Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the struggle against Jim Crow segregation and the racial oppression of Black Americans as one component of a broader struggle for social justice. Throughout his life, Dr. King spoke out against the development and use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. government, and denounced the war in Vietnam. For Martin Luther King Day 2023, RootsAction hosted a livestream panel discussion with anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons activists to discuss the need for diplomacy with Russia to achieve peace in Ukraine. This panel features Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign, Pastor Michael McBride of Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Judith LeBlanc of Native Organizers Alliance, Senator Nina Turner who is the current Senior Fellow at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at the New School, political activist Daniel Ellsberg, Khury Petersen-Smith of Institute for Policy Studies, David Swanson of World Beyond War, and political activist Norman Solomon. This discussion was moderated by Hanieh Jodat. You can learn more about RootsAction’s efforts to prevent nuclear war by visiting DefuseNuclearWar.org.
Hanieh Jodat: Good evening to our participants and our esteemed panelists who have gathered here this evening to honor and celebrate Dr. King’s profound moral courage and humanitarian justice in his opposition to war and nuclear weapons. Dr. King Jr. devoted his entire life to ending the entrenched segregation of his people and adopting a non-violent resistance to achieve equal rights for Black Americans, for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. But, it’s also important to note that he was an anti-war leader who fought for a nuclear free world and disarmament.
In an interview with EBONY magazine in 1957, Dr. King said, and I quote, “I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons of war should be banned. It cannot be disputed that a full scale nuclear war would be utterly catastrophic. Hundreds and millions of people would be killed outright by the blast and heat, and by the ionizing radiation produced at the instant of an explosion.”
In 1958, Dr. King signed a petition from SANE, a national committee for a sane nuclear policy to halt nuclear bomb tests. The following year, in 1959, he spoke at the War Resisters League, his annual dinner, about the dangers of nuclear war and nuclear weapons. And in February of 1968, Dr. King, while taking the stage to address the second mobilization of the clergy and faith leaders concerned about Vietnam, urged an end to the war, and warned that if the United States use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, the earth would be transformed into an inferno hard to envision. In his mission for justice, he often made a connection between Black freedom and the need for nuclear disarmament. He said, “It is a wonderful thing to work to integrate lunch counters, public accommodations, and schools, but it would be rather absurd to work to get schools and lunch counters integrated and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to integrate.”
Before we begin tonight’s program, I’d like to take the privilege and also recognize my countrywomen and countrymen in Iran, who in the quest for a democratic country, have been risking their lives. Many of them are now imprisoned, and many have been shot and executed.
But, I would also like to recognize our Native leader, Judith LeBlanc, who will lead us into tonight’s discussion with a prayer and bless us on the stolen land on which we reside. Judith is an enrolled member of Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, The Native Organizers Alliance, which is a national Native training and organizing network that provides Native organizers, tribal governments and nonprofits training based on traditional Indigenous knowledge, values, and practices. Judith co-chaired the May 2016 Fertile Ground Planning Committee, and co-edited the Fertile Ground, the second edition, Growing the Seeds for Native American Health final report. Judith is currently working with tribal governments, traditional elders, and Native community groups in South Dakota, who are organizing to protect the hydroscope. Judith, please take it away. You’re muted.
Judith LeBlanc: I’m very glad to be here and to unmute at the appropriate moment. So, my name is Judith LeBlanc. I’m a citizen of the Caddo Nation. I’m also the executive director of the Native Organizers Alliance, which is an over decade-old Native network that was born out of the struggles to mobilize grassroots Native support for Obamacare. Once the Indian Health Improvement Act was rolled into Obamacare, it became necessary for Indian country to get organized. And I was, eight years ago, actually, I was the field director for Peace Action, and then during the Bush administration, I was the co-chair of United for Peace and Justice. And it really struck me how important it is that we understand all things in relationship.
I will offer some words of encouragement. In Indian country, that’s how we open our meetings, either with a prayer or words of encouragement. Of course, it’s been somewhat of a new development in the movements to also start with some kind of an acknowledgement of the place on which we stand. We have such responsibilities to the place where we stand, which is Mother Earth.
It really struck me though, when I was active in the Iraq anti-war movement, how important it is to see not only all things in relationship, but how important it is to weave together the struggle for disarmament, nuclear disarmament, and against militarism with the struggle to protect Mother Earth from climate destruction, from the exploitation and degradation of fossil fuel extraction, and to make the connection between the whole cycle of militarism.
For one of my experiences in the anti-Iraq war movement was during a United Nations Nonproliferation Treaty conference where I invited some of my relatives to speak who had been working for many, many years on the Laguna Pueblo on the Navajo reservation against uranium mining, and in responding to the long-term crisis that that uranium mining had caused on the land for the health and wellbeing of Navajo and Pueblo communities in the Southwest.
It really struck me during that NPT conference how, for many people in the nuclear disarmament movement, they understood that uranium mining had affected Native communities. But then, as now, many people could not even fathom how important Native leadership, Indigenous leadership is in this struggle to save the planet from militarism. And the fact remains that many of the land acknowledgements that are made in good spirit with good intention often paint Native peoples as peoples of the past, when in fact all of the major climate justice struggles for over a decade have been led and initiated by Indigenous Native tribal communities, many of them winning struggles such as stopping the drilling in the Arctic.
Well, one thing that is for sure, that if we do not, in the nuclear discernment and anti-militarism movements, weave together the struggle to protect Mother Earth with ending militarism, we will not be on firm ground. If we do not develop authentic relationships with the communities that are affected by militarism, from its very starting point of the mining of uranium, then we will not have a movement that has long-term impact on the future.
I think that one of the biggest contributions to the political moment at this stage of the crisis that we’re all facing is that there is a relationship between the past and the future, and that from an Indigenous framework, to understand the future, you have to learn the lessons of the past. But, in an Indigenous timeframe, time cosmology, the only place where the past and the future come together is in the present. And therefore, how we walk in the present, how we make the connections between all things, and to understand the interrelationships, it’s the biggest element of our collective ancestral responsibilities to protect Mother Earth and to end militarism.
Now, we’ve been in a sustained period of many crises: the pandemic, wars, aggression, the ascendancy of the right wing. But, at the same time, we’ve experienced some of the most important magic movement moments of our lifetime. When you think about the Movement for Black Lives, or the migrant youth, the dreamers or the fast food workers, and the struggles for a living decent wage, or Standing Rock, where, for the first time in history, hundreds of tribes came together. Hundreds of tribes, 10,000 people came together to stand as one, stand with our values to protect Mother Earth. And then you look at how things have played out in the electoral arena, where massive historic turnouts in 2020, because people understood what the impact of a right-wing extremist ascendancy could mean for our future. Or, you look at the turnout in the 2022 elections where a majority of people voted against crazies, right-wing extremist crazies. Yet we still have so far to go.
From our vantage point in Indian country, the movements that are alive and well at the grassroots are the basis for hope. But, from the standpoint of Indian country, if we are going to end militarism, then we have to understand the past. We have to accept the ancestral responsibility of what militarism has done from the very beginnings of the United States. With that understanding, there is power. With that understanding, then we understand how one period of history has led into the next, but also what the future could hold if, in the present, we walk with an understanding that all things are related, that Indigenous peoples and all people of color and poor communities and the communities of those who have become clear sighted on the impact of militarism on our lives and the struggle for a multiracial democracy.
So, I look forward to the conversation tonight, but I also think that there has to be a broad-based struggle to reflect on the fact that nuclear disarmament and ending militarism is a political issue. Ending militarism, ending the threat of nuclear war is a moral concern, as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King admonished us.
But, in the final analysis, ending militarism and the threat of nuclear war is an ancestral responsibility that we must take up in a way that is different. This is not your grandma’s peace movement. This is a movement that needs to be built because the right wing is on the ascendancy, and the only way forward is to build massive movements of the majority. The majority, right now, as it stands, is clear on the need for action on climate. The majority in this country are clear on the impact and the effects of systemic racism. The majority are clear on the fact that democracy and multiracial democracy deserves to be protected to fulfill many of the dreams of our ancestors, and so I will just end with these words of encouragement to say that there’s no fear of the future as long as we’re walking on a good path in the present, and we accept our ancestral responsibilities for that future. Thank you.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you, Judith, and please do share your website with our attendees and let us know how we can collaborate further with you.
I just want to recognize also that just recently three Black men were killed brutally by the Los Angeles PD, and our hearts go out to their families.
I want to recognize our next speaker as someone who, if he did not have this vision for the Defuse Nuclear War project, none of this would be possible. I get to work with this colleague of mine every single day, and this is something that I take full advantage of, and it is an honor of a lifetime. It is my privilege to introduce Norman Solomon, who is the national director of rootsaction.org. He is the author of dozens of books, including War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 and 2020 Democratic National Convention. He is also the founder and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. Take the floor, please, Norman.
Norman Solomon: Many people have made our gathering possible here, and now I feel a deep appreciation for all who have done the work and have laid the groundwork for progressive movements now at which Defuse Nuclear War is a small, very small but important part. We’ve all heard, I think, just about any adult or even a school child in the United States has heard the phrase, “I have a dream.” Very few have heard the phrase, “the madness of militarism.” But, both of those phrases came from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So, what does it tell us about the corporate media and the politics of this country that we often hear about “I have a dream” and so rarely hear about “the madness of militarism”? I was thinking today about, if you take those four words and four words, actually a dozen words, incorporating them would be terrific: I have a dream for us to end the madness of militarism. And yet the militarism that is so pervasive hardly gets mentioned in the mass media.
It’s a deep, bipartisan problem, and I think that progressive forces often have trouble being explicit and emphatic about that. We know that when it comes to what gets called “domestic issues”, there are huge, profound differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. But, what about nuclear weapons? What about Militarism? It’s really hard to see a difference. This is an omnicidal bipartisan push to spend now $2 trillion or so to invest, Obama’s idea, Trump’s idea, Biden’s idea. And yet somehow we’re supposed to go easy on the Democrats, when they are partners with the Republicans in Congress and in the White House to push this country further along to cooperate with other nuclear powers to plan to end human life on Earth, essentially, 99% or so from nuclear winter, we’re told by the scientists.
This siloing and the separation of issues, of course, as we know, that’s not how the real world works. When I was growing up, I heard Ron Dellums, at one point the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, say that nuclear weapons are an equal opportunity destroyer. And yet the segregation, if you will, of issues, has really, from corporate media, from the arms manufacturers, from the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill, really fragmented our awareness as though this isn’t one world. And yet though of course we know this is one world, the sphere that we all live on, including as we know now, if we didn’t before, about climate, about COVID, about all the ways that we’re bound together.
So, I just want to sum up my presentation by saying that, of course the analysis is crucial, and of course the action is crucial, and I just love working with so many different individuals and organizations for organizing. Because if we don’t organize effectively, then we’re going to be crushed by the military-industrial-corporate intelligence media complex that is supremely organized, they’re really well organized. And Defuse Nuclear War is another effort to help build coalitions. And I want to encourage everybody watching, listening, if you haven’t already, to go to defusenuclearwar.org and sign up, because this is an information coalition, it’s also an action coalition.
In October, Defuse Nuclear War organized about 50 different picket lines around the United States in coordination and cooperation and mutual work with many groups around the country. 50 picket lines at senatorial and congressional offices around the country to strongly urge that, finally, members of Congress acknowledge publicly not only the crisis and the dangers of nuclear war, but also that they speak up to do something about it, which is really, of course, crucial. And later in our gathering here, we’re going to hear from Ryan Black, who will tell more about the plans from Defuse Nuclear War in the weeks ahead for a campaign that will be national, that will be messaging members of Congress, and we’ll be messaging them with words and with photographs of our loved ones, and to help build a movement to pressure those in Congress and in the White House to end the madness of militarism.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you so much, Norman, and we look forward to hearing from Ryan Black at the end of our program here. We have also extended an invitation to Pastor Mike McBride, who will be joining us later. But, what I will do now for the sake of time is I will move over to David Swanson, another wonderful colleague of mine, who is an author, activist, journalist, and a radio host. David is the executive director of worldbeyondwar.org and a campaign coordinator for rootsaction.org. David Swanson’s books include War is a Lie. He blogs at davidswanson.org and warisacrime.org. He hosts Talk World Radio and he is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and US Peace Prize recipient. David, I know you have some wonderful slides that you’ve put together for us, so let us share your screen and go from there
David Swanson: Can you see it okay?
Hanieh Jodat: Yeah.
David Swanson: So, thank you very much, Hanieh, and everyone else for being here and for including me. Let’s see if I can get it to go to the next slide. I can. So, we know the risks. They are no secret. The doomsday clock has almost nowhere to go but oblivion. We know what’s needed, we’ve made a national holiday of a man who said he would oppose all nukes and all wars without any regard to whether it was popular, who said the choice was between nonviolence and non-existence. We are so aware of what’s needed that we all routinely tell our kids to be radical peacemakers, to deescalate, to back away, to apologize, to compromise.
We know what war is, and at long last, with White, Christian, European victims to blame on Russia, we see its images in the news media. We also finally hear what it costs financially. But, we hear what it costs financially, not in terms of the trade-offs of the human and environmental good, far greater than ending war that could be done with the funding now spent on war. Rather, in the ridiculous terms of spending money, including on human and environmental needs, somehow being an evil in itself. Victims of war are presented not as reasons to end war, but as reasons to continue war. Guidance you would give to children is widely shunned. In fact, it’s tantamount to treason to even suggest the sort of wise steps one would insist on children learning.
In our government, a tiny group of right-wingers actually exercised power for the good of cutting military spending combined with the evil of cutting human and environmental spending, and some of those who supposedly care about the future of life on Earth find that worthy of mockery. The value of the day is inaction. The supreme attribute is cowardice. So-called progressives inside and outside of Congress support endless mountains of weapons shipments to keep a war going, to starve children who need those same resources, and to heighten the risk of nuclear apocalypse, while making the quietest little self contradictory peeps about negotiating peace. And when anyone objects to that, these progressives run screaming from their own shadows or blame a staffer for the misunderstanding that they ever meant to attempt anything at all.
MLK Day should be a day for courage, for independence, for non-partisanship, and for nonviolent action, for the complete ending and abolishing of participation in any war. The right wing in the US government will not cut war spending without public pressure. Those claiming to oppose the right wing will place that very opposition above the task of making peace in the absence of tremendous principled and independent public pressure.
So, we have to ask ourselves, what do we oppose more: hunger, or Republicans? The destruction of all life on Earth, or Republicans? War, or Republicans? We can oppose many things properly prioritized. We can even do so through uncomfortably large coalitions. We don’t need vegetarians between meals, or peace advocates between wars or between Democratic presidencies, we need a principled stand for peace precisely in time of overwhelming war propaganda.
It is worth remembering that a reasonable agreement was reached at Minsk in 2015, that the current president of Ukraine was elected in 2019, promising peace negotiations, and that the US and right-wing groups in Ukraine pushed back against that. It’s worth remembering that Russia’s demands prior to its invasion of Ukraine were perfectly reasonable and a better deal from Ukraine’s perspective than anything discussed since. The US has also been a force against negotiations during the past 10 months.
Medea Benjamin & Nicolas Davies wrote in September, “For those who say negotiations are impossible, we have only to look at the talks that took place during the first month after the Russian invasion, when Russia and Ukraine tentatively agreed to a 15-point peace plan in talks mediated by Turkey. Details still had to be worked out, but the framework and the political will were there. Russia was ready to withdraw from all of Ukraine except for Crimea and the self-declared republics in Donbass. Ukraine was ready to renounce future membership in NATO and adopt a position of neutrality between Russia and NATO. The agreed framework provided for political transitions in Crimea and Donbass that both sides would accept and recognize based on self-determination for the people of the regions. The future security of Ukraine was to be guaranteed by a group of other countries, but Ukraine would not host foreign military bases on its territory.
On March 27, president Zelenskyy told a national TV audience, ‘Our goal is obvious: peace and the restoration of normal life in our native state as soon as possible.’ He laid out his red lines for the negotiations on TV to reassure his people he would not concede too much, and he promised them a referendum on the neutrality agreement before it would take effect. Ukrainian and Turkish sources have revealed that the UK and US governments played decisive roles in torpedoing those early prospects for peace. During UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s surprise visit to Kyiv on April 9, he reportedly told Prime Minister Zelenskyy that the UK was in it for the long run, that it would not be party to any agreement between Russia and Ukraine, and that the collective West saw a chance to press Russia and was determined to make the most of it. The same message was reiterated by US Defense Secretary Austin, who followed Johnson to Kyiv on April 25 and made it clear the US and NATO were no longer just trying to help Ukraine defend itself, but were now committed to using the war to weaken Russia. Turkish diplomats told retired British diplomat Craig Murray that these messages from the US and UK killed their otherwise promising efforts to mediate a ceasefire and a diplomatic resolution.”
How can you tell that someone does not want peace? They carefully avoid it. Both sides in this war propose pre-conditions for peace talks that they know the other side will not accept. And when one side calls for a ceasefire for two days, the other side doesn’t call their bluff and propose one for four days, choosing instead to ridicule it. Once we understand that the path to peace is not war and that peace is available through compromise if governments want it, what can we do? So here are some upcoming actions that will have as big an impact as we make them have. I hope to see you all at many of them, as many of them as possible, and you will be emailed this presentation and can find all of these events at worldbeyondwar.org. Peace.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you so much David. And if you wouldn’t mind sharing your Twitter handle and the websites that you mentioned in the chat for our audience to benefit from, we would greatly appreciate it. I cannot tell you enough how much I am delighted to have this next speaker, not only as someone who mentors me, but someone who is always on a mission to do good. I know that throughout the Iran uprising, he has been one of the very few who has reached out to me on a number of occasions just to say hello, and, how can I help? So it is my absolute honor and privilege to introduce to you Khury Petersen-Smith, my dear friend, who I actually spent a good half hour to an hour yesterday talking to about what our next campaign should be about in terms of peace.
And Khury is the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at Institute for Policy Studies. He researches the US empire, borders, and migration, and he graduated from the Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Massachusetts after completing a dissertation that focused on militarization and sovereignty. He is one of the co-authors and organizers of the 2015 Black Solidarity with the Palestine movement, which was signed by over 1,100 Black activists, artists, and scholars. I know that Khury, in our conversations, oftentimes we talk about cross-generational activism, and can you tie that to Dr. King’s quest for a better world, as well as the Black struggle?
Khury Petersen-Smith: I’d be honored to. I’m so grateful to join you all. And I want to say a word about some of the things that Hanieh just mentioned. I want to say a word about war today and I want to say a word about Dr. King. But I want to start by talking about the fact that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the most recent US invasion of Iraq, and it should be a real year of reflection for all of us and interrogation of what the US did and what the US continues to do. And it is a time when, certainly, the people of Iraq are on my mind in a big way. And I also want to acknowledge the resistance that developed, that exploded 20 years ago all around the world, including this country, to challenge that invasion. And I do want to say that while I’m deeply grateful to be here with all of my fellow panelists, I want to especially honor the work of Judith and Norman and David, who played such important roles in shaping that resistance, enormous roles in shaping that anti-war protest era. That certainly impacted me and many others.
So with that, I do want to say a word about war today, and say that as for many people in this country and around the world, my heart is with the people of Ukraine as they go toward another year of a horrendous invasion. And my heart is with all the people of the world who are suffering from war, the people of Palestine, the people of Somalia, the people of Ethiopia. Unfortunately I could keep going. There are so many people facing the horrendous violence of war and of displacement and so on.
About Russia and Ukraine. I want to be crystal clear that I reject entirely Russia’s invasion, but that does not mean that I accept the US’s involvement in this war, and I urge critical interrogation of US involvement. And I want to say, echoing what David said, that I think that we are in an extremely dangerous situation, actually, where the United States’s government, for nearly a year, has reaped the benefits of war.
That is, the benefits that come with a powerful country involved in a war. Things like national unity, to the extent that that’s possible in the United States at the moment, things like a bump in the president’s approval rating, things like, of course, a boon for the US weapons industry. It has reaped these benefits, and with zero risk at all. It is not Americans who are dying, even though the White House and Congress can find seemingly endless billions of dollars for weapons, and it seems like there’s no talk of any kind of end game. The US can just keep on fueling one end of the war, keep on sending weapons and so on, with no sacrifice of American life. And that’s an extremely dangerous situation that I think we really need to challenge.
Really this year, again, thinking about 20 years since the US invasion of Iraq or coming, this is a couple years after 20 years of the US invasion of Afghanistan. This is around 20 years since the US operations in Yemen and Somalia, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This should really be a time of reflection on the catastrophe of war and militarism, and in particular on the US’s role in all of that.
Instead, I think that the US is taking the opportunity, taking the occasion of this war in Ukraine to prepare for more war, as a new round of militarization. More weapons, higher military budgets, with Washington leading the way, but with many other countries in the world following suit. What could be happening, what should be happening? We know that at some point this war will end through a negotiated settlement, it’s a question of when it will happen. But it is the case that the United States actually doesn’t have to wait for Ukraine to have its own negotiations with Russia, because while nothing, absolutely nothing can justify this Russian invasion, it is the case that the US has militarized Europe for decades by stationing troops, by stationing nuclear weapons, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So for the sake of the people of Europe, for the sake of the people of the world, and to deny Putin any basis, however cynical, to justify his actions, the United States can lead, not through war making, but through demilitarization. The United States can say, okay, we will pull troops out of Eastern Europe. We will take nuclear weapons out. Et cetera, et cetera. We know, of course, it’s painfully clear after another year of this that the US government will not lead on that, that we are called, the people of this country are called, to demand that kind of thing.
Now with that, I want to turn to Dr. King. And it is the case, of course, and folks on this call will know that Dr. King was anti-war, that anti-militarism was central to his outlook and his work, but we don’t talk enough in this country when we talk about Dr. King’s legacy about his internationalism, which goes beyond simply opposing war, as important as that is.
King saw the Black freedom struggle in this country in the context of global freedom struggle. And I want to read just a little bit from his incredible letter from Birmingham jail written in 1963. He said, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom. Something without has reminded him that he can gain it. Consciously and unconsciously, he has been swept in by what Germans call the zeitgeist. And with all his Black brothers of Africa, his Brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”
And so here we have King in jail in Alabama, thinking about and talking about a Black freedom struggle in the context of a global decolonization struggle. We know that King was inspired by the struggle in India. We learned that he was inspired by Gandhi, but without seeing Gandhi in context of an anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire, that is what King was inspired by. Dr. King was present at the independence of Ghana, the inauguration of Ghana as an independent state in Africa. So this was part of his landscape. This is what he drew upon.
And I think, and I’ll say this in closing, that King organized and thought and engaged with the belief in the power of people around the world freeing themselves, that capacity of people to free themselves. And I think that this helped, it grounded his opposition to US militarism, because US militarism is presented as a solution to the world’s problems. But King, like all internationalists, saw that the people of the world are capable of solving their own problems through their heroic resistance, in an amazing time of resistance that he was living in.
So as the people of Ukraine endure and survive and resist, and as the people of Palestine resist a new round of Israeli violence, as the people of Iran fight for freedom, we would do well to not only challenge the militarism of the US government, even when that militarism is popular, perhaps especially when that militarism is popular, do we need to challenge it. But we would also do well to take a page from Dr. King’s book, and engage and learn with the freedom fighters of the world. Thank you.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you, Khury, for that beautiful, beautiful remark. And oftentimes when we talk about nuclear weapons, we talk about billions of dollars that are invested in renewing and modernizing. And I often wonder how much of that could be spent on social programs here at home, which brings me a great pleasure to bring our next guest, because she is continuing to fight for the people of Buffalo, for people to benefit and take advantage from those social programs. India Walton, who’s also another wonderful colleague of mine, is a native Buffalonian and former Democratic nominee for mayor of Buffalo.
After a decade-long career as a registered nurse working at a hospital and Buffalo public schools, India decided to devote her life to systemic change and the pursuit of justice and equity for all humans. India works as a community organizer, advocating for everything from police accountability to fair housing and food justice. In 2017, India co-founded and eventually served as the executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, Buffalo’s first democratically run affordable housing organization. Currently, India serves as the strategic director of RootsAction Civic Education, which she co-created with the RootsAction Education Fund to advance equity and civic engagement in Buffalo, New York. Welcome India, and please take it away.
India Walton: Thank you Hanieh. It is such an honor to be here this evening and to speak. I really am appreciating all of the education and wisdom that I’m hearing from the other panelists. As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today and all of this week coming with kind words about non-violence and about dreams of a more just society, I embody and I carry with me a dream deferred. My name is India Walton, and I hail from Buffalo, New York, stolen land from the Haudenosaunee Indigenous people in this region.
Today I want to focus on the triple pronged evils. I know many of you have maybe been watching the national news about some of the tragedies that have struck Buffalo, New York within the last year. We had a racist massacre where we lost 10 innocent lives in a grocery store on the East side of Buffalo, which is predominantly Black, that has been plagued for generations with concentrated poverty disadvantage. It is a place where there… Mainstream folks might call it a food desert, but locally we call it food apartheid because we know that these are policy decisions that allowed a person who wanted to identify and murder Black folks knew exactly where to find them, and that was the single grocery store within a three mile radius in a neighborhood that is predominantly Black and Brown.
Couple that with a recent snowstorm where we lost 40 people in Erie County who died as a result of a blizzard, and more than half of those people look like me. They were Black people on the East side, and that is a basic lack of not only leadership, but infrastructure of safe affordable housing. And I really appreciate that everyone is focused on anti-militarism from an international and a war standpoint, but I want to talk about the three-pronged evils of racism, of excessive materialism AKA capitalism, and of excessive militarism. And when we talk about militarism, that can also translate into how we treat our municipal police forces.
We have a police force that in Buffalo, like in many other cities across this nation, we are expecting them to take care of every single societal ill. That is a result of austerity budgeting and cutting social services and social safety nets. What we saw during the Christmas blizzard where we had children, elderly, houseless people, and our most vulnerable die in the cold… I mean people being found frozen in snow banks. What we saw was that our mayor decided to put our police department, who are equipped with AR-15s, who are equipped with anti-public gathering equipment, but nothing to rescue folks from a snow emergency. They were detailed to stop looting. And when I hear someone say looting, what I hear is there are people who are desperate, who have been denied basic necessities, who are just trying to survive.
Our police department was empowered, equipped, and is hyper militarized to find petty thieves before they would answer 911 calls that were backlogged by more than a thousand people who were looking to check on loved ones and who were calling for help. So we can find people who were finding toilet paper and diapers, and baby formula, and milk, and water, and a warm place to be so they didn’t freeze to death, we are accosting them and arresting them and ticketing people, rather than using resources that were desperately needed to go and rescue people who actually needed help.
Buffalo is a place of great tragedy, but also of great hope. And what I want to carry with me into this next year as we move forward, as I remember the spirit of Dr. King and so many others, is a spirit of radical truth, of radical love, of radical care. And, in the words of our great sage, Mr. Tupac Shakur, “They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.”
And I think that, right now today, we have to commit ourselves to reclaiming our humanity, to saying no to militarism, to saying no to war, and saying yes to one another, saying yes to community, and building the communities of care and the mutual aid that we know is allowing our communities to survive. That has been the thing that has kept us together, and also translating that into electoral and legislative power so that we can ensure that we are not catering to the wealthy and the warmongers, but that we are catering to the people, to the workers, and the families, and the folks who are caring and keeping our communities surviving. So thank you very much for having me, and I’m looking forward to enjoying the rest of the program.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you so much India. Just recently, Los Angeles saw an incredible amount of rain, unfortunately. I’m just looking at… Just to kind of tie it to what you were talking about. The Board of the Police Commission has supported an increase of $119 million of the LAPD’s budget for the fiscal year 2023-2024, which will then bring the total general fund budget to $2 billion. And during the rain, we did not have adequate shelter for the homeless in Los Angeles, California, one of the top, what? Fifth richest economies in the world. Right?
Pastor Mike McBride, do we have you on? Oh yeah, there you are. Wonderful. We do have Pastor Michael McBride with us who is going to be our next speaker. Pastor Mike is a native of San Francisco and has been active in ministry for over 20 years. Pastor McBride’s commitment to holistic ministry can be seen through his leadership role in both the church and the community organizations. He’s a graduate of Duke University’s Divinity School with a master in divinity with an emphasis in ethics and public policy. Pastor McBride founded the Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, where he presently serves as the lead pastor. Pastor Mike, you have the floor.
Michael McBride: Well, it’s great to be here with everyone, and grace and peace to all my colleagues and comrades. Many faces I recognize and see on this call, people who obviously live their lives as students of Dr. King and his philosophy of non-violence and peacemaking, and so I’m sure much of what I would say and hope to say has been said in much more eloquence. I would love to expand on our beloved India Walton’s comments about the connections between our domestic policy and the international sensibilities of using violence and war as a way to achieve peace.
I do think one of our greatest tasks as organizers and as prophets and speakers and thought leaders and faith leaders and elected leaders is to help make the connection to everyday citizens of this country, that we can’t achieve peace without having to rely on forms of violence. The idea that we are still relying on, what I often call sanctioned violence or legalized violence, through law enforcement, through the militarized apparatuses of our country, the fact that we are so dependent on the gun in this country to imagine what protectionist safety looks like, it does create, I think, a predisposition for too many voters in our society to then find it totally within the bounds of reason to depend on such violence in another context. It is indeed the case that if we, the United States of America, cannot figure out ways to solve our own domestic problems with all the wealth, all the education, all of the resources at our disposal, if we can’t figure out ways to address violence here in this context, it becomes a bridge too far to expect our voters and our policymakers to then look at countries much less resourced than ours, to believe then that they can figure out ways to solve their conflicts without violence.
It then creates a seed in the mind of the average American voter, whether they are a person of faith, whether they are of no faith, wherever they find themselves on the Republican-Independent-Democratic spectrum, that if we can’t seek non-violent approaches to solving problems here, then how can we even imagine in other countries where they don’t have the “stability” or resources, can they solve problems in their context without violence? And then we find ourselves willing to continue to fund and scale up violence and uphold what Dr. King said, that we are still, as the American government, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
This becomes, I think, a moral crisis for us, but it’s also a crisis of just governance, of us being able, in cities, to elect city council members and mayors, of us in states to be able to elect legislature and governors, of us, at the federal level, to elect Congress members, and dare I even say presidents, who are not throwing lip service towards the kinds of alternative to sanctioned violence in our communities. When we know that, with public health interventions, with a robust investment in food programs, housing programs, purposeful vocational programs, restorative justice programs, on and on and on, that a radical investment of that here can help shift the imagination of the average voter when we think of abroad.
I’m brought up in the Pentecostal tradition, and my father loved to prove text scriptures all growing up, and so I love one of these passages where he just pulled it out and said, charity begins at home, and then it’s spread abroad. We must, I believe, continue to bring back alive a domestic movement of peacemaking that has relevance in cities across the country, in neighborhoods across the country. Only then, I believe, can we start to help people’s imagination around how this then is spread abroad become a reality. And it is not, to me, an either-or. We all know, or I hope we continue to hold this idea that the surplus militarized vehicles and equipment of the Department of Defense too often find themselves on the American urban street corner because they have to use those surplus vehicles somewhere.
So there is a direct connection in this regard, but I am hopeful that we can continue to push ourselves to call on mayors and governors and presidents, city council members, state legislatures, and the Congress, to not just throw pennies at community violence intervention strategies or peacemaking intervention strategies, but to make sure it’s proportional investment. Right now, the Biden administration has put hundreds of millions of dollars in their upcoming budget to fund non-law enforcement, non-carceral interventions to violence. But then at the same time, they’ve committed $1 trillion over the next 10 years to keep funding police. And so my argument is, don’t tip the nonviolent responses to public safety and then continue to pay the full bill that we already are spending on the kinds of state violence that we know is a problem.
And so we must, I believe, continue to raise our voice. I don’t take it for granted that Dr. King’s internationalism was deeply informed by the depths of his organizing all across the country, by this idea that he was organizing in a context, that ecosystem where there was a deep, powerful anti-war movement in this country. I find it so important for us, we may not have to call it anti-war, but we should have a deep, robust peacemaking movement in this country that makes it virtually impossible for someone to be elected to the government without at least listening and making commitments to a peacemaking ethic.
It’s impossible for someone to pastor a congregation or be a imam or be a rabbi or be an atheist and find yourself described as a moral individual and not have a peacemaking ethic rolling off of your lips with deep nuance and deep passion. I pray and I hope these can be our commitments. I pray, as Dr. King’s birthday comes upon us again, we reclaim the radical voice of Dr. King. As Dr. Cornel West often says that we reject the Kool-Aid of Dr. King that can easily be quoted out of context.
You can quote Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech out of context, but you can’t quote Dr. King’s Vietnam speech out of context. So how do we make sure we bring the vision, the moral vision of this individual and his legacy to bear in this moment in time? I literally believe our lives, our children’s lives, dare I say the fate of this country, it hinges on the capacity and the ability of we, the people of this United States, to eschew violence and to embrace peacemaking. Always great to be here with you all, and I look forward to the furthering of this conversation.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you, Pastor McBride, for joining us tonight, your words of wisdom, your prayer. And at the end of this call, I urge everyone to stick around, because we do have a call to action and a campaign that we have organized around nuclear disarmament, which will be shared with you by my esteemed colleague Ryan Black, who will be joining us shortly.
But what a great way to segue into our next speaker’s segment, the good Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, who is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival with the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber. She is the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. Liz is the editor of We Cry Justice, Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. She is the author of Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, and co-author of Revive Us Again: Visions and Actions in Moral Organizing. She is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA. Dr. Theo Harris, please take it away. What an honor to be here with you.
Dr. Liz Theoharis: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s amazing to be in this cloud of beautiful witnesses. I was raised in a family that was dedicated to peace and justice and nuclear disarmament, racial and economic justice, global cooperation, so I feel right at home this evening.
As we gather to honor Reverend Dr. King, I believe we actually have to catch up with him, so then we can carry on that work. As we’ve already heard this evening, Reverend Dr. King clearly saw that a foreign policy defined by racism, poverty, and militarism hurt the poor and dispossessed across the planet as it drained the morality of the United States and the resources needed to fight poverty and injustice at home.
So we know that famous phrase from Dr. King’s sermon a year to the day that he was assassinated, where he warned that a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death, and I think all of us here this evening would agree that he was right. A violence-first approach to foreign and domestic policy doesn’t address the root causes of conflict or unrest. It doesn’t make the people of the United States any safer, and it certainly doesn’t make the rest of the world safer.
Every dollar spent on feeding this war machine is a dollar not spent on housing, not spent on healthcare or education, not spent on jobs, or preventing pandemics, or confronting the climate crisis. And so in a country with 140 million people who are poor and low-income, beset with searing poverty, gaping inequality, widespread environmental injustice, this overblown Pentagon budget that comes year after year is not just a case of mismatched priorities, I would assert. It’s actually a war on the poor, the poor of the US and the poor of the world.
Now, nearly half of the money, as I think folks here probably are aware, that flows into the Pentagon’s overstuffed coffers goes straight, directly to for-profit war corporations, corporations like Lockheed Martin, whose multimillion dollar lobbying spending is only matched by its excessive salaries of their top executives. And as we heard about what was happening in Buffalo and what we know is happening across California and other places, the modern system of policing used to suppress Black, Brown and poor communities in order to protect private property and preserve the existing hierarchy of poverty is very similar and parallel to this war economy, both in the US and across the world.
And again, I want to point out, and I think we all know this, but I think it can never be said too much. This is in the richest country in the world, a country where nearly half of the population is poor or one couple-hundred-dollar emergency from absolute economic ruin, where there are 87 million uninsured and underinsured people, where tens of millions of people have lost their health insurance in the worst public health crisis in generations, where tens of millions of workers make less than a living wage, have a new title where they’re called essential but are treated as expendable, where 15 million families can’t afford water, where 4 million families have water that is poisoned, where 10 million people are homeless.
And although the US doesn’t have a military draft, we do have a poverty draft, where many young people have no potential of getting an education or stable employment without joining the military, and so therefore have to and do so. And you have this cruel manipulation of the poor that Dr. King talked about, where poor people, especially Black and Brown people in the United States, are sent to kill poor people, especially people of color, across the world.
Now what we also know is the climate crisis is real, and that thousands of communities contaminated by petrochemical companies, industrial waste, and raw sewage, are all made worse by the climate crisis, but also the militarization of those communities and the destruction of those communities and the earth all wrapped up in one. And yet year after year, we hear the same political narrative trumpeted by both parties in the United States that we just don’t have enough to provide for everyone. This kind of scarcity argument has undergirded every federal budget in recent history, but it has to fall flat when we look at the 54 cents of every dollar of federal discretionary dollars that goes to the Pentagon, the trillions of dollars that are being squandered in this never-ending war on terror, not to speak of the unprecedented financial gains the wealthiest have made as the rest of us suffer from inflation, low-wage jobs, cuts to education and more.
And then when we look at this most recent budget package, we see healthcare and education on the chopping block, but the military-industrial complex is continuing to grow, often more than what is requested in those military budgets. And so we have to ask this question, has our nation actually already reached a kind of spiritual death? Then not to mention what is going to happen over the next two years of this House of Representatives as it attacks Medicare and Social Security and any other governmental program that lifts up the people.
But as we’ve also discussed this evening, it’s not just the spending on war that is the problem. Dr. King reminds us that war and conflict cause death, division, and devastation in their very nature. And when we’re talking about nuclear war, we’re talking about a whole other level of devastation. We’re talking annihilation. We’re talking the destruction of all life. And so I think of this quote by a mentor of mine from when I was a kid, William Sloane Coffin, who said, “Only God has the right to destroy all life on the planet. All we have is the power. We haven’t the authority. Therefore, to make, to threaten to, use nuclear weapons must be an abomination in the sight of God.” And I think about this idea that we don’t have a morality or a right to actually destroy, but we do actually have the possibility of destroying all life on this earth.
But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way. It just doesn’t have to be this way. Things can change. Things have changed. Things are going to change. If we were to shrink the US war economy, eliminating nuclear weapons altogether, cutting, at least halving the US military bases in countries all over the world, and if we had fair taxation for the rich and corporations, if we canceled debts and invested in things like universal healthcare and living wages and a guaranteed income and decent and affordable housing, strong programs of social uplift for the poor, we actually could turn our war economy into, as Code Pink teaches us, a peace economy, this is within reach. This is possible. We know how to do it. It costs more to have this society the way it’s organized than it would be to change it and to make it better.
And so my call to action this evening that’s connected to the one that folks are doing throughout this evening is that we have to build a movement from the bottom up that can reconstruct this nation, and we have to build the kind of compelling power to make those in power have to agree to our demands for peace and truth and love and freedom. And that we have a saying in the Poor People’s Campaign and National Call for Moral Revival that when we lift from the bottom, everybody rises. And that’s what we have to be about, and that’s what we can be about. And so let us move forward together in that one step up.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you, Reverend Dr. Theoharis. Hopefully once we are done here, we will send a mass email to everyone with every speaker’s organization, and Dr. Theoharis’s organization will be one of the ones that you will be getting the information for so you can join her and sign on to what she continues to promote, which is justice and peace. It is an honor to have you here, Dr. Theoharis, and thank you for all the work that you do.
Well, it is time for me to introduce someone who I absolutely adore from the bottom of my heart, a progressive champion whom I’ve had the honor and the privilege of working with on her two congressional campaigns, Senator Nina Turner, who is a hell-raising humanitarian and a tireless advocate for progressive values and social justice. She made history in 2005 and 2008 as the first woman, an African-American woman, respectively, to represent those districts. She promoted progressive policies through her work with the Ohio Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020’s presidential campaigns and during her time at Our Revolution. Senator Turner is a former assistant professor of history at Cuyahoga Community College and the host of Hello Somebody podcast. She is currently the host and executive producer of Unbossed, a show that airs daily on the Young Turks Network. My sister, please take it away.
Nina Turner: Thank you, honey. It’s a pleasure to be here with everyone, and one of the privileges of being on a panel like this, everything that I would have said has been said. Everybody has been truly magnificent, and I’m seeing people, either by name or by face, that I haven’t had a chance to fellowship with in a very long time. I’m honored to be one of the soldiers on the battlefield with each and every one of you, a battlefield of peace. And maybe that might seem contradictory, but we have got to get as… Not just committed, but just to be really out there as much as the other side is. I could quote each and every one of you, but things that are sticking with me right now, what Reverend Theoharis just said about this budget, which was in my notes too, it just does boggle my mind.
Sister India brought up what the urban poet Tupac said about money for war, can’t feed the poor. That is timeless. It just reminds me of when I was on the floor of the Senate, and I’m quoting the founders and also Tupac at the same time, just dazzled them. They just couldn’t believe it. Yeah, because I do this thing a whole different way. The knowledge and vision comes from many places and spaces and not just people with special titles. What is done in our name matters.
I saw in the chat a question. If they’re using taxpayers’ dollars to pay for war, is that basically about us? And I pondered that just a little while. What they do in our name matters, and they are the policymakers and particularly on the federal level. But there is indeed, as Reverend McBride laid out, as Khury laid out, and so many others, there is a link between what we do internationally and what we do domestically.
I just had the opportunity to be in New Orleans with a group of some of the best economists in this country. And one of the things, being a senior fellow at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, to have economists talking about how we can create a moral political economy. Well, we’re having that conversation tonight about what it is going to take to create a moral political economy. Part of that is understanding that we cannot spend all of our money on war-making. $858 billion budget, and that doesn’t count it all. And I think it was Reverend Theoharis who laid out the fact that they gave the president, this time in this budget, more than what he even asked for. And that each and every one of these presidents, and you have a Congress in a bipartisan way, they cannot renew the child tax credit, but bipartisanly, they can increase the Pentagon budget.
There is something immoral about this, and we have to call it what it is. And to see so many faith leaders, we need faith leaders on the freedom fighting progressive left to have as much chutzpah as the Evangelicals have on the right. Because what would Jesus do? Not this foolishness and folly that these folks are doing in our name. What they do in our name matters. Brother Khury brought up the letter to the Birmingham Jail, and I had right in front of me Reverend McBride, which I read every single year about this time, is Dr. Cornel West’s The Radical King. See, like Reverend McBride said, they can sit up there and mess around with the I Have a Dream Speech, but what you cannot do is wrongly critique what Dr. King had to say about militarism, poverty, racism, and materialism. So you can’t get that one twisted.
And so what we’re going to find on the MLK holiday is what we do find about this time every single year is politicians on both sides of the aisle quoting Dr. King, but wouldn’t understand what Dr. King was standing for if it smacked them in the face. It is bigger than quoting him on the King holiday. It is what you do in the people’s name with the people’s money, whether it’s domestically or internationally. Now, while I do support what this country is doing, by and large, to be in fellowship – And I’m using that term lightly – With our sisters and brothers Ukraine. There are innocent Ukrainians dying. There are innocent Russians dying. There are innocent people all across this world dying. But for every dollar that is spent in Ukraine or any other war-making activity, they should be spending $5 right here domestically.
It is a sin and a shame to have so many people in a hegemonic nation like the United States of America go to bed hungry every single night. It is a sin and a shame that this Congress could not come together in a bipartisan way to expand and make permanent the child tax credit. But meanwhile, in the hoods, where people are misunderstood – And I’m talking about the rural hoods, the urban hoods and the suburban hoods, people have to grovel just to get a modicum of what it means to have a quality of life. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be mortified, and we all know it. And all 250 of our family and friends who are on this call with us today, we all have a role to play in peacemaking.
Norman, you may remember when Congressman Dennis Kucinich had pondered a Department of Peace. I’m old enough to remember, and they laughed at him. They thought he was making a mockery. But back to something that Reverend McBride said, we got to begin to think in that way. If you think war, you going to get war. And this is what this country does. And this country, by and large, has involved itself in the disruption of communities all over the world. The geopolitical leverage of this country is going in the wrong direction, what is done in our name. And we need more Americans to understand that we, none of us, it doesn’t matter how hegemonic this nation is, we cannot withstand a WWIII. So it is in our best interest to avoid war at all costs. And that’s why I love this. Diplomacy is always in order, for the most part.
So I’m going to take a page out of brother Khury’s book. I was ready for this. Not so much the Birmingham Jail, but just a few notations from Dr. West’s book, The Radical King. If you all have never read this book, I encourage you to read it. But just even in the introduction, even before you get deep down into the chapters, Dr. Cornel West lays it out like nobody else. So in writing the following, “In King’s eyes, too many Black leaders sacrificed the truth for access to power or reduced sacrificial love and service to selfless expediency and personal gain.” True that, Dr. Cornel West. And not just Black leaders, we got white leaders, we got Hispanic leaders, we got leaders from all walks of life. All they care about is them being invited to the Christmas party. They really not there to do the deep-seated work to make peace abound.
And peace means peace in people’s homes and their communities. Peace means having a living wage. Peace means being able to take a sick day – Hello, rail workers that this president and this Congress betrayed. And if they come for the rail workers, they coming for the rest of us. Dr. Cornel West also laid out that, “The spiritual blackout, the lack of integrity and courage primarily revealed a deep fear, failure of nerve, and spinelessness on behalf of Black leaders. Black leaders in particular because we know from whence we came or how I got over. My soul looks back and wonders how I got over Black leaders in particular, but not Black leaders exclusively.”
And then Dr. West goes on to say that, “The radical King was a warrior for peace on the domestic and global battlefield.” Hello, brother Khury. “He was a staunch anti-colonial, an anti-imperial thinker and fighter. His revolutionary commitment to non-violent resistance in America and abroad tried to put a brake on the escalating militarism running amok across the globe.” We find ourselves in that same moment right now, right now, because we have folks who really don’t care. There is no other way to say it. And since we in the presence of men and women with the cloth, I will not speak in tongues in the way that I know how real well, and that is in the form of cussing.
“For King, dissent did not mean disloyalty.” Now this is an important point, sisters and brothers and family and friends, because those of us who are gathered here tonight understand that we must dissent. We must stand up and speak a certain type of truth to power without fear of contradiction. For King, dissent did not mean disloyalty. In fact, dissent was a high form of patriotism. Hello, somebody. Can I get an amen?
When he said that the US government was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world – Let me pause right there. We are the only nation on the face of the earth that dropped an atomic bomb on another nation. Hello? We don’t have any moral ground to stand on. But what we should be doing is learning from our mistakes and standing up and saying, I can testify to the fact that war does not equal peace. It never has and it never will. “He was not trashing America. He was telling the painful truth about a country he loved.” There it is.
And so because we love this country, we must continue to be disciples of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and any other religion that you attend to in saying that we are going to stand up and speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. And the truth of the matter in this moment is that this war-making must stop, and diplomacy is always in order. And not only are we doing this for our ancestors, we’re doing it for ourselves, and we are doing it for future generations, both in this nation and nations abroad.
Because Dr. King did seal this thing up when he said what happens to one directly happens to us all indirectly. We cannot live in peace when other folks have no peace. We can’t live in peace when people are hungry. We cannot live in peace when folks are dying because they don’t have the requisite health insurance that they need to live a good life. We cannot live in peace when people don’t have a living wage. We cannot live in peace when we have leaders across the world who believe that flexing they muscles means killing other people at random. And that is what is happening. And the United States of America plays a particular role and should be using its hegemonic position to push for peace.
Peace does not mean weakness. Hello? Love does not mean weakness. It takes a whole lot to be disciples of peace. And so I salute all of my sisters and brothers and family and friends who have joined us tonight, the panelists and the folks who are with us and unifying with us on this issue. I want you to know that you are on the right side of history. Diplomacy always has a place. And shout out to my sister, India Walton, because I’m sure if she was mayor, what she described that happened in Buffalo would not be happening.
Hanieh Jodat: Whew. I have chills all over. Thank you. Thank you, Senator Turner, for your continual work with the progressive movement, and just being such a beautiful leader.
It brings me great pleasure to introduce our last speaker before we go to our call to action, who is a legend in his own right. Daniel Ellsberg is a former consultant to the Defense Department and the White House, specializing in problems of the command and control of nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans, and crisis decision-making. He later joined the Defense Department and then the State Department. And in 1969, he photocopied the 7,000-page top secret McNamara study, which later became known as the Pentagon Paper, and gave it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Daniel, please take it away.
Daniel Ellsberg: Look, I very much regret that I didn’t hear the first hour of this because I was taking part in a live, unrecorded meeting that was going on with a number of Chinese, South Korean, Japanese scholars on prospects for nuclear proliferation, and for these countries acquiring their own nuclear weapons at this point, in saying that the major purpose for this, the reason that is an occasion right at this moment, is the war in Ukraine, which has brought home to them – And there was one from China here, but he had to listen and hear that the others were saying that that has made them aware that war can happen, can be real. And they then go on to say that nuclear threats are being made now in a way that we really haven’t heard openly since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Now, if I’d stayed on that, and I told them I had to leave at 6:00 here for this one, and I’m so glad that I heard what I did, and I look forward to hearing the recording of the rest of it, I would’ve asked, and what will just happen to this state of transition, to thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons, if small nuclear weapons get used in Ukraine? Is that possible? Well, actually we are hearing from President Putin that if he is faced with any prospect of losing parts of Russia, and he has named four districts in what was Ukraine or what is Ukraine or what he regards as formally recurring, he has annexed those to Russia, so that if we go into parts of Donetsk, which he doesn’t yet control, parts that he hasn’t controlled yet, he will regard that as an attack on Russia and he will defend it with…
People are inferring tactical nuclear weapons. Strictly speaking, he hasn’t said what kind of nuclear weapons, but everybody assumes, well he’s not going to hit Washington in that sense, and I think that is a fair assumption. But to use Hiroshima’s type, what they now regard as tactical nuclear weapons, short range weapons, hard to imagine that unless he is faced with losing Donetsk and Luhansk, the Eastern Donbas, or Crimea, and that is really not going to happen unless the US comes into this, as it has not yet done, with US air power. Is that impossible, by the way, that that might happen? If they do come in, then I think the Russians will be facing the definite loss of their present positions in the Donbas and would confront the world, then, with the prospect of Putin “defending” those areas, parts of Russia, he now regards them, with some of the one to 2000 tactical nuclear weapons that he has.
How could that come about? Well, some Ukrainians might actually, in the atrocious conditions that they are now experiencing, could decide that some of those weapons we’ve given, and even more the ones they’re asking for with longer range, should be used against Russian bases in pre-war Russia, pre this war war, that are attacking them. There are planes that are attacking Ukraine very largely now coming from inside Russia, and there have been attacks of various kinds: sabotage, guerrilla, but also missile attacks on those places in Russia. Could that happen from a Ukrainian, possibly? They’re under the gun, they’re facing it, and they’re talking about aims of forcing the Russians entirely out of Crimea and out of Eastern Donbas. In other words, achieving and attaining territories that they haven’t controlled since 2014.
Now I think that’s impossible. They can’t do that without US involvement. Could they actually feel, well the time has come for some US direct involvement in Europe? If they were, actually, to use those weapons against Russia, I think they could reach a point where Russia feels, where Putin feels that he has to retaliate to that against supply bases in Poland or Romania that are now where all of our weapons are now coming through from the US. That’s a direct conflict with NATO that would bring the US directly in, US air. And I must say that I think a lot of Ukrainians pressing Zelenskyy on this would welcome that and said, now we have a chance now the US is here. Indeed, there would be at that point be a chance to achieve the aims that Zelenskyy has announced and that the US has supported, which is total expulsion of all Russians that have been there since 2014, eight years ago, from the territory of Ukraine. And actually, that would bring it within the range of achievement at that point.
Now, the threats that Putin has been making since almost a year ago, February, since February, a year ago, would be challenged. Does he carry them out or not? Now if he was certain that that would blow up the world, that it would escalate to the full, which is possible, and he knows it’s possible. But if he was highly likely that that would happen, that that would lead to an escalation where everything goes, I don’t think he would do that. I actually don’t think he’s crazy, crazier than we have been for the last half century. Why isn’t the world saying those threats of Putin, of initiating nuclear war where his territory, as he defines it, is threatened, why isn’t the world saying, that’s outrageous. That carries not only a threat of mass massacre in Ukraine, it carries a real serious risk of killing nearly everyone. Omnicide, nuclear winter, a genuine risk of blowing up, and that is a real risk. How high is it? No one can say. It’s not zero.
So why isn’t the world saying that’s… Including the US. Everybody else saying, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not only imprudent, it would be evil, monstrous, absolutely immoral, unacceptable. Because the US has been making the same threat for the last 70 years, essentially, and is making it right now in refusing to adopt a no first use policy, that we will not initiate nuclear war. We can’t say to Putin that it would be absolutely unforgivable and outrageous for you to do what we defended Berlin with for 50 years in NATO, and what we’re still threatening in Taiwan where they might have not a conventional superiority. As long as we had a conventional inferiority in Europe, we relied on the threat of initiating nuclear war, and we prepared for it with ICBMs, with every kind of nuclear weapon that was capable of disarming the other, which was infeasible. But the effort to do that made it look like we would do what we were threatening, which was to initiate nuclear war on a tactical level. By the same token, then, Putin is making the same threats that we always have.
And is it possible that those could actually be triggered? It’s not inevitable. Yes, it is possible, absolutely, in the way that I’ve just described. We could see an evolution from Ukraine going on here. Remember when a Polish base was actually hit by missile fragments or a missile, Zelenskyy immediately said, that’s Russian, and should involve a total response from NATO. A NATO country has been hit. Biden, of all people, immediately said, almost within hours, said, we’re not sure that is from Russia. And within hours they had decided it wasn’t from Russia; it was Ukraine. It was a Ukrainian air defense missile that had gone over into Poland by mistake. Zelenskyy, for all one can say to him, good or bad, did insist for days after all of NATO had agreed this was a Ukrainian missile, he said, no, I have no doubt that this was a Russian missile, which implied, I have no doubt that the time has come for NATO to come into this directly, which as I said, threatens everyone in the world if they’re doing that.
So that’s a state of mind that’s understandable for somebody under the kind of attack that Zelenskyy is. Yes, he would risk the world, as we have done repeatedly in the past. And both Khrushchev and Kennedy, who were not crazier or more reckless than anybody we’ve had since, were taking that risk a time ago.
So where are we today? I know we’re over the time here together, but where are we coming? We’ve talked about how we must not be a war state, a war economy. We must not have a war economy, but that’s what we are and that’s what we do have. We have a war economy, and people who are voting for it are sustaining it in both parties. In fact, even the progressive caucus, with very few exceptions, if any – Barbara Lee being one on the whole who votes for… But even in this particular case, I’m not sure even Barbara Lee dissented from this unprecedentedly large budget.
What’s going to change in the next year? I think it’s very unlikely, unlikely but not impossible, that this war will be ended either in six months at the end of the winter season or next year. It can go on with this terrible loss of life on both sides, and the constant risk of escalation, indeed possibly to the end of the world, which answers all the problems, that takes the final solution for human problems. But I would say more likely than that, it just introduces a new era in which the people I was just discussing with: the Japanese, the South Koreans, the North Koreans, everybody gets nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons are now not only being threatened, but being used. And we’re on the verge of that. If this war continues as it is going on right now, which I think is highly likely, there is the risk of introducing a new era, however long it lasts before the whole thing blows up, of an era where everybody gets nuclear weapons and they use them in the conflicts that we’re seeing all over the world, every conflict.
It is essential, then, that this war, in my opinion, stop. And the purpose, the point of this thing was, diplomacy, negotiation. How many voices are there for that right now? Not in the White House. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is one who has said that, almost alone, and was reproved by it immediately the other day..The Defense Secretary, Austin, was talking about bleeding the Russians until they can’t attack places like Ukraine. For instance, Georgia or… Can’t attack Georgia? Russia? That’s forever.
Both sides are now naming conditions for going into negotiations, not for ending the war. Conditions for talking that will never be achieved. Both sides are saying that. Putin’s saying, we don’t talk unless you accept the reality that Eastern Ukraine, that the Donbas, is Russia forever, and Crimea, and Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, and that’s not going to happen. And before they talk, no talking then, Zelenskyy says, we don’t talk until you have gone back to the 2014 period, before the coup in Ukraine. You’re all out of Ukraine. No talking. That’s not going to happen.
So they’re both saying the war goes on indefinitely without talking, without negotiating, without even discussing the possibility of ending this war. And I have to repeat, it’s not only Russians and Ukrainians, both who are dying in this war. It is the risk of this new era of nuclear weapons, the risk to everybody in the world. So it is unconscionable. What we need precisely is the theme of this conference here right now. Yes, diplomacy has to start, the talking has to start right now. And that’s just obvious. I mean you might say, well obviously that goes without saying. It does not go without saying, because to speak diplomacy is to be pressed down in the moment.
Remember, 36 members of Congress, most of the progressive – No, not all of them. Nearly all of the members of the progressive caucus, actually, called for nothing other than negotiations, and they were forced by Nancy Pelosi and, obviously, the president, to change that within 24 hours. Roe Conn alone said, no, that was the right idea. I’m not going to say it was not the right idea. But the Democrats said, oh no, we’re going into an election here. That sounds a little too much like the Republicans. By the way, does that mean the Republicans are going to end the war? They’re going to [inaudible]? No. And at the House? No, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But we don’t want to sound like Republicans, so we can’t even use the word diplomacy or negotiation. What I’m saying, then, is it’s going to take a kind of moral courage backed up by other people with courage that we have not seen in Congress yet. But it exists. Humans are capable of that, to start saying, no, we cannot fight this war until the Ukrainians achieve their perfectly reasonable goal of getting all Russians out of Crimea. That’s not going to happen. That’s for endless war.
There are major, strongest factions in this country who are quite happy for this war to go on indefinitely. It can’t go on too long. Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, General Dynamics, Boeing, their stock has all gone up for good reason. The people who are buying that stock, if you don’t care what you’re supporting when you buy stock, if you don’t have any moral scruples at all, good bet. Lockheed is a good investment for you. And they’ve wanted this. They have gotten what they wanted. In fact, beyond what they could have dreamed, even. NATO back now with power. Russia as an enemy was just essential for NATO to continue existing and for the US to be in charge of it. Defense budgets as long as we can see. It’s just great. So the major powers in this country, the richest powers, the most influential, are very happy, and they are willing to take the risk, which they know as well as we do, there’s a little risk here. It might all blow up. But meanwhile, the profits are going up, quarterly profits are very good. That’s all you need.
So finally, I know I’m over the time here, Hanieh had mentioned to me or reminded me when I told her I couldn’t come here in the very beginning, this is a commemoration of Martin Luther King. And I mentioned to her that in my book here, The Doomsday Machine, actually I quoted King at the end, and maybe this particular passage has been quoted by others, and I’m sorry I didn’t see it, but maybe not. Right at the end of the book he warned us one year to the day before his death, “There is such a thing as being too late.” And by the way, I keep hearing, oh six months from now, the people will be more willing to negotiate. I don’t, by the way, think that’s at all true. Or after another year, or two years or something it… That can be too late. It can be too late now. But he said there is such a thing. And challenging us, as he said, “We need to recognize the fierce urgency of now.”
And I’m saying negotiation cannot start too soon. There is no such thing as premature negotiation on this question, despite how it arose and everything else. He was speaking, then, I said here, of the madness of Vietnam. And that was in 1967. He was really prophetic on that point, and he was denounced by nearly every newspaper in the country for going out of his area here, which was civil liberties and race relations and whatnot, and talking about the urgency of negotiation in Vietnam. Actually, that year we lost 10,000 men and killed close to a million. The next year, the year he died, 1968, 15,000 men. That was the high point, a year after his speech. But the war had eight years to go in 1967, five years of heavy combat. Yes, it was not too early to be doing what he said, to negotiate. And remember 15,000 American dead, which is what we count over here, not foreign dead, is twice what we’ve lost in 20 years in the Middle East. 20 years.
Now, could Vietnam have gone on for 20 years? Yes, if you could get the deaths down to where we’ve gotten them so far, and in Ukraine where we’re not yet [inaudible]. 20 years. Yes, the Ukraine war of 20 years would be fine, okay with the places I’ve named. So he said, “We still have a choice today. Non-violent coexistence…” And by the way, that meant coexistence with Russia as it was, and it wasn’t more democratic than it is now at that point. He was talking about Russia in 1967. “…or violent co-annihilation.”
And finally, it is the last paragraph of my book, “We must lose…” Martin Luther King, “We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act…” And I think he was saying then and now, if we do not act, demand that our foreign policy not be based on supplying weapons to kill people, but demand on using our full influence, and we have the greatest influence which we’re using in the other direction to keep Ukraine from negotiating, which they were willing to do almost a year ago in March and April, 10 months ago. And it was Boris Johnson of the UK and the US who said, no, it’s not time for negotiation. Keep it going. And they’ll say the same six months and a year from now. “If we do not act, we shall be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” And then he said, “Now let us begin.”
Last sentence here. “Is it too late to avoid its co-annihilation?” Actually, looking back from some other planet, it might be, but we can’t know that. It’s not possible to know that. We can’t. No one can say we can’t change this. It’s impossible. Actually, the odds are against us, but they’re not zero. And unless we do change this… I choose, personally, and I know all of these people on this panel have lived their lives as if it were possible to change, and that was the right way to live. And as he said, “Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter but beautiful struggle for a new world.”
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you. Thank you, Daniel. Oh, that was beautiful, and thank you for finishing with that wonderful quote. I will go to Ryan Black and I, again, want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. We still have over 200 people on this call and it is about to be 10:00 PM Eastern time. So if you are here, you are on the right side of history, and I thank you. And let’s go to Ryan so he can tell us what the call to action is for the month of January and February, and then we’ll finish off our panel with discussion.
Ryan Black: Thank you so much, Hanieh, and thank you everyone for being on the call tonight. What an excellent time so far. I’m glad to be here. I’m going to be super quick and give you a quick call to action that we can all take part in right now that we can share with our communities, that we can share with our list and the organizations that we’re in. Bill has just posted a link to defusenuclearwar.org/whatsatstake. And I would urge everyone to go there. And what we’ve done here is created a tool that allows you to, first off, email the president, your two senators, and your representative a message about nuclear weapons: “Nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to the survival of humanity. It is imperative that you and every other elected official give top priority to reviving nuclear weapon treaties and disarmament measures. Essential steps include concerted diplomatic efforts to bring the disastrous war in Ukraine to an end. Diplomacy is the path to peace.”
And then it urges them to visit defusenuclearwar.org/whatsatstake, because after you send this message, you will be redirected to another page where you will be able to upload a photo of what’s at stake for you when it comes to nuclear war. This is our kids, it’s our families, it’s our homes, it’s our lives. It’s everything that we’ve worked for. And this is our effort to try to build that moral authority again, to convince our representatives that there are really, really important things at stake here for us, and that nuclear war is no joke. It’s pressing, it’s very serious, and it needs to be dealt with right now.
And then we will display many of those photos on the website, but more importantly, we’re going to print off those messages. We’re going to print off those photos, and we’re going to deliver them to the White House so that they see, really, pictures of the things that are most important to us. For me, right now, if this’ll show up, it’s this little guy, my 18-month-old. We baked a cake yesterday, so it was a lot of fun. So that’s what’s at stake for me. So yeah, with that, please go to defusenuclearwar.org/whatsatstake and take action with us. We’d really appreciate it. And we have to do everything we can to prevent nuclear war.
Hanieh Jodat: Thank you so much, Ryan Black. Thank you, Norman Solomon, Khury Peterson-Smith, Pastor Mike McBride, the legendary, the wonderful Daniel Ellsberg, the great Senator Nina Turner, beloved India Walton, our lovely Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, David Swanson. And thank you from the bottom of my heart to Bill Lachamacker who continues to show up on these calls and make the tech run smooth, because it is challenging to keep these calls put together, and Bill has a way of accomplishing that.
And I want to thank every single one of you who joined us this evening for this most incredible call, and to celebrate Dr. King’s courage to end nuclear wars. And I want to end with a quote from one of his speeches at the Resisters League, a 36th annual dinner where he says, “Not only in the South, but throughout the nation and the world, we live in an age of conflict, an age of biological weapons, chemical warfare, atomic fallout, and nuclear bombs. Every man, woman, and child lives not knowing if they shall see tomorrow’s sunrise.” And we are here tonight to make sure that does not happen, that our children have a bright future. And with that said, it is 6:54. I say goodnight to you, and thank you for participating on tonight’s call. Bye-bye.