Ten years ago, Steve Thyberg had a vision. He wanted to create a celebration like Earth Day for peace and justice. Thyberg, a mental health therapist in private practice in Omaha, was a student of spiritual leaders Matthew Fox and Thomas Berry, father of the “Ecozoic Era.”
“I had been to the Earth Spirit Rising conference in Asheville, North Carolina. Berry told us that the intersection between your great joy and the earth’s great need is your great work. You are in the best place when you are working your joy. At the end of the conference, he gave us a charge: ‘Go do the great work.’ And that was what propelled me to create the first Peace Expo in 2004,” Thyberg said.
The first year, Thyberg worked 300 hours to create a weekend event with 68 peace and justice organizations, poets, musicians, an interfaith prayer service, local speakers, and 36 workshops which was attended by 300 people. “It was awesome,” he remembered, “But I think I had adrenal exhaustion.” The following year, the expo had its first keynote speaker and over 500 people came to hear journalist Amy Goodman, host of the radio program Democracy Now!. In 2007, with the help of Margaret Gilmore, the Peace Expo brought antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan to Omaha and U.S. foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky in 2010.
For the past few years, Thyberg has concentrated on his work as a therapist. He is currently developing an anti-bullying pilot program for students at the King Science and Technology Center through Methodist Hospital Foundation’s community counseling program.
So, when longtime activist Frances Mendenhall asked Thyberg if he would help her bring CODEPINK founder and author Medea Benjamin to Omaha to talk about her book on drone warfare, he was torn because he knew he did not have time to organize an expo. They found a solution through UNO’s School of Social Work. This year’s expo is organized as a service learning project by students taking a class in advanced community practice under the direction of professor Patty Carlson.
Nearly 30 organizations will have a booth at the Peace Expo. Elaine Wells will be there with Black White Dialogues and is also active in Nebraskans for Peace. She protested the war in Iraq every Wednesday for a year from January to December, 2003. Wells sent a poem by Bonaro Overstreet that expresses why she keeps protesting and marching and why she encourages people to come to the Peace Expo on May 1.
You say the little efforts that I make will do no good;
They never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where justice hangs in balance.
I don't believe I ever thought they would,
but I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose
which side will feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
Speak Truth to Power and Have Fun Doing It
Medea Benjamin, 60, travels a lot. Like a volunteer Secretary of State, her work with CODEPINK in support of peace -- and against war -- routinely takes her all over the world to meet with citizens and officials from Tunisia to Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan. Later this year, she plans to bring a delegation of American citizens to North Korea.
Benjamin spoke with The Reader from San Diego in early April during the kick-off to her month of protests against drone warfare. San Diego is the home of General Atomics, the largest manufacturer of drones in the U.S., with reported income of $634 million in 2010, up from $250 million in 2008. “We did protests not only at the factory and headquarters, but also at the home of the CEO. We brought our own miniature drone and flew it over his house until the police threatened to confiscate it because it might hurt somebody -- which was quite ironic,” Benjamin said.
Protesting -- with a lighthearted touch and a bit of street theater -- is one of the organization’s core strategies. It’s the reason Frances Mendenhall joined CODEPINK. “They speak truth to power and have fun doing it, which I think Omaha needs,” she said.
CODEPINK does more than protest. Their strategy to end drone warfare includes educating the public through books; reaching out to faith-based communities to say that this is a moral issue; reaching out to universities, especially research institutions; educating local municipalities and states about legislation to ban drones in the U.S.; and connecting with groups overseas to form a global anti-drones network.
CODEPINK traces its roots to the sidewalk in front of the White House. In November of 2002, a four-month protest against the Iraq war that began with 100 women was noticeable on Pennsylvania Avenue because all the women were wearing neon-bright pink.
According to their website, “The name CODEPINK plays on the former Bush Administration's color-coded homeland security alerts — yellow, orange, red — that signaled terrorist threats. ... the CODEPINK alert is a feisty call for people to ‘wage peace.’” The organization’s mission is to reduce militarism globally so that resources can be redirected into things like health care, education, or green jobs.
In the past 10 years, CODEPINK has grown into a small organization with a few full-time staff and annual income and expenses of a half-million dollars. “Most of our work is done by volunteers,” Benjamin said. Their funding relies heavily on small donors and social media. “We have 150,000 people on our e-mail list and tens of thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter. When we put out a call and say we’d like to take a delegation somewhere, people respond and they give $50, $100, even $1000. So, we get a lot of grassroots support,” she said.
Evolution of an activist
In the early 1970s, Benjamin earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Tufts University. She changed her name from Susan to Medea during her freshman year to honor the heroine of the classical Greek play about a woman accused of killing her two children. “I read a version of the play where Medea did not kill her children. She was accused of it because she was a strong woman with magical powers. I imagined that strong women are probably accused of a lot of things. So, I wanted to take the name,” she explained.
Benjamin admits that her mother hated it. “She never called me Medea ‘til the day she died,” she laughs. “But, that’s okay.”
Benjamin lived for four years in Cuba with her first husband and wrote three books about that country. She returned to the U.S. earning a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and a master’s in economics from The New School. In her early career, she worked for the United Nations in the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization as an economist and nutritionist. Her work took her to Latin America and Africa and she also lived in Rome.
“It was through those experiences that I realized how accessible people are around the world and how anxious they are to meet with Americans who represent a view that respects their cultures and their own political processes. I realized that what was so sorely missing in the U.S. were citizen diplomats who can model what we would like our government to be doing,” Benjamin said.
In 1988, Benjamin and her husband Kevin Danaher co-founded Global Exchange, a San-Francisco based non-profit that advocates for fair trade. They worked on the successful campaign to make Nike improve its labor practices in overseas factories, putting the issue of sweatshops in front of the American public. In 1999, she helped expose the problem of indentured servitude of garment workers in the U.S. territory of Saipan (the Marianas Islands) and helped win a $20 million settlement from 27 U.S. clothing retailers. Global Exchange also organizes numerous tours to foreign countries for travelers who want to experience citizen-to-citizen diplomacy.
Five years ago, Benjamin moved to Washington, D.C. to spend her time developing CODEPINK into a force for change. Asked where she would like to see the organization go, she jokes, “We want CODEPINK to cease to exist because there are no wars we need to protest. We don’t want to create an organization that needs to keep going. But unfortunately, we’ve got the drone war, Palestine, Syria, the threat of war with Iran and North Korea. We’ve just got to keep going to build a stronger movement that says, ‘War is not the answer.’”
Drone Warfare up close
In 2011, Benjamin took a delegation to Pakistan to see the effects of the drone war. In 2012, she wrote the first edition of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. A print edition will be published later this month.
The book is filled with facts about drones such as who makes them, how much they cost, how much profit the manufacturers are making, how often they crash or go rogue, and the legal issues surrounding drone warfare. The CODEPINK website contains a link to a website called Pakistan Body Count (www.pakistanbodycount.org). It lists the date of every drone attack in Pakistan and whether those killed were suspected militants or civilians. As of April 17, the numbers given were 42 Al Qaeda and 430 Taliban killed; compared to 2,496 civilians and 330 foreigners killed.
By the numbers, the drone war is taking a much harder toll on the civilian population.
Benjamin’s book takes a closer look at these incidents and gives names to some of the victims. She writes, “President Obama carried out his first drone strike just three days after his inauguration. It was in Pakistan on January 23, 2009. Initial reports said that the attacks struck ‘suspected terrorist hideouts’ but in reality, the missiles struck the home of Malik Gulistan Khan, a tribal elder and member of a local pro-government peace committee, and killed him and four other family members. ‘I lost my father, three brothers, and my cousin in this attack,’ said Adnan, his eighteen-year-old son. Adnan’s uncle claimed, ‘We did nothing, have no connection to militants at all.’”
Drones do not discriminate when they make a mistake. According to Benjamin, “In the first known case of friendly fire deaths involving unmanned aircraft, a drone strike in Afghanistan on April 6, 2011 accidentally killed a U.S. Marine and a Navy medic. Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Navy Hospitalman Benjamin D. Rast, 23, were killed by a Predator drone after Marine commanders mistook them for Taliban.” Jeremy Smith’s father was allowed to view the videotape footage. ‘You couldn’t even tell they were human beings— just blobs,’ said the bereaved father.”
Drones have also killed our military allies. “In November 2011, a U.S. air strike mistakenly killed Pakistani soldiers who were camped along the Afghan border, leaving two dozen dead. The strike came just before a long-planned major diplomatic gathering in Bonn, Germany, where over one hundred countries and international organizations were gathering to discuss how to end the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan was a key player in the discussions,” Benjamin writes. Due to public outrage over the airstrike, the Pakistani government refused to attend.
Several former members of the military have spoken out about the damage done to America’s reputation by civilian drone strikes. Benjamin quotes two counterinsurgency experts, David Kilcullen and former Army officer Andrew McDonald Exum, who co-wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times on May 16, 2009 which stated, “every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.” They cautioned that a frightened population might turn to violent extremists and against the “faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants.”
Benjamin ultimately blames Congress for waiting eight years to have hearings on drone warfare. “They are supposed to be putting checks and balances on the executive branch. It shows how secretive this program has been and how submissive Congress is,” she said. Benjamin closes her book with a list of organizations working to bring drone warfare under control.
Nebraskans against drones
Nebraskans for Peace is the oldest statewide peace and justice organization in the country. The March/April cover story of Nebraska Report, their bi-monthly publication, is devoted to an examination by UNL economics professor Hendrik Van den Berg of overseas drone assassinations. He laments that drone warfare did not become a topic of public debate until Eric Holder testified to Congress in March that it was legal to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil. The article states, “One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that it took an outrageously extreme idea -- namely, that the U.S. government had the right to assassinate Americans without a trial and in complete secrecy -- for drone killings to get into the mainstream news cycle.”
Nebraskans for Peace plans to propose legislation next year restricting the use of drones in this state. “We already have strategized about it and we are ready to go forward. My article in Nebraska Report is to get the debate started. Make people aware of the severity and consequences of these drones.”
“Some people think we’re killing bad guys. We are not. We are murdering innocent people. If Americans decide it doesn’t matter, I don’t know what you do at that point,” Van den Berg said.
The Peace Expo will be held at UNO on May 1 from 6 - 9 p.m. in the Milo Bail Student Center, see www.peaceexpo.org for parking details.
As of press time, the following 27 organizations will have information booths at the event: Amnesty International, Black-White Dialogues, CODEPINK, Corporate Campaign Inc./Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network, Green Club Network, Habitat for Humanity, Inclusive Communities, Inclusive Life, inCommon, Independent Television Omaha, Mercy Volunteer Corps, Montessori International School of the Plains, Nebraska Innocence Project, Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nebraska Chapter of National Association of Social Workers, Nebraskans for Peace, Omaha Friends Meeting, NAACP, Palestinian Rights Task Force, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Second Unitarian Church, The People's Film Festival, The Progressive Research Institute of Nebraska, United Methodist Ministries- Blue Flamingo, United Nations Association of the USA, Urban League of Nebraska.