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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Medea Benjamin Interrupts President Obama, But Isn't A 'Heckler'

Aw, Medea Benjamin.    Is she the Sojourner Truth of the 21st century?
We've seen the pint-sized co-founder of the Code Pink organization protest movements around DC for several years now.  

Code Pink's Medea Benjamin at Occupy the 99% rally in DC in 2011.  Photo CD Brown.
We've seen her protesting President Bush's war in Iraq, we've seen her and her merry band of pink T-shirt wearing followers at Occupy DC movements, and now she's (once again) leading the charge for the current administration to "close GITMO".
When we saw her protesting in front of the White House earlier this month, signs in tow, demanding that President Obama close Guantanamo Bay, we had to chat with her to find out why GITMO was foremost on her mind.  After all, millions of regular American citizens are jailed each year - without due process - for crimes they didn't commit - so why just protest the imprisonment of Guantanamo Bay detainees? 

We asked.  Here's what she had to say.

"We should protest it all. The U.S. prison system, I think this [GITMO] is a part of the U.S. prison system", she said. "You tell me a case, and I'll be there protesting it." 

Certainly Medea isn't going to protest every agenda, everywhere, all the time, but she did make an appearance during the president's remarks to roughly 300 attendees on counterterrorism at National Defense University last week where she spoke 'directly' to President Obama to make her concerns known. 

Here's a transcript of their exchange.  [VIDEO]
President Obama on Guatanamo Bay (and Medea Benjamin)
The glaring exception to this time-tested approach is the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.  The original premise for opening GTMO -- that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention -- was found unconstitutional five years ago.  In the meantime, GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.  Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at GTMO. 

During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people -- almost $1 million per prisoner.  And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep GTMO open at a time when we’re cutting investments in education and research here at home, and when the Pentagon is struggling with sequester and budget cuts.

As President, I have tried to close GTMO.  I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States. 
These restrictions make no sense.  After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from GTMO with Congress’s support.  When I ran for President the first time, John McCain supported closing GTMO -- this was a bipartisan issue.  No person has ever escaped one of our super-max or military prisons here in the United States -- ever.  Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism or terrorism-related offenses, including some folks who are more dangerous than most GTMO detainees.  They're in our prisons. 
And given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened. 
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Excuse me, President Obama -- 
THE PRESIDENT:  So -- let me finish, ma'am.  So today, once again
MEDEA BENJAMIN:  There are 102 people on a hunger strike.  These are desperate people. 
THE PRESIDENT:  I'm about to address it, ma'am, but you've got to let me speak.  I'm about to address it.
MEDEA BENJAMIN:  You're our Commander-In-Chief --
THE PRESIDENT:  Let me address it.
MEDEA BENJAMIN:  -- you an close Guantanamo Bay. 
THE PRESIDENT:  Why don’t you let me address it, ma'am.
MEDEA BENJAMIN:  There’s still prisoners --
THE PRESIDENT:  Why don’t you sit down and I will tell you exactly what I'm going to do.
MEDEA BENJAMIN:  That includes 57 Yemenis.
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you, ma'am.  Thank you.   Ma'am, thank you.  You should let me finish my sentence.  Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO.  I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions.  I’m appointing a new senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. 
I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen so we can review them on a case-by-case basis.  To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. 
MEDEA BENJAMIN:  -- prisoners already.  Release them today.
THE PRESIDENT:  Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system.  And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.
MEDEA BENJAMIN:  It needs to be --
THE PRESIDENT:  Now, ma'am, let me finish.  Let me finish, ma'am.  Part of free speech is you being able to speak, but also, you listening and me being able to speak. 
Now, even after we take these steps one issue will remain -- just how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks but who cannot be prosecuted, for example, because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law.  But once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law. 
     I know the politics are hard.  But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it.  Imagine a future -- 10 years from now or 20 years from now -- when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country.  Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike.  I'm willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it's worth being passionate about.  Is this who we are?  Is that something our Founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave our children?  Our sense of justice is stronger than that. 
We have prosecuted scores of terrorists in our courts.  That includes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit; and Faisal Shahzad, who put a car bomb in Times Square. It's in a court of law that we will try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of bombing the Boston Marathon.  Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is, as we speak, serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison here in the United States.  In sentencing Reid, Judge William Young told him, “The way we treat you…is the measure of our own liberties.”
It seems Medea just wasn't satisfied with the president's remarks, and she immediately went on to another topic during her 15 minutes of 'fame'.  (Pool reports indicate "several security officials gathered around her and let her stay").

MEDEA BENJAMIN:  How about Abdulmutallab -- locking up a 16-year-old -- is that the way we treat a 16-year old?  (Inaudible) -- can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA?  Can you stop the signature strikes killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?
     THE PRESIDENT:  We’re addressing that, ma’am. 
     MEDEA BENJAMIN:  -- .."thousands of Muslims that got killed -- will you compensate the innocent families -- that will make us safer here at home.  I love my country...I love the rule of law...Abide by the rule of law. You're a constitutional lawyer."
After her repeated interruption she was finally escorted out of the building.
Afterwards, the president told the crowd, "The voice of that woman is worth listening to."  Adding, "these are tough issues, and the notion that we can just gloss over them, is wrong."
Did Medea prove that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, (and can also get the boot)?
If only Medea were as radical about cases like of Travyon Martin, the Garrison Twins, Mumia Abul Jamal, Stop-and-Frisk' policies, and others. 
Medea, if you're reading this, we'd like you to join us in taking up the mantle for these cases as well.
Can we count on you?

Benjamin:  "I'm Not a Heckler"

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