Looking back on James Baldwin’s “A Report from Occupied Territory,” one might not immediately distinguish it from a piece published today. He and many other giants of the Civil Rights Movement repeatedly likened American policing in Black communities to that of an occupying military force. This disturbing relationship between law enforcement and the people they ostensibly protect becomes even more pronounced as the Trump Administration attempts to wield the military to quell protests.
As multiple other outlets have noted, bloated police budgets result in greater police violence. On a fundamental level, if we arm officers with military hardware, they are even more likely to behave precisely as Baldwin described. To see this phenomenon at work, one only needs to look at recent police escalation across the country. In my own city of Raleigh, officers required minimal provocation to indiscriminately gas and fired on unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters, myself included. This absurdly disproportionate response to civil rights protests proves that 1966 is not ancient history. It also reminds us that when given more and more taxpayer-funded hammers, police will see more and more members of their communities as nails.
If we find indiscriminate state violence in our streets appalling, we should feel similarly about it abroad. Furthermore, nothing should disgust us more than the continued expansion of our wasteful and self-destructive nuclear weapons program. The reckoning we currently face with respect to racism and American policing should also lead us to raise similar questions about our country’s foreign and military policy. If we find indiscriminate state violence in our streets appalling, we should feel similarly about it abroad. Furthermore, nothing should disgust us more than the continued expansion of our wasteful and self-destructive nuclear weapons program.
During his iconic anti-imperialist speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted this point. In a packed church exactly one year prior to his assassination, King remarked, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
As the only country with the dubious honor of having used a nuclear bomb in anger, Americans have a paramount duty to fight both imperialism and nuclearization. While historians continue to argue about whether the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified, the final decision was undeniably fueled by rabid anti-Japanese racism. Ever since those fateful days in 1945, prominent Black activists have stood in opposition to the bomb as well as the racism and imperialism it came to represent.
In his recent book, African Americans Against the Bomb, Vincent Intondi explains the ways in which initial opposition to atomic bombings in Japan fed into a decades-long, and often Black-led antiwar movement. As Intondi recounts, Dr. King himself frequently referenced the evils of the bomb explicitly. In one such instance, King asks his audience, “what will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war?”
This remains a question we must ask ourselves today. Failing to do so puts all the historic gains of our most beloved social movements in jeopardy. Much in the same way that unaccountable police in riot gear can escalate peaceful protests into violent riots, unaccountable presidential control over easily-deployable stockpiles of nuclear warheads put us at greater danger of nuclear war. Additionally, the Trump administration’s repeated withdrawal from nuclear treaties continues to push us towards a dangerously unchecked foreign policy landscape. As if the situation were not dire enough, the White House recently announced its willingness to resume nuclear testing. Not only will the ecocidal action of renewing testing invariably ravage downwind communities, it will also directly encourage rivals like China to reconsider extremely positive steps towards denuclearization. As we have seen firsthand through the repeated and systemic failures of police departments across the country, we the people must step in to keep our own communities safe.
In much the same way that local Black Lives Matter activists are right to call for cuts to militarized police departments, we must pair the current movement with efforts to rein in American militarism extending beyond our borders too. Now more than ever, we need to divert funding from programs that threaten to push us closer to the brink of nuclear war. We must urge our representatives to echo Representative Barbara Lee’s (D-CA) call to cut the Pentagon budget and reprioritize programs that actually keep us safe.
We have a moral imperative to oppose not only oppressive policing at home, but also ICBM-backed imperialism abroad. For this reason, as we work to pressure our local city councils to reinvest police budgets in social services, we must also call upon lawmakers to support cuts to the Pentagon budget. Only then can we truly reinvest in the sorts of programs and infrastructure that truly keep ordinary people everywhere safe.