To Cuba, with Love: Local Code Pink Activist Joins Diplomatic Delegation

As you're reading this, Toni Rozsahegyi, a local activist and mother of four, will be slapping palms with Cubans in and around Havana as part of a delegation. Cuba is, of course, a country from which the United States has been estranged for more than half a century and with which President Barack Obama recently re-opened diplomatic doors. Before Rozsahegyi left on Saturday with the emissaries from Code Pink — a grassroots peace and civil rights organization led by women — she spoke with Scene about her upcoming trip, her involvement in recent protests here in town, and the realities of opposing militarism in the United States (and Cleveland) in 2015.

Sam Allard: So 'Rozsahegyi.' What is that, Hungarian?

Toni Rozsahegyi: It is. It's actually Rosenberg, translated into Hungarian.

SA: Now that that's settled, what do you do with Code Pink?

TR: One of the campaigns I'm working on is demilitarization, which is a national campaign. I'm working with some of the Cleveland councilmen on it here. We gave them a sample demilitarization resolution, which asks them not to purchase certain surplus military-grade equipment through the Department of Defense 1033 program. I spoke to Kevin Kelley and Brian Cummins — he was all for it — and I talked to Matt Zone, and he seemed interested. Also Jeffrey Johnson and the women on council. Obviously it's a very sensitive time in Cleveland with the DOJ report and the Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson killings, but we're really hoping that as a show of good will, the city of Cleveland will adopt this. It's a win-win for the city. It protects the police and the city from lawsuits — there aren't a lot of guidelines for how this equipment, which is outside the scope of regular law enforcement, should be used. And it also protects the civil rights of the people.

SA: Do you know if Cleveland already purchases that type of equipment?

TR: I don't, but I told Matt Zone that if he doesn't get this proposal going, my next step will be to go to council's Public Safety Committee meeting, and go to the mayor directly, and ask them to disclose if they have. The interesting thing about these programs is that the money goes through the state, but the federal government doesn't have to disclose what they send. It's part of the language of the Homeland Security Act. But we feel it's kind of important to know.

SA: I'll say.

TR: Now I'm not saying that the Cleveland police department is militarized. If anything, if you look at what's going on, they're lacking sophisticated equipment and training. But I think it would be a great thing for Cleveland to be one of the first cities to adopt this resolution. There are other cities that are considering it.

SA: In other news, I'm dying to know about this trip to Cuba.

TR: So I got a chance to go because I'm a local activist. When Code Pink asked if anyone wanted to go, they got a humongous response. They originally were only going to take 30 people, but they bumped it up to 150. They tried to select people from all over the United States, and there are a handful from other countries.

SA: And what's the aim of the trip? Pure diplomacy?

TR: Obviously we're a guest of the Cuban government, but with this remarkable step Obama has made trying to get diplomatic relations back, this is actually a historic trip. We are going to visit hospitals and the health ministry to talk with doctors who are working on Ebola. We're going to tour the University of Havana. We're going to tour some of the agricultural co-ops and see how they've handled sustainable gardening.

SA: Not to interject, but shouldn't all gardening be considered sustainable?

TR: Their whole life has been about sustainability, because of the embargo.

SA: Word.

TR: But also, we'll be looking at the business climate, and visiting with some women's and literacy groups.

SA: Anything directly related to Cleveland or Ohio?

TR: Well, this is an opportunity, right? If you're a lady on the street or a bus driver there, you're never going to be able to reach Sherrod Brown or Rob Portman or Marcy Kaptur. But maybe, because I'm from Ohio and one of their constituents, I can be a voice for those people who aren't able to communicate with these powerful officials who are making decisions that affect them.

SA: Locally, what types of action has Code Pink taken?

TR: We had an action outside of Crocker Park Mall. We were at the Ingenuity Festival last year. When the Israeli basketball team came to town, we did a protest outside the Q with some other groups.

SA: Oh, I definitely remember that.

TR: And again, the message wasn't that we didn't like the Israeli basketball players. It was: Hold Israel accountable for its decisions. We did a big protest in front of the Federal Building when Israel was bombing Gaza. I likened it to bombing the city of Chicago because they had a gang problem. It's just absurd.

SA: So it's not like you have a single flagship issue?

TR: I'd say that once you start down this path, it's very hard to pull back. Lately, there are so many things to be outraged about. Drones, bombings, the arming of the people they call militants. We inflict living conditions and death and destruction on people in other countries that we would never tolerate here in the United States.

SA: Does it seem to you like the activism surrounding police brutality has lagged somewhat?

TR: I think some people are still holding out faith that the city of Cleveland — the mayor, the safety director, the police department, the council, the DOJ — will put into action some of the suggestions that they've gotten through the listening tours. If you've seen the report, you know that the police have a Very. Big. Problem. And it's an accountability problem. I would say to the CPD: If you want everybody out of your business, then take care of your business. For the activists, I think it's exhausting. There's outrage over an issue, but change doesn't happen quickly. I think until the mayor and the safety director open their eyes and admit that there is a problem, you're going to see a lot more protesting. It's just a really bad situation right now. I feel for the people, and I feel for the police officers also.

SA: So did you attend the listening tours?

TR: I did. It's a great place to network and to hear people speak and really get an understanding of the issues. That's another reason why this Cuba trip is important. You can see this sort of thing on the news, but when you get an opportunity to experience it yourself, to go and get to know the humans behind the news, you should take it.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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