CODEPINK’s Rae Abileah discusses next steps at World Peace Forum
The 28-year-old Jewish-American activist – a leader with the women-led social justice movement, CODEPINK – still has an open arrest on her record after a disturbing incident in Congress last spring, when she was assaulted by AIPAC members and taken to jail for interrupting a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I have an arrest record, and there’s an agreement between Canada and the US that they share the data for people with simple misdemeanor arrests, not just felonies. So, as of a few years ago, activists who have really simple, non-violent, direct action misdemeanors haven’t been allowed into Canada,” Abileah explained.
Meeting activists in Vancouver
Luckily, this time she had no problems at the border. Instead, she’s been able to spend the last couple days meeting like-minded activists and speakers during the peace-themed teach-in at Langara College.
“There have been a lot of really great discussions, and an amazing lineup of speakers,” she said.
“It’s getting into some of the theory behind social change, which is exciting. It’s also a cool sort of hybrid conference. It says it’s a peace forum, but there’s actually a lot of conversation here about green jobs, environmental justice and climate change and the Keystone Pipeline, and it’s neat how they’ve brought it all together.”
The origins of CODEPINK
Clad in pink patterns and sitting near a table of hot pink swag, it’s clear which group Abileah is here to represent. CODEPINK’s courageous work in the current US anti-war movement has been recognized internationally, and the group has now expanded to include a vast network of outspoken women in countries all over the world.
The grass-roots initiative – named “CODEPINK” as a play on the American government’s colour-coded terror alerts – started up in 2002 as a “preemptive strike” to protest the war in Iraq.
“Basically it was this group of women camping out outside the White House that wore pink and said ‘Don’t invade Iraq!’, and it just started catching on like wildfire around the country,” said Abileah, who joined the movement after graduating college in 2004.
“I had studied environmental science and human rights, and I went to a women’s college, so working with a group of women and environmental activists working for human rights actually really made sense.”
Over the years, CODEPINK has taken delegations overseas to Iraq to deliver humanitarian aid, as well as bringing Iraqi speakers to North America to help educate people about the issues.
“A lot of our work has centred around changing public opinion around the wars, and doing that with really creative, visible tactics,” said Abileah, whose job now focuses mostly on the Israel-Palestine conflict and issues in the Middle East.
“It’s been an evolution, from looking at this single issue to looking at the bigger picture of US Foreign Policy,” she said.
Arrested en route to Gaza
CODEPINK’s work in the Middle East currently involves a lot of education and awareness, as well as boycott campaigns against products like Ahava Cosmetics, which are manufactured in an illegal settlement on the West Bank. The group has also arranged speaking tours featuring Israeli war resistors, to educate Americans about some of the other views that exist within the country.
“It’s not two-sided as in Israel versus Palestine,” Abileah said, noting that it’s easy to simply vilify Israel in the conflict. “It’s two-sided as in justice versus injustice.”
CODEPINK also supported a recent flotilla to Gaza, which was intercepted by the Israeli military on international waters just a week ago. Kit Kittredge – a CODEPINKer and one of two Americans aboard the flotilla – was held for three days in an Israeli prison before being released to return to her home in Quilcene, Washington.
Kittredge was also attending this weekend’s Peace Forum in Vancouver, to take part in the events and speak up about her recent experiences.
“I was invited by the Canadian boat to Gaza, the Tahrir,” she explained. “We were carrying on the tradition of the previous flotillas and numerous other groups and actions that are trying to end this illegal siege.”
Kittredge and the other activists on the ship were on their way to deliver aid and supplies to Palestinians, with the additional intention of calling international attention to the plight of the people in Gaza. They made it to 45 miles off the Gaza coast before Israeli militants started firing at them with water cannons.
“They commandeered the boat and kidnapped us…and took us to Israeli shores saying that we entered illegally,” said Kittredge, explaining that they had in fact been “pirated” in international waters, and brought to Israel against their will.
Feeling violated after being searched, questioned and spending days in prison, Kittredge said she came home with a greater sense of the struggles faced by Palestinians.
“Basically it gave us a very tiny little taste of what the Palestinians feel and experience every day, all the time,” she said.
Accountability from government
Apart from supporting flotillas and efforts overseas, one of CODEPINK’s other main objectives has been pressuring governments at home to address problems in the allocation of taxpayers’ money.
“The goal from day one was to redirect the US resources and the tax budget, which was really disproportionately bloated towards the Pentagon, away from the military and towards life-affirming activities like healthcare and education and green jobs,” said Abileah.
In June, she and her colleagues celebrated a big success – they convinced the US Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution calling on the government to redirect resources away from war and militarism and back into cities and communities.
“It was a grassroots initiative of getting mayor after mayor after mayor and city councils to pass this resolution and then bring it to the Conference and pass it. And it was the first time the US Conference of Mayors has passed an anti-war legislation since the Vietnam War. So it was a big accomplishment,” she said.
This push to move funds away from the military is how Abileah said CODEPINK is helping to connect to protesters within the Occupy Wall Street movement. Along with creating supportive communities for women on the ground at Occupy sites, the group is voicing opposition about the disproportionate amount of money going to war efforts and arms manufacturers.
“One per cent of the one per cent are the top war profiteers,” Abileah said.
“So if we’re saying we’re the 99 per cent and we want the one per cent to change, that has to include the weapons manufacturers that are reaping huge profits off of killing people.”
Abileah’s panel at the Peace Forum focused on the question, “Where do we go from here?” – a question she said relates well to both her work with CODEPINK and to the current Occupy movement.
“We’re trying to push for systemic change, so it’s hard to see results. And it can feel really exhausting,” she said.
“And I think that’s one of the challenges now with the Occupy movement – trying to figure out, what are the tangible demands, what can people actually do, and what’s the system change that we want?”