Seattle peace activists expressed dismay over two venues’ late cancellations of book talks by CODEPINK co-founder and activist Medea Benjamin after receiving complaints from parties critical of Benjamin’s call for a ceasefire in the war in Ukraine.
Benjamin, who is the co-author of “War In Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict” alongside researcher Nicolas J. S. Davies, did a Q&A with Real Change in November 2022 in which she laid the case for a peaceful settlement to the Ukraine war as opposed to further escalation.
Some supporters of Ukraine have said that by criticizing the U.S. and NATO’s role in the war, peace activists are promoting Russian propaganda about the war — a claim Benjamin strongly disagrees with.
Benjamin was initially slated to talk about her book at the University Book Store on March 14, but the event was canceled less than a week before. Organizers scrambled to find an alternative venue at the University Congregational United Church of Christ, which agreed to host.
However, just hours before it was meant to begin, the church pulled the plug, citing the precedent from the book store. In the end, about 50 supporters of Benjamin held an impromptu protest outside of the bookstore and church, denouncing the cancelations as a form of censorship.
Peace activist and 350 Seattle member Mary Paterson helped organize the original event. A member of the Seattle Anti-War Coalition, Paterson said that University Book Store claimed that not enough people signed up for the event to justify it continuing and that they didn’t have enough trained staff to handle attendees with different viewpoints.
However, Paterson said that the local peace activists had more than enough experience with de-escalation and that it would have been preferable to hold the event as a forum for dialogue.
“We wanted to be in dialogue with people who were complaining because it wasn’t just that we wanted to have our event,” she said. “It was that we wanted to hear the complaints and be able to share our views as well.”
A passionate advocate for negotiations, Benjamin has attracted both loyal supporters and detractors, who claim her views are pro-Russian. Benjamin refuted these claims, saying that she does not support either Vladimir Putin’s involvement in Ukraine or that of the U.S. and NATO.
“I’m very clear in both the book, in the video we did [and] in my talks that I totally condemn this war,” she said. “I condemn Russia’s invasion: I feel that it is illegal according to the UN Charter, it’s immoral and it’s brutal and it’s very dangerous and could lead us to a third world war or a nuclear war, and we have to find a way to end it.”
Benjamin successfully held a book talk in Tacoma on March 13, and a number of Ukrainian American activists showed up with criticism of the book’s views. Benjamin said that this allowed attendees with opposing viewpoints to have an open discussion about the war.
“After I gave my talk, they engaged in a critique, and we had quite a long back and forth where they were given the mic, where they had ample chance to put their views forth,” she said. “In fact, it was so fascinating that afterwards we stayed together around a table and continued to talk for quite a while. We exchanged phone numbers. It was a great example of the kind of dialogue that needs to take place.”
Benjamin said that her treatment in Seattle was in stark contrast to the more than 70 other book talks she has done throughout North America over the past six months.
“An additional remarkable part of it is that it’s happening in Seattle,” Benjamin said. “I think if you are part of the Ukrainian community and you’re fighting for democracy back in your home country, you should recognize that here in the United States, democracy is founded on First Amendment rights. And to try to silence the voice of the peace community is just unacceptable.”
According to Benjamin, the cancellations of her events were emblematic of a larger trend of silencing critical voices.
“It has never happened to me before, but I must say I feel like my voice and the voice of people with a similar kind of analysis are being censored since the war began,” Benjamin said. “We can’t get op-eds to mainstream papers. We can’t [get] ourselves onto television or National Public Radio or venues that give us the reach into a broad sector of the U.S. society. So I feel like there has been tremendous censorship in the United States for the last year.”
Real Change reached out to the University Book Store but did not receive a response by press time.
Seattle Anti-War Coalition member Dan Gilman said that the book talk cancellation made him more determined to bring Benjamin back to Seattle for a book talk that won’t get canceled.
“We can’t let our voice be silenced,” he said.
Read more of the Mar. 22-28, 2023 issue.