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Race, Empire, and the 2016 Presidential Election

I would like to begin with something of a confession. During the beginnings of the #BlackLivesMatter movement I latched onto to the spin-off slogan #AllLivesMatter and even carried an All Lives Matter sign at the first Black Lives Matter protest I participated in. Back then, the battle lines had not been so neatly defined, and no one seemed bothered by the sign. Perhaps my enthusiasm helped illuminate my naiveté.

At that point in my life I was spending a good deal of my time thinking about the connections between racism, empire and war. I wanted to see that connection drawn out in the tradition of Mohammed Ali when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. In the weeks that followed I would come to agree with the critics who pointed to how white people were using #AllLivesMatter as a means of deflecting attention away from the issue of Black suffering, and I stopped using it. The writing was on the wall: no one else was trying to apply it to our country’s disregard for Iraqi, Yemeni, or Afghani lives; most were using it as a means to claim there wasn’t an issue.

Yet there very clearly is an issue, and our own Olympia, WA has been affected deeply by it. The 2015 shooting of Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin by Olympia police officer Ryan Donald is a clear example of what happens when war comes home. Thompson and Chaplin had attempted to steal beer, but thought better of it and left it inside the store. On their way home they were stopped by officer Ryan Donald and fled after he began to open fire. Thompson and Chaplin were struck several times in the spine and Chaplin is now partially paralyzed. According to his mother, Crystal Chaplin, removing the bullet that remains in his spine may leave him a quadriplegic. At least one resident came forward and claimed that a bullet entered their bedroom window. Donald effectively turned West Olympia into a miniature war zone in his handling of the pursuit. And for what reason? Since when did petty theft become grounds for lethal force? It is in keeping with a long national history of racism that the city of Olympia is more interested in prosecuting Thompson and Chaplin than in taking Donald off the streets.

I see it as no coincidence that Donald is a combat veteran who enlisted after 9-11 and did several tours of duty. His actions reflect a particular dehumanizing pathology in which the end goal is to exterminate the enemy. Many veterans, most notably those involved in Iraq Vets Against the War (IVAW), have come to understand this pathology as racism incarnate, the apex of an us vs. them mentality. “Collateral damage” was always the polite way of saying “killing Hajis.” It would be little wonder if there was transference, but it is perhaps more fruitful to think of it as a two-way street­—one variety of racism feeding into the other and vice-versa.

My original usage of #AllLivesMatter was wrong because it negated the historical specificity of the Black struggle against police brutality and second-class citizenship. It is important to affirm the worth of Black lives when so many have been unjustly taken. Kajime Powell demonstrated exactly how devalued Black lives actually are in the U.S. in 2014 when he stole two soda pops and placed them on a sidewalk in St. Louis Missouri. A gang of officers shot him dead in the streets and a massive media cover-up ensued wherein it was claimed he “lunged” at police with a knife. The well-documented deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and so many others tell a similarly disturbing story.

There have been many unwilling martyrs, but two stand out as people who were made into “examples”: Usaama Rahim and Sandra Bland. The former was killed by Department of Homeland Security officers in civilian clothes for talking on the phone to his cousin about wanting to kill white nationalist and career Islamophobe Pamela Gellar. The latter was an active organizer for Black Lives Matter and was found hanging in her Texas jail cell three days after her arrest — after getting pulled over for failing to use her turn signal.

Despite my initial misstep in using #AllLivesMatter, the connection between Empire and racism continues to resonate with our present moment. Is it really surprising that the same country that maintains offshore prisons where brown inmates are tortured through techniques such as prolonged exposure to cold and rectal force-feedings might continue to have a racism problem at home as well?

Chelsea Manning is still imprisoned for leaking video footage of U.S. forces gleefully gunning down Reuter’s reporters, yet it was deemed unthinkable and “savage” when James Foley was murdered at the hands of ISIS. This past September Charlotte-Mecklenburg resident Keith Lamont Scott, a disabled Black man, was shot outside his car for no apparent reason at all. Police claimed he posed an “imminent deadly threat.” He was not armed, despite initial police claims that he had a gun, and eyewitnesses claimed a Taser was used before he was shot three times. In August an Imam and his assistant were killed in broad daylight in Queens and it was not called a hate crime.

Hypocrisies like these are no accident—they are the byproduct of one racist discourse bleeding into the other. The idea is that we can’t commit the same barbarisms as ISIS, even if we have, because we’re a more advanced civilized people who follow international laws. No matter that Scott posed no actual threat, since the officer felt a threat was “imminent.” This crafty rhetorical sleight of hand borrows directly from George W. Bush when he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed an “imminent threat” to our national security.

The declaration of the Global War on Terror marked the beginning of a period of slow and intentional change in the United States. It started with a change in terms. We would not be at war with a country, but with terrorism generally, and you could either stand “with us” or “with the terrorists.” Any “imminent threat” warranted pre-emptive action, and it was understood that “security” would now be prioritized above individual liberties. The point has been to direct our attention to an outside enemy while formally abolishing civil rights at home. The right to privacy no longer exists and neither does habeas corpus – both have been taken away under the guise of fighting terror.  Any known or suspected “terrorist” can be detained indefinitely, which means anyone can be detained indefinitely, with nothing to go on but suspicion. Anwar Al-Awlaki was the first American citizen targeted for assassination in the War on Terror, and Rahim was the first to be assassinated on U.S. soil. Both were subject to long periods of surveillance.

What we are seeing now is a logical extension of the same reasoning. Scott could be killed pre-emptively, before posing a threat, because he would have posed one, imminently. Hilary Clinton can promise to take away the right to own firearms from over a million Americans on national television and get away with it because it’s assumed everyone on the terrorist watch-list is a threat. What isn’t talked about is the fact that entire categories of people can be placed on the list, and there is no due process for getting removed from it. Trump, for his part, has seized onto the racial and religious hatred generated by a decade of war and threatens to leverage white nationalist sentiment to usher in a frightening and unhinged Dark Age. It is all the more worrisome that he declined to promise he would accept the results of the election in the final presidential debate, because it hints at the possibility that he will try to seize power even if he loses. We live in strange times indeed.

In Iraq the situation is deteriorating more rapidly. Only a month ago a bomb exploded in a shopping mall across the street from my aunt’s house in Baghdad. My cousins worry a great deal about the coming incursion of ISIS and dream of immigrating to a more stable situation in Turkey. While it may be true that Iraqi forces are currently on the cusp of retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, this has primarily been accomplished by funding Shi’a and Kurdish militias who have been reported engaging in ethno-religious revenge cleansings. Additionally, U.S. led coalition planes have been bombing targets in Mosul for months, and there have been reports of civilian casualties. Much like the unjust deaths listed above, these instances of “collateral damage” will no doubt factor into whether Iraq’s Sunni population feels its lives are valued by the U.S. ISIS, for its part, carried out 284 executions of men and boys in immediate retaliation against the forces gathering around Mosul.

We should be troubled by the fact that neither of the mainstream presidential candidates has a strategy for defeating ISIS beyond aerial bombardments and providing arms and counsel to independent militias to supplement the Iraq army, maneuvers which will only foster further instability. We should be bothered that neither offers a solution to police brutality beyond “community policing.” If we can see the interconnected nature of racist dehumanization abroad and at home, we can combat both more effectively.

Amir Hassan is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition who writes about the Rhetoric of the War on Terror. He is an Academic Specialist for TRiO Student Success at The Evergreen State College.


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