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Medea Benjamin's Anti-War Activism: Wearing Pink, Seeing Red

Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin is surrounded by security as she shouts at President Obama during his speech at the National Defense University in May.
Carolyn Kaster
Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin is surrounded by security as she shouts at President Obama during his speech at the National Defense University in May.

As the Obama administration made its case for military action in Syria, one of the loudest voices in opposition came from Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink.

You may not know her by name, but if you follow national politics, you've no doubt seen her work.

At the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, for instance, as Secretary of State John Kerry made the case for a military strike in Syria, Medea Benjamin sat behind him, holding up her hands, painted bright red.

"I think it was a little shocking, but I think it was what was called for," Benjamin says.

Benjamin and her fellow Code Pink activists were visible on TV in virtually every shot of his testimony, and they sat there with their hands raised for hours.

"I was a little sore the next day," she says, "but I think it was a good symbolic show that if we went ahead with this bombing, that we, too, like all of the parties in Syria right now, would have blood on our hands."

Benjamin has made an art of being in the right place at the right time for maximum media attention. That often means getting in line early to get the perfect seat at a congressional hearing.

"And if that means we've gotta sleep out the night before, we do it," she says. "And if it means we've got to be there at 6 in the morning before the doors open at 7, we do it."

She says her days typically start before dawn and last until late at night, all in the service of getting her message out — about Syria or drones or Guantanamo. Perhaps her highest profile disruption was in May, as President Obama spoke at the National Defense University.

"Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA?" she yelled, breaking into the president's speech. "Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?"

Remarkably, Benjamin was able to interrupt the president more than once, ultimately prompting a response.

"The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," Obama told the audience.

"I was very afraid when I did that" Even though she has sneaked into countless speeches, fundraisers or other events where she wasn't welcome, Benjamin still finds the situations scary.

"I was very afraid when I did that" at the National Defense University, Benjamin says. "It's still a terrifying thing to be in a room full of people who are not going to like what you do. It's terrifying to see these big security people who you know are going to be picking you up and hauling you off, and you're thinking, 'Uh-oh, am I going to get hurt?' And then you wonder if it's the right thing to do."

Michael Heaney, political science professor at the University of Michigan, says by now, people ought to recognize her.

"I don't know how she gets away with it. I really have no idea," he says. "I don't know why she isn't banned from every place in Washington, D.C., but she still — she knows how to get in."

"Sometimes I feel I'm invisible," Benjamin says. "Maybe it's for being this middle-aged, small, white woman, I get to kind of slip and slide through places. But I'm amazed myself."

Benjamin is an unthreatening 61 years old, with blonde hair and bangs. And she always wears pink.

Her group started after Sept. 11, when the George W. Bush administration released its color coded alert system.

"Remember, it was a yellow, orange, red, and we felt that it was trying to keep people in this state of fear that would justify more violence," she says. "And we thought, 'Uh oh, we need another color-coded alert. How about code pink?'"

At the time she didn't even like the color pink, and didn't have a single pink thing in her wardrobe. Now it is everywhere, from her kitchen cabinets to her earrings. With her daughter long out of the nest, Code Pink is Benjamin's life.

After Obama was elected, the anti-war movement as a whole — and Code Pink along with it — struggled for relevance. Code Pink shrank from 300,000 members at its peak to about 150,000 now.

Richard Grenell is what might might be described as a friendly rival. As spokesman for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations throughout the Bush administration, Grenell encountered Benjamin often.

"I disagree with Medea probably 99 percent of the time," he says. "In and around Washington, D.C., I think reporters and political folks are bored and annoyed with Code Pink — and Medea."

For Benjamin, that's a challenge to come up with new, more creative ways to force people to pay attention. "Let's face it, she's gotten into a number of high-level speeches and hidden her pink shirt and her signs very well," Grenell says. "She really is someone who knows how to work the system."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.