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2006-07-10

Troops Home Fast: Nationwide Hunger Strikes Protest Iraq War

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Thousands of protestors gathered across the nation over the July 4th holiday to protest the Iraq war. Three thousand people around the world are fasting or have done so for at least one day this past week as part of a national "Troops Home Fast" to end the Iraq war. We speak with CodePink founder, Medea Benjamin. [includes rush transcript]

We begin by looking at the efforts to end the war in Iraq. A recent Gallup poll found that roughly 2 in 3 Americans want the U.S to withdraw troops from Iraq, with 31 percent wanting this to start immediately.

Last week, over the July 4th holiday, thousands of protestors gathered across the nation to protest the war. And 3,000 people around the world are fasting or have done so for at least one day this past week as part of a national * "Troops Home Fast"* to end the Iraq war. The anti-war organization Code Pink launched the fast last weekend and participants include Cindy Sheehan, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn Dick Gregory, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Alice Walker and Danny Glover. The fasters plan to stay in front of the White House every day until August 14th, when they move the hunger strike next to President Bush’s vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas.

  • Medea Benjamin, longtime peace activist and founder of Code Pink.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now in Washington by Medea Benjamin, longtime peace activist, founder of CodePINK one of those engaged in the fast. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Medea.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Go thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First off, yesterday, as the newsmakers were coming out of the studios, particularly Senator Richard Lugar, people who are involved in the fast, who are part of CodePINK, confronted him. Why? And what happened?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, part of this fast is to put pressure on our elected officials, and sometimes we can reach them in their offices, and sometimes we can reach them in other places, like when they’re appearing on the talk shows. And so, we were out Sunday morning, early, to try to talk to Richard Lugar — we also talked to Christopher Dodd — tell them why we’re doing this fast, how determined we are to end this war, ask them to come out and stand with us in front of the White House one day to show their support, but more importantly, ask them what they’re going to do to end the violence in Iraq.

And we are — this morning, we have a team of fasters who are going through the halls of Congress and leaving letters to every single member of the House and of the Senate with several boxes in them, asking them: Do you support the fast and the call for the troops to come home? Will you join us one day in front of the White House? Will you fast for one day? Or do you not support these efforts? And we want it to be clear who in Congress and who in the Senate — where they stand. So this is one of the major points of doing this fast.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the response of the White House, your standing outside of the White House?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, we never get any response directly from the White House, but we are out there every time they’re doing a press conference. For example, they just had a press conference with the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and we were out there talking about Canada’s recent role of being much more supportive the of the Bush administration and refusing to give refugee status to the U.S. war resisters who have gone to Canada and managed to get on major Canadian television, in the major Canadian papers. We will be out there when the foreign minister from England is there this week. So when we’re outside the White House, we do get a chance to at least interact with some of the visitors who are coming.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how the fast began, how the gathering took place on Independence Day weekend?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first I should say that it was many of us talking about what more we could do. We really can’t just sit around and watch the violence escalate and felt like there was — we had to go to a deeper space in our confrontation with these policies. And so, we decided to start this hunger strike.

On July 3, we launched it walking from the Gandhi statue to the White House, and it was a very beautiful ceremony with hundreds of people. We laid out a beautiful pink tablecloth in front of the White House. We had Food Not Bombs there to cook dinner for 200. We called it our fast supper. And we had a very spiritual evening, with people joining us from different faith-based communities. And that evening at midnight, we launched the fast. On July 4, was our first day, Independence Day, we tried to march in the Independence Day parade here in Washington. Unfortunately, we were not allowed. And when two of our members, including a Vietnam veteran, tried to get into the parade, he was arrested, as was a 71-year-old member of CodePINK.

AMY GOODMAN: You have experience with members of your group being arrested, especially when you try to bring speakers from abroad, especially women from Iraq. Can you talk about that past experience?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, unfortunately, when we try to exercise our First Amendment rights, we often do get arrested. We got arrested in New York when we were with the Iraqi women trying to deliver a call for peace to the U.S. mission to the U.N. We had one of our members arrested in a protest yesterday at the National Security Agency. It’s part of the territory now in these Bush days.

But I do want to say, Amy, that it is a very positive experience, being in front of the White House, and we have managed to gain back a lot of our rights. We have a permit to be in front of the White House, which took us a long time to get. We have, in many occasions, like the museum that’s right next to the White House, when we tried to go in with our signs on, they said we weren’t allowed in. We went out and came back in with more people, and they decided that, yes, we did have the right to go in with our buttons and our political shirts. So we feel like we’re — here we are trying to take back some of the rights that we’ve lost under the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, we’re speaking to you today with a new Gallup poll out that finds that roughly two in three Americans are urging a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, with almost a third wanting that to start immediately, and the news of former U.S. soldiers being charged with raping a young Iraqi woman — she — now it’s believed — is 14 years old — killing her and three members of her family — her mother, her father, her five-year-old sister — in March. The military said, in a statement, the charges had been lodged against four soldiers accused of rape and murder. A fifth soldier charged with dereliction of duty in the case, though he didn’t participate in the alleged crimes, knew but failed to report about the incident.

I’ve just come from Eugene, Oregon, the Oregon Country Fair. And this is not far from Madras, Oregon, where Thomas Tucker, one of the two soldiers that recently were kidnapped and beheaded. It now looks like the military is talking about possibly the abduction and beheading of those two soldiers, another from Houston, Texas, may be because they were part of the same unit, and it was revenge for this unit being involved with the rape and killings — at the time, we didn’t know about this — of this family. Your response?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, my response, that it’s time for us to do more, and those third of the people, who in polls say they want the troops to come home right now, need to get more active. And we think this fast is one way that they can do it. We’ve had people who have read about the fast in the paper, and they’re in West Palm Beach, for example, and just jumped on a plane and came and joined us. We have a woman from Vancouver, in Washington state, who heard about the fast and decided that she had to do something more, came and joined us for this week. People who thought they were going to fast for one day have ended up fasting for the entire week and are going into their second week. This can really be a catalyst if people join. Every day we have hundreds more signing up on the troopshomefast.org website and saying they want to participate.

Now we have people coming to us with new ideas. Let’s say, ask people to fast for a day without electricity to feel what it feels like in Baghdad. Let’s ask people to fast for a day without using gasoline to feel what it would feel like to transform ourselves in a country that’s not dependant on other people’s oil. So this really could be a catalyst, Amy.

And I know a lot of your listeners are among those people who are angry with this administration, who are heartbroken when they read the news every day. We really urge them to join us. If you can come to Washington, we’re actually going to be here until September 21, which is International Peace Day, when we will be launching, with the Declaration of Peace, a week of actions all over the country. So there’s plenty of time between now and September 21 for those of your listeners who are really disgusted with this war to come to Washington, to spend some time with us, and if you can’t, to do it from your own home. There’s about 25 cities where people are fasting. We want this to be happening all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea, a question about candidates around this country, around war. There is a hotly contested race in Virginia right now, where a Republican has switched parties — James Webb — to the Democratic Party, criticizing the Republicans around the issue of war. He’s a veteran, challenging George Allen. In Connecticut, you have Joseph Lieberman, longtime senator, who has been supporting the war, being challenged by Ned Lamont. And now, because he’s concerned in the upcoming primary that he could lose, Joseph Lieberman has announced that he will still run as an independent. And then you have Hillary Clinton, who has not expressed her desire for the troops to be brought home immediately, in New York. What about these candidates, whether Republican or Democrat?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, what we have to do, Amy, is form a strong voter bloc of people who say they will only vote for candidates that call for a speedy withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. And there is a vehicle for doing that, and that is Voters for Peace, as part of this hunger strike. Those who can’t join us in the fast itself, we’re asking them to get 100 people to sign onto the voters’ pledge. They can do it online. They can download a hard copy and take it around to their office, to their neighbors. They can walk the streets. We need to have millions of people say, only candidates who are against the war will get our support. And they can go to the Troops Home Fast website or votersforpeace.org website. If we had millions of people already signed up for the November elections and then more for the 2008 elections, we will get more peace candidates.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, I’m sure everyone is saying that they’re against the war, that in the end, they want it to end. But what about the whole issue of immediate withdrawal and the issue that is raised, that it will be abandoning Iraq and allowing it to descend into civil war?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, what is — the missed story in the news media here is that the Iraqis themselves have come up with a reconciliation plan. It was a 28-point plan that included a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. That was absolutely essential for any of the armed groups to say that they would go along with this plan. Under U.S. pressure, that was taken out of the plan, which makes it dead in the water.

So we are saying we support the reconciliation plan put together by the Iraqi government with a number of these different armed groups and that that is essential for ending the violence in Iraq. And as part of an essential part of that plan is withdrawal of U.S. troops. That plan has been sanctioned by the Iraqi government. The Iraqi president, vice president, and national security adviser have all asked for a timeline for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. 87% of the Iraqi people have asked for that. If, indeed, we are trying to support the Iraqi people, we should listen to what they are calling for and demand that our elected officials follow their lead and set a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops fast.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, I want to thank you very much for being with us, longtime peace activist, founder of CodePINK, one of the founders of Global Exchange. Your website, one more time.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Troopshomefast.org.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin is speaking to us from Washington, D.C., where she, along with hundreds of other people in D.C. and around the country, are involved in a fast to oppose the war in Iraq.

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