Muros Invisibles
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Muros Invisibles

Code Pink and the politics of privilege

The inconsequential and self-congratulatory antics of a once great NGO

Code Pink activists inside the Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC with some pretty sweet computers. (courtesy of the twitter page of leader Medea Benjamin @medeabenjamin)

(Cucuta, Colombia) In April, peace activists from Code Pink occupied the deserted Venezuelan embassy in Washington D.C. These self-proclaimed “colectivos for peace” decided to show their support for embattled president Nicolas Maduro by locking themselves in said embassy, apparently to prevent the government of the “usurper” Juan Guaidó from taking control of the offices abandoned by Maduro’s government.

Let’s ignore for the moment Code Pinks comical, alarming and frequent misspellings of Guaidó’s name when the protests began (“Guido”, since deleted on twitter), and focus instead on the utterly unflattering optics they created for themselves.

For one, the term “colectivo” raises red flags for anyone who has actually lived in, or reported from, Venezuela. The Colectivos of Venezuela have a terrifying reputation. They regularly employ violence both to disperse opposition protests and visit retribution on dissidents and journalists alike.

They have also been repeatedly documented participating in extortion, smuggling, profiting from human trafficking and even extrajudicial killings.

But the terrible name was just the beginning.

When Venezuelans started showing up to counterprotest the occupation, Code Pink and their paid employees inside the embassy started tweeting race-related criticisms along the lines of this:

This is worth restating: at this point the almost entirely white occupiers of the Venezuelan embassy were attacking Venezuelan opposition protestors, publicly, for looking “white”.

I am in no way trying to understate the devastating impact of Colonialism on South America, nor denying at all that racism exists here. It most certainly does. But when your organization is is almost entirely white, and you are lecturing to people of color about race, sometimes it's best to consider how your message will be interpreted.

Even Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, a journalist famously critical of US motives in Venezuela, pointedly asked the occupiers “Are there any Venezuelans here?” during an interview.

She was answered with deafening silence. It was not a good look for Code Pink.

Hijinx promptly ensued. A broad wave of Venezuelans, from a full rainbow of skin tones, began to mock the Code Pink protestors for telling them how their country should be run from thousands of miles away.

And then things got worse. As often happens in protests, both sides began behaving brutishly. Multiple Code Pink members were arrested, one for assault on a pregnant woman. And multiple opposition protestors were filmed behaving like utter idiots, sometimes with racial insults.

My Venezuelan friends here on the border were more confused than angered by a story which, to them, seems utterly surreal.

“Why are a bunch of rich, white ladies telling us who should be our president?” asked Raúl Villamazar, a Venezuelan friend of mine here in Colombia.

“And why does anyone care what they think?”

“Good question, Raúl.” I told him.

I still don’t have a satisfactory answer for that.

But I do think that this utterly bizarre and annoyingly self-congratulatory Code Pink protest illustrates a good point when it comes to Venezuela- most Americans are unable to view the issue through anything other than a lense of partisan politics. They see someone that Trump criticizes, and so they assume Maduro must be good. “Because Trump is an idiot who must be resisted, we must defend Maduro of Venezuela!” they say. But it can be simultaneously true that Trump is an idiot, and also that Maduro is a murderous thief.

I should mention at this point that I am vehemently against a US military intervention in Venezuela. Dozens of military experts have expressed horror at the idea. And as I have written before, I am no Trump supporter,

But I can tell you from first-hand experience after six months here on the border that the worst of the stories simply don’t make it out of Venezuela. According to Reporters without Borders, Venezuela has the second worst press freedom rating in the western hemisphere, behind Cuba. And repression against both opposition protestors and journalists has only increased in recent months.

I have personally seen Colectivos shoot unarmed youths, and couldn’t get the story published because, well, it happens all the time.

Feb 24th, Simon Bolivar Bridge in Villa Rosario, Colombia. A youth being carried away by his comrades after being shot by a Collectivo for stripping parts from a burnt truck (photo: Joshua Collins)

I used to really admire Code Pink. As an Iraqi war protester during the Bush administration I remember well their rise. It seemed brave at the time. Anti-war protestors from that period were unpopular, uncommon and largely ignored. The White House occupation organized by Code Pink during that period seemed noble.

But since then, they seem to have devolved into attention seekers more than relevant activists. Their messages seem tone-deaf and their antics melodramatic.

Multiple former employees claim publicly that nowadays they seem more interested in fundraising than in productive strategies. They seem to always be against something, never for anything. Well except for selfies, they are definitely for selfies.

They have alienated many allies on the left as well through their selfie-inspired and pointless disruptions. It often seems to come down to “Hey look at me! I’m a freedom fighter!”.

I always want to tell them “Please sit down. The story isn’t about you, as much as you want it to be. Help the rest of us actually do something about it instead of trying to create free publicity for your organization.”

Even Jezebel magazine, hardly a right-wing firebrand, wrote of Code Pink in 2009 in an article called “Code Pink Losing Focus, Allies And What Little Respect People Had For Them

It’s shtick because there doesn’t seem to be any ideology or issue or even thought that their silly dress and deliberately ham-handed protests are subversively getting you to pay attention to. Their strategy is to get attention, to follow the cameras if the cameras won’t follow them and to be seen while being against things, rather than for anything, or helpful to anything. It’s the middle-aged equivalent of the professional college-age protester, all white kid dreds and puppets and unfocused rage at the system. And it gives me another reason to dislike pink.

Former Representative Barney Frank, a vocal anti-war voice, had problems with them as well.

In the manner of a had-it-up-to-here schoolteacher, Frank told the activists to “act their age.”

“I do not know how you think you could advance any cause to which you might be attached by this kind of silliness,” Frank said.

In other words, this sort of attention seeking behavior is nothing new. Former allies of Code Pink were complaining about it ten years ago.

But I think my favorite point of criticism comes from Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan who fled, in an open letter to Code Pink Activists. He was addressing their oft-repeated claim that Venezuelan opposition protestors in the US tend to come from whiter and more affluent backgrounds.

You’re right, though, they’re not the ones yelling at you for squatting at the embassy in D.C. The people living with no power, no water, no health care, no communications and no hope for a decent future are not, by and large, on Twitter. The people now struggling to survive on a minimum wage that works out to about a penny an hour don’t speak English as well as we do. The people facing simultaneous outbreaks of malaria, diphtheria, tuberculosis and AIDS don’t live in Washington, or Miami, or Buenos Aires.

Those of us who’ve left, though, feel a special duty to speak up for them, because they can’t. Facing a government that jails dissidents, steals elections, silences speech and prosecutes dissent at every turn, we know we have a responsibility to speak up.

After six months on the border talking with fleeing Venezuelans, Colombians, aid workers and after having seen horrible violence first-hand- Code Pink just seems like entitled whiners, desperate for attention.

More than anything else they strike me as irrelevant. Here is what the border looked during a massive shootout while they chatted on that sofa for the cover picture of this story. The embassy in DC sure looks comfy in comparison.

for more stories about Venezuela you can visit or follow us on twitter at @InvisiblesMuros

Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.



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Joshua Collins

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more