During April 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an indictment from the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York City of the American imperial adventure in Vietnam and its accessory racial oppression at home. The sermon is today known as “Beyond Vietnam.” If King were alive today, he might this evening stand before a bewildered and indignant congregation in Ferguson, Missouri that seeks solace, wisdom and meaning. The speech might eventually be baptized before history as “Beyond the Middle East.” King would likely shock and puzzle mainstream Americans. He would unmask intersections between the rapacious realities of US military aggression in the Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s “mowing of the lawn” of disfavored Palestinians in Gaza, and the law-enforcement racism and oppression of America’s poor communities. The blockade of Gaza mirrors a communal stop-and-search in America’s heartland. Predictably, the ruling American oligarchy, and its military and law enforcement sycophants, would righteously protest. Right-wing rabble-rousers would crucify King on a cross of inanities and racial bigotry.
Today, events in Ferguson provide the American political right with its intended cultural rewind back to the dark days of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Once again, Americans are faced with the grotesque irony of law enforcement terrorizing poor communities of color in the name of fighting terrorism. Thus continues a war on disfavored Americans.
Dr. King understood what socialists have long recognized. Capitalism routinely employs violence to dispossess nations of their natural resources (what Karl Marx called “Primitive Accumulation”). The attainment of regional political hegemony for global capitalism is deeply interweaved with domestic militarized police brutality and racial injustice. The class warfare between capitalists and workers is reflected in the fact that the financial costs of militarism are largely born by working Americans. At the same time, these workers continue to experience an erosion of their real wages due to workforce “right-sizing” and the expanding exploitation of temporary and contract workers. In the meantime, lawmakers insure that loopholes in tax law allow the wealthy and corporations that avoid paying taxes at every turn. This class warfare is especially callous in poor communities, where employment opportunities are meager and racially biased policing feeds a “school-to-prison” pipeline that fills the beds of for-profit prisons.
The meme of militarism within narratives concerning “wars” on drugs and convenient terrorists engenders and nurtures a toxic culture of hypermasculinity, jingoism, moral exceptionalism, racism and violence. Incessant militaristic social messaging serves power. It justifies capitalism’s human-rights abuses and the profits of American weapons manufacturers and provides an apology for the impoverishment of the cherished freedoms of political dissent and personal privacy. Conservative and liberal politicians, and their duplicitous corporate media, are richly rewarded for their service to the ruling oligarchy. Fear mongering creates a cultural of hypervigilance that transforms a Black kid chewing Skittles into a threat against the community. It comforts Americans who approve the portrayal of Palestinian children in Gaza as future terrorists that invite extermination, and citizens peacefully protesting police barbarity in Ferguson into a mob of marauding looters. White military veterans of imperial wars are reified into “heroes” in camouflage that “serve and protect” poor communities with a sniper rifles and armored military vehicles.
Weapons manufacturers rely on right-wing corporate lobbing organizations like the National Rifle Association to maintain a cozy relationship with law enforcement. The corporate quest for unlimited capital accumulation thus excites law-enforcement’s fetish with militarized weaponry in order to expand the domestic market. Both capitalist political parties protect and serve weapons manufacturers by authorizing the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency to supply local police with leftover military weaponry and equipment. Profits are thereby ensured through the absorption of that productive overcapacity created by protracted wars for foreign oil.
The Israeli rampage in Gaza differs only in extent from the police overreaction in Ferguson. The deplorable attacks on a largely defenseless civilian population in Gaza by America’s thoroughly militarized client state in the Middle East represents a microcosm of America’s global foreign policy. The US unflinchingly supports every Israeli attack on Palestinian civilians. Congressional conservatives and liberals continue to fund Israel’s ferocious military adventures, and the US military provides sophisticated intelligence and technology. A complicit State Department, Congress and corporate media impulsively parrot talking points fabricated in Tel Aviv. In return, the Israeli Defense Force trains the Ferguson Police Chief Timothy Fitch in “counterterrorism” and the Zionist Anti-defamation League invites fourteen US law-enforcement officials to a counter-terrorism training seminar hosted by the Israeli National Police.
As communities of color are increasingly restricted from access to the remaining economic and social opportunities available to White American workers, White cops commute from the suburbs to police minority communities that increasingly resemble open-air prisons like Gaza. Thus, the working class is ripped asunder and the “Israelization” of America’s communities of color becomes manifest.
The result is cellphone videos on social media that are indistinguishable in content from the grainy movies of Bull Conner’s racist police thugs beating defenseless Black women in Birmingham. Tahrir Square and the streets of Ferguson’s now share memories of searing tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Freedom of the Press is trampled as journalists from Al Jazeera, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post are attacked and arrested by rampaging police. American police forces mimic those of notoriously repressive regimes, such as that in Egypt, where police officers are recruited from the armies of veterans of brutal militaries.
Americans who are appalled by the vicious attacks against workers and minorities in the US and Gazans in Palestine should reflect upon the words of Dr. King Jr. that continue to resonate over the forty-seven years since they were spoken.
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
Democratic socialists will likewise never remain silent as long as militarism and racial bigotry rob domestic and foreign policy of its vital humanity.