Here in Colorado Springs, student and community organizers recently invited me to try and help promote their campaign against a proposed “no camping” ordinance, a law to ban the homeless from sleeping on sidewalks or public lands within the city limits. The organizers insist it’s wrongful to criminalize the most desperate and endangered among us, that it instead seems quite criminal to persecute people already in need of far more care and compassion than we’ve been willing to offer, especially during these bitterly cold winter months. But others in the area are intent on eliminating the tent encampments near the Monument Creek and Shooks Run trails, complaining that the encampments mar natural beauty, deter tourists, create fire hazards and degrade the environment by strewing heaps of trash and debris near the creek and even in it.
It seems important for both sides of the argument to acknowledge other local encampments that Colorado Springs is home to: Fort Carson Army base, both Peterson and Schriever (formerly Falcon) Air Force Bases, Norad and Cheyenne Air Force Stations and the US Air Force Academy. It’s not lost on opponents of the no camping ordinance that stop-loss policies prevent many of the young men and women at these institutions from returning to their homes, where many of them long to be after repeated tours of military duty outside the United States. For every soldier intent on strengthening his or her country’s military option, how many more are taking a last-ditch option, signing up for the famed “poverty draft,” to sustain themselves and their families through an economic crisis felt throughout the country and the world? Many, though not all, of these young people have been driven by poverty into their encampments as surely as the Monument Creek campers have been driven into theirs.
And these bases, whatever the intentions of their residents, can certainly be scrutinized for creating waste, destruction, fear, fires, massive casualties and environmental degradation. Whatever the soldiers’ intentions, these bases are here, when called upon, to supply “shock and awe” wherever needed around the world. But, it’s highly unlikely that a no camping ordinance will appear before the City Council of Colorado Springs, or any other city in the United States, returning these young men and women to viable and secure lives back in their home communities.
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President Obama, while freezing spending on nonmilitary programs in this desperate economic moment, just submitted a new budget asking an additional 708 billion dollars for the Department of Defense. Keeping one US soldier in Afghanistan for one year costs one million dollars. All this to prevent al-Qaeda strongholds in the country even though mainstream news sources have noted that less than 100 militants of the al-Qaeda organization even live in Afghanistan (Fox News, December 2, 2009). With our additional attacks against our supposed ally Pakistan, and our insistence that its government attack its own villages along the Afghan border, we have displaced at least three million more people, one million of whom still wait in tent encampments and inadequate shelters for their indefinitely postponed return to security and normal life, filling massive refugee camps that military observers repeatedly warn create ideal recruitment conditions for jihadist groups.
“In this new decade,” said President Obama in his State of the Union address, “it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.”
But where, with this addiction to war, this perverse use of resources that could house and feed our neighbors, used instead to destroy homes and villages abroad – where can we find decency? Where can we find real strength? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King famously insisted, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” When asked, US people are overwhelmingly in favor of reductions, not increases, of the military budget, and increases of aid to the needy, not reductions or freezes. Why does it seem so impossible to find a government that matches this decency and this strength?
Strength, in the sense of real security, comes from communities pulling together in compassion and cooperation. Strength comes from decency. We are made insecure by our criminal assaults on international security and our criminal neglect of the poor at home. Who will educate us to better understand that being seen as a menacing, frightful and destructive culture internationally jeopardizes our security? International law establishes that initiating war, as we did in Iraq and indeed in Afghanistan, is a crime; and, in a fundamental sense, for those who wish to live in security, crime does not pay.
Our strength will not come from diversions of desperately needed resources into meaningless destruction and division. Individual Americans, without waiting for help from above, must act to correct these pathologies of American social and political life. We can support and learn from decent and kindly organizers in Colorado Springs and other communities, who extend a hand of friendship to those all too often viewed, domestically, as expendables. We can donate from our own resources to fight poverty at home and thereby deny these resources as taxable income that our government can employ in causing more despair, poverty and displacement abroad. And we can build bonds of community and shared purpose, organizing in our neighborhoods, our cities, our schools, churches and workplaces to build a world wherein no one is left out in the cold.