In the wake of the global protests against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, activists have begun to reclaim public spaces by destroying statues of conquerors, slave traders, white supremacists and colonizers. In the United States alone, protesters have torn down and defaced statues of Confederate generals in Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Montgomery, Alabama; and statues of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Boston, Massachusetts. Globally, sympathetic protesters in Bristol, U.K., threw a statue of Edward Colston — a prominent 17th-century slave trader — into the River Avon, while activists in Belgium defaced a statue of King Leopold II — the founder of the Congo Free State — prompting city officials to remove it.
In response, the liberal intelligentsia and a bipartisan coalition of congressional representatives have offered their own efforts to confront the racist history of the United States. In a recent opinion piece, The New York Times editorial board charged the U.S. military with celebrating white supremacy, calling for the renaming of military bases honoring Confederate generals. On June 10, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment offered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren to remove the names of Confederate officials from U.S. military assets in three years, a measure that would include renaming military bases as well as aircraft, ships, weapons and streets. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has supported a similar bipartisan amendment to the $740 billion defense spending bill, while also calling for the removal of 11 Confederate statues from the Capitol.
There is no question that military bases named after Confederate generals should be renamed. But responding to the problem in this way while simultaneously expanding the military budget masks the global roots of structural racism in the United States. It neglects that racialized policing domestically is intricately connected to the exercise of U.S. international police power abroad. Several sociologists and historians have shown how counterinsurgency tactics developed to quell anti-colonial revolts boomeranged back to the metropole, influencing the tactics that urban police forces use to counteract the tactics of Black-led protest movements.
Calls to rename military bases exemplify what Aziz Rana calls “national security citizenship.” From Crispus Attucks fighting in the American Revolution to W.E.B. Du Bois’s call to “close ranks” and set aside Black grievances in support of U.S. entry into World War I to the demands of the NAACP to desegregate the military, Black Americans are frequently forced to align their demands for racial inclusion with the imperatives of the national security state.
What the call to rebrand these military bases ultimately misses is the intertwined nature of domestic and international politics. It misses how the terrifying displays of firepower by municipal police against the recent protests are enabled by a $721.5 billion military budget in 2020 that comprises 37 percent of global military expenditures, an amount larger than the next seven biggest military budgets of major global powers. These military expenditures directly make their way to the police. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the 1033 Program, which authorized the transfer of surplus military equipment and weapons from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement. In 2015, President Obama signed an executive order modestly limiting the program, only to be reversed in 2017.
The call to rename bases also misses how domestic bases honoring white supremacists and Confederate generals are part of a global military apparatus that spans 800 bases in over 70 countries. This “empire of bases,” as the late political scientist Chalmers Johnson has called it, has since 1945 reinforced a liberal international order predicated on free trade, structural adjustments, unbridled multinational capital and global financial deregulation. Just as this empire of bases segregates the impoverished peoples of the Global South in a system of global apartheid, municipal police forces similarly enforce the boundaries between urban poverty and suburban affluence. Stationed at these imperial outposts, CIA agents or other branches of the national security state have interfered with at least 85 elections worldwide since 1947, a number that does not include military coups and regime change following elections of leaders opposed to U.S. interests.
In the 1960s, Black Power activists referred to the structural conditions facing Black Americans as a system of “internal colonialism.” More than an analogy that metaphorically likens structural racism in the United States to colonial domination abroad, the idea of internal colonialism exposes how anti-Black violence and poverty domestically is systematically tethered to the exercise of U.S. imperial power and the foreign policy of the national security state.
The Black Lives Matter movement has recently revived this vibrant connection between anti-imperialism and anti-racism. In its 2015 policy platform, “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice,” the Movement for Black Lives called for the simultaneous “divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance, and exploitative corporations” and “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people.” The platform went on to demand “A cut in military expenditures and a reallocation of those funds to invest in domestic infrastructure and community well-being.” The drafters of the platform explicitly declared that “America is an empire that uses war to expand territory and power.”
In framing the problem in this way, the platform captures the vicious circle of racialized policing and U.S. empire: Over-investment in the military budget designed to maintain global supremacy resulted in divestment from domestic social programs to combat poverty, increase access to public education, ensure equitable health care and reverse patterns of hyper-incarceration. The social problems arising from this divestment in poor and Black communities then became evidence of the need for greater investment in urban police forces to deal with “Black criminality,” which as we have seen in recent weeks, is merely a veiled dog whistle for politically motivated resistance. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy rooted in the militarization of U.S. society. What the platform very simply shows is that bloated police budgets and bloated military budgets are two sides of the same coin. They are both causes and symptoms of a national divestment in poor people and communities of color.
Renaming military bases that memorialize white supremacists through a spending bill that expands the defense budget by $20 billion amounts to nothing more than a racially inclusive militarism domestically that remains imperialistic globally. In the wake of the unprecedented uprisings and protests in early June, the demands of Black activists are beginning to materialize. But if calls to defund the police are to have any teeth, they must move in tandem with calls to radically defund the U.S. military. To respond to the demands of protesters by leaving the paraphernalia of U.S. empire intact is not simply to miss the point — it is to resign oneself to the self-defeating logic of the adage expressed by composer Richard Wagner: “The wound can only be healed by the spear that smote you.”