Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Photos, top to bottom: Medea Benjamin, Rich Harness, Puppet Insurgency’s Snail, Micaela Saucedo (right), Mark Day and Fredi D’Avalos, TranscenDANCE

Medea Benjamin the Hit of Activist San Diego Ball

Fifth Annual Event Honors Wide Range of Community Activists


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Anyone who saw Medea Benjamin’s speech in San Diego in August 2000 — when she was running for U.S. Senate as the Green Party nominee and appeared as essentially the opening act for Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader — would have found it hard to believe that the same person was speaking at the Activist San Diego (ASD) fifth annual “People’s Ball” in the Balboa Park Club January 20. Where the Benjamin of 2000 blasted politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties as essentially the same, the Benjamin of 2007 couldn’t have been happier that the Democrats won back control of Congress from the Republicans after 12 years in the November 2006 election.

Benjamin, a San Francisco-based activist, founded both the Global Exchange human-rights group and Code Pink, a direct-action women’s group opposing the Bush administration in general and the war in Iraq in particular. Her short but energetic speech at the ASD ball discussed her trips to Guantánamo Bay in support of the detainees held there indefinitely under U.S. custody, and her lobbying efforts to get the new Democratic majority in Congress to hold the Bush administration accountable for its mistakes in Iraq. The Guantánamo detainees have been depicted by the U.S. government and media as “the worst of the worst,” the most hardened terrorists the U.S. could locate on the battlefields of Afghanistan — but, according to Benjamin, almost none of them were terrorists at all.

“The U.S. government was offering $5,000 to $25,000 a head for anyone suspected of being Taliban or al-Qaeda,” Benjamin explained. Holding up a photo of one of the detainees, she said, “This young man fled Afghanistan and was sold by a Pakistani to the U.S. military for $5,000. He has suffered psychological torture, sexual assault, attacks with pepper spray until he became blind in one eye, and solitary confinement lasting more than eight months. This man has done nothing, and imagine the pain his mother has gone through. She’s not even asking for her son to be released, but only that he be given a fair trial. Is that too much to ask for a society that calls itself a democracy?”

Benjamin said that her group held a rally on Cuban soil in front of the U.S. base at Guantánamo — and that her event was the first many residents of the town of Guantánamo knew about the detainees being held there by the U.S. Before she came, she said, most Guantánamerans thought their town’s image abroad had been shaped by the 1960’s song, composed by Cuban folksinger Joséito Fernandes to a poem by Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí. “We showed them the film The Road to Guantánamo,” Benjamin recalled. “They used to be so proud of being from Guantánamo, and now they’re known for torture and an infamous prison. The people hugged us and kissed us, and pleaded with us to petition our government to close that prison.”

Not that closing Guantánamo hadn’t already been one of the top priorities of Benjamin and her organization, but the reception they got in the town helped fuel the fire under them that’s been propelling their lobbying effort. Her top priority with the new Congress has been to seek the repeal of the Bush-sponsored Military Commissions Act of 2006, which eliminated the right of habeas corpus for U.S. detainees in the so-called “war on terror” and set up a system of rump military commissions to “try” them based on secret evidence and without access to legal counsel.

Benjamin’s speech also touched on the war in Iraq and President Bush’s determination to escalate it with a so-called “surge” of over 20,000 troops despite the overwhelming majority of Americans that now oppose the war and want to see an orderly, phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. “There was an election two months ago that was an overwhelming mandate for us to get out of Iraq, and that guy in the White House has chosen to send more troops instead,” Benjamin said. “He is blind to the will of the people, to the troops themselves, to the Iraqis and to the reality that more troops in Iraq just means more bodies coming home in bags.”

One optimistic sign for Benjamin is that the Democrats in Congress are already starting the aggressive investigations of the Bush administration they promised during the campaign. “In the last Congress, the Democrats couldn’t even get a hearing going,” she said. “Now there are two to three hearings a day. I was at the hearings where attorney general Alberto Gonzalez and the generals in charge of the war were being grilled. There is legislation being introduced to stop the surge, stop the funding for it, repeal the Congressional resolution from October 2002 that authorized the war in the first place, and defund the entire Iraq occupation. Congressmember Lynn Woolsey has introduced H.R. 508, a bill to bring the troops home in six months, prevent the U.S. from establishing any permanent military bases in Iraq, and take the money we are spending on contractors and give it to the Iraqi people.”

One of the signs of the turning tide, Benjamin said, is that Democrats with Presidential ambitions — even ones like Hillary Clinton who enthusiastically supported it in 2002 and 2003 — are starting to turn away from the war. “Hillary Clinton, who just a few months ago was calling for more troops, is now introducing resolutions calling for bringing the troops home,” Benjamin said. “She’s being pushed by Barack Obama, who’s being pushed by John Edwards, who’s being pushed by Dennis Kucinich. The pundits, who used to say that coming out against the war and for a troop withdrawal was the kiss of death for any Democrat with Presidential aspirations, are now saying there’s a ‘bidding war’ among Democratic Presidential candidates for the anti-war vote.”

Benjamin closed her speech by making the blunt point that America has to choose to be a democracy or an empire; it can’t be both. “Our immediate task is to bring our troops home and hold those who got us into the war in the first place accountable — and that means impeachment,” she said. “It means stopping the next war now, and there are even Congressional Republicans like Walter Jones introducing bills to stop the President from an attack on Iran without prior Congressional approval. Our long-term task involves making the U.S. military defensive instead of offensive, which means closing the hundreds of U.S. military bases throughout the world and using the resources now being spent on an offensive military to fight the wars against poverty, AIDS and global climate chaos.”

Rich Harness, a Tennessee-born activist with Iraq Veterans Against the War, also spoke during the ball. Much of his speech was about the culture shock that he faced when looking for an outlet for his own feelings of frustration about his service in Iraq, particularly his sense that the government lied to him and all the other servicemembers there when it said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

“I didn’t want to join a group against the war because I’m from Tennessee, and we thought all peace activists were tree-hugging hippies,” Harness said. “But how would you feel if you were lied to and all your friends got their legs blown off for a lie?” Harness asked people attending the ball to contribute to Iraq Veterans Against the War, saying that the donations would go directly to help veterans in need.

“We need you-all’s help to get the troops home now — not next month, not when we get a new President, but now,” Harness said. “We need more people to stand up and say we want our troops home, we were lied to and we’re tired of it.”

The ASD ball was also an occasion to honor local activists with awards. Jim and Sharlene Hamilton were named “Activists of the Year” for their work to ensure secure and accurate elections. Micaela Saucedo of the Border Angels, Gente Unida and La Otra Campaña was given the “Lifetime Activist of the Year” award for her efforts to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants to the U.S. and indigenous people in Mexico. The “Activist Organization of the Year” was the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), an economic-justice organization affiliated with organized labor that led the successful battle for a living-wage ordinance in San Diego.

“Special Recognition” awards were given to the World Beat Center in Balboa Park for its programs on behalf of the cultures of indigenous Americans, African-Americans and the African diasporas; and to California State University-San Marcos instructor Frederica “Fredi” D’Avalos and journalist and filmmaker Mark Day. The citations mentioned D’Avalos’s work against the Minutemen and other anti-immigrant vigilantes, and the efforts she and Day have both engaged in to build activist organizations’ capabilities to use new media for social, political, cultural and spiritual emancipation. Ironically, the “Media Award/People’s Advocate Award” went to this writer as editor/publisher of the “old-media” print publication Zenger’s Newsmagazine.

Other awardees included Rev. Art Cribbs of Christian Fellowship Congregational Church as “Racial Justice Organizer of the Year” for founding the Coalition for Justice in response to violent attacks on civilians by local police officers. Antonia Davis of the Puppet Insurgency was named “Arts & Cultural Activist of the Year” — and she and other members of her group pushed in a giant papîer-maché snail as a sample of the work for which they were being awarded. The “Activist Youth Organization of the Year,” a City Heights-based company of energetic young dancers called TranscenDANCE, showed off their skills in two spectacular numbers that proved to be the high point of the evening’s entertainment, which also included Spanish-language folksinger Angel Lita and 1970’s-style funk band ¡Society!