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, 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 we too, like all of the parties in Syria, 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.
Even though she has snuck into countless speeches, fundraisers on 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 hauling you off, and you think, ‘Oh, am I going to hurt.’ And then you wonder if it’s the right thing to do.”
Michael Heany, 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.”
Benjamin does have an idea.
“Sometimes I feel I’m invisible,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I’m this middle-aged, small, white woman, I just slip and slide in places. But I’m amazed myself.”
Benjamin is an unthreatening 61 years old, with blonde hair and bangs. And 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 describe 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 DC, I think reporters and political folks are bored and annoyed with Code Pink and Medea.”
Still, Benjamin says, she’s creative. “Let’s face it she’s gotten in to a number of high-level speeches and hidden her pink shirt and her signs very well. She really is someone who knows how to work the system.”