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How To Be A Citizen: The Role Of Protest


This year, as you may have heard, we are celebrating NPR's 50th birthday. Here on this program, we decided to contribute with a series of conversations focused on what it means to be a good citizen. So far, we've heard about running for office, serving as a staff member to an elected person and starting a local food delivery program. But sometimes people don't think working within the system can get the job done, so they take it to the streets. We have three people with us today who have done that and sometimes still do. So we're going to ask them what role they think protest plays in being a good citizen.

Medea Benjamin is a co-founder of Code Pink. That is an anti-war and pro-peace group that formed in 2002 originally to oppose the war in Iraq. And it continues - their activism - to this day. Medea, welcome.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: We're also joined by DeRay Mckesson, founder of the group Campaign Zero, addressing police violence. You might remember him from the blue vest he wore all the time during the protests in Ferguson, Mo. DeRay Mckesson, thank you so much for being with us.

DERAY MCKESSON: Good to be here.

MARTIN: And the Reverend Rob Schenck. He is a public theologian who was once at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement. He has since disavowed some of his prior tactics and has turned his attention to gun violence. Reverend Schenck, thank you so much for joining us as well.

ROB SCHENCK: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to start at the beginning for each of you. Medea, I'm going to start with you. You were involved in politics and other issues before starting Code Pink. But what made you decide that street protest was something that was necessary, that you had to participate in?

BENJAMIN: I became a protester from the time I was in high school. And that goes way back to the days of Vietnam. In my case, my sister's boyfriend was shipped off and a couple of months later sent her a ear of a Viet Cong to wear as a necklace. And I saw how this nice young man could be turned into a killer and how governments lie and drag us into war. So I got out on the streets then, and I continue to do that to this day.

MARTIN: DeRay, what about you? You had a leadership position, as I recall, in a public school system before you turned to activism around the time of Ferguson. Could you just talk us through - like, what is it that made you feel that that is what you had to do?

MCKESSON: Yeah. So I was the senior director of human capital in Minneapolis Public Schools. And, you know, I looked up - I saw that Mike Brown had been killed in Ferguson. And I was like, you know, he is as old as my students would have been at that point, and the least I could do is go down for the weekend. Like, that was my plan. I was going to go down for Saturday, Sunday and do what I could because there was a call for people to come and stand in support.

And the second night I was in St. Louis was the first night that I was tear gassed. That changed everything for me. And then we went on - you know, we were in the street for 400 days. And then there was this question of like, how do we end this? Like, I didn't know - you know, I knew the police were doing a lot of not great things in community. I'm from Baltimore, live in Baltimore. But I just had no clue how systemic it was, how structural it was, how ever-present it was. And that's why we tried to organize around that. So we've - I've stayed committed to that work because I do believe that we can win in this lifetime.

MARTIN: And, Reverend Schenck, what about you? And people will have heard you speak on this program and on others about your kind of evolution around the issues that engage you and the tactics that you used. But could you just start at the beginning? Like, why did you feel that protests were the best way to proceed at the time?

SCHENCK: Well, I was shaped in a family that believed in speaking out. In fact, I had a Jewish father, a Christian mother. And my father educated all four of his children in the story of the Holocaust. And I remember asking him - I must have been 7 or 8 years old. I said, how could people do this to each other? And he said, this is what happens when good people say and do nothing in the face of evil. And I grew up with that ethic. And then, really, my entry into street activism was a very practical matter. It was something that could be done almost spontaneously. It was very visible. It commanded a lot of attention. They could just immediately get involved. And that turned out to be very effective.

MARTIN: You know, protest has a long history in American life. I mean, even before this was a country, there was protests, like the Boston Tea Party. Like, what was that except a protest, right? But it's also always been controversial. The whole reason that you're doing it is because other people aren't agreeing with you, and you feel like you have to make a stand. And I'm just wondering, you know, Medea, what about that? I mean, when you - how do you think about that, knowing that it's going to cause a reaction and people are going to be mad?

BENJAMIN: I think it's our job to shake people up and get them to think. I remember when the U.S. was about to invade Iraq, and many of us thought, what on Earth are we getting ourselves into and organized huge protests. It was February 15, 2003, when it was called at the time the largest protests ever in human history. We got millions of people around the world out on the streets. And we were attacked here by other citizens in the U.S. saying, how can you do that? And now people recognize that it was a war we should have never gotten into. I think the same is happening now around the U.S. support for Israel and the horrific attack on Gaza that just happened, when hundreds were killed, a lot of them children. And we are going out on the streets to say, how can our government keep giving $3.8 billion a year to a country committing war crimes?

MARTIN: Is it - is the point of it to get the numbers out? Because I've seen you in situations where you were alone. I mean, you've confronted officials at public events where you were alone. I mean, what is the point at the core of it, to get people to stop even for a minute to think about what you're saying?

BENJAMIN: It's to interrupt the narrative. And I've had the opportunity to do that in front of Barack Obama and George Bush and even Donald Trump. And you can't get the numbers when it comes to something like that, but you certainly can get the attention of the most important person in power. But then we do want to get numbers up because we want people to show that the sentiment we're feeling is one that's echoed by many, many people around the country. So there are some times when one person can make a big difference and some times when you need to get those hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets.

MARTIN: So, DeRay, what about you? I mean, is the point the numbers? Or what is the point as far as you're concerned?

MCKESSON: You know, I've always thought about protests as this idea of telling the truth in public, right? We did it in 2014 with our bodies. And people did it in 2020, when George Floyd was killed, with their bodies. But there are a host of ways that people can do it. And I'm always mindful that protest creates space for the answer, but protest is not the answer, right? Protest is not the solution, and Protest forces people to confront the problem.

So, you know, at some point, it is numbers. It is like, we just got to block traffic, shut it down, trap you are - you know, I think about when people used to sit in the parking lot at the DOJ building so that they couldn't go home. It was about, like, forcing a crisis. And once that ends, once that moment of forcing the conversation in public ends, then it becomes a time to figure out, like, what is the structural change? Like, how do we do it structurally? What does it mean structurally?

And I think that's, frankly, where the police work is the hardest, is that the police killed more people in 2020 than every single year of data we have on record except for 2018. But when people tell the story of 2020, they're like big win, tons of people on the street, da, da, da - is I'm always mindful that a narrative shift does not mean an outcome shift.

MARTIN: Reverend Schenck, what about you? You've looked back at some of your protest tactics. Like, you used to throw pig fetuses at one point. I remember you threw a pig fetus at an elected official or at least a candidate. You've heckled people outside of their churches. You've said for yourself that at some times you felt like you dehumanized the people that you disagreed with. What was it that made you stop?

SCHENCK: Well, there's both a simple and very complex answer to that. You know, of course, I had my own crisis of conscience, which actually activism, I see, is one of the means to inducing that. As people watch activists in the street, one of the things that happens is they're stricken in their conscience. It awakens the conscience. For me, it forced me to examine the effect of my activism, my disposition towards my opponents and how it was treating them.

I do think the question of ethics has to be revisited over and over again in the world of activism if for no other reason than adrenaline and some of the other brain chemistry that goes on when you're in the streets. You're in both an offensive and defensive position and the fight or flight. Sometimes the fight overtakes the moment when flight would be the better course. And that forced me to examine my interaction with counterprotesters, and that created a crisis of conscience for me. And then I had to examine what we were actually protesting for and what the outcome of it would be. So for me, that meant a reorientation that changed my opinion on a number of things. What didn't change was my opinion on the effectiveness of activism. But we have to ask ourselves over and over again, has the cause been eclipsed by the method?

MARTIN: So, Medea, I want to ask you about that. You - your group is a peace group, so your actions are intentionally nonviolent. You may interrupt a meeting or yell or do something of that sort, but you don't hit people. You don't throw things and that sort. But you say that part of the purpose is to tell people you're angry while other people are also angry who are on the other side. And I just wonder how you think about that. No deep discussion is taking place when everybody is yelling. So I just wonder, like, how do you think about that? You know you're going to draw a reaction.

BENJAMIN: Well, I don't tell other people how they should do their activism or begrudge them from the tactics that they choose. But we do think about how we want to be perceived. So for example, when we were making our signs for Saturday's action, we made hearts. And we put on the hearts the pictures of the children who had been killed in Gaza. And we feel that that gives people a chance to look at the victims as real people who had lives, dreams, hopes that were snuffed out. But that's our particular group. As I said, I think other people want to express themselves in other ways. And they not only have the right to do that, they should do that.

MARTIN: Do you expect to get hurt? Or do you think you might get hurt, Medea?

BENJAMIN: (Laughter) I do, Michel.

MARTIN: I mean - and I hope you don't mention - if you don't mind - I hope you don't mind my mentioning that. You're tiny.

BENJAMIN: Well, I'm tiny, and I'm getting old. I'm 68 years old now. And I've had my arms broken. I've been dragged around. And here in the United States, when I get arrested, I've had my arm pulled out of its socket about eight different times. There is the chance that you might get hurt. But people don't have to do that and put themselves in those positions for being an activist. I think it's important to get out of your comfort zone and risk arrest if it's appropriate. But yes, when you really put yourselves on the line, you've got to recognize that sometimes you might get hurt.

MARTIN: Well, it's a rich topic, and we've only just scratched the surface. But before we let you go, I did want to ask each of you - a question we're asking all of our guests is, what does it mean to you to be a good citizen? Medea, do you want to start?

BENJAMIN: To me, it means taking responsibility for what our government's doing. And when our government is doing something wrong, be it taking the grand proportion of our discretionary funds and putting it into the military instead of people's needs, that we stand up and we not only voice our opinion, but we get out there and make our feelings heard in a way that can be as effective as possible.

MARTIN: Reverend Schenck, what do you think it means to be a good citizen?

SCHENCK: Certainly to be passionate and engaged in an informed way. And engagement can mean a lot of different things. But passivity and silence has generally not served cultures, countries, civilizations well. In fact, it's been quite deleterious and in even - in some instances, catastrophic. So I think everybody needs to be engaged on a level they're comfortable with and, I would add, open-minded, even to your opposition, because it can at least sharpen your argument if not change your mind for the better. It did for me.

MARTIN: DeRay, final thought from you. What do you think it means to be a good citizen?

MCKESSON: Yeah. I think that at our best, we demand that this country live up to the promise that it can, that we know that poverty is a policy choice. And we can make a different choice. We know that homelessness is a policy choice. We can make a different choice. Police violence is a policy choice. We can make a different choice. And I think that at our best, citizens demand that we make that right choice.

MARTIN: That was DeRay Mckesson, a co-founder of Campaign Zero. That's a group pursuing police reform. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. And the Reverend Rob Schenck is a public theologian and author of a number of books. He's formerly at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement. He has now turned his attention to gun violence. Thank you all so much for joining us.

MCKESSON: Thanks so much.

BENJAMIN: Thank you, Michel.

SCHENCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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