Disavowing Empire

Let’s dispel the illusion, this country was and is built on the backs of black and brown bodies, built to annihilate and extract ancestral lands, and built for the white and wealthy few.

Mobilization for Black Lives at The White House, July 2016

America, 2005. A black mother and son stand on a suburban sidewalk, each carrying a single sign. Hers reads, “No Iraqis left me on a roof to die.” Hurricane Katrina had just struck the Gulf Coast, a climate and human disaster that left black and brown communities submerged and abandoned. Meanwhile, President Bush had just approved a new surge of thousands of troops and billions of dollars to quell “insurgents” in Iraq. When asked if her home had been in New Orleans, she responds “No, but my heart is. It’s MY people.

Rather than focus its might on drowning black families, America focused its energy on dropping bombs on brown people abroad.

America, 2016. A black athlete takes a knee during the national anthem. The crowd passively breaths in and mutters out the lines,

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

An anthem that celebrates the death of slaves and triumph of American freedom. A man kneeling to call attention, nearly 200 years later, to a continued epidemic of black death at the hands of the American state.

The dominant narrative of disgust and repression of any attempt to disrespect an illusory Pax Americana was expected. The average American is a nationalist and we attribute the flag to military service rather than imperial servitude and remember military victories rather than war crimes made in the name of the ol’ USA.

However, there is another story that needs to be challenged. In defending Colin Kaepernick, many American liberals have called him a true patriot, a representative of America’s true values. Yes, Kaepernick’s repeated kneels are a brave act calling out the injustice of police brutality and white supremacy. But, the values of anti-oppression are not those sewn into the character of America. We need an honest critique of imperial patriotism: the belief or practice of pledging to America without an analysis of its oppressive history and a denial of the state and the American myth as root causes of a destructive history and present. Rather, we need to decolonize our memory and recognize that this country continues to function by oppressing black and brown communities both within our borders and across the world.

America, prior to 1776. The white man begins a systemic extermination campaign adapted from Spanish colonizers further south against the original peoples of this land. Starting with Plymouth and Jamestown, 13 English colonies are erected to exploit natural resources and send extracted wealth to their European homelands. Upon the mass murder of millions of indigenous people, the now “American” invaders designed a slave trade that would fill the labor gap on their new plantations and mills by kidnapping millions of Africans and calling their white brutality innovation.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nick Chiles describes, “slavery was the economic engine upon which American capitalism was built, providing the seed money for United States businesses to create the most vibrant economic system in the world; the tens of millions whose deaths led to the building of those skyscrapers, the visual emblems of American capitalism’s enormous financial windfall for the white beneficiaries of slavery and their descendants.”

America, 1776 and onward. Launching a separatist war with the British Empire, the future leaders of the United States draft a Declaration of Independence that declares equality all men with the explicit exemption of black slaves and “indian savages.” After the conflict, a group of elite white slaveowners and capitalists draft a constitution that preserves their political and economic power and enshrines a system built for them and not for those they step upon.

The new United States quickly modeled itself on the model of European colonial empire. Leaders evangelized citizens in the delusion of manifest destiny. American military forces terrorized the newly independent Mexico. Southern slaveowners invaded Central America and the Caribbean to set up new puppet slave states. Naval fleets were even deployed to North Africa to force open markets for domestic industries.

Some will try and sweep these early injustices under the rug (as was official U.S. policy until at least the 1970s) as descrepencies and acts of a less enlightened age. However, the imperial appetite of America has never subsided. Rather it has been transformed. By the 20th Century, the U.S. had forced all remaining ancestral peoples into over 500 reservations and occupied territory that included Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. The latter alone resulted the deaths of over 200,000 Filipino men, women, and children. In fact, in 1901, Gen. Jacob Smith told his inferiors, “I want no prisoners, I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better you will please me.”

Even after “the war to end all wars,” in which over US police and soldiers forced 110,000 first generation Japanese and their children into internment camps and US warplanes committed one of the most horrific crimes in military history with the atomic bombings of the civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the victorious and barely damaged United States took advantage of its newfound position to lay the groundwork for global hegemony. The ensuing decades saw America conquer over a dozen former nations, and engage in warmaking in over 226 countries total. Today, only 46 countries have no active US military presence, while many others have seen entire American military cities be built on top of their communities. This is a projection of military power “that makes the Roman, British, and Soviet empires pale in comparison.”

This American colonialism was maintained through a policy of terror. Democratic elections that resulted in governments opposed to US empire were quickly eliminated via assassination, coup, economic or environmental warfare, or simple invasion. This occurred repeatedly from Nicaragua and Chile to Syria and Iran to Greece and Italy for decades. In our campaigns against communism, we killed hundreds of thousands in Vietnam, launched secret bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia, supported massacres in Bangladesh, armed fossil fuel projects and mines owned by US corporations in occupied territories, established “free trade” regimes that actively empower those business interests, and conducted nuclear and live fire testing on at least 12 island nations in the Pacific (with current plans to bomb out the culturally and biologically diverse Pagan Island.)

Now we label those failed states left in our wake “terrorists.” Meanwhile the American state supports totalitarianism the world over, shoots to kill hundreds of black bodies, detain thousands of brown immigrants, oppress queer and trans identities, bulldoze ancestral lands for profit, and bash countless worker and prisoner uprisings every year.

With all of this in mind, we stand with Kaepernick not out of a hallow patriotism, but out of a actualized love and solidarity for intergenerational justice. We don’t give credit to the State, instead, we honor the warriors and activists across the world who fought for what we already know to be true — a liberation from an American nightmare funded by neoliberal capitalism, wielded by heteropatriarchy, and enforced by white imperialism.

To those who say, “if you don’t like America, why don’t you go somewhere else?” Think. Would you ask that of the Native American who has had their ancestral land and people stripped from them, or the black woman whose ancestral mothers were enchained and forced across oceans to serve their white masters, your potential white ancestors? Also, side note: because of global empire, there’s nowhere to escape the USA.

Yet, we don’t want to cede the future of this American saga to an entrenched status quo or an authoritarian right. This is not about an individualized anti Americanism, rather it is a call for collective anti-imperialism.

That doesn’t mean we don’t fight for a new American story. That doesn’t mean our movements back away from engaging with all kinds of Americans and confronting various forms of American government. That doesn’t mean ignoring the prisoners of war, disabled veterans, and fallen soldiers whose lives were tossed aside to further the imperial project. That means dedicating ourselves to transforming this story of America that has underpinned injustice for far too long.

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