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May 4, 2009

Local activist links peace, bailout

By Tom Grace

When Edward Liddy, AIG's chief executive officer, walked into a congressional hearing room in March, a local activist says she had him in the palm of her hand.

``I was there to hear him try to justify giving millions in bonuses to the very people who'd mismanaged the company,'' said Code Pink member Cynthia Benjamin, of New Lisbon.

``Before the hearing started, it was pretty informal, people were talking, sitting down and I saw him walk in.''

Liddy was about to sit in front of her, when Benjamin, a registered nurse and veteran peace activist, called out his name.

``He turned to me and shook my hand,'' she said. ``And when he did, I wouldn't let go. I just held onto his hand while we had some words about those obscene bonuses paid out to wealthy executives, while middle-class families lose their homes.

``By now, the room was filling up, and there was no graceful way to get out of that handshake,'' said Benjamin, whose 31-year-old son, Capt. Jesse Greaves, is an Army captain in Iraq.

``I asked him how he felt about the economic draft of our middle class, where young people can't find jobs so they're forced into the military,'' she said. ``And about people losing their pensions, their health care, while his executives get millions of our tax dollars.''

While the gallery watched, Liddy and Benjamin, who was with Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin (no relation), were captured in photographs that would appear in Newsweek, The London Times and the New York Times. Code Pink is a women's peace group.

``It was an incredible situation, and I have to say he was very nice to me,'' said Benjamin. ``He told he understood how the American people felt.''

Then the gavel came down and Benjamin let Liddy go so he could be questioned by the House Financial Services Subcommittee. Committee members wanted to know why American International Group, which received more than $170 billion in bailout money, should be allowed to pay bonuses of about $165 million to 73 executives.

The public was angry, and Benjamin, who carried a sign that read ``poor honest taxpayer,'' caught the public eye. But she had not driven to Washington primarly to protest AIG's excesses.

``I was there because we're now in the seventh year of the war, the second-longest war in our history, and it's unconscionable to drag it out like this.

``It's a tragedy and directly related to the economy, but it's on the back burner, and I worry that the new administration has so much on it plate, the war isn't a priority,'' she said.

Although she feels President Barack Obama is far better than his immediate predecesssor, ``he needs to shift more to using diplomacy and less on force,'' she said

Last week, Benjamin was home in Otsego County, where she works as a nurse at local hospitals. On Friday, she'll return to Washington with Deborah Blue, of Oneonta, on a Mother's Day quest for peace.

``I've been to Washington with Cynthia before to protest this war,'' said Blue, who also protested the Vietnam War. ``When I heard she was going, I said I think I'll go, too.''

Mother's Day is the right day for protesting war, she said.

Benjamin said, ``Mother's Day is not all about Hallmark,'' noting the holiday has its American origins in peace.

According to mothersdaycentral.com, ``The first North American Mother's Day was conceptualized with Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation in 1870.

``Despite having penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic 12 years earlier, Howe had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on mothers to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their sons killing the sons of other mothers.''

The holiday took years to take hold, but was recognized by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.

This year, mothers from all over, organized by Code Pink, want to take the holiday back to its roots, she said.

``Several local women have created small fabric or knitted squares which I'll take with me.''

And next weekend, mothers, armed with crochet hooks and needles, will descend on the nation's capital. ``We hope to make a 150-foot banner and hang it on the White House fence,'' said Benjamin.

The banner will read "I will not raise my child to kill another mother's child."

She'll also take take a banner created by seven-year-old Gabby Barbera, of Oneonta. This will be included in a children's exhibit of peace-related artwork in Layfayette Park, across from the White House.

Gabby's mother's, Alisha Barbera, said she's proud of her daughter's efforts.

``When Cindy asked Gabby if she'd like to make something, Gabby said `absolutely,''' she said.