Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Drone wars

Michelle Zellers spoke with Medea Benjamin, author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and founder of the US-based anti-war group Codepink, who was arrested in May for interrupting Barack Obama’s speech on his drone programme

November 16, 2013
7 min read


Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.


  share     tweet  

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.

medeab

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.


#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


20