BELFAST, Maine — As social justice activist Medea Benjamin checked out the Waldo County Shrine Club Saturday afternoon before beginning her presentation there, she took in the art being hung on the walls and the general bustle of activity happening all around.
“What keeps us going is music, dance, joy, beauty and art,” she said of her decades spent protesting war and the misuse of power. “We can talk of really serious, horrible things — then we can laugh, eat together and be together.”
Benjamin, 59, is a co-founder of the prominent activist group CodePink. She spent the week traveling up the coast of Maine on a tour for her book “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.”
While local folks put the finishing touches on an event they’d been preparing for weeks, including a peace singalong and political theater, the pink T-shirt-clad Benjamin took some time to talk about her passion for peace activism.
“This work is really rewarding,” she said. “It allows you to work with people who are among the poorest and most harmed by war, and at the same time, we encourage people to find ways to make activism fun.”
Benjamin said that she first became involved with activism as a high school student protesting the Vietnam War. In 2002, she and other women began the group CodePink with a four-month-long vigil in front of the White House to support peace.
Peace activism really ramped up in the later years of President George W. Bush’s term, she said, and has slowed down during the Obama administration.
“The peace movement is a lot quieter under Obama,” she said. “When Obama came in, there was a huge wave of goodwill around the world. That has pretty much dissipated. Now, we are hated.”
She attributes much of this ill-will to the American use of unmanned aircraft, or drones, to seek and kill enemy fighters.
The use of drones, which is controversial in part due to the fact that children and other civilians have been killed during the unarmed air strikes in countries including Pakistan, is something that Benjamin would like to bring more attention to in the United States.
“Drones are just a piece of technology, but they’re very undemocratic,” she said. “According to international law, you’re supposed to give your enemies a chance to surrender. Drones don’t do that.”
American people don’t often see victims of drone warfare, she said.
“How much easier is it to violate the sovereignty of other nations with drones?” she asked. “It’s really a logical issue for us as CodePink to take on.”
CodePink activists have been protesting drone warfare outside of U.S. Air Force bases and also outside of corporations which make the drones.
“We want to show that there are many people who care about this,” she said.
The life of an activist can be difficult.
“We do get deported from a lot of places. We do get arrested a lot of times,” Benjamin said.
But it also feels necessary to her.
“Our friends in these places are risking their lives every day. We feel an obligation to work to improve our government’s policies,” she said.
And her book tour has reminded her that the country is full of pockets of like-minded people who also are working towards the same goals.
“You come to this beautiful little town of Belfast, and see this wonderful sign that says ‘Welcome,’” she said. “We are hosted in every town by people who are really trying to live their lives simply and sustainably … it keeps me inspired by meeting such inspiring people.”