“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.” – Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz)
Black people should reconsider dying for a country that does not see fit for us to live. Since the US project began, Black people have been on the frontlines doing the work behind building, expanding and protecting this empire. This empire has never returned the favor – it has never fully recognized the humanity of or granted protection to Black people, in exchange for endless Black labor, blood, sweat and tears.
The death of Sgt. James Brown, an active-duty soldier who self-reported for a two-day sentence at the El Paso, Texas, county jail and died behind bars, is one more death in a long string of Black soldiers who have returned home from wars to be killed. Brown checked himself into the jail in July 2012 for driving under the influence. He expected to serve 48 hours of jail time. After he died in custody, authorities stated Brown died from a pre-existing medical condition. However, KFOX14 news obtained video from the jail showing Brown’s final moments were much more complex than what authorities led his family to believe.
According to his mother, Brown was given an injection after becoming reportedly “combative,” and 45 minutes later, his body was shutting down. Whatever he was given led to his body’s complete dysfunction. Something, likely the injection, caused Brown to bleed in his cell; he wasn’t speaking with the jail guards.
Afterward, a team of riot police became involved, restraining Brown while he repeatedly yelled that he could not breathe. After yelling this several times and being placed in a restraining chair, with a mask over his face, Brown slowly began losing consciousness. Near the end of the video footage, Brown appears completely unresponsive and no longer able to beg and plead for his life. Family attorneys say no ambulance or 911 call was made to obtain help, despite Brown’s pleas.
Brown’s death is not an isolated incident. It is not simply an “unfortunate tragedy,” as Sheriff Richard Wiles described it. Army veteran James Allen, 74, was killed earlier this year in Gastonia, North Carolina, after his family asked authorities to check on his well-being. Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. died the same way a few years ago, when police arrived at his residence responding to an alert via a medical device he wore to alert emergency responders in times of need. The same is true of Brenda Williams. A 27-year-old Air Force veteran, Anthony Hill, was naked and unarmed when he was killed by police this March in the parking lot of his apartment complex.
In fact, my own grandfather, for whom I am named, was a World War II veteran who was killed by the police when he returned home from the war. He was killed in 1956 because he “got smart” with police in Jemison, Alabama, while walking home. They shot him several times and left his body in a ditch. Alas, over 50 years later, in a supposedly different United States, the tradition of US police killing Black soldiers continues.
The threat of police violence against Black service members and their communities, of course, comes on top of the more amorphous threat of institutional neglect, which all veterans face during this time of ever-looming budget cuts and federal abandonment.
Black soldiers are doubly jeopardized by the economic onslaught at home, because they generally come from the communities that already suffer the most from poverty, as well as inadequate education and employment opportunity. These public disenfranchisements have persisted over the generations for Black people in the United States: This empire touts how much progress it has made, but it only restyles old oppression for modern times. The slavery system was replaced with mass incarceration, which the military also feeds into as noted by Angela Davis. Voting tests were replaced with voter ID laws. Black soldiers continue to come home only to find out they still aren’t “good enough.”
Traditionally, Blacks have been overrepresented in US conflicts and in combat, like the Vietnam war. And even though there has been a rise in “minority” officers, “minorities” such as Black people are still underrepresented in these leadership roles. C.L.R. James once said, “American ‘democracy’ did not want to have even American colored officers. And it took a hard fight to have a few hundred.” Moreover, the strong impetus to place Black people in harm’s way for the sake of this empire also highlights Black disposability.
From the American Revolution, to military unit integration, to the GI Bill, which left out Black Americans, these second-class soldiers color a picture of perversion inside the borderlines of this empire. The lead coming from their guns sketches the stark reality that the Black men and women willing to take life abroad could very well return home to have their lives taken because they’re Black. The merely rubber bullets fired at those protesting in the streets right now about the worth of Black life cannot suppress or erase the fact that many of us see sanctuary here for Black people.
And so, we must confront a key question: Why serve a country that doesn’t serve you? Why pledge allegiance to a nation that has still not demonstrated allegiance to Black people – even those who serve it? Black service members salute and pledge an oath of loyalty to a country that does not protect them after they have protected it.
Of course, many young Black people see the military as a way to pay for college or find a promising career, although Black enlistment has been on the decline since 1985. The power structure has exploited a void of opportunities to grow its numbers for quite some time. Instead of filling that social void with education or on-the-job-training, the government steers many toward enlistment.
However, the military is no safe haven. Black soldiers will not be protected by their decorations and medals. We will not be protected by police. We will not be protected by wealth. We will not be protected by office. We will not be protected by fame. We will not be protected by gender. We will not be protected by age. Blackness renders you forever unsafe here.
That being said, it’s up to Black soldiers who realize this to communicate it to young Black people considering military service. Those young Black people should be made aware that dedicating themselves to the United States through military service guarantees them absolutely nothing, not even veteran’s assistance.
The US military has and continues to function as a conduit for young people who are being otherwise neglected by the wealthiest nation on earth. The United States overspends on the military while neglecting education, job training and development in the communities that need it most. Whether it’s the student drowning in college debt or a young person looking for direction, this economic disharmony works to the advantage of military recruitment and against the interests of young Black people. An important change is needed that addresses the misappropriation of funds for imperialism and the neglect of funds for sustaining overlooked Black communities.
During the wave of protests against racist police violence that have recently taken place around the country, many Black soldiers have spoken up about their mistreatment. One emotional Black veteran spoke up in Baltimore to a CNN anchor live on air, saying: “They’re talking about we’re part of this country man; how can we be?” After being pressed further by the interviewer, he exclaimed: “When I was in the Marine Corps, they called me a patriot, a marine! But now that I’m fighting for my people, they call me a fucking thug!”
If we do not have the right to defend our own communities here, what sort of sense does it make to attack others defending their communities elsewhere from US “interests”? After all, every time it is announced that another officer will walk free for killing a Black person, the authorities make it clear there is “no excuse for violence.”