They May Be Pink, but the Hill Sees Murkiness

Protest Group Takes On Just About Every Issue

During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Wednesday, Diane Wilson stood up and poured a jar of oil-colored corn syrup over her head — an act that got her detained, arrested and, as planned, plenty of media attention.

Wilson is one of the founding members of CodePink, an activist group that has become as entrenched on Capitol Hill as television cameras and press conferences. What started in 2002 as a small group of women staging anti-war protests has become an international organization that raises about $500,000 each year from its more than 200,000 members.

CodePink — whose name is a parody of the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat level system — now wades into almost every issue of the moment. A group of pink-clad women can be spotted at everything from health care reform protests to oil spill hearings. The war, it seems, is no longer the focus.

But Medea Benjamin, one of CodePink's founders, said the group aims to connect the dots between all the issues.

"It's really about how we move our society from one so dependent on war and oil as a basis for our economy and how do we move toward a clean, green economy," she said in an interview last week. But she added that CodePink has remained "lean" and flexible. "It depends on what's going on in the world and what's moving us and what's moving our members."

Mention CodePink on Capitol Hill, and it often elicits an eye roll; other times, a friendly chuckle. No matter what the reaction, everyone (or almost everyone) knows the name.

Without a doubt, CodePink has become the expert in staging attention-grabbing demonstrations. It knows which issues will interest the media, how to draw a crowd, and which costumes and props will make good television images. The group even has a few paid staffers to ensure constant action and a group of unpaid college interns to help with press releases and organizing.

On Thursday, for example, CodePink partnered with the Free Gaza Movement, Gaza Freedom March and Freedom Flotilla to protest Rep. Brad Sherman's (D-Calif.) recent call for the arrest of any U.S. citizens who were aboard the aid ships that recently headed to Gaza.

The scene had all the ingredients of a typical CodePink demonstration: a half-dozen television cameras, a crowded hall of onlookers and several Capitol Police officers keeping an eye on it all. Protesters dared (and expected) Sherman to have them arrested. He didn't, but CodePink's tactics succeeded in nabbing several stories.

However, Members and staffers say CodePink has recently seemed less inclined to flamboyant displays. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, once got so frustrated with their constant protests that he threatened arrest. But last week, he struggled to remember the last time members of the group attended a hearing.

Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), meanwhile, said he hadn't seen CodePink this year. Even when they do show up, he said, they are polite and nondisruptive.

"Since I've been chairman, it's never been a problem," he said.

Even Wilson's public display at the Senate Energy Committee was somewhat of a fluke. Unlike the Sherman demonstration — which was discussed and planned for a week — Wilson, a Gulf Coast shrimper, decided to be arrested on a whim.

"Diane had two margaritas and came home and said, ‘I think I'm going to go to the hearing tomorrow and pour oil on myself,'" Benjamin said.

But she added that the group usually tries to make the point without getting arrested. Indeed, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testified earlier this month at the House Natural Resources Committee, a group of CodePink protesters quietly stood up with signs about the oil spill. Rep. Nick Rahall, who chairs the committee, said he later asked them to sit down — and "to their credit, they did."

CodePink also just doesn't have the numbers it once had, thanks to Barack Obama becoming president. The group was at its peak during the Bush administration, claiming more than 300 chapters throughout the country. Now, it has 100 chapters.

The anti-war protests for which CodePink became famous are also not as prevalent as they once were. The media attention, Benjamin said, just isn't there.

"It's really tough because if you can't get press on something, it's hard to get people on something," she said. "It's sort of a vicious circle."

But she sees a resurgence; Obama's yearlong grace period is over, she said, and CodePink is gaining members. It's also partnering with other nonprofits to organize larger demonstrations, such as an Oct. 2 protest on issues such as immigration and civil rights.

And if they end up getting arrested, that's OK. The Capitol Police, Benjamin said, are "very sweet."

"They're so nice!" she said. "We know them personally now that we've spent so much time with them."

Topics: