During the course of the soon-to-be-former Bush-Cheney interregnum, millions of Americans resisted the worst excesses of a lawless and irresponsible administration that led this country into wars of whim, sanctioned torture and extraordinary rendition, embarked upon a spying regimen that made a mockery of the right to privacy and destroyed the system of checks and balances that was supposed to protect the republic from monarchical abuse.
Each year during a period of democratic decline that was so aptly anticipated by Jefferson with his 18th-century reference to “the reign of the witches,” we honored Most Valuable Progressives — groups and individuals that had boldly challenged the worst policies of an imperial White House and its pliant congresses, as well as an opposition party that frequently failed to oppose. There will, of course, still be MVPs in the new Obama-Biden era; in fact, they will be more needed than ever.
But as Bush and Cheney leave Washington, finally finished and thoroughly discredited (even if they have not been held to account for their high crimes and misdemeanors), it seems appropriate to propose one last Most Valuable Progressive designation.
As someone who covered the opposition to this worst of all presidencies, from the fight over the Florida recount, to the battle against Cheney’s energy task force secrecy, to Chalmers Johnson’s struggle to explain the concept of “blowback” in the post-9/11 moment, to Russ Feingold’s lonely Senate vote against the Patriot Act and the brilliant campaign by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee that got communities across the country to call for the renewal of basic liberties, to the great anti-war demonstrations of 2002 and early 2003 (including one in Chicago where a state senator named Barack Obama voiced his objection), to the “After Downing Street” movement (including Congressman John Conyers’ “basement hearing”) that so ably exposed the administration lies that led to an unnecessary war, to the arrival at Crawford of the righteous Cindy Sheehan, to the development of a media reform movement and a new radical communications infrastructure that refused to accept the big lies of big media, to the brilliant battles of Tim Carpenter and Progressive Democrats of America to forge a genuine political pushback against Bush and the Republicans – and to the Democrats who compromised with the administration, to the essential work of Dan DeWalt, Ellen Tenney, Rocky Anderson, David Swanson, Diane Lawrence and all the defenders of the Constitution who dared to propose the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, to the fights by Marcy Kaptur and Bernie Sanders to block bailouts for contemporary robber barons, to the sit-down strike by Latino members of the United Electrical workers union in Chicago who refused to quietly accept the assault on working Americans that was the hallmark of the Bush-Cheney economic agenda, I was privileged to tell the stories of those who believed as did good Tom Paine that the proper response to tyranny was “a long and brave resistance.”
At almost every stop on the contemporary underground railroad of righteous rebellion against wrongheaded governance, I found myself in the company of Media Benjamin, Jodie Evans, Gael Murphy and all the other remarkable women who make Code Pink the most valuable progressive organization of the Bush-Cheney years.
Taking its name from the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded alert system for scaring Americans into accepting unnecessary wars and giving up necessary freedoms, Code Pink: Women for Peace declared: “While Bush’s color-coded alerts are based on fear and are used to justify violence, the CODEPINK alert is a feisty call for women and men to “wage peace.'”
Formed in 2002 by activists who had been protesting even before Bush and Cheney took office, Code Pink was initially (and in many senses still is) an anti-war group. But Benjamin, Evans, Murphy and the tens of thousands of others who answered the call to “(reclaim) a color many of us thought we’d never wear, as a women’s statement for peace – and daring to resist an administration on the brink of war” showed a refreshing skill for adapting and evolving their protests. When Chellie Pingree, Donna Edwards, Bob McChesney and I were attempting in 2003 to block a move by the Federal Communications Commission to erase controls against media monopoly, Code Pink was an initial ally, recognizing immediately that irresponsible media made it easier for propagandists to promote irresponsible wars. It was the same with struggles against waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping, official secrecy and the penchant of Congress to tell administration insiders: “Go ahead, lie to us.”
If someone shouted an objection at a congressional hearing – where members of the House or Senate should have been objecting – it was almost always a Code Pink member. If someone was chained to the gate of an official building, dragged out of an official meeting or otherwise upsetting the status quo, it was usually a Code Pinker. “Whether at (a) presidential inauguration, John Bolton’s confirmation hearing, Condoleezza Rice’s address at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, Donald Rumsfeld’s talk at the Beverly Hills Hilton, or Dick Cheney’s fundraiser in Houston, we consistently infiltrated Bush administration gatherings to say: ‘Stop the Killing, Stop the Torture, No More Lies,” recalls Code Pink’s official history. And when Nancy Pelosi took impeachment off the table, the speaker suddenly found a Code Pink encampment outside her San Francisco home.
Code Pink did not just object, however. The group delivered humanitarian aid to those who were suffering in Fallujah and New Orleans, sent peacemaking delegations to Tehran and gave millions of people – at home and abroad – an reminder that even if our president had forsaken reason our citizens (at least those wearing pink) had not.
Code Pink was never merely a protest group. It was a community of hope, and the election of Barack Obama serves as least to some extent as a realization of that hope. Bush is gone, replaced by a president who, like the women of Code Pink, said the war in Iraq was a bad idea. But Code Pink activists have always leavened their hope with realism. They know that Obama will need prodding.
So the Most Valuable Progressives of the Bush era are already putting their mark on what will be the Obama era.
“I want to feel good about our government and how it operates in the world. I really do,” Benjamin told me a few days ago, as she was rushing off to protest the failure of the United States to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. “But I don’t suppose that will happen if we let up.”
Code Pink is incapable of letting up.
The group is busy in Washington this week, distributing pink ribbons for inauguration goers to tie around their fingers, as part of an ambitious “Let’s Remind Obama of His Promises for Peace” campaign that says:
As Barack Obama is sworn in as President of the United States of America, we are more mindful than ever of the Promises for Peace he made to the American people during his campaign, especially his promises to:
1. End the war in Iraq
2. Shut Down Guantánamo
3. Reject the Military Commissions Act
4. Stop Torture
5. Work to eliminate nuclear weapons
6. Hold direct, unconditional talks with Iran.
7. Abide by Senate approved international treaties.
CODEPINK’s promise to you is to find creative, productive ways to hold Obama to his Promises for Peace. We will be the string around his finger that reminds him to practice what he preaches and deliver the change our country so desperately needs.
Those of us who watched Code Pink evolve into the Most Valuable Progressive organization of the Bush years would expect no less of this amazing group in the Obama years.