Cracking Code Pink

Why does the peace movement have to dress and act like an irritating children's birthday party?

Published July 17, 2008 10:47AM (EDT)

Saturday, June 28, was a swampy 92 degrees in Washington; the sidewalks on Pennsylvania Avenue were frying. Flamboyant activist group Code Pink was scheduled to kick off a tent-city vigil for peace and democracy in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. "Let's bring this world-changing form of protest back to our nation's Capitol!" shouted the Code Pink Web Site.

Code Pink welcomes anybody "willing to be outrageous for peace." But despite its emphasis on "joy and humor," its ruckus-raising techniques often cause me and my liberal community, who tend to agree with its politics, to regard them with distaste and embarrassment. Why did these shrieking middle-aged women in pink novelty hats believe this manner of protest was going to be effective in Congress, let alone in an almost completely co-opted media climate that seems hellbent on ignoring them?

In Lafayette Park, across the street the White House was there, mute and elegant in the shade behind its black iron gate on its dark, immaculate lawn. But it was already 3 p.m. and Code Pink was not here, nor were there tents. There were a few hardcore peaceniks straggling about; several people in wheelchairs with hand-scrawled signs; a guy wandering around wearing an OPEC sheik costume.

A hunger striker -- a small, intense man with Rasputin-blue eyes who calls himself "Start Loving" -- sat cross-legged in view of the White House with a handmade sign: Wage Love Vigil Day # 132. Start Loving, who has the words "wage love" tattooed across his nose in blue letters, wore a pink scarf to show solidarity with Code Pink. He was concerned about their absence: "They're the only group that I know that is worth a damn in this," said Start Loving. "Everyone else you can ignore. One [Code Pink member] told me the other day that she was getting discouraged. I immediately started to cry because if those guys give up, we have no hope. They're the only game in town."

"Code Pink does a hell of a lot. Code Pink has the power," agreed Christine DeFontenay, a beatific looking older lady. "The people who protest torture and abuses of the Constitution are us old guys! I've been keeping a vigil across from Cheney's [residence] every Wednesday now for eight months, every week. Other people are joining me, I am getting lots less abuse. I'm gonna save Cheney's soul. On the weekends, he's changed the route he takes home so he doesn't have to see my signs -- 'America's Shame' and 'Torture Is Terrorism.'"

Changing Cheney's route, if not his mind, I agreed, was something. "It is!" said DeFontenay. "Every little bit helps."

I watched the Torture Abolition and Survivor's Support Coalition, a small group of torture survivors from Central America, Africa and the Middle East, launch their "Peace Train" -- a row of cardboard boxes covered with tempera paint redolent of grade-school murals; images of brown people hugging, interracial hands shaking over wobbly lettering: It's OK for Both of Us to Win.

On a bandstand, a middle-aged woman exhorted onlookers to "hop on board" the Peace Train. "It's not OK to fight and do torture and violence. The peace train does not run on hate!" A group of earnest middle-aged people picked up the "Peace Train" and began dutifully trotting it around the bandstand to the Cat Stevens song. "The rainbow of love is our caboose! Now we're going chugga-chugga-chug."

I thought: I love peace, but why would any adult human who ever owned a nice belt want to be seen with this eyesore? Why does the peace movement have to dress and act like an irritating children's birthday party? More to the point, how was this peace demonstration supposed to convert the hearts and minds of the executive powers across the street, when the main event -- the tent city, and Code Pink, its most vital supporters -- didn't even bother to show up?

Two days later, I dropped by the Code Pink house in Washington. In the spirit of Princess Diana (who often wore dresses evocative of the flag of the countries she visited), I threw on a pink silk Lily Pulitzer thing from my Republican Slut collection to put the women at ease, hoping it wouldn't come off like a Trojan Dress.

Located in a brick row house on Capitol Hill, the Code Pink house is its rallying point for Washington actions. It serves as a base for activists from Code Pink's 250 local chapters around the globe. Inside, the atmosphere resembled a grubby, renegade sorority installation at FAO Schwartz -- the underground headquarters of Barbie's rebellion. The basement is where pink happens: stacked to the low ceiling beams with crates of pink garments, tubes of glitter, glue, colored pens, cardboard signs, oversize papier-mâché heads of Bush, Condoleezza and a sneering Cheney. Upstairs, coltish young interns in shorts and tie-dye T-shirts sat around on pink couches, typing furiously on laptops. A lone young man was stuffing manicotti in the kitchen.

In the parlor, Code Pink executive committee member Gael Murphy sat cross-legged on one of the couches. Murphy, who also works with United for Peace and Justice, was a warmly robust, welcoming and intelligent presence with a firm handshake. She quickly dismissed Code Pink's absence from Lafayette Park. "That wasn't our protest," she said. "We were just going to come out and support it, but the main organizers decided not to go through with it."

Murphy seemed tough enough to address my skepticism about Code Pink head-on, so I was obvious about it. Do the group's self-admittedly obnoxious tactics, like those employed by other militant ideologues like PETA and ACT UP, actually win over as many converts to their cause as they alienate people who are their natural allies? Given a mainstream media climate that almost entirely ignores peace demonstrations, are such demonstrations actually demonstrating anything, if nobody is watching?

Murphy didn't flinch. She launched into an articulate, sound and uninterruptible tirade on the issues consuming Code Pink. True: While Code Pink Members are regularly getting arrested, they -- and the larger peace movement as a whole -- still can't get arrested, so to speak, when it comes to getting commensurate media coverage for the antiwar movement.

She was particularly urgent on the subject of the Democrat-controlled Congress, which had just ushered in another $165 billion in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I got the impression that as a member of the press just sitting there, listening, I was giving Ms. Murphy an almost medical form of relief for her inflamed buildup of talking points, prepared for a distant and disinterested media that doesn't generally ask for them.

"We've arrived at a point where it obviously didn't work," she said of Code Pink's disruptions in Congress. "We didn't stop the Iraq war funding; we haven't gotten the Democrats to change policy. We're feeling our tiaras have lost their glow, and that our predictable attention-getting and disruption has run its course."

Murphy cataloged the "legitimate" work the group does behind the scenes (which, I had to admit, I had failed to recognize in my blindness from the glare of their prom dresses). Code Pink, Murphy insisted, worked with Congress to help Iraqi women visit the U.S. to participate in Code Pink's 2006 Iraqi Women's Delegation war protests. They organized lobby days, wrote "Pink Papers" on the condition of women under occupation and U.S. military reparations for Iraqis, and gathered information for groups involved in the larger peace movement. Murphy told me that Code Pink opened an occupation watch center in Baghdad (as part of United for Peace and Justice -- a group whose accomplishments Code Pink seems to feel comfortable occasionally taking credit for without direct acknowledgment).

"Our visibility, our pink, our street theater, is to get [the message] into the media that there is opposition, that there is an antiwar movement," said Murphy, sounding a little desperate. The problem -- the same as that of the military -- seems mainly to be one of recruitment: Even groups like have enormous trouble getting people out to protest. "There's a huge gap between being against the war and doing something about it as a citizen," Murphy added.

The strategy of loud pinkness, useful in terms of visibility, must evolve, said Murphy. "Yes, it's good to be on Jon Stewart or 'Saturday Night Live.' But we're being trivialized. That isn't all of what the antiwar movement is, or all of what we are. If it's not working anymore, if it's served its purpose, we need to nimbly and quickly move on to something that is effective." Murphy described a new Code Pink effort to educate city mayors on how the war was draining local coffers.

Medea Benjamin strode into the house, creating a flurry of excitement. A co-founder of Code Pink, Benjamin is a small, wry and wiry woman who looks more like a member of Congress than someone who shouts at them in the halls. She speaks five languages and has two postgraduate degrees (one master's in public health from Columbia University; another in economics from the New School of Social Research).

"I'm a very serious person!" she insisted. "I used to work for the United Nations. I have lived and worked in refugee camps around the world. Did I ever think that at 56 years old I'd be wearing tiaras and going to Congress and holding up signs?"

I asked about the difficulty of "waging peace" -- how, after all, is one proactively peaceful? She gave me an ironic smile; her eyes -- naturally sad, downturned at the outside corners -- flashed a bit flinty.

"One goes to Congress every day and one takes one's head and hits it against the wall," she said. "You know that saying, 'The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'? Because we believe in democracy, we think if we do the same thing over and over -- demand that our elected representatives actually represent us -- they will. But it's hard to be peacemakers when we're almost treated like terrorists. We keep getting arrested, thrown in jail, threatened. And we're treated like that by Democrats."

Like Murphy, Benjamin was an unceasing font of well-articulated and atrocious facts, relayed in an almost breathless run-on monologue. "The Democrats -- who are supposed to be our friends! -- are as bad as the Republicans. That latest $165 billion for war is just astounding. Not a peep from the public; the media almost buried the story. We were in Congress that day in the tunnels, going after every congressperson we could find, saying, 'Don't do it!' Ready to throw bloody money onto the floor of the gallery when they voted. Not covered by the media at all. We were thinking, 'Well, I hope history at least records that there were some people there who tried.'"

Lack of media coverage and its result -- an inability to get exhausted working people off the couch to fight an invisible battle -- has endlessly frustrated and discouraged Code Pink. "We have had eight demonstrations of over 100,000 people -- some much larger -- that got virtually no attention, no response from the White House," Benjamin said. "C-SPAN is the only mainstream media that isn't censored. We get cut out of everything else."

Benjamin has been vocal on the subject of Iraqi refugees; she has been to Syria and Jordan to meet with them. "The U.S. is doing nothing to help these millions of people whose lives we destroyed," she said. Despite trying, Code Pink has failed to draw mainstream attention to the refugees' plight. "We called a very serious press conference [with an Iraqi] refugee whose husband had been killed because he worked for the U.S. government -- we had one Japanese reporter that showed up, that was it," Benjamin said. "That same day, a group in Berkeley was doing a witch's exorcism of the Marine recruiting station. The media was all over that. That's the climate that we live in."

This was a bit hard to digest in light of the recent arrest of a Code Pink member at the same Marine recruiting station in Berkeley, who happened to be topless -- but I understood her frustration. Code Pink finds that it can't be taken seriously when it wants to be taken seriously, even though its legitimate work is substantial and deserves to be taken seriously. Such is the sharp double-edge of the glitter tiara.

Benjamin reserved her most evident bitterness for progressive Democrats. "Have you seen them join us in a sit-in at the White House? No. They did civil disobedience around apartheid in South Africa -- they did civil disobedience for Darfur. Sixteen of them got arrested; we went to them, and we said, 'Fabulous. Now can we do that around Iraq? Join us, do a dignified sit-in in front of the White House.' They hemmed and hawed. We couldn't even get Barbara Lee to do it."

I found it easy to admire Benjamin's quixotic pluck and grasp of the issues. Although I didn't say it, it occurred to me that apartheid and Darfur were issues that were comfortable to Congress -- and to mainstream media -- because of their high-level celebrity endorsements: Darfur had Bono, apartheid had Springsteen, AIDS had Elizabeth Taylor. It was mainstream media stars -- and the mainstream media that built them -- that ultimately allowed these issues to get enough momentum for serious support.

Again, though, Code Pink seems at least partly to blame for its own lack of political support. Benjamin seems to expect congress members to attend Code Pink proceedings, and bring their limelight with them, because she's morally right. But her demands begged the question -- in terms of security, let alone political image -- why would Nancy Pelosi support a movement that has been parked outside of her house, denouncing her publicly for two years? Why should the Democrats, for whom Benjamin reserves such special loathing, come over to her side of the iron tutu and do her the favor of legitimizing Code Pink?

Benjamin, slumping in her patio chair, shot me a weary expression. "Look, the most heinous thing that George Bush has done is the war in Iraq. The Democrats have not only given George Bush what he asked for, they gave him more than he asked for because they didn't want to deal with the war issue in October, right before an election. Here we are, on the eve of an election for president, with Bush using diplomacy to cut a deal with North Korea and the Democrats pushing a war policy with Iran."

What was her pet theory about this? "All [the Democrats] care about is power," she said. "They want the war to be George Bush's problem, not theirs. They could be doing so much more to get other Democrats to vote against the war, and to build this movement with us, to gather a million people out on the street. The people have been so snookered by Democrats and Republicans -- so blind to the fact that neither party is working in the interest of the general public -- that it's been virtually impossible to build a strong movement."

Benjamin and Murphy admitted that Code Pink's approach needed revamping, but both seem addicted to the theatrics. Both were more than hot to discuss their upcoming action -- a "blockade" of Rep. Gary Ackerman's office to protest his resolution calling for a blockade of Iran. "We've seen this before," Benjamin said. "Sanctions resulted in 500,000 Iraqi children being killed! What are we gonna do? Sit by and say, 'Oh, let's write another paper about this? Let's take three months out and write a book?' We have to speak out immediately." Benjamin paused. "Gary Ackerman is the only member of Congress who is also a friend of my family," she said with a grin.

Benjamin and Murphy seemed to share a compulsive germ: this rowdy game of dress-up and protest, an obsession as chronic and irresistible as canvas to painters, or beaches to surfers. Devotees and enthusiasts don't measure success the same way as non-fanatics; as my mother, the incredibly broke jazz pianist once said, "You're a successful artist if you get to keep doing it."

I confessed to both women that I never would have known about Code Pink if they didn't disrupt congressional proceedings in pink tiaras. "That's right," said Benjamin. "Without the tiaras, you wouldn't be here. You know: 'If it bleeds it leads.' Code Pink is a manifestation of crisis, of a lack of democratic vehicles through which we can express ourselves. We're a manifestation of a broken system. You might not like the way we manifest it, but we'd like people to reflect on how broken the system is."

I was beginning to feel a bit like a big-mouth bass: Lured by a bright pink artificial fly, doing the hula on the surface. It struck me how necessary pink tiaras were in the informational black hole that enables the inscrutable machinations of Washington to move forward without public scrutiny. A successful movement depends on a media that will grant it public legitimacy. Without it, the peace movement is left to masochistic zealots like Benjamin and Murphy: They crash Congress every day and destroy their own dignity for just the tiniest effect -- a nearly inaudible yelp from the dust speck of peaceful Whoville.

I came away from the Code Pink house believing that guerrilla theater is more critical than ever. For activists, Benjamin and Murphy represent the thin pink line separating the American peace movement from muteness, invisibility and depression unto disbandment. "We are committed to being a direct action movement," said Benjamin. "We shed light through theater, through disruptions. We're going to keep doing that as long as it serves."

Code Pink may have lost a little heart, temporarily, but the ladies haven't lost their way, or their flair: I was touched that Benjamin went out of her way to compliment my fishnet stockings.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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