Could you start by telling our readers about yourself?
I started doing social justice work back in the days of the Vietnam war, and I’ve been involved ever since. I started the group Global Exchange over 20 years ago to try to get Americans out of their narrow views of the world; got involved in bringing a fair-trade label to the US; worked on a lot of economic justice issues – until 9/11 happened, and that changed my focus. That’s when Codepink started, and that’s when I shifted back to issues of war and peace.
You recently travelled to Yemen with a delegation of peace activists. Could you explain the purpose of the delegation and what you did there?
At Codepink we’ve always felt it’s so important to go to the places where our government is involved. We saw that Yemen had become, after Afghanistan and Pakistan, the country with the most drone strikes. It also has the most prisoners in Guantanamo. The trip was to meet with the families of people detained in Guantanamo as well as families who had suffered from our drone attacks.
One of the things that most surprised and inspired me was the young women we met who – because you can’t see their faces, because of stereotypes ingrained in us – you might think are traditional women who don’t work outside the home. But they’re deeply involved in making the revolution that overthrew the last dictatorship, in writing the new constitution. We met women who were lawyers, professors, a young woman running one of the largest newspapers, women who were heads of the new national dialogue.
I learned all kinds of things. We were told that a lot of people killed by drones were people who would have been very easy to capture. We got examples of young men who were travelling and had just passed a checkpoint, and a mile after they were killed by a drone. Or people who were living right outside the capital city, Sana’a, and maybe would have turned themselves in to figure out why the US wanted to kill them, but they had no way of knowing.
At a moment when we need more people to mobilise against endless war, governments are gaining unprecedented power to track and scrutinise protesters. In this difficult context, what advice do you have for fellow activists and organisers?
I wouldn’t so much put it that way. I think the risk is really: will we allow our government to turn this into a 24/7 surveillance society? We’ve already given up so many of our rights. The recent revelations [show] how much information our government is already obtaining. Imagine if we had drones in our air space.
It opens up a way for a broader coalition, because if we’re just talking about people killed overseas – and let’s be clear, they’re mostly poor people of colour – we don’t get a lot of Americans who care. Yet if we combine it with domestic surveillance, which does affect everyone, we can start to create more sympathy for people under constant watch. The killer drones don’t only kill people, they also terrorise them, being in the skies on a regular basis and people hearing the buzzing and not knowing if there is a missile to be dropped.
On the Edward Snowden revelations, is there anything you’d like to add?
[At Codepink] we think it’s really exciting that there are countries willing to stand up to the US [by offering asylum to Snowden] – countries that have not given in to blackmail and have asserted their independence. There are large communities that care about invasion of privacy. I think there’s potential for global coalitions.
You’ve been raising awareness of drone warfare since 2009. Talk about your reception as you’ve spoken on this topic. Are there reactions that have surprised you? Upset you? Motivated you to keep going?
We’ve seen significant changes in attitude. When I was writing the book, there was very little coming out in the media about drones. When there finally was a poll in 2012, it showed that the vast majority of Americans supported using drones to kill terrorist suspects – meaning people who’ve never been charged or convicted with a crime. I was really appalled when I learned it wasn’t only a majority of Republicans and Democrats, but a majority of liberal Democrats.
I think that’s starting to change as we’ve ramped up the protests. The latest polls show only about 60 per cent [support] – still a majority but we are changing public opinion, and that’s reflected in the beginnings of a change in policy. We’ve gone from an administration that refused to admit that it had a programme of killing people by remote control to now feeling like they have to defend the programme.
You say in Drone Warfare that ‘the anti-war movement . . . lost its voice when Barack Obama became president’. Could you expand on that? Will future elections of the ‘liberal’ candidate pose similar challenges?
I think if George Bush were carrying out the programme Barack Obama is carrying out, we would have put an end to it already because our natural allies would have been yelling bloody murder – which it is. But because it’s being done by President Obama, we have heard mostly silence from the progressive Democrats in Congress – and outside.
Groups that would have come on board with us as they did to stop the war in Iraq are no longer around when we’re trying to stop the wars that President Obama has gotten us into. That’s been very hard to overcome these last five years. Our movement is much smaller.
In terms of future presidents, I could see it very clearly with President Hillary Clinton, where women’s groups would not want to criticise if she was showing us how ‘tough’ she was on national security by dragging us into future wars or keeping drone warfare going. So yes, I think there are similar future pitfalls to opposing the policies of someone who’s perceived as a liberal Democratic president.
Obama called you ‘young lady’, but you’ve worked toward peace and justice for decades. Are there things you know now that you wish you knew then? What can you tell readers who are newer to grassroots struggle?
It’s funny that he did call me that because I am a decade older than he is.
When I look back, I think I would have been better at building the coalitions. When one is younger, some of the fine points of your ideological viewpoint get inflated, and you think it’s really important that you distinguish yourself from this or that group because they don’t have the same line that you have. That time would have been better spent embracing differences and making our coalitions bigger, broader and more cross-sectoral.
I would say don’t be so pure in your views, and recognise that the work has to be fun. With Codepink it’s become a trademark of ours that we like to have a good time. Realise that life is supposed to be joyful. If we don’t bring beauty and joy into our movements, then we don’t have much of a shelf -life for those movements.
Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.