Protesting for Peace With a Vivid Hue and Cry
Code Pink's Tactics: Often Theatrical, Always Colorful
Medea Benjamin, one of the founders of the women's peace group Code Pink, wears pink every single day, and sleeps in it, too.
Her shoulder bag, her wallet and her cellphone are all pink. When she visits Washington from San Francisco to lobby Congress against the war in Iraq, she stays in Code Pink's new group house on Capitol Hill, where nearly everyone wears pink, where her bedspread and her pillow and her bedroom curtains are pink, as are the drinking cups in the kitchen and the flowers that grow out back.
Code Pink's signature color is a bright, vibrant shade, the hue of Barbie dolls and Victoria's Secret panties. It's a color for those who believe that even in the midst of serious political activism there is room for pink feather boas and pink-ribboned dog biscuits. There is also room for Statue of Liberty pink crowns -- which several women are wearing now as they walk up Fifth Street NE toward the seat of government.
They're planning a little impromptu chat with the nation's senators.
"We wanted Code 'Hot Pink,' " Benjamin says as she walks with six others, "but it was already a porn site."
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The Code Pink house is the sort of lefty group home you might expect to find on the outskirts of a college campus. Here, though, some of the lefties double as grandmas.
The rent, $2,200 a month, is paid by member contributions. The chairs are donated, the forks are donated. The women come for a week or months at a time, and when the house is crowded, they sleep three or four to a room, many in bunk beds.
In the basement, where the group holds strategy meetings and pink fabric swathes the exposed pipes, there are rules posted in the perfect handwriting of a former schoolteacher. They include "Come on time!" and "If you hear 'Pink,' listen." During one meeting of about 20 people, Elizabeth Barger, 71, who wears pink and purple ribbons in her long gray braids, stretches out her bare feet. Another woman wears a pink police officer costume, complete with cap and badge. Soft guitar music wafts in, perhaps from the front lawn.
Benjamin, who is leading the meeting with co-founder Gael Murphy, encourages the group not to be afraid of approaching their representatives. Not everyone is a natural at Code Pink's style of activism, which is polite toward those in power but not terribly awed by them. Benjamin calls on Barbara Hilton, a white-haired retiree from Portsmouth, N.H., to share her experience.
"I was a little bit shy, but by the end, I tell you, I was chasing those representatives down the hall," Hilton says.
Code Pink was founded in 2002 as a women-run, women-led peace organization with a creative approach to protest. There are at least 250 chapters, mostly in this country; in recent months, the groups' focus has coalesced around lobbying Congress to end the Iraq war. In March, Code Pink started renting a group house so women descending on the District would have a place to stay.
They arrive from Plano, Tex., and Kalamazoo, Mich., and Provo, Utah. Some cut their teeth protesting the Vietnam War. Some have served in the military. There's Barger, who lives in an "intentional community" in rural Tennessee and wants to "stop the war machine." There's an Arlington, Tex., schoolteacher and librarian named DesirÃƒ©e Fairooz who cashed in her retirement fund early so she could live here full time as the "house mama." (That meant leaving her husband behind -- a decision about which, she says simply, "he's not happy.")
There's the group's national media coordinator, Dana Balicki, 26, who one night rescues a sick baby bird outside a bar, cradles it in her pink dress and makes a nest for it down in the basement. Deidra Lynch of Orlando gently chews some sunflower seeds and offers them to the bird for sustenance.
There's Lynch's daughter, 8-year-old Autumnrain, who comes into the kitchen one morning wearing a pink-and-white polka-dot dress for a constituent coffee with one of her senators, Democrat Bill Nelson.
"I like your dress," one of the Code Pink women tells Autumnrain.
"I'm going to see the senator," Autumnrain says. She does an impromptu tap dance in her pink flop-flops.
Code Pink's activities on the Hill range from one-on-one meetings with members of Congress to heckling and holding up signs during congressional hearings to spectacularly theatrical productions. They've brought a gospel choir into congressional office buildings to sing about ending the war and hopped like kangaroos when the Australian prime minister came to visit. They've unfurled a pink banner, nearly three stories high, in the lobby of the Hart Building: "VOTE PEACE / FIRE BUSH."
They've dressed in pink surgical scrubs to hand out "prescriptions for peace," and in pink slips to call for the president's ouster. (Get it? Pink slips?) They've stalked the streets around the Capitol with shopping carts ("don't buy Bush's war"), evoking some resemblance to bag ladies. They've worn pink police costumes to seek "citizen's arrests."
"The Capitol Hill police loved 'em!" co-founder Murphy says.
The group enjoys friendly relations with certain Capitol Police officers, but its members get arrested a lot. Sometimes this is for being disruptive in hearings or, as on one recent occasion, deciding to block Independence Avenue. Benjamin says she has been collared about a dozen times for Code Pink activities. Another woman writes on the group's blog about being threatened with arrest and becoming "a bit weepy." (She winds up being released.)
"We're trying to change the culture and say, 'Listen, these are not your hallowed halls of seclusion,' " says Murphy, 53, who served in the Peace Corps and used to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development here and in Zaire. "They can call us smelly hippies . . . but we are not going away till the troops are home."
Benjamin, 55, who worked for the United Nations in the 1970s and later founded with her husband a human rights group called Global Exchange, says the idea for Code Pink was conceived around a picnic table at a retreat for female activists after Sept. 11, 2001. The name emerged as a mocking response to Homeland Security Department's color-coded terrorism warning levels: Code Orange, Code Red, etc.
They thought a playful approach toward activism might succeed where an angry approach would not. "Crazy male testosterone" was already poisoning the planet, Benjamin says; fun and outrageousness might save it.
Outrageousness comes easily to Benjamin, a frenetic mother of two, who changed her name from Susan to Medea in college, figuring the Greek figure probably got a bum rap for being a strong woman. She recalls that at the retreat, the discussion about creating Code Pink ended with her suggesting -- in the "spirit of joy and exorcism" -- that the women do nude cartwheels.
And they did.
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Among the dark-suited Hill staffers, it's easy to pick out the women of Code Pink eating lunch in the cafeteria of the Dirksen Building. Nearly all are wearing pink, although Ann Wright wears a bright orange Guantanamo detainee-style jumpsuit with "GONZALES, A" on the back.
Wright is a retired Army colonel who in 2003 resigned her position as a diplomat in Mongolia to protest the war. She's eating zucchini and giving an update on the morning's activities.
She says a bunch of Code Pink women, herself included, went outside the National Press Club that morning to rally against embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was giving a speech inside. A few of the women, including the formerly shy retiree Barbara Hilton, sneaked into the event without tickets -- Hilton wearing a green shirt so as not to look like a protester. She managed to blend in until Gonzales came to the podium, at which point she stood up and started telling him he should resign.
"We'd coached her on the way over," Wright says.
Hilton is now banned from the building. They took her picture in case she ever showed up again.
The "security guard who takes the pictures, he's really nice," says Wright, who says she, too, was banned from the building after a Hillary Clinton event. "If the picture isn't very good or if you don't have your peace symbol right, he lets you take it over again."
Diane Wilson comes over to talk about her morning at the Gonzales breakfast. She's a former shrimper, an environmental activist and a fifth-generation resident of the tiny town of Seadrift, Tex.
"The plan was to handcuff myself to Gonzales," Wilson says. But security came around asking for her ticket and she figured she'd get kicked out shortly, so under pretense of looking in her purse, she handcuffed herself to her chair.
"They started jerking me and I was jerking the chair between us," she says. Finally, the handcuffs broke. Cheap pair, Wilson says. If she'd had her other handcuffs with her, that wouldn't have happened.
Wright and Wilson gather their things to catch up with the rest of the Code Pink group, which has already left the cafeteria to head to a hearing. They joke and giggle. Wright tells Wilson her real name is "trouble" and Wilson replies that no, Wright's real name is "trouble." Wright stops in a hallway to take off her orange jumpsuit, which she says is difficult to walk in, revealing a tank top that says IMPEACH BUSH & CHENEY. One must make a lot of wardrobe changes in this line of work, she says. Wilson giggles.
"Diane -- she's done some of the most outrageous things in the world," Wright says. "Hey, Diane, tell her about chaining yourself to the tower."
Wilson tells about that, and then she mentions her nine hunger strikes. " I can do a hunger strike," she says.
Eventually, they meet up with the rest of the crew, which has left a hearing on homeland security and moved on to a hearing on veterans affairs.
Later this day and the next, the women of Code Pink will hug Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a liberal Democrat from Hawaii ("He's wonderful," Benjamin says) and commiserate about the war with Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., a Democrat from Missouri ("Keep giving 'em hell in those hearings!" Benjamin tells him). They will wander into John McCain's office and serenade an uninterested staffer with an antiwar song, and attempt to talk to a leading House Republican, Adam Putnam of Florida, about options other than "cut and run" and "stay the course."
"He seemed to be listening," one of the women says hopefully.
Outside, they will playfully suggest to a passing woman that she join their activities in the Dirksen Building. (She does not.) Inside, they will be trailed through the hall of a congressional office building by a pack of police officers and will manage to fake out most of them by climbing some stairs and then coming back down again.
They will stake out senators who are taking the Capitol subway to the floor to vote. There's a minute or two between the arrivals of subway cars, when the senators find themselves trapped on the platform with the women of Code Pink. Autumnrain is there, telling the legislators to end the war, and getting patted on the shoulder by a senator. Benjamin is there, asking senator after senator to vote yes on an amendment to end funding for the war within a year. (The amendment will later fail.)
Some of the senators are friendly. Some seem relieved when they can escape onto the subway cars.
"Bring the troops home!" Autumnrain calls out.
The subway cars rumble off.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company