Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Thoughts on the pieing of Medea Benjamin

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | July 03, 2007 4:25 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Bakers without Borders, Code Pink, direct action group, Medea Benjamin, nonviolent resistance, pieing

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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.

Mattilda blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com


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Who knew this pieing would cause such a stir that Mattilda herself would be blogging about it!! Those Bakers really did their job.

The pictures were graphic. I couldn't view the video because I don't have the software, but there is that still frame. And sometimes the fingers on her back are cropped out, but in some you can see the person with their hand pressed into her back to create resistance... and that connection in that space is very terrifying for me.

But this person-to-person open violence, captured on film as a single moment in time, does it falsely appear more powerful or more violent than what it speaks out against? What if we could bake all the hidden, silencing violence of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex with Medea and others pressing their hand into our back, and capture it in a single frame of film?

Oh! And did we ever solve the mystery of whether or not the pie was vegan?

Thanks for this post. I must say I was surprised -- in a good, challenging way -- by your unexpected turn.

One thing that was really interesting for me at the USSF was the lack of privileging (and even presence, in many cases) of the progressive-to-liberal establishment left. This perception may have a lot to do with the specific conversations and events I chose to participate in -- I spent a lot of time with people from the Resource Generation delegation talking about class privilege and wealth redistribution, attended a Generation 5 workshop on transformative justice and part of the INCITE! discussions around _The Revolution Will Not Be Funded_, and was thrilled by the beautiful and inspiring activism of folks from UBUNTU, SONG, and many other groups -- but it seemed to me that the predominant voices of the forum were radical, community-based activists working in many different areas from many different approaches. The "center" of the forum seemed beautifully non-centered, multiple, grassroots ... distinctly * not * the usual nonprofit-industrial-complex/white-liberal/progressive so-called center that is all too common at gatherings of the U.S. Left.

Medea Benjamin may be one of the few "establishment Left" folks who even attended. (I wasn't aware she was there, and am unaware of any other progressive celebrities' presence.) On some level, however strong my critique of CodePink's gender-essentialist analysis, I appreciate that she showed up. So many of the leftie celebrities who are progressive-conference regulars seemed to feel it wasn't worth their time to show face and listen to radical community-based activists if they weren't being paid to give a keynote speech ...


Nick, thank you for that beautiful question:

"What if we could bake all the hidden, silencing violence of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex with Medea and others pressing their hand into our back, and capture it in a single frame of film?"

As for the second question, I'm certain that even if it was vegan it would have way too much sugar for hypoglycemic girl like me...

And Jessica, that's fascinating to hear that the nonprofit industrial types did not hold onto center stage as usual -- I can't wait to hear more!

Love --
mattilda

Wow! You perfectly explained my believes on non-violence. However, although I agree that the NGO-ization (as Arundhati Roy calls it) ends up hurting resistance efforts, does targeting a high profile participant in the social forum really make sense? I mean she's clearly on our side, she just isn't as perfect as we'd like her to be. I just wonder whose interests does it serve to pick fights with the public faces of our movement? And I agree with you, she looks so hurt in the video. Other times I've seen people pied (like you said, giving speech or whatever) it was truly grand, but this time was a little unsettling.

Anyway, great post! Consider me a new regular blog reader!

@Nick - if it wasn't vegan, then it's safe to say it wasn't nonviolent. :)

The HRC was at USSF too.