By now, the world knows Medea Benjamin as either the woman who challenged—or heckled—President Obama last Thursday during his speech on drones and Guantanamo Bay.
“People think you’re rude and crazy,” a CNN reporter told Benjamin, the co-founder of two global peace organizations, CodePink and Global Exchange. But Benjamin, already well-known among peace activists and political progressives (she was a major force during Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign) has also inspired legions of new fans astonished that someone had the nerve—or the passion—to stand up to one of the most powerful men on earth.
Now Benjamin has been trying to turn her moment in the mainstream media spotlight to the issues that brought her to the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. on Thursday in the first place. We talked to her about what happened and the issues that fuel her activism and her next steps.
Evelyn Nieves: Were you surprised that President Obama actually addressed you on Thursday rather than simply give the nod to the Secret Service to nab you as soon as you spoke out? Do you think it signals a president who is willing to listen? How does his response compare with other presidents and leaders whom you’ve publicly challenged in the same way?
Medea Benjamin: Many politicians try to ignore or belittle the folks who interrupt them. I think President Obama is just a really good politician who recognizes that it is better to address the person than have them dragged out. I was grateful that he said that my voice was worth listening to, though it was quite surreal because as the president and I were “dialoguing,” I was surrounded by army, FBI and Secret Service threatening to arrest me and drag me out.
But every time they touched me I said that the president was talking to me, and if they made a scene by pulling me out, they would really regret it. That bought me some valuable time.
Nieves: You spoke up when President Obama mentioned Guantanamo, which has yet to infiltrate the American consciousness despite the growing crisis there. What are you hoping your exchange with the president will do to foster outrage and pressure to finally close Gitmo and release innocent detainees?
Benjamin: These detainees are in desperate straits. It’s both a humanitarian and a political crisis. Despite the force-feeding, some of these men could start to die, and this could unleash another huge wave of anti-American riots around the Muslim world. So something must be done right away.
The president is saying that Congress is to blame, and yes, Congress has placed ridiculous roadblocks to closing Guantanamo. But Congress also put in place a waiver system that the president could use immediately to release the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release. He did announce a lifting of the self-imposed ban on repatriating prisoners to Yemen, and that is positive. But he needs to go beyond nice words and bureaucratic measures: He needs to immediately start authorizing some releases, so that the prisoners will see progress and stop the hunger strike. Then we can tackle the larger issue of giving fair trials to the remaining prisoners.
In the meantime, my colleagues and I at CodePink will be doing more to keep up the pressure, working with the Guantanamo lawyers and groups like Witness Against Torture, Amnesty, The World Can’t Wait and National Religious Campaign Against Torture. We’re planning more protests and civil disobedience at the White House, a vigil at the gates of the Guantanamo prison itself, a delegation to Yemen to meet with family members and government officials. We’ve got many plans.