CODEPINK founder Jodie Evans fights for a peace economy in Venice

By Stephanie Case

Left: Secret Service agents tussled with Evans after she dropped a 30-foot “pink slip” from a hotel balcony to welcome President George W. Bush to L.A. in June 2003. (Photo by Catherine Bauknight) Right: Fifteen years after her anti-war efforts began, Evans is turning her attention to local organizing (Photo by Steve Appleford)

One day in June 2003, from a sky-high balcony of the Century Plaza Hotel, Venice activist Jodie Evans gave President George W. Bush the pink slip — both figuratively and literally.

As Bush’s motorcade rolled through Century City, a lacy fuchsia negligée fit for a giant unfurled from the balcony railing. The 30-foot slip hung down the hotel’s façade, on full display to the thousands of anti-war protesters on the ground. Painted across the bodice in bright white letters: “Bush: You Lied. You’re Fired.”

“When we dropped it out of the hotel room, we watched what it did to that crowd,” Evans remembers. “That sense of bold and powerful and big and playful: it just totally inspired them. When we came down, we were like superheroes.”

Evans and the women of CODEPINK — the grassroots anti-war movement she co-founded 15 years ago — are famous for these big, playful acts of protest, whether it’s crashing Senate hearings dressed as hot-
pink Lady Liberties or occupying the street corner outside Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s home with feather boas and megaphones.

CODEPINK consistently holds war-funding politicians accountable to public scrutiny in attention-grabbing ways, but their activism, while full of panache, is rooted in a fight to preserve what makes us human. Evans and her colleagues are fierce advocates for peace and compassion in a world that’s become increasingly violent, fear-driven and transactional. It’s a fight that has taken them across the globe and back home again: from flying peace delegations to occupied Iraq, to walking across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, to working to grow a local “peace economy” in Venice.

***

CODEPINK started coming together in November 2002, when Evans and dozens of other women, enraged by the possibility of an Iraq invasion, met while protesting outside the White House.

“We showed up because we knew the cost of war,” Evans says. “Many of us had been through fathers who’d come back from war damaged, husbands who’d come back from war damaged, [or had seen] the damage of war in our communities, and knew that it’s the women and children who always pay.”

For four months the women held daily vigils in ice-cold winter weather, bundled up in bright pink parkas. On March 8, 2003, 10,000 people encircled the White House in an International Women’s Day protest. Twenty five women — including Evans, CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, and authors Alice Walker and Maxine Hong Kingston — were arrested for the demonstration; they sang the words “peace, salaam, shalom” in unison as police put them in handcuffs.

Neither the arrest, nor the months shouting in the cold, rattled Evans.

“I wanted to throw myself outside of the White House with my primal scream, so that some other woman out there who was watching the mob and feeling [the same thing] in her heart could remember that she was feeling right,” she says.

The mob was big; at its peak, upwards of 12 million people protested in cities across the world. Standing alongside a sea of people who were resolute against the impending violence, Evans says she never felt alone.

“The day after we bombed Iraq? I felt alone,” she admits. “Then, people just went numb. Dead. Silent. Confused. Hopeless. And that moment was when we needed to be screaming.”

***

In the nearly 15 years since the Iraq War began, Evans and the CODEPINK women have only amped up their ferocity, bringing themselves face-to-face with the global cost of American war. Evans has met Korean grandmothers whose arms had been cut off by U.S. soldiers and Pakistani fathers whose sons died in U.S. drone strikes. She carries the gravity of these experiences back to the U.S., challenging Americans to confront their support of war in ways that cannot be ignored.

Some peace demonstrations, like the giant pink slip, lead with playfulness. At a 2005 protest against war profiteering outside a Halliburton board meeting, CODEPINK brought a “truck-sized, papier-mâché Cash Cow” — with IRAQ painted across its side — “whose udders dispensed $100 bills when milked.” For a 2008 event, dozens dressed up as pageant queens in punny sashes that read “I Miss America.”

Other demonstrations lead with heart. When Cindy Sheehan, whose U.S. Army specialist son Casey Sheehan died in the Iraq War, knocked on the door of Bush’s Texas ranch to ask “what noble cause” he died for and received no answer, she and CODEPINK set up a makeshift camp a few blocks from the ranch. Over the course of a month, thousands of people joined them — even Republicans.

“Cowboys would come walking in to Camp Casey, and I’d think, ‘Oh God, I’m going to get yelled at,’” Evans remembers. But then, they’d surprise her. “They’d say, ‘That’s wrong. That’s wrong to do to a mother who lost her son who fought in a war.’

“You’ve always got to find the apple pie,” she adds. “You know it’s, ‘What’s the most human thing?’ And then you can speak to anyone.”

***

Still, some people aren’t ready or willing for their heartstrings to be pulled at.

On the day the Iraq War began, the CODEPINK gang “dressed up as grieving women with blood all over us, and rags, and baby dolls hanging over our arms, and we wailed. Just wailed. And it freaked people out,” says Evans. “They were mad at us. But we were like, ‘What do you think war is?’ We didn’t [commit the violence]. But you’re mad at us for bringing it close to you.”

CODEPINK lined the walkway to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s office with baby shoes, each tagged with the name of a child who died in the violence, in an emotional appeal for her to stop supporting federal war funding. For Pelosi, they set up couches and chairs by her house for a six-year “occupation.”

“She hated it,” Evans said. “And I’m like, ‘How do you think the Iraqis feel?’”

Politicians’ frustration only fueled CODEPINKers’ action.

“It’s like the Gloria Steinem quote: ‘The truth will set you free. But at first, it will piss you off,’” Evans says. “So, when we’re telling the truth in Congress, we know that it will eventually set them free; but first, they’re gonna be pissed off.”

Evans should know. She was once a political insider, too. But an activist first.

In 1970, Evans was 16 and working as a maid in the defunct Dunes Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip when she took a leadership role in a successful campaign to unionize. That led to organizing work for the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern, which introduced Evans to Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, future California Gov. Jerry Brown and her future husband, the late billionaire venture capitalist Max Palevsky.

Evans held cabinet positions in Brown’s first two administrations, and she would later manage Brown’s 1992 presidential bid and late activist Tom Hayden’s 1997 campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.

“Nothing has ever happened by government. People have forced every one of the changes, not the people in government,” she says. “Jerry [Brown] really loved Cesar Chavez but the powers that be, the farmers, were getting in the way of him signing the farm labor bill. I went down with Cesar to Delano and I marched back to the governor’s office with the farm workers. And I sat outside the governor’s office with the farm workers and thought, ‘I never want to be inside power again.’ … It’s hard to operate out of a value system, because it’s all coming at you and it’s very distorting.”

***

A decade and a half after CODEPINK began, many aspects of Evans’ anti-war campaign seem farther and farther from the finish line. The largest slice of Americans’ tax dollars still goes to the Department of Defense. The Guantanamo Bay prison camp remains open. Last May, the Senate backed a $350-billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump has traded saber-rattling words with Kim Jong-un on more than one occasion.

These, Evans says, are all facets of the war economy: America’s continued investment in and proclivity towards global violence.

“The war economy thrives because it convinces you you’re alienated and you live in scarcity, when in reality, people live from connection,” Evans explains.

Two years ago, CODEPINK started a new initiative to reverse this trend and foster peace locally. The campaign — called “A Local Peace Economy” — centers on the idea that neighbors can build self-sufficient communities that aren’t reliant on competition, greed or violence, with the hope that these values will eventually grow to the national level.

Evans is still traveling the world, but she’s focused now, more than ever, in sowing seeds for peace here on the Westside. Her garden to tend is Venice: the neighborhood she’s called home for decades; “the place that still had a human heartbeat in this city.”

At monthly Local Peace Economy gatherings in the Code Pink House on Linden Avenue, Evans and her neighbors problem-solve about how to weave a stronger neighborhood fabric through compassion and cooperation.

“Everything has to be solved with what’s in the room, not money. Because we run to money, we run to the transactional all the time,” Evans says.

Instead of throwing money at local issues, people get creative, which opens up a sea of possibility. One Venice circle decided to clean out their neglected clothes and donate them to Safe Place for Youth. Other California circles have joined together to elect progressive mayors or organize “pop-up for peace” nights at local restaurants.

***

Even in this locally-based organizing, Evans’ brings the same high-octane verve that she does to war zones and White House protests.

“I still fight,” she says. “People get really mad at me at [Venice] Neighborhood Council voting, because I want homeless people to be able to be free, and I don’t really care that their kids can’t come out of the house. I mean, do they have more right than a homeless person to be on the street? Why don’t they take care of the homeless person?”

She pauses, then laughs: “Boy, I can make a lot of people really mad.”

But, as always, Evans is fine with being labeled an unreasonable woman.

“I just do my work for the people who want to listen,” Evans says. “I know I work at the edge. I know it’s not cut out for everybody, but since I seem to be made up that way, I feel more responsible. I mean, I guess I feel like I can never drop the ball. Some days, I wish I could have a day off, or sleep, or not have my heart broken every day.

“But right now, I feel like I’ve got company. … People want to do something, and they want to do something concrete.”

CODEPINK holds an International Women’s Day March from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday (March 8) at the Los Angeles Federal Building (300 N. Los Angeles St.) and hosts author Robert Scheer and cartoonist Mr. Fish in conversation from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday (March 3) at the Robert Berman Gallery in Bergamot Station (2525 S. Michigan Ave. B-7, Santa Monica). The next Local Peace Economy meeting is March 15 in Venice. RSVP at codepink.org.

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