The following reflection is an abbreviated account of McCarty’s chapter, “Building Peace in a Violent Nation: A Kingean Response to the Interconnected Violence of Racism, Materialism, and Militarism” in The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex.
I wrote the first draft of my chapter utilizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” as a blueprint for resisting the military-industrial complex during the Obama administration. The War on Terror had been raging for years by that point, and there was little evidence that the United States would be decreasing its military spending or footprint anytime soon. In the years since, the U.S. expanded that war into Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, and the military budget has continued to expand. President Obama became known for his ubiquitous use of drone strikes and President Trump has launched a new branch of the military (The Space Force).
In addition to the ever-expanding military-industrial complex and its concomitant violence, the years since I presented the first version of this essay has seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement in response to dozens of recorded police killings of Black civilians across the country, growing public and bipartisan recognition of the injustice of mass incarceration, the proliferation of larger and larger mass shootings at schools and other public venues, and the expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its draconian detention and deportation practices. In short, our domestic life has come to see its violence expand at home as well as abroad.
It is in this context that I emphasize the ongoing importance of King’s speech in which he famously said that the United States is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and identified the triple evils of militarism, racism, and extreme materialism as interconnected phenomena driving the violence and injustice in Vietnam and in the United States in 1967. This speech lays out the foundations of the economic justice and global human rights agenda that informed the work King was doing in the last year of his life. In it he recognizes that merely securing civil rights for Black Americans is insufficient to address the deep-rooted economic and racial injustices in the U.S. King also made explicit connections between what happens in the U.S. to what happens around the world. The fate of the poor in the U.S. and the oppressed around the world are interconnected, in part, because the U.S. helped create the militarized economic politics of his time and ours.
This speech is often described as one of King’s most “radical” speeches. In part, this is because it served as King’s most prominent public declaration of his resistance to the Vietnam War. It is also often viewed this way because of its clear recognition that economic injustice, military violence, and racism were related phenomena in the late-1960s. In his own way, King was a democratic socialist as well as a racial justice and peace activist, and in this speech it shows. In my chapter I draw on King’s prophetic insight to show that these three social evils are not standalone phenomena but are interconnected.
It is no coincidence that in our day our military budget is expanding at the same time our streets fill with activists protesting militarized police violence against Black people. It is not a coincidence that the United States, arguably still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, has continued to commit violence against its own citizens via police brutality and ongoing capital punishment. And it is no coincidence that a society so structured by violence has endured an epidemic of mass killings by rogue civilian gunmen for decades.
What King helps us to see is that in the United States racism, militarism, and extreme materialism, evidenced in our ever-expanding consumption and economic inequality, are interconnected phenomena. Our criminal justice system is racist, in part, because our economic inequality is racialized. Our police kill more than nearly any country on earth, in part, because our military budget and footprint continues to grow. The military’s leftovers have become part and parcel of the weapons arsenal of militarized police across the country. Our military budget continues to grow, in part, because it grows the bank accounts of some of our wealthiest citizens, most influential lobbyists, and the majority of Americans with retirement accounts. As it has been for nearly a century, as the military-industrial complex grows the companies who participate in it become more profitable and “worthy” of investment. These evils are interconnected.
What I argue in my chapter is that the interconnected nature of these systems is a reason why such overwhelming violence and injustice can be resisted. These are not separate injustices that must be resisted independently from each other. Rather, to resist any one means one is likely to be resisting another. And, when done strategically, these systems can be resisted simultaneously by resisting at exactly those places where they intersect. I highlight two national examples in my chapter: The Movement for Black Lives’ push to end the militarization of the police and the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign’s efforts to revive King’s last major campaign in the 21st century. These are still two excellent examples of the ways we can resist racism, militarism, and materialism at the same time. I’d like to extend that analysis here to demonstrate how Transformative Justice is another way to do so at this political moment.
On Transformative Justice
I submitted the final draft of my essay long before George Floyd was strangled to death by a police officer in Minneapolis. So, while I do mention the Black Lives Matter Movement in my essay I do not mention its most recent public evolution to include explicit demands by some to abolish the police. What I would like to do in this post is highlight the ways that the work prison abolitionists, transformative justice activists, and others are doing is the kind of work I advocate in my chapter. By working to abolish policing and prisons as we know them today, prison and police abolitionists are engaging in the kind of activism that can resist and dismantle these interconnected evils at the same time. In other words, transformative justice and prison abolition are ways resist to the military-industrial complex.
Prison and police abolitionists argue that the U.S. systems of policing and incarceration are so fundamentally unjust – because they so disproportionately harm poor people, Black people, Native and Indigenous people, Latinx people, disabled people, and other minoritized groups – that they are irredeemable. They must be abolished and replaced. These systems which claim to keep us safe actually perpetuate great violence. That George Floyd was strangled to death for eight minutes and forty-six seconds by the knee of a policeman or that Breonna Taylor was shot to death while sleeping in her own bed are just two of the more recent examples of the ways the police have made the lives of Black people less safe rather than more. The trauma of arrest, trial, and incarceration, up to and including physical abuse, psychological abuse, and rape, are other examples of the violence of our current legal systems that don’t get recorded by citizen cell phones but are well-documented in journalistic and academic literature. These systems do not protect us from violence, as many statistics show, but actually increase the violence experienced by many of our most marginalized and vulnerable citizens. This is especially true for poor, Black people.
The moral logics that justify this racist and classist violence also undergird the proliferation of the military-industrial complex. The fear of violence justifies the use of violence and the expansion of its tools. So, we build more powerful and efficient weapons to use on other continents and those tools of death find their way back to police departments as they patrol poor neighborhoods and are used on protesters from Standing Rock to Minneapolis. The American imagination feared Asian communists in King’s day and today we fear Muslim terrorists and Mexican migrants. And, then and now, at home we fear Black people demanding justice in a society that has failed to deliver it for far too long. This fear drove the Vietnam War and the persecution of the Black Panthers in the 1960s and it has driven the expansion of government surveillance, torture, and incarceration over the last two decades. As it was during King’s life, it is still police and legal systems committing violence against oppressed people claiming their rights. Just as the bombs have continued to drop abroad the police have continued to abuse at home. These triple evils are long-time bedfellows.
So, what do prison abolitionists and transformative justice (TJ) activists do in response? Recently we have seen that they sometimes show up in the streets to protest, engage in civil disobedience, and demand police abolition. But, as Marbre Stahly-Butts of Law 4 Black Lives has recently argued, dismantling current systems is only 30% of the work of abolition. The other 70% of the work is imagining and creating new systems that might actually produce safety, accountability, and community.
Many of the most influential thinkers and doers in the modern TJ movement are women of color, disabled people, queer people, and poor people. People like Ejeris Dixon and adrienne maree brown and Mimi Kim and Angela Davis have been doing this work long before this current political moment made prison and police abolition more mainstream. They are convinced that current law enforcement systems, including policing and incarceration, do more harm to oppressed people and communities than they create safety. As is the case for Mia Mingus and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, these women of color are also often survivors of violence and abuse, including sexual violence. It is often their own experiences of the violence and trauma of our present systems that have driven them to imagine and work to build alternative systems that are antiracist, antisexist, life-giving, and community-building. They know firsthand how our current systems reproduce trauma for survivors of violence, impose violence on people who have caused harm (many of whom are survivors of violence themselves), and exacerbate economic inequality by punishing the poor for their poverty. These systems do not reduce violence: they multiply it.
One particular weakness of our present systems that is regularly pointed out by TJ practitioners is that our current systems do not create accountability. Rather, they incentivize the outright rejection of accountability. Because the majority of people who experience violence and abuse experience it from people they know and love, many survivors do not want punishment for punishment’s sake. Rather, they desire accountability, change, and guarantees of safety. To imprison one’s father or brother or sister, especially if they are poor or a person of color, and send them into a horrible cycle of violence, abuse, and recidivism can seem worse than not reporting such harm at all. So, many victims and survivors remain silent and never get accountability. And if they do report their harm to our current systems, the one who harmed them is encouraged to deny, obfuscate, and participate in processes in which survivors often have their own experiences and reputations dragged through the mud.
So, TJ practitioners have begun the work of building new systems and inviting their neighbors to use them instead of dominant legal systems. They have built bail funds to help the poor get less unjust treatment than the rich. They have built systems of community-based accountability in which members of pods or circles are in place to provide safety for victims while also holding perpetrators accountable by building agreements for new behaviors going forward. They have worked to get women released from prison for using survival techniques in instances of intimate-partner violence. They have even secured reparations from victims of torture over many years by the Chicago police.
Mariame Kaba, perhaps the most well-known and influential TJ leader, has become famous in TJ circles for coining the phrase “Hope is a discipline.” Part of what she means when she says this is that the hope of a world free of prisons, police, and structural violence is going to take work and will not come on its own. But it is not an impossible vision. We see it at a small-scale in community accountability and healing work in cities around the country. These things work when people are willing to try them. They can work when we see the world not through the lens of violence as power but through the lens of justice grounded in interdependence.
What does all this have to do with the military-industrial complex? Imagine a world where the racism, classism, and violence of prisons are dismantled and replaced with community-led initiatives focused on safety, health, accountability, and interdependence. Imagine a world where we invest in people and communities at the rates we currently invest in war and incarceration. Can you imagine a world like that being one where an ever-expanding military-industrial complex exists? If we learn to overcome racism, classism, and violence with our neighbors in town we might also learn how to do so with our global neighbors. If we learn how to respond to harm with healing rather than retribution in town we may be able to do so across oceans. At least, that’s what King taught us all those years ago. And, if we don’t achieve such a world in our lifetime (which we won’t), we’ll have at least planted the seeds that may grow into such a world. Just as King did before he was killed. Seeds that are blooming all around us in 2020.