Activist Criticized By Some As An Opportunist
San Jose Mercury News
She wore a pig mask when power companies met with Gov. Gray Davis during the state’s energy crisis. She’s been arrested more times then she can remember. In photographs, her mouth is often wide open, mid-shout.
If there’s a march, a rally or a sleep-in — whether it’s about solar power, sweatshops or the prospect of war in Iraq — San Francisco activist Medea Benjamin will probably be there.
To admirers, the former United Nations economist and founding director of the human rights group Global Exchange is a gadfly in the best sense of the word, a die-hard who doesn’t flinch if she believes a good stunt will advance a worthy cause.
But some critics grumble that she’s a media hound who jumps from cause to cause, often grabbing the spotlight from organizations that have been involved in specific issues, like U.S. relations with Iraq, for decades.
At the moment, Benjamin is focused on averting war with Iraq. She heckled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he testified in Congress last month, landing on the front pages of newspapers across the globe. When Congress voted to give President Bush the authorization to attack Iraq, she grabbed a tent and her sleeping bag, and with her 12-year-old daughter in tow, headed to San Francisco’s federal building for an all-night peace vigil.
Benjamin works on many levels. Global Exchange has launched numerous campaigns on labor and environmental issues, often in partnership with groups in developing countries. She’s a prolific fundraiser and was the Green Party’s Senate candidate in the 2000 campaign. In 1999, San Francisco Magazine put her on their Power List as one of the “60 Players Who Rule the Bay Area.”
But many people know Benjamin for her “direct actions,” the theatrical stunts that give television crews good footage. Slender, 5 feet tall and unassuming in manner, she easily slips into public hearings. Sometimes planned, sometimes impulsive, the actions are all part of a larger strategy: to get the mainstream media to cover events they would otherwise ignore.
A sense of outrage
“What motivates her is a sense of justice and outrage,” said Kevin Danaher, her husband. “She does what a lot of us would like to do but don’t have the guts to do. She’s got more moxie than most of us.”
It often works. During the energy crisis, California Public Utilities Commission meetings could be tedious. But Benjamin’s protests about rate hikes — she’d shout “We won’t pay!” as she was hauled away by security guards — would make the evening news.
“Medea has chosen a very specific path,” said Doug Heller, a consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. “She definitely helped bring attention to the energy crisis. I’m glad that Medea was there to provide the outrageous flank. It was a nice counterbalance to the outrageousness of the energy companies.”
“She’ll work her way into events and then pop out, like one of those toys where the snake pops out of a can,” said Republican strategist Sean Walsh, who met Benjamin during the Senate race. “She had dozens of people chanting and yelling and screaming when Dianne Feinstein wouldn’t let her into the debates,” Walsh said. “Republicans appreciate her a lot more than the Democrats.”
On occasion, her plans are foiled.
When President Bush visited Stockton in August, Benjamin tried to unfurl a “No War in Iraq” banner but was immediately tackled to the ground by Bush supporters.
“It’s my job to be the rabble-rouser of the moment,” said Benjamin, who recently turned 50. “But I try to make sure that there’s some continuity. I either initiate or build on work that will be ongoing.”
In January, Benjamin took four Americans who lost relatives in the Sept. 11 attacks to Afghanistan. The group spent eight days in Kabul, where they met with street children whose parents were killed during U.S. bombing raids. Now some of the relatives who went on that trip have started their own organization, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
Benjamin grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Her real name is Susan, but she has gone by Medea — taken from the play by Euripides — since she was 18. In the Greek myths, Medea is a sorceress who helps Jason get the Golden Fleece. She dropped out of Tufts University after one semester to travel around the world. In the ’70s, “life experience” made it possible to earn the equivalent of a
bachelor’s degree through the State University of New York. She went on to earn two master’s degrees, in public health at Columbia and economics at the New School for Social Research.
Benjamin lived abroad for nearly a decade, working as an economist and nutritionist in Africa and Latin America for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. Fluent in Spanish, she lived in Cuba from 1979 to 1983, doing translation work.
She moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s, and lives with Danaher and two daughters. In 1988 she co-founded Global Exchange with Danaher and Kirsten Muller, the organization’s executive director.
Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org) has a paid staff of 40 and an annual budget of $5 million, and is one of many groups behind today’s anti-war march in San Francisco. It has encouraged Bay Area residents who oppose war with Iraq to go to the San Mateo offices of U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, one of the few local representatives who voted for the use of force.
Last month, Benjamin attended Rumsfeld’s testimony before Congress. On a fluke, she was able to sit directly behind him.
“We waited until he started talking about U.S. security,” said Benjamin. “The issue that really reaches Americans is how bad this war will be for our own safety. Then we stood up and started asking him, “How many Iraqi civilians will be killed? How many U.S. servicemen will be killed? Who will protect us from the backlash?”
Benjamin and Diane Wilson, an environmentalist from Texas, were quickly escorted out of the hearing room. But their heckling was beamed around the world on CNN — part of a deliberate strategy to make sure that people around the globe know there are Americans who disagree with U.S. foreign policy.
In the coming months, Benjamin will speak on college campuses in Oregon and head back to Washington, D.C., to be arraigned on charges that she disrupted Congress. She’ll celebrate the New Year by leading 100 people on a Global Exchange “Reality Tour” of Cuba.
Contact Dana Hull at [email protected] or (510) 790-7311.