Triangle’s Code Pink is new on the scene, but their vibrant, attention-getting activities have rejuvenated the local peace movement, persuaded lawmakers and brought creativity and humanity to the sometimes grueling endeavor of waging peace.
The members, mostly women, meet monthly at different locations in the Triangle, where they finish the meeting with a public vigil. The core group of about 15 share a strong camaraderie, but they don’t have much in common in terms of age, geography and personal style. There’s Katheryn Grubbs, a grandmother from Cary who wears a string of pearls, and Mary Bratsch, a student from Carrboro who says she didn’t have anything pink in her closet before joining the group. They range in age from 25 to 54. They live in Durham, Raleigh, Knightdale, Morrisville–and as far away as Selma. Their pink buttons, T-shirts and scarves make it clear they’re all from the same tribe.
“Our group is fun,” says Celia Hartnett, who lives in Cary. “I think that’s what attracts people.” That said, they’re mindful of the seriousness of the war in Iraq and its human toll. “We take our cause very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously,” Hartnett says.
Code Pink is a national organization started in November 2002 by Medea Benjamin, Starhawk, Jodie Evans and Diane Wilson. The name is a play on the color-coded security alerts invented by Bush administration homeland security officials to indicate the level of terrorist threat. It has evolved into an international grassroots organization with approximately 200 chapters in the United States, according to the Code Pink Web site. There’s little in the way of centralized structure, just a shared philosophy and a lot of colorful merchandise that brightens up war-weary protests.
Triangle’s Code Pink started in January 2005 and now has 66 members. It has since expanded statewide from Boone to Fayetteville, with 136 members in North Carolina, says founding member Shannon Hardy of Knightdale. The group works with other peace groups and veterans groups on fund-raisers, vigils and protests. They provided breakfast at the March 19 rally in Fayetteville marking the second anniversary of the war. They also organized Cindy Sheehan’s “Bring Them Home” tour stop in the Triangle in September. Later that month, Triangle Code Pink organized two buses carrying 90 people who joined the massive anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C. While five members spent the day lobbying their representatives in Congress, Stephanie Eriksen of Raleigh joined a protest in front of the White House and was arrested along with 370 other people.
“We love America and that’s the reason we do it,” says Grubbs, “because we do believe that Americans are better than this. We want to bring about positive change.”
What sets Code Pink apart from other partners in the peace movement? “They’re a big, visible, pink presence,” says Barbara Zelter, a peace activist with the North Carolina Council of Churches, one of several groups Code Pink works with. “That makes them a magnet for questions–‘How come you’re doing this?’ ‘Why are you wearing that pink scarf?’
“To me what’s interesting and effective about Code Pink is that it is reaching a different swath of people than have traditionally been involved in peace work,” says Zelter, who has been an activist for more than 20 years. “I think they have a lot of openings for original thinking and quick action.”
One of the things Code Pink is most proud of is the growing effectiveness of their lobbying power. They have met and built relationships with local U.S. Reps. David Price, Brad Miller and Bob Etheridge.
“The niche we’ve carved is public policy,” Hardy says. “What we’re learning to do is, we pick one or two resolutions and call appropriate officials and ask their position–for instance, what will they do if Bush vetoes McCain’s anti-torture act?” Then they follow through, tracking the lawmakers’ votes, thanking them when they support specific initiatives, such as Resolution 197 calling for no permanent military bases in Iraq, which Price and Miller have signed on to.
“I think it’s a difficult issue to lobby both from their side and from mine,” Congressman Miller says. He has met with Triangle Code Pink members on several occasions in the past eight months. “I think they’ve shown a good deal of maturity and judgment. They have not been at all confrontational or belligerent, as some groups have. Even when I have not been taking the position they wanted me to take at the moment, they were respectful of the concerns that I had and we talked through it. I listened to them and they listened to me. But if I had wanted to ignore the issue they would not have let me.”
Reaching those who are alienated by traditional politics is another part of Code Pink’s work. “A lot of people who care about peace and social justice are outside the traditional democratic system,” says Tamara Tal of Carrboro. “I think what Code Pink is so effective at doing is giving people a voice.”
By standing out from the crowd, Code Pink’s members also volunteer to be lightning rods in the cultural debate over the war in Iraq. That gives them an opportunity to listen. “It’s really nice to wear my T-shirt around Cary,” says Grubbs. Most of the comments she gets are supportive, she says. “I’ve also had some big dudes in SUVs give me the middle finger.”
Allyson Caison lives in Johnston County. “I’m all by myself down there,” she says. But when Code Pink held a peace vigil in front of the Wal-Mart in Selma, she was encouraged by many positive comments and few criticisms.
Hartnett recalls a man following her to her car in a grocery store parking lot. From the way he was walking toward her, she was sure he was about to berate her for her anti-war T-shirt. “He wanted me to know that he is retired military, but he is against the war because of how poorly the troops are being treated,” she recalls. “He got tearful and I got tearful. The veterans don’t have a voice.”
Many of the members come from military families, though few have relatives on active duty now. They share stories of fathers emotionally scarred by service in World War II and Korea, of a boyfriend who was a Vietnam vet addicted to heroin. The cost of the war for the people who are fighting it is something they’re determined to raise hell about. Those who remember protesting Vietnam say it’s a lesson they’ve learned. A recent Code Pink fund-raiser collected $600 for the USO’s lounge at RDU airport. They have also worked with Blue Star Families and September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. They are working to keep military recruiters out of schools and working to speed up the process for granting disability benefits to Iraq War vets.
Mia Austin-Scoggins of Raleigh has volunteered with homeless veterans, and she says that as soldiers come home, the trauma of their experience ripples through their families in the form of domestic violence, alcoholism and suicide. “They’re coming back and finding themselves discarded. If the war ends tomorrow, we’ve got work.”
This is where the woman thing comes in: Listening, talking about family, keeping the deeply personal nature of what war does to people at the forefront of their arguments is both powerful and disarming. It also taps a deep root of the anti-war movement.
Bill Towe of N.C. Peace Action has been a civil rights and peace activist since the 1960s and has worked with Code Pink on various events. “My experience is that women have taken a far more active role in the peace movement overall,” he says. “There usually are more women members than men. Even though women were more active, there was a feeling that men tried to dominate and run the show. And I think that Code Pink has got a special appeal to women, and they are running their own show and running it well.”
Many of the women are mothers, and for them, the thought of their own children is what drives them more than anything. “As a mother, I can’t live like everything’s OK,” says Grubbs. “I have to do something.”