President Obama’s recent Africa tour could be of great significance.
By David Barsamian
Jodie Evans is a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm. Ever on the move, ever planning new demonstrations, campaigns, and boycotts, she puts the active in activist. Visibility is not a problem for her or for Code Pink, the feminist anti-war organization she co-founded with Medea Benjamin. It has a knack of getting into the faces of the powerful and breaking through the media silences.
“We’re trying to find new and creative ways to disrupt power,” Evans says.
She and Benjamin co-edited the book Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism. And Evans served as the executive producer of the documentaries The Most Dangerous Man in America (about Daniel Ellsberg) and The People Speak (based on Howard Zinn’s work). She is also the board chair of the Women’s Media Center.
She keeps her buoyancy and equanimity despite being the target of vituperative attacks and threats. Vitriol from the Internet site Radio Patriot labels her as “an agent of influence for the anti-American governments of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as Middle Eastern terrorists.” She is slandered and demeaned sexually. But she carries on undeterred.
A current Code Pink project she is involved with is the boycott of Ahava products, an Israeli cosmetics company using resources from occupied Palestinian land. As a result of picketing and other measures, some stores in North America have dropped Ahava.
Looking at the United States, she says, “We’re watching it crumble. But we have to be more vocal and stronger than ever. We have to rely on ourselves and remember what it is to be citizens because that’s how we are going to get what we want.”
I was glad to finally catch up with her, as she has quite the travel schedule. I talked with her in Boulder on a Sunday evening in August when she was in the Colorado Rockies for a conference.
Q: What kindled your activism?
Jodi Evans: In 1970, I was a maid in one of the big hotels in Las Vegas, and we got organized to march for a living wage. Jane Fonda came and marched with us. In that process, I found my power. And we won. Then, as my friends from high school started to go off to war, I became an anti-war activist and used a lot of the skills I got from being organized as a maid. I joined the McGovern campaign, and turned eighteen a month before the election. I got to be one of the first eighteen-year-olds to vote. I still remember how powerful that was.
Q: What was the spark that launched Code Pink?
Evans: In May of 2002, about thirty-five of us who were activists got together, and we called ourselves the Unreasonable Women for the Earth. By September, Bush was trying to frighten us with Code Orange and Code Red and Code Yellow. One day, as the Iraq War resolution was going through Congress, Medea, Diane Wilson, and I got on the phone, and we said, “OK, we’ve got to get to Washington.” We found out through another girlfriend that Bush was going to have all the members of Congress in the Rose Garden the next morning, and he was going to give them the resolution, and it was just going to go through Congress like lightning. So we got together that night and we said, “We’re going to call ourselves Code Hot Pink.” But the problem was, when you went to the Internet, it was a porn site. So we changed the name to Code Pink.
The next day we hung a big banner on the White House that said “No War in Iraq.” And Diane got up on the pole and she wouldn’t come down. The media from the Rose Garden came running out, and it was on all the morning news. We then went to the steps of the Capitol at lunchtime. We had painted pink doves of peace and put them on our bras and took our shirts off. And on our bellies we wrote “Read My Tits. No War in Iraq.” Because we had taken our shirts off, all the cameras in the Congressional hearing were on us.
That’s pretty much what Code Pink has done since the beginning. We’re in the face of power, wherever it is.
Q: How big is Code Pink?
Evans: Right now, we have about 200,000 people who get our e-mails each week, and we have about 100 local chapters, but we have a small staff of five. We feel that we’re just the container to give people the tools for activism, and then it’s really the locals that create the color and the intelligence and the vibrancy that is Code Pink. Our purpose is to end war and bring those resources back to the life-sustaining needs of our community.
Q: The so-called war on terror has been going on now for more than ten years. Where are we?
Evans: We’ve created a more dangerous world. We’ve created more violence. We’ve unraveled the fabric of our own society. We’ve watched everything get worse. We’ve watched countries be destroyed, and we’ve watched war become the answer to every question.
Q: The Bush Administration said it wanted to help women in Afghanistan when it invaded. The Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy said at the time of the Afghan invasion that it was possibly the first time in history that the U.S. Marine Corps was claiming to be a feminist organization. What’s your reaction to that?
Evans: It’s devastating to even think that they say they’re helping these women. You can’t imagine what life is like for these women in Afghanistan. To help them would have been to educate them, would have been to restore their country, would have been to create structures. Everything is in shambles. The only place that’s safe is Kabul. And the only women that anyone speaks to are the women inside of Kabul. Of course, they feel safe, so they want American soldiers to stay. So it becomes a very complex issue, even for women’s organizations. They say we’re in Afghanistan for the women. They’ve done nothing for the women. I spoke to some of the women in Afghanistan. They said, “We don’t need more soldiers. We need police.”
Q: Tell me about your “Create, Not Hate” program.
Evans: We have a “Ten Years and Counting Campaign,” and part of that is “Create, Not Hate.” What we’re doing, with a coalition of other organizations, is going into communities and saying, “Through your art, your theater, your music, your cultural center, explain what these last ten years have cost you, have cost your community, have cost our country, have cost the world.” What’s beautiful is the experience of creating art together, the experience of singing together or dancing together or creating theater together. That’s enriching. It gives you something juicy back. And then, out of that, who knows what happens?
Q: What’s the state of the women’s movement today?
Evans: I’m so excited by women right now, not just in America but globally. Women really are coming into their own. We’re standing on the shoulders of forty years of hard and messy work. But that doesn’t meant the patriarchy isn’t alive and well. I’m the chair of the Women’s Media Center. It was started by Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan to make the female half of the population visible. About 97 percent of the media is created by men.
Q: Maureen Dowd of The New York Times quipped recently that Obama’s “Yes, we can!” slogan has devolved into “Hey, we might.” You were an early supporter of the President, and you’ve met with him. Such people as Norman Solomon and Cornel West are using the word “betrayal” to describe the Obama Presidency. What happened?
Evans: I was way ahead of them. In 2007, when Obama started to run, I wanted to support a black man for President, I wanted to support an anti-war activist for President. I thought it would be amazing while we were at war with Iraq and Afghanistan to have someone leading the country who said he was against war.
By the general election, he had started talking about Afghanistan as “the good war,” and I had pulled back. As a matter of fact, when I did go to events (because my husband continued to support him), I confronted him and said, “There is no such thing as a good war.” I took the opportunity to really get under his skin and make him uncomfortable.
Then, at the Inaugural, Code Pink was the only organization that was out there against Obama. We had our little pink ribbons on our fingers. And then we did can-cans outside of all the balls. “Yes, we can-can end war.”
We’ve been in Washington constantly. We haven’t stopped pushing. And we haven’t lost the courage to speak out against him, which has been hard, because people are, like, “Oh, give him a chance.” Why do you give him a chance? The writing is already on the wall. And we watched the anti-war movement slowly just evaporate with Obama coming in and putting everyone to sleep. The betrayal was so shocking for people. They didn’t know what to do with it.
People are, like, “Well, he’s trying.” No, he’s not trying. He’s giving in constantly. There is no leadership there. And you saw it early on. He compromises before he’s at the table. The Republicans are even shocked at what they get from him. Something happened when Obama got elected, and the fight left a lot of people. I don’t know why. I said, “Why are we not screaming in the streets?” And their attitude was, “Well, because, you know, we don’t want to lose those invitations to the White House.”
Q: The seduction of access.
Evans: The advantage we have as Code Pink is that we have no access to power, and we have no desire to have access to power. Lots of people run inside-outside games. And I don’t know that you can. Because if you’re trying to play an inside game, having that power and that access is something that you will compromise to get.
Q: You’ve defended Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. Why?
Evans: Almost nobody is telling the truth. And the truth tellers are put in jail. Bradley Manning. WikiLeaks. What are we afraid of? We’re afraid of the truth. We’re pretending that we live in a democracy, and we’re pretending we’re free. The insanity is that we live inside of the false stories that we tell each other.
Whistle-blowers are being prosecuted more aggressively under the Obama Justice Department than under Bush. We have a campaign called Truth Set Free. Our first job around Bradley was just to let the public know that he exists and that he was held in solitary confinement and was held naked at night in Quantico for almost a year. That somebody who tells us the truth, who exposes what we’re doing, was being treated this way is barbaric.
Q: You come out of the Democratic Party. You worked for Governor Jerry Brown of California in his first administration. What about breaking the two-party duopoly?
Evans: I would love to. I ran Jerry Brown’s Presidential campaign in 1992, which was focused on campaign finance reform. If we didn’t change campaign finance, then it didn’t matter what you believed in or what you worked for, the corporations would fund the opposite. And that’s what we’ve seen. After I ran that campaign, I left the Democratic Party, because I thought it was part of the problem. I’ve since been a Nader supporter; I have been in the Green Party.
Q: Can we use the master’s tools, like elections, to dismantle the master’s house?
Evans: Not while they’re being stolen by corporations and funded by corporations. Not after Citizens United. It’s going to get worse. The corporations own the elections and they’re manipulating the masses. We have to come up with a new system, because this one is broken. That’s why I work very hard to create new patterns. I don’t know that I believe in the structure anymore. I feel like it needs a revolution, not another party. The structure is so corroded that we’re saying words that are meaningless and pretending they exist, like “democracy” and “freedom.” There are all these words that get thrown around, and they don’t exist. We need a new politics and a new economy.
Q: Where are the fissures in the power structure that could be cracked into and widened?
Evans: There is no fissure until the people stand up and say, “No more!” Because right now it’s crack cocaine for the military, for the people in Congress, for the people in the White House. And until people get in the streets and start telling the truth about what’s happening, and start screaming it and yelling it, there’s nothing that’s going to happen. It’s got to happen in the streets.
Q: Did you see some of that in Wisconsin?
Evans: Yes. And look at it. It was impressive. I think Wisconsin is what started to wake up activists again. You can really feel it now: It’s people taking power into their own hands and coming up with ideas and being a citizens’ brigade. It’s open-source, it’s inspiring, and it’s not controlled at the top.
I think the Arab Spring was part of the inspiration for Wisconsin and reminded people of the power of their voice and of being engaged and of their own responsibility. It’s more complicated in the United States, because we don’t have a dictator that we can dethrone. It’s a whole system that is corrupt, and the whole system isn’t holding anyone accountable. If we don’t prosecute these war criminals, what’s the next horrible thing they can do? As anyone knows, if you’re not held accountable, you think you can get away with it, and it becomes OK.
Q: You’ve made a point about pursuing Bush and Cheney and other high officials.
Evans: Yes, a lot of what we’ve been doing at Code Pink is around our war criminals campaign. Because they got off scot-free. The first book that came out was Karl Rove’s, and I disrupted his first two book events. He had to totally transform his book tour. He could no longer speak to audiences. He really was afraid of us. Now we have Cheney’s book. We’re always trying to find ways to engage people. We’re always trying to find ways that we can disturb power. If we can’t put them in jail, at least we can tell them someone’s watching and that we know they’re war criminals.
We have bookmarks that you can print out on your printer. You put them in the book and you move the book to the crime section. When somebody buys the book, inside it is the bookmark saying the person who wrote the book is a war criminal. So we find every way we can to educate the public and to keep power nervous.
David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He interviewed Chris Hedges in the August issue.