The armed occupation inside the empire

December 16, 2014

The drive of the American empire to dominate the world is intimately connected to why U.S. rulers seek to impose their will at home too, explains Ashley Smith.

AMERICA'S IMPERIALIST wars abroad have always been paired with wars at home on workers and the oppressed, especially African Americans.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that this pattern was again occurring during America's war in Vietnam. In his landmark speech "Beyond Vietnam," he denounced the war, declaring that the U.S. government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

In another speech from the same time, he spelled out the horrific domestic impact of the U.S. war on Vietnam:

This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies. Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens, both at the front and at home. The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.

Philadelphia police ride in an armored vehicle down a residential street
Philadelphia police ride in an armored vehicle down a residential street (Margaret Killjoy)

Almost 50 years later, King's words retain their accuracy. As the size and ferocity of the U.S. military has increased since King's time, so has the use of increasingly militarized methods of policing, whether judged in terms of the use of military hardware, military tactics or use of lethal force.

Today, another liberal president, Barack Obama, oversees an American empire waging war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. And just as in King's day, Obama's wars abroad have come home--in the form of a war on the living standards of American workers and the oppressed, especially Black people.

Since 2001, first George W. Bush and then Obama have led the country into a string of constant warfare, destroying countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. At home, they imposed neoliberal austerity on all workers, restricted our civil liberties, whipped up racism against Arabs and Muslims, scapegoated immigrants with record deportations, militarized the war on drugs, intensified the New Jim Crow, and oversaw a rising arc of racist police murders, especially of young Black men like Mike Brown and Eric Garner.

OBAMA'S PRESIDENCY was not supposed to turn out this way, at least in the minds of those who elected him. The millions of workers and oppressed people who voted for Obama hoped he would fulfill his promises to put an end Bush's relentless warmongering and pass reforms to redress class inequalities in the U.S. But Obama's soaring rhetoric turned out to be hollow--a necessary element in his campaign to get elected, but dispensed with once in the White House.

As president, he has followed the dictates of the capitalist class that bankrolled his campaigns. Obama's job was to bail out the banks, impose austerity to lower the cost of American labor, and enact a cheap energy policy based on practically unregulated fracking and drilling for oil and natural gas. Flush with profits, the American capitalists hoped Obama would reassert America's imperial power against any and all competitors.

Just like President Lyndon Johnson's bombs in Vietnam, Obama's are exploding at home, with devastating consequences for workers and the oppressed. His administration has diverted an average of $600 billion a year into the defense budget, money that could have gone to climate jobs, education and single-payer health care. He funneled tax money into the banks and imposed austerity on everyone, increasing class inequality so much that today now rivals the robber baron era.

As part of the "war on terror," Obama continued the Bush administration's shredding of civil liberties. He has used the powers of the USA PATRIOT Act to spy on people throughout the U.S., but especially Arabs and Muslims. His administration has continued to subject these populations to racial profiling and trapped them in what Muslim leader Abdul Malik Mujahid calls a "virtual internment camp."

Obama's intensification of border policing has had a horrific impact on immigrants. Despite the recent decision to grant partial and qualified relief to some undocumented workers, Obama has deported more than 2 million people, more than Bush did in two full terms and more than any president in history.

BUT PERHAPS the worst impact of Obama's war abroad has been his continuation of the Bush administration's militarization of domestic police departments.

These two presidents have given away--at no charge!--billions of dollars worth of the Pentagon's surplus of weapons, armored vehicles and aircraft to police departments across the country. They justified this unprecedented militarization by claiming it's necessary to fend off domestic terrorism. But as New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo wrote in June:

Today, crime has fallen to its lowest levels in a generation, the wars have wound down, and despite current fears, the number of domestic terrorist attacks has declined sharply from the 1960s and 1970s. Police departments, though, are adding more firepower and military gear than ever.

Confronted with such facts, Obama's apologists point to the bombing of the Boston Marathon as evidence of the need for hyper-militarized police. But the massive deployment of the police and their military equipment, and the lockdown of the entire city of Boston did not deter, stop or lead to the arrest of the bombers. The police searches didn't locate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev--it was only after the curfew was lifted that a Watertown resident called police after seeing a blood trail on his property.

But the facts haven't kept Obama from continuing the militarization of police. The Real News Network's David Zlutnick observes:

Under the Obama administration, the transfer of military surplus has greatly expanded. Among other items transferred to local law enforcement agencies have been assault rifles and grenade launchers, even Blackhawk helicopters and .50-caliber machine guns--a weapon so powerful the U.S. military has restrictions on how it can be used in combat zones. In fiscal year 2011 alone, the Pentagon transferred almost $500 million worth of materials to domestic law enforcement--nearly double the previous year's total.

Since 2006, Apuzzo documents, the Pentagon has provided the police with 432 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), 435 armored vehicles, 44,900 night vision pieces of equipment, 93,763 machine guns and 180,718 magazines.

Such equipment has in turn changed how police are trained. "These more aggressive tools translate into more aggressive policing," explains Zlutnick. "Military resources and training have then changed the way officers interact with their communities, from a mindset of community protection to one of combat."

In many cities and towns, American police departments have invited the Israeli military, which has turned repression into science through decades of colonial violence against Palestinians, to train them in crowd control. As Rania Khalek wrote at

At least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson--the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department--received training from Israeli security forces in recent years.

THE POLICE have used their new equipment and aggressive training in their so-called "war on drugs," which has particularly targeted Black and Latino populations. This war produced what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow.

Police departments single out communities of color, flood them with police, arrest scores for petty drug offenses, convict them, and then deny the victims an array of constitutional rights, including the right to vote. The New Jim Crow has turned a generation of Black men into demonized second-class citizens.

Bush's and Obama's militarized police forces have turned Black and Latino neighborhoods into war zones, where cops can murder people of color with impunity. Mike Brown and Eric Garner are the tip of the iceberg of this police killing spree.

The "war on drugs" and the New Jim Crow have perpetuated racist myths of Black criminality and pathology, which are reproduced in schools, media and other social institutions. Such myths have encouraged bigoted vigilantes like George Zimmerman to wage their own campaigns of gated-community policing and murder.

Obama's state has deployed this militarized police force to repress eruptions of struggle by the oppressed, particularly Black resistance to the New Jim Crow. Police were on standby during the protests against the execution of Troy Davis and the exoneration of George Zimmerman. And they were deployed to attack protests in Ferguson, New York City and Berkeley.

The American state has also deployed its militarized police to subdue protests against the inequities of the system. During the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh, the security apparatus wielded a vast array of weaponry--from helicopters to armored personnel carriers to the infamous sonic weapon, the LRAD--to abuse activists protesting against the decision to bail out the banks and impose austerity on workers and the poor.

The Obama administration also coordinated the repression of the Occupy movement across the U.S. in late 2011. The Department of Homeland Security, mainly Democratic mayors of large cities, and local police departments collaborated in a series of assaults to disperse the Occupy encampments around the country.

The U.S. state's use of the militarized police will only intensify as the ruling class imposes yet another round of neoliberal attacks on workers, with a disproportionate impact on workers of color. Obama and his successors have plans for more austerity, more cuts in corporate taxes, and more fracking--all designed to make American capitalism more competitive with China. They will need their police to enforce the resulting inequalities of class and race.

THE HOPE amid this horrific situation is that the emerging movement against police brutality fuses with resistance to economic inequality.

Already, Black workers involved in the Fight for 15 have connected their class demands for a living wage with anti-racist protests. And several unions like the United Electrical Workers have issued statements against police racism and in support of protests.

Martin Luther King realized half a century ago the interconnections between war abroad and war at home--and the roots of both in the capitalist system itself. After he came out against the U.S. war in Vietnam, he launched his final struggle, the multiracial Poor People's Campaign, to challenge racism, unite workers and remake American society. He declared that "the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism."

In King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech, he declared:

[I]f we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Today, we have the chance to take up the struggle King gave his life to launch--a movement of workers, Black, Latino, Native American, Asian and white, to oppose America's military brutality abroad and its racist police at home in an effort to transform our society and world into a new system that puts people before empire and profit.

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