In his “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July” speech, Black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass highlighted the gross contradictions of a country that claimed to celebrate freedom and independence while embracing slavery. Douglass, however, took solace in America’s age. “There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages,” Douglass said in his speech on July 5, 1852. The country was 76 at the time.
Today, the settler-colonial nation-state of the U.S. turns 245 years old. Yet the underlying problems of white supremacism that Douglass addressed in his famous speech persist. Among the contradictions of today’s Independence Day observations will include the honoring of the armed forces for “keeping America safe” and “defending our freedoms,” despite the prevalence of white supremacy in the ranks and the fact that many current and former service members participated in the January 6 breach at the U.S. Capitol, which sought to violently disrupt the certification of a legitimate presidential election.
On April 1, the Department of Defense “completed” a 60-day stand-down to address the growing problem of white extremism in the military. The review was prompted by the fact that 20 percent of those facing charges from the January 6 events have a background in the armed forces. The stand-down centered around conversations with rank-and-file soldiers that would allegedly “reinforce the military’s values.” The information gleaned from these discussions would be sent up the chain of command. What would happen next is unclear, at least from what we’ve been told by Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby.
The lack of clarity on next steps is likely due to the fact that no official data would be collected during these conversations. The top brass in charge of coordinating the discussions believe that conversations that reinforce values of the military would be enough, and that data collection would be unnecessary. Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said the stand-down would also be a chance to listen to service members [about] their own feelings about extremism. Such a policy is counterproductive, according to the chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Lecia Brooks, who has been calling for more data collection on the scope of right-wing extremism in the military. As Brooks said in a March 25 interview with Democracy Now!, the day after she testified at an Armed Services Committee hearing on extremism in the Armed Forces, “data drives policy.”
In May, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin created an “extremism task force.” This task force has a July deadline to make “recommendations on potential changes to military justice.” Again, any recommendations will be based on scant official data because the military is notorious for not wanting to acknowledge or document the problem of white supremacism in the ranks.
This is what we do know: Veterans make up 25 percent of all militia members in the U.S., according to a recent report from The New York Times. In early 2020, one in three active-duty service members reported to the Military Times that they saw evidence of white supremacism in the ranks. An August 2020 poll conducted by the Military Times reported that 57 percent of troops of color have personally experienced some form of racist or white supremacist behavior.
In 2018, Brandon Russell, a member of the Floridian National Guard, was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence for harboring explosives. It was revealed during the trial that Russell had founded a violent neo-Nazi group. In May 2020, an Air Force sergeant who belonged to a boogaloo extremist movement was accused of murdering a federal security agent. In June 2020, an active-duty soldier named Ethan Melzer was charged with plotting a mass casualty attack in collaboration with his neo-Nazi group.
Nonetheless, far right Republican leaders like Rep. Pat Fallon from Texas, who was on the post-January 6 committee to address white supremacism in the ranks, was particularly dismissive of the 60-day stand-down, calling it “political theater.” More liberal-minded politicians like House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) acknowledge that these problems exist but seem unwilling to push for serious changes in policy.
If the military’s handling of sexual assault is any indication of how the “task force” to confront right-wing extremism will go, then we can assume that there will be plenty of talk without much action to root out the problem.
In 2020 there were 7,825 reports (a large number of cases go unreported) of sexual assault in all branches of the military, a 3 percent increase over 2019. A number of hearings on sexual assault followed the release of the 2012 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Invisible War.” “Invisible War” exposed the depth of the sexual assault epidemic and resulting cover ups in the U.S. military. Nearly a decade later, promises from generals and politicians to solve the issue have clearly proven empty.
Very little has been said about the results of the 60-day stand-down since it concluded on April 1. Silence is exactly what top brass and politicians count on because fixing the problem would pose a threat to their first priority — a strong empire that requires violence and oppression to achieve its goals. From the earliest days of supporting the colonization of Turtle Island to the use of the national guard against Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter protests — and from the wars on Japan and Vietnam to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — the armed forces needed to dehumanize others as irredeemably violent, dangerous and uncivilized in order to encourage its soldiers to treat them as an enemy.
The U.S. isn’t young anymore. One can’t help but wonder what Fredrick Douglass would say if he were to give a speech on the country’s 245th birthday. The “great streams” of American racism, white supremacy and sexism have indeed worn deep. A full 169 years after Douglass’s speech, the U.S. is still bogged down by many of the same contradictions. Any progress that has been made wasn’t due to benevolent rulers or a compassionate state apparatus, but came as a result of courageous people coming together to shine light on and resist intolerance and oppression.
As American flags are posted on porches and fill front lawns across the U.S., let’s not let them block the light of justice. This Fourth of July, let’s not hide behind empty promises, cover-ups and manipulative patriotism. Let’s continue to expose what the military and other American institutions want to hide. Let’s fight against empire.
It’s well past time that we damn the river of hate that continues to run through this country.