Code Pink Conference: Challenges Facing the Anti-War Movement
Ajamu Baraka of Black Alliance for Peace talks about the challenges that the anti-war movement currently faces in the US
AJAMU BARAKA: Thank you so much, Medea. Thank you for that gracious introduction. Thank all of you for coming out this morning, and thank you for inviting me to be a part of what I think is going to be a historic campaign. I’ve always wanted to work a little bit closer with Code Pink. I’ve always respected the work of this organization, always respected the work of Medea. In fact, I always wanted to do some CD with you, because people tell me that — and I think it’s true — that you could probably do CD with Medea and be relatively safe. Normally, I’ll be one of the first ones that the police would grab, but I think if I do CD with Medea, they’ll run right past me and grab you. Let’s try it one day.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: We’ll do it.
AJAMU BARAKA: This is a very important campaign, and as Medea shared with you, we have a new formation that we are developing. We launched this year, April the 4th of this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the very famous speech by Dr. King on April the 4th, 1967, in which he broke with the U.S. and came out in opposition to the Vietnam War. We thought that was a very appropriate moment for us to relaunch the black anti-war movement here in this country. As many of you know, the black community has been fairly consistent in this anti-war stance, up until 2008, but as a consequence of the change in administrations and the fact that now people appear to be sort of thinking again, thinking critically, we thought that the moment was here for us to attempt to revive the traditional oppositional stance of the black community as it relates to war.
We see this effort, this alliance, as part of an effort to not only revive the traditional black anti-war movement, but the broader anti-war movement here in this country. So we have been building since. It’s been a long process. We don’t have many resources, but we do have a lot of enthusiasm and a clear understanding of the historic task before us. And that’s why we were so happy to be one of the co-sponsoring organizations of this campaign.
We are going to approach this campaign in a very particular way. Of course, we are going to utilize the fantastic support, resources that Code Pink is going to provide for the campaign. We want to, though, make sure that as we do the work, that we ensure that the politics remain front and center. We want to make sure that we don’t reduce the campaign … I’m sure it won’t happen … but we want to make sure that we steer away from the campaign being more of sort of a technical kind of campaign, and where the politics of the role of the state and the kinds of objective interests that are in play becomes less clear than what they should be.
So when we look at this campaign and we determine how we’re going to approach the campaign, we come from a foundational point, and that point basically is we look at the state and we look at the role of militarism, and the role of militarism in terms of its advancement of particular interests. We say that when we look at the state, we understand the state to be an instrument for a rapacious, white supremacist, violent, settler, colonial, capitalist system, and a greedy and short-sighted ruling class. So we’re clear about that. We’re clear that there is a convergence of interests when it comes to the military industrial and intelligence complex, and the corporate capitalist media, and even the cultural apparatus. We’re clear that both parties are united in their commitment to upholding U.S. global hegemony, in which war and violence is a major instrument for maintaining that hegemony.
We’re clear that the strategy that is guiding the activity of the state and holding this ruling class coalition together is their commitment to the national security strategy, which is full-spectrum dominance, that has united both neo-liberals and the liberal interventionists. And we’ve seen the consequence of this coalition, of this strategy. We’ve seen it in Iraq and that disaster. We have seen it, and we continue to see it, in the second-longest U.S. conflict, which is Afghanistan. Of course, we know that the longest conflict that the U.S. is involved in is the war between the U.S. and North Korea that started in 1950 and continues.
We’ve seen this result in the attack on Libya, the destabilization and war in Syria, the continuation of drone warfare and the murder of innocent people. We’ve already talked about the tragic situation in Yemen. We’ve seen the ideological and moral confusion regarding what happened in Egypt. We’ve seen the support for destabilization and support of anti-democratic movements and processes in Honduras. We’ve seen the expansion of the U.S. African Command across the African continent. We watch it with some bit of amusement as people are wondering what U.S. troops are doing in Niger. We’ve seen the destabilization in Venezuela and the fact that the Trump administration is building off of the policies of the Obama administration in that country.
And we have seen with somewhat surprise, maybe not surprise but definitely disappointment, in the debates or non-debates around the expansion of military spending here in this country, the obscene proposal by the Trump administration for increasing the budget by $54 billion and having that budget expanded even more up to this obscene level of $696 billion.
So we recognize and understand what we are up against, and we understand the winners and we know the losers. The losers are basically the people of the world, the people of this country, who have their resources ripped off, who are the subject, in the crosshairs of U.S. domestic repression. We’ve already identified some of those winners, those major corporations, and we’re not going to talk about them again at this point. But what we say is that basically when we take up this area of work in this campaign, this divestment campaign, which is a very important approach.
Many of us who were part of the anti-apartheid movements some decades ago remember — in the audience, we have our brother Salih Booker, who was a central player in that fight — we remember how valuable that divestment instrument can be. It allows you to raise all of the critical points. It allows you to start the process of de-legitimizing what many people have just accepted as legitimate activity and legitimate actors. It helps people to understand what interests are at play when they begin to follow the money. It puts people in a position where they have to, they’re going to feel uncomfortable when the information is surfaced that suggests that they are complicit with the sufferings of people around the world. So that moral issue is important, and we connect that moral issue to our political organizing, and we have, I think, a very effective process of de-legitimizing militarism. So we are so happy that we are going to be part of this campaign.
We say that there are sort of three interrelated components that we have to take into account as we build the campaign and engage in the work. They’re very important, I think, components because they are related to how we approach the work strategically. First, we have the ideological and cultural component, where we have to acknowledge that as we talk about war and violence, we have to understand the role that war has played in the evolution of this country, that central to the U.S. experience — and really has been a permanent part of the U.S. national identity — has been this commitment to militarism, to war. We know that basically when you have this kind of state that was born out of violence, a settler state, that its very existence is the consequence of a military conquest of a people, then those cultures have a way of legitimizing violence, of normalizing violence, and that’s one of the reasons why we have this very interesting conversation around gun control.
So we have to recognize that we have a very deep-seated sort of ideological and cultural bias toward the use of violence. We know that in this culture, violence is very much tied to the conception and understanding of what it is to be a male. So there’s this gender component, and it’s reflected in our attitudes, it’s reflected in cinema, it’s reflected in the games. In this culture, the way you deal with a conflict is you become violent. You hit somebody or you attack someone, and it’s very easy to go from that level of individual aggression to collective aggression. So we have to keep this in mind as we think about how we approach our political work.
We have to keep in mind also a very, very important component of why we have a culture that seems to be quite comfortable in supporting war, and that is the fact that in this culture, the ruling class propagandists have been very effective in utilizing the issue of race, that the wars, most of the wars since the end of the Second World War, 1945, have been wars between the U.S., Western Europe and basically people of color. This ability to “other” people and to dehumanize them has been one of the most effective instruments they have been able to use.
When you have, for example, a senator, Lindsey Graham, who says, “There may be war between the U.S. and North Korea, but don’t worry. People are going to die, but it’s going to be those people over there.” And the very fact that people did not react with outrage across the board is reflective of what I’m getting at. We have a real serious cultural problem here. So we’ve got to be, in our work we’ve got to raise up this issue of race and white supremacy. We’ve got to be the ones that say that basically all lives, in fact, matter. We can’t play a game by not addressing that issue in that way, that one cannot be concerned about or play the game here and talk about, “Oh yes, black lives matter,” but then you’re silent when it comes to the lives of Palestinians or the people in Yemen or the people in Libya or the DRC. We have to be morally consistent. We have to confront, straight and center, this notion of racialized value of life.
We have a second component, the political and economic, and we referred to this briefly. We said that it’s quite clear that both parties are committed to the political and material benefits of militarism. The very fact that when we have the vote in Congress to expand the military budget and 117 Democrats in the House supported that expansion, then it’s quite obvious where their interests lie. Some of you might recall that when the Trump administration first proposed that $54 billion increase, even the Democrats pretended to be opposed, because that was at the moment they were still in that process of completely trying to demonize Trump. But all of a sudden, they became quiet, and we saw what happened. They became quiet because they knew they were going to eventually support that expansion. So we have both parties are committed to the military budget and militarism.
We know that the financial and corporate sector is engaged in military production and has a grip on the political sector at every level of government, so it’s not just the national level, but it’s at the state and local level. So when we talk about divestment, we have to keep that in mind. And we see the consequence of that grip on the local and the state level, and the federal level, when it comes to something very simple like reducing the number of domestic military bases. Congress cannot even move to do that, because of those entrenched interests on those state and local levels also.
And we have the reality of a two-party monopoly that makes it very difficult for a third party or fourth party, who may have at the center of their platform, like the Green Party, opposition to militarism, commitment to peace. These are some of the political issues we have to deal with as we deal with this campaign.
Organizationally, we have marvelous opportunities, but we have to acknowledge that as we build this campaign, that we have a still very weak and fragmented anti-war movement, and that we have an even weaker and ideologically confused left and progressive sector here in this country. What this means is that this campaign has an opportunity to help to reverse that, that this campaign will be, I think, a marvelous opportunity to begin to build long-lasting relationships and to strengthen the broader anti-war movement as we go forward. But one thing that we do want to try to avoid, though, is a dependency on too many NGOs and what I call “NGO-ism”, that is, when we begin to reduce this struggle to a more technical one and lose the politics.
What does all of this mean in terms of strategy? It means that basically, as we know, the ethical framework becomes primary. We’ve got to challenge the values. We’ve got to figure out a way in which in this campaign we de-legitimize militarism and even raise questions regarding the role of the military. We have to raise the issues of race in our work. We have to link this work to our ongoing fight to make sure that the increase in military spending, now that they’re at the stage of appropriations, we have to oppose that, make sure that that funding does not in fact materialize. We have to connect this campaign to the campaign that some of us are involved in, in closing all U.S. foreign military bases. We’ve got to make those links.
We have to talk about the 1033 Program, that program responsible for transferring military-grade hardware from the federal government to police forces across this country. We have to understand that we must make that link between militarism and the domestic. We have to approach and bring into the conversation not just the companies involved in major arms sale, but let’s also talk about the fact that we have an arms industry with small arms also, that the U.S. is in fact the number one arms trader on this planet. So when we talk about the people are concerned about the issue of guns and gun control, let’s link that to that fact of the U.S. being the number one arms trader on the planet, because that has the direct impact on all of us in this country.
So we’ve got to make these political links, and we have the opportunities now with this campaign to in fact do that. As I go to my chair, because my time is out just about, let’s remind ourselves of this marvelous opportunity. Let’s remind ourselves of the fact that we are in fact on the right side of history, that there are numbers of people in this country who are prepared to join us who are, quite frankly, tired of endless war. All they are looking for now is an opportunity to be more involved. They’re looking for voices that amplify their concerns, so let’s be those voices. Let’s build this campaign, and let’s build an effective anti-war movement here in this country. Thank you.