational. And we saw that very much yesterday. Might things be more successful at getting things done than a more confrontational approach? It’s not clear. I mean, certainly they haven’t been more successful to date, the oil companies continue to predominate, but I don’t know that the jury is still out on that one.
SM: It seems to me that people tend to respond either to the promise of great profit or to the threat of imminent disaster, and there’s very little preventive or pre-emptive action. When I was on the train coming up here, there was a man wearing a T-shirt that was a takeoff on an old Coca-Cola advertisement, and it said, “Enjoy capitalism.”
SM: Yeah. Now I wonder how we address the pending disaster of climate change and global warming and international conflict over resources, which I think looks pretty much as inevitable as the sea rising at this point. How do we move this ship of state and address these problems when everyone, the vast majority of people, are comfortable where they are?
MB: Well, if I had the answer, I would be doing it.
MB: You know. When we start by saying “I don’t know,” and then little pieces of it, I think sometimes we are forced to do things not even so much by what has happened inside our country but what’s happening outside our country. So, if we see that the Chinese are so way ahead of us in terms of alternative sources of energy and fast trains and smart technological developments, it can spur change here at home. If we see revolutions that topple dictatorships overseas and make it no longer profitable or no longer possible for us to get access to their resources cheaply, it can spur change at home. So you never know quite what’s going to be happening around the world that’s going to work change here in the United States. And so I think that, you know, history is a very complicated, when you look back and you try to decipher what worked certain changes. And when it comes to something so complicated as capitalism and the environment and how we can move this plodding mass into a more positive direction, I don’t know that we can really say that we’ve got the answers, we know what strategies work. I think we can go – we can safely say, though, that we have to educate and mobilize people in independent movements, and that seems to be the only tried and true way that significant change takes place.
SM: Do you see any kind of a common vision emerging that will unite these folks?
MB: Well, I wish there were, but given that I don’t see that, it’s not necessarily – it’s still possible to make changes in these individual areas. I mean, when you look at issues like a woman’s movement, there were people who are focused on women’s rights. If you look at the civil rights movement, it’s focused on the rights in the African-American community. If you look at the movement now around immigrant rights, it’s focused on people who are in daily fear for their status. So you can have silo movements that make historic changes. While we are still trying to figure out how people who have a social justice vision can come together around man issues, progress in any one area is progress for a potential unified movement.
SM: That’s very true. What are you working on?
MB: I’ve been focusing on the evolution of U.S. wars from the boots on the ground, American lives in jeopardy, lots of money invested in overseas adventures, to the drone warfare that is without risking ____ U.S. Lives, and war on the cheap, and also war under the veil of secrecy, and I think it’s a very dangerous path for not only what it’s doing around the world but that it makes it even harder to build a movement against something that people don’t even know it’s happening.
SM: You have a new book out, right?
MB: Yeah, I have a new book out called Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. And I’ve been traveling around the country talking about drone warfare and trying to get people involved in a growing movement against it, not only by showing consequences of drone warfare overseas but how this technology will very shortly be turned against us in our communities, whether it’s through the police surveillance, through drones, or homeland security, FBI, border patrol, but how the militarization of our own country is a reflection of our militarization overseas and the strength of this military industrial complex that keeps the wheels turning –
SM: Medea Benjamin, thanks for taking time to spend with us this morning. Do you have anything you want to add?
MB: Well, it’s nice talking to you and have a good trip back, and I hope to see you at future things like this.
SM: Oh, I’m sure we will. Thank you Medea.
MB: Okay, bye bye.
SM: Bye bye.
Here is a Wordle of the interview: