When peace activist Medea Benjamin stepped to the podium at the annual New Jersey Peace Action dinner yesterday, she already was known as co-founder of the human rights organization Global Exchange and the women's anti-war group CODEPINK.Yesterday, Benjamin received another title: terrorist.
Some 18 people from groups that oppose anti-war protests as "anti-American" hoisted signs condemning CODEPINK as supporting terrorism.
"I'm here to support our soldiers," said Beverly Perlson, founder of the group Band of Mothers. Perlson, whose son served four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, flew in from Chicago to attend the rally in Morris County. She said CODEPINK protesters, who have agitated for the closure of a military recruitment center in Berkeley, Calif., are not just "anti-victory," they are "pro-defeat."
"They want to see us lose. I don't understand this," Perlson said, after a heated exchange with CODEPINK supporters. "I've been referred to as the mother of a terrorist. ... My son isn't a terrorist."
"They are a very virulent anti-American group," Carolyn Van Zorge, of North Bergen, state coordinator for the group Gathering of Eagles, said of CODEPINK, which has regional offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and New York.
A driver entering the hotel told the protesters, "I feel sorry for you." A protester spat back, "Go to hell!" Another remarked, "Keep driving, communist!"
Seated at a table in the hotel, Medea Benjamin, a San Francisco resident dressed in pink, listened to the list of accusations from protesters outside.
An issue frequently raised by protesters was $650,000 raised by CODEPINK for humanitarian aid in Iraq. Protesters maintain the money made its way to Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. Benjamin said the donations were used for medicine and goods given to Fallujah refugees, especially women and children.
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Perlson dismissed the 250 dinner attendees as "terrorists," but Benjamin said that is "misguided."
"We get calls and e-mails from people in the military every day saying, 'Thank-you. We want to come home,'" Benjamin said.
But Benjamin admits she has a "soft spot" for the protesters. "I feel I have more in common with them than I do with most Americans," Benjamin said.
Another speaker at the anti-war event, retired Army Col. Ann Wright, served 29 years in the military and specialized in post-conflict reconstruction. She spent 16 years as a diplomat before resigning over the Iraq war.
Wright, who now lives in Hawaii, said she liked to meet protesters like the Gathering of Eagles. "I find that we agree on a lot of things," she said. "We agree the military should not be used for illegal purposes."
For Vietnam veteran Douglas Fuller, who was protesting outside, there seemed to be some common ground.
"As far as war goes, I hate war," said Fuller, who drove from Ludlow, Mass., for the rally. "Guys over there are fighting for the freedoms we have here. I feel sorry for them. I know what they're going through. There's no glory."
Nyier Abdou may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 The Star Ledger