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  Thursday, September 06, 2007  

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Overcoming Censorship

by Ruth Conniff

The bland, corporate culture of mainstream media coverage has gotten more and more effective at stifling dissent. (See Matt Rothschild’s piece on the squelching of antiwar protesters by the police and CBS in Kansas City.)

Part of the problem is that we’re used to living in such a mediated climate that even activists have acquiesced to protest pens with Orwellian names like “Free Speech Alley,” where dissenters are conveniently walled off from the main event at both major party conventions.

The insidious message from TV coverage of politics that looks more and more like celebrity journalism-with bouncers keeping the riff-raff away from the stars-is that scruffy protesters are just a few weirdoes trying to crash the party. In fact, polls show that antiwar protesters represent a majority of Americans.

How does the silenced majority get heard? I reached Medea Benjamin of Code Pink on her cell phone as she was marching in Washington. Benjamin, who has been arrested many times, is a master of funny, creative, and eye-catching protests. How does her group deal with the increasingly censorious media?

“We’ve got to get smarter and smarter,” she says. “We go in disguise. We change our tactics. Wear an American flag lapel pin-you can get in most places with that.”

Code Pink got a lot of press coverage last spring, Benjamin notes, from the Fox News Channel to the Washington Post, after one of its protesters appeared prominently on camera during the Valerie Plame hearings. CNN did a piece about the group.

Afterwards, Benjamin says, “They got very sophisticated about cutting us out of the hearings. They [Congressional staffers] even got C-SPAN to change the camera angles to cut us out.”

Code Pink protesters have since arrived at Congressional hearings to find all the seats within view of the cameras blocked off.

“We’ve been kicked out of John Conyers’s hearings just for wearing pink,” she says. “We have to fight with the Democrats and the police-not just the media.”

Benjamin and her colleagues are undeterred. “We want to be on camera because we want the American people to see there’s dissent, and to join us,” she says. “If there’s no sign of opposition there’s nothing to join.”

At this week’s rally, as Code Pink descended on Washington to “Whip Congress into Shape,” Benjamin, as usual, was having a blast.

The flash video and more pictures are on the group’s web site:

“We have beautiful new outfits,” Benjamin said from her cell phone as she marched. “Shirts that say ‘Whipping Congress into Shape,’ and riding crops and those riding hats. . . . Now we’re transforming into sheep to impersonate Congress.”

The street theater went on throughout the early part of the week, as Congress arrived back from its summer break. On Tuesday, Code Pink activists, working with demonstrators from the Backbone Campaign, dressed as chimps, handing out bananas, as part of a protest of wimpy politicians that involves running a chimp named Bonzo for Congress in 2008.

The section of the Backbone Campaign’s web site promoting Bonzo’s campaign explains:

“Congress is polling at an 18% approval rating . . . more than 10 percentage points lower than that of the 32% rating . . . of a disintegrating, lame duck Bush Administration. We have no more time for rubber stamps or spineless wimps - we’d be way better off with a bunch of chimps.”

As she slipped into her sheep outfit, Benjamin sounded optimistic about getting her message across: “We’re showing them we’re back and there’s dissent and it’s great.”

Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs.

© 2007 The Progressive

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12 Comments so far

  1. John_Farley September 6th, 2007 12:30 pm

    Self-censorship by the media itself is even more effective at suppressing dissent than government censorship. What is the record of Ruth Conniff and the Progressive? Conniff accused Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, of being an anti-Semite. Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, repeated the smear. Thus the “Progressive” joined Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Pipes, and the rest of the Israel Lobby in smearing the brave Finkelstein, in a disgraceful campaign with an entirely predictable result: Finkelstein was fired by DePaul University, even though the DePaul administration admitted that Finkelstein was a “prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher.”

    That is one of the ways that censorship works in the US today: firing of dissenters. Ruth Conniff, Matt Rothschild, and The Progressive covered themselves in shame.

  2. Paul Bramscher September 6th, 2007 12:46 pm

    I detect some strange logic textures in many of Rothschild’s articles. He clearly toys with his readers, and leaves them ultimately at some sort of dead-end. One wonders.

  3. qbaldsmoove September 6th, 2007 1:45 pm

    Freedom of Speech?

    I work in what in general could only be called a professional work environment. Actually, in a cube in said environment. As cubed employees we are subjected to many personal conversations; cell phone discussions with friends and families, personal discussions and ad hoc gatherings with fellow employees, etc. Such discussions often include sports, recreational activities including gambling and drinking, vacations, trips, etc. I have never considered myself a prude, in fact, quite the opposite. But I am beginning to become something of one. The reason: it seems my outside pursuits are not as well-received as others’ outside pursuits.

    Most people where I work know of my left-leaning political views, just as I can point out many others whose views mirror mine, and indeed those whose don’t. Many post little political signs in their cubes, generally being careful not to push the line too far. There’s the “Support Out Troops” signs, the “Support Our President” signs, the “Those who would trade a few essential liberties for a little security are deserving of neither” signs, etc. Many very opinionated bumper stickers adorn rear windows of cars in the parking lot. Of course, there are bibles strategically place on some desks and other vague and not-so-vague references to religious beliefs.

    Recently my boss came to me and asked me to remove the sign in my cube that read “The people can always be brought to the bidding of their leaders. All you have to do is tell them that they are in danger of being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” I was told that someone had complained to him about it, but that it wasn’t the quote itself that the slighted found offensive, it was the site reference. It seems the slighted actually agreed with the quote, thinking it a good thing that leaders have this ability over the sheep-like masses. The problem the slighted had with the quote was that it came from Hermann Goering, head of the Nazi Luftwaffe, while imprisoned and being tried at Nuremburg. It seems the slighted felt that he was being compared to a Nazi. The slighted then acted like one by making me take it down. I’m having a hard time not replacing it with a sign that reads “You’re not necessarily a Nazi, but you are a fascist.” Maybe they would find that comparison acceptable.

    My boss has since indicated that our employee handbook addresses this issue, and it probably does although I haven’t searched through it. Certainly then it becomes a matter of enforcement; should I object to everything I find disagreeable because it makes me uncomfortable? Or should I be bigger than that? Doesn’t the correct side of this issue then lose? My supervisor also insists that the employee handbook trumps the constitution. All jokes about slave labor and wages aside I have to think that it should not, or we are losing footing on the proverbial slippery slope.

    The sign has been replaced by a hand-written one that reads: “Censored” and I’m more than happy to explain it to anyone that asks.

    If I were to be placed under arrest for violating a “free speech ally” requirement I suppose my company could fire me for some kind of ethics infringement. Mountin’ Goat are you out there? Is this the free speech you keep insisting we should all be using?

  4. huckleberry September 6th, 2007 2:11 pm

    I thought they disbanded congress years ago…

  5. Jefferson's Guardian September 6th, 2007 3:23 pm

    “The following [addition to the Bill of Rights] would have pleased me: The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or otherwise to publish anything but false facts affecting injuriously the life, liberty or reputation of others, or affecting the peace of the [United States] with foreign nations.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.

  6. Jo September 6th, 2007 4:22 pm

    Ruth’s essay outraged me in its casualness.
    The idea that Medea Benjamin and her pink-wearing, partying, cronies actually believe that their antics represent some kind of threat to the US pro-war status quo is simply frightening to me.
    Bananas? Chimps? Sheep outfits? Pink wigs? All coming up against the Bush regime- one of the world’s most cruel and effective fascist governments?

    When the first Code Pink program rolled out, it was humorous- a fun riff on the color-coded terror alerts that we had forced upon us by Bush, Co after 9/11.

    What I now find completely unacceptable is that Code Pink does not appear to have escalated their tactics one iota since the Bush occupation of Iraq began. Further, Code Pink’s behavior under Medea’s leadership does not even begin to get at any real analysis of what is wrong with US foreign, military or corporate activity.

    Given that we are now several years into a devastating no-end-in-sight Congressionally-approved occupation of Iraq (not to mention the many other corners of the world where the US military or US aided gov’ts are killing men, women and children on a daily basis) we should find a way to honor the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead.

    I fervently believe that we need some new strategies.
    I’m weary of silly and even flippant actions by the US “peace movement”.
    Why does Code Pink get the limelight? Exactly BECAUSE they are ineffective.
    Humor has it’s place, yes, but I think we’ve forgotten that maturity, dignity and seriousness does, too.

    Ruth Coniff tells us that Medea is “having a blast”, and we read that Ms. Benjamin has some “new outfits”- but what has all this theater to do with actually stopping the killing?

    I’m just not finding Code Pink funny anymore.
    Instead, I’m waiting to hear more from a social justice & anti-war movement that can be taken seriously.

  7. dustinchicago September 6th, 2007 4:59 pm

    “If there’s no sign of opposition there’s nothing to join.”

    there are many people and groups attacking our problems at many levels.

    And yes, I am sick of “we’re used to living in such a mediated climate that even activists have acquiesced to protest pens with Orwellian names like “Free Speech Alley,”

    Sometimes we can get upset that any group that actually participates in democracy doesn’t go all the way with violent revolution (sarcasm intended).

    If you meant to say that you were “outraged” that this type of protest group gets all the attention and praise, I would agree- there are so many other ways (and they ALL have to happen)

    Only one thing will support your “outrage”= WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT?

  8. John F. Butterfield September 6th, 2007 5:57 pm

    Where is the free speech zone? Everywhere!

  9. webwalk September 6th, 2007 6:53 pm


    i think it is usually better to act yourself, than to belittle the actions that others are taking. If you think Code Pink-style tactics should be escalated, maybe you should be working with an affinity group of your own to carry out the tactics you think are needed.

    i personally think Code Pink is great, and at the same time i also sgree that the horrific seriousness of the political situation calls for lots more resistance. i do some things but i have not recently participated in any direct action or civil disobedience. i think there “should” be massive resistance, shutting down operations at targeted government and corporate and media facilities. But i am not personally organizing any such thing right now.

    i’m more involved in trying to build alternative social and economic systems (i also try to live without consuming anything i don’t need or anything that is produced by corporate blood-suckers) which is fine but i think i also “should” be trying to organize more direct resistance.

  10. Ramsay Mameesh September 6th, 2007 8:20 pm

    What are you wearing to the protest? Pink clashes with my skin tone. So I’m thinking something more “natural”, say a light tan pullover, with jeans. Yeah definitely blue jeans. I’m going for that “middle class REI” look.

    My sign is going to be humorous, because if you can’t have fun with facism, then you’re just so like neo-con - yuk they’re so unfunny.

    One side of the sign will read:

    Nancy has no balls!
    (Leaving us with a Dick and a Bush)

    And on the other side:

    Impeach the S.O.B. President
    (Son Of Barbara)

    Cute isn’t it. Catch you at starbucks afterwards - the non-fat, half-caf, toxic latte’s on me this time.

    Seriously, at least code pink is doing something, they can’t be held responsible for what hypo-critical progressive writers write.
    That is the sign I’m taking to the protest, and I’ll meet you at Peets, much better coffee than starbucks.


  11. Common Plans September 6th, 2007 10:37 pm


    I’d love to hear more from you. You can reply to [email protected] Same to anyone else. It’s fascinating that this thread came up on an article called “Overcoming Censorship.” Comments very closely paralleling your own used to be on the Common Dreams message board for this story on Code Pink — but they have since been removed.

    If you look at the messages under that article, you’ll see a post that supports Code Pink tactics that opens by addressing “Eagle Scout,” (who had posted a message similar to Jo’s above) but there is no post from “Eagle Scout” preceding it. A second post from someone in Brooklyn, similarly imploring Code Pink to stop pulling the few cameras we get towards colorful stunts, was also removed. The poster called “Eagle Scout” posted recently admonishing progressives to stop simply blaming “spineless” Democrats and get a clearer understanding of the close ties between two of the three main Democratic Party factions and the Republican agenda, and to not place unwarranted faith in the Kucinich candidacy, and those posts were removed. A few hours thereafter, every post ever made under the nic “Eagle Scout” vanished, and a few days later, a repost of an earlier “Eagle Scout” comment that was made by a “Jason Jones” (as well as all replies to that post) was removed.

    I’ll bet this post won’t last too long, and neither will my posting privileges. Respond while you can. Right-click and save this page, so you will have a snapshot of the original when the Common Dreams editors step in and censor the page.

    Anyone who is interested in finding what Common Dreams doesn’t want you to read, and wants to initiate serious strategic and tactical, rather than repetitious opinion-forming discussions, please visit and write to me at [email protected]


  12. Jo September 6th, 2007 10:50 pm

    I appreciate the couple of comments. Thanks.
    It’s the beginning of a real conversation, which I hope is the point of having added this section to Common Dreams (not sure about the thick sarcasm, though).

    First- why would you assume I’m not doing anything? Just because I took a little time to get some independent news off this website and a few more minutes to write a few words, shouldn’t mean that I’m “doing nothing”.
    Should it? Or that I’m a hypocrite? Isn’t that a poor assumption?
    Next, I think we should be able to thoughtfully (I hope) criticize the organizations and people who ARE highly visible- such as Code Pink and its leadership.
    Isn’t that the way we deepen our collective strategies and become more effective?
    And effectiveness is THE question here.

    Just for the sake of argument, though, here’s what I’m doing:
    - signing petitions (on line and in the street)
    - lobby my town’s City Hall
    - write to my Congressional reps.
    - join committees that work on social issues (racism, and other concerns)
    - I attend mass rallies & bring signs (maybe reading “Bush is a liar”, depends on what the demo about)
    - organize at my workplace and in my heighborhood aginst racist immigration laws
    - help to organize non-violence traniings for civil disobedience
    - support my friend’s issues as I can (my time, money, emotional support)
    - organize fundriasers for dif causes
    - attend fundraising events and contribute when I can
    - I support alternative media (radio, TV, newspapers) and write letters to the FCC
    - testify at public hearings and at City Hall on dif. issues (including the Iraq occupation)
    - I read The Nation, Harpers, The Progressive, Clamor and a huge pile of other independent, radical & community papers to try to get information that isn’t part of the MSM.
    - I read non-fiction to get deeper understanding of the issues.
    - I’ve been arrested at CD actions, spent time in jail and am willing (but not necessarily eager) to face arrest again.
    - I recycle, shop at second hand stores, eat a vegan diet and bring my own re-usable bag to the food co-op
    Is all this enough? No.
    Do I think there is more I could do? Absolutely.

    There does need to be more resistance as well as more articulation of how the issues connect (Katrina, Iraq, lack of health insurance for Americans, who picks our strawberries, and who profits from their labor)
    And I want leadership (and/or co-conspirators!!) who understand that while humor has a place, maybe it’s time for something else.
    (sorry, Ramsay, I’m a confirmed tea drinker, but I agree with you that Starbucks coffee sucks).

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