Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Thoughts on the pieing of Medea Benjamin

Your browser is not able to display this multimedia content.

When a friend of mine mentioned that Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace (or Global Trade-Off and Code Pinkerton, as someone posts on San Diego IndyMedia), got a pie smashed in her face at the US Social Forum in Atlanta on Saturday, my first thought was: what a brilliant target! When I read the statement of Bakers Without Borders and Co-Optation Watch, the group(s) responsible for the action, I got even more excited. The statement begins:

"[We] demand accountability from a self-appointed ‘spokesperson’ whose actions further the commodification of resistance and sabotage our movement's sustainability and credibility. This person's actions benefit the NGO Industrial Complex at the expense of real democracy and solidarity."

While the US Social Forum brought together over 10,000 activists from across the US (and around the world), and I'm looking forward to hearing inspiring (and aggravating) stories from friends who attended, there is also no doubt that the event served as a platform for an endless variety of “nonprofit” shenanigans, and I think Medea Benjamin is the perfect target for a critique of the nonprofit industrial complex (the way in which nonprofits have become a self-serving mechanism that facilitates the dumping of billions of dollars into projects that support the status quo rather than challenging it). While I will admit to sometimes being inspired by Medea's interruptions in the halls of Congress (there's Medea getting arrested again, I think while listening to Free Speech Radio News -- at least she's using her privilege for something useful), she's also a grandstanding, jetsetting, new-agey gender essentialist who certainly embodies the contradictions of the funded liberal left.

But the video of Medea getting pied did not leave me with the glee I'd expected; instead I found myself sobbing. I couldn't help but respond viscerally -- it didn't really look funny, it looked like an assault. Maybe it was the context -- before the pieing, Medea was not giving a speech, she was chatting casually with a bunch of CODEPINK supporters and then boom, pie in her face! Maybe it's that I don't hate Medea like I hate some of the other eminent targets of pieing, like San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who famously declared, "If you can't afford to live in San Francisco, then leave." Maybe it's that, since I found myself empathizing with Medea, I couldn't help wondering what a surprise pie in my face would feel like -- How much would it hurt, and for how long -- how deeply would it trigger my chronic pain? Would it be hard for me to breathe? And, most importantly, would it feel like an assault? Would it give me flashbacks of getting bashed, make me scared to be in public?

I don't necessarily have the answers to these questions, and I still think the action was well-executed and effective, it just brings up questions for me about the borders between violent and nonviolent direct action. While I believe in nonviolence, I don't believe in Nonviolence. What I mean is that my version of nonviolence is very different, much more situationally-specific than the version of nonviolence championed by the liberal establishment (to put this a different way, I do believe that there are legitimate arguments for both "nonviolent" and for "violent" resistance).

Of course, it's possible to see almost every action as either violent or nonviolent, depending on the circumstances and who gets to decide. While mainstream media (and liberals like Medea) would like us to think that property destruction is violent, I think that property destruction is the ideal nonviolent action (the more property, the better), as long as no one is injured. Of course, someone else might respond that property destruction, even when no one is directly injured, still terrorizes people, causes long-term traumatic effects.

I don't believe that if a cop or a basher or a battering lover smashes you in the face with a baton or a fist or a brick, it is violent to respond in any way that gets you out of harm’s way. It may be more violent not to respond. This is not as simple as self-defense; I think there is also such a thing as self-offense.

I don't know exactly where all of this leads, I guess it's just what came up for me when I watched Medea Benjamin get pied. Strangely, I find myself nervous about expressing empathy for Medea, as if articulating a radical politic should not involve such messy or conflicted emotions.

In Medea's response, she does echo some of my thoughts about the potential violence of pieing (and, to her credit, welcomes discussion), but she also spins some grotesque liberal garbage, such as when she says, “I actually feel sorry for people who harbor so much resentment and come from a place of such anger.”

Anger is where resistance comes from, last time I checked.


Jacob said...

Hi Mattilda,
This is an incredibly great post. I agree with you completely. Most good resistance should have space for ambiguity and should breed room for response.
P.S. I just subscribed and your blog is really great.

mattilda a.k.a. matt bernstein sycamore said...

Hi Jake --

Thanks so much for writing, and for your analysis -- I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog!

And I love when you say, "Most good resistance should have space for ambiguity and should breed room for response." That's just what I need to hear before finally getting off the computer and preparing for bed...

Love --

amy said...

I've been reading this blog for a while, but I wanted to say I really liked this post. We (radicals) have to constantly guard ourselves against tipping over into blind dogmatism, so it's nice to see someone express well-considered ambivalence about a situation like this.

mattilda a.k.a. matt bernstein sycamore said...

Amy, you're absolutely right -- blind dogmatism is certainly the worst... I'm glad you liked this post, and thanks for the support!

Love --

sq said...

seeley here--ok mattilda, i signed up w/google of all things just so i can respond directly to yer blog. first, in case you haven't caught up w/this n r still interested, a link to s. stryker's et al's comments on 'the gendercator', n why many folx do want a public viewing of it.

next, thanx for being yer ragingly hot crippled self; yer last glory hole descrip really stirred me. plus the sleepless fears/danger behind the blinds, in a different way.
next, thanx for an also excellent exploration re: the m.b. pieing; i'm debating w/myself continually a bout considerations of non/violence, resistance, n compassion.
last, i need to add that lately i seem to become full of rage even more easily than usual, so that's where i'm coming from right now. i'll try to be constructive, but may need to rant a bit.
accepting, and then validating the 'worstness' of "blind" dogmatism, in comments following how many posts referencing ways that you are disabled--but still positioning yourself n being accepted by others as among the "radicals"--*pisses me off.*
has our mutual friend 'socket' never indicated to you how it feels to be actively politically radical with one eye doing the navigating for the other missing from the socket, n constantly dealing w/friends' n strangers' statements that 'anyone not being able to see (well) = they are bad'--has no one ever asked u to think about challenging the implications of phrases like 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind'?
i shouldn't hold fellow cripples more accountable for checking ableism and having solidarity than able-bodied folx (or as many of us like to call them, tabs/temporarily able-bodieds), it's just that i'm more surprised that you would be sloppy about that. someone i've found discussing this (and much else) really well is pdx blogger 'little light'--i recommend starting w/the post
ok, i'm too tired now to say much of the other rageful stuff i want to a large population out there--my arms can't manage any more computer use for now. but if u wanna discuss this in a way that doesn't require me to hurt myself w/more jenky computer time, u know how to call me, grrl. w/love n all the hard stuff, askew/sq

mattilda a.k.a. matt bernstein sycamore said...

Seeley, thanks for all of these supportive thoughts -- of course, you are right about the ableism of "blind" dogmatism -- I actually caught myself using "blind" in a similar way in another context recently, but before publishing, and yes, I did read through that comment without registering the blind part, which is absolutely negotiating an ableist culture by its own rules -- thanks for calling me on my sloppiness!

And thanks for the links -- I did read Susan Stryker's comments, which are quite brilliant, although she did also sign the petition so I'm a bit confused -- I'll have to read it all through again. I did see the movie, too, so I have lots to say about that as well.

And yes, call anytime!

Love --

Designs on Democracy team said...

I think people who consider Global Exchange the embodiment of the "nonprofit industrial complex" should do their homework. I totally agree with the critique of the foundation-driven NGO world. But GX is actually one of the few examples of a group that is NOT majority foundation funded. Most of the people who work there are low-paid committed activists, who do their best with limited resources. Medea and others there have been super sucessful at their work, and as a result people assume it's just because they have lots of money. But if the "nonprofit industrial complex" analysis takes numbers that describe a wide range of organizations and funding sources called nonprofits in the US, and paints them all with the same brush, grave injustices will be perpetrated in the name of social justice. As was the case of the attack on Medea.

mattilda a.k.a. matt bernstein sycamore said...

Oh, no -- homework! I left school for a reason, but actually it wasn't that one... although, speaking of the nonprofit industrial complex, we certainly need to take a look at universities...

But speaking more directly to your comment, I don't see anyone saying specifically that Global Exchange is the "embodiment" of the nonprofit industrial complex. The statement from Bakers Without Borders says:

"[We] demand accountability from a self-appointed ‘spokesperson’ whose actions further the commodification of resistance and sabotage our movement's sustainability and credibility. This person's actions benefit the NGO Industrial Complex at the expense of real democracy and solidarity."

And I say, "I think Medea Benjamin is the perfect target for a critique of the nonprofit industrial complex." Why do I think she's a perfect target, even if she is perhaps not the "embodiment" of the worst the nonprofit industrial complex has to offer? That's a good question, and for me it comes down to the ways in which Medea/CODEPINK/Global Exchange position themselves as "leaders" of a movement, based on their access to funding, resources, media, etc. at the expense of people more directly connected to direct action resistance. That isn't saying that there isn't some good work (including, sometimes, direct action resistance) produced by the Medea complex, but the tragedy of the nonprofit industry, as far as I'm concerned, is specifically that nonprofits are positioned as the ONLY way that effective work can occur -- and that goes way beyond foundation limitations to the very way that the possibilities for resistance emerge or are squelched.

I can't speak to the specifics of finances over at Global Exchange, but I certainly would add that there are "low-paid committed activists" working at almost any nonprofit, and the fact that they are low-paid does not testify to the integrity of the organization. In fact, one of the ways that even the grossest "nonprofits" survive and thrive is to underpay their workers and rely on their dedication to the issues the organization is supposedly addressing. Of course, this is a self-perpetuating mechanism.

Thanks so much for your feedback!