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Cornel West: Black Lives Matter and the fight against US empire are one and the same

Acclaimed thinker and activist says conversations over police brutality are inseparable from discussions over Washington's imperial policies
By Azad Essa in New York City

It's impossible to talk about the devaluation of Black lives without talking about militarism and the far-reaching tentacles of US empire, Cornel West has told Middle East Eye.

In a wide-ranging interview about the current protests gripping the United States, and the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement to the rest of the world, the acclaimed theologian and philosopher said conversations over the murder of George Floyd and police brutality are inseparable from discussions over Washington's imperial policies.

West also hit out at former president Barack Obama. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged during his second term in office, when the US had a Black attorney general and a Black secretary of homeland security.

Floyd, an unarmed African-American, was killed in Minneapolis on 25 May after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

'Black people will never be free under a system of predatory capitalism - we will never be free under a system with imperial tentacles, will never be free with the Pentagon elite running amok with militaristic policies and killing people in Latin America and the Caribbean, and so forth'

- Cornel West

Police had been called after the 46-year-old reportedly purchased a pack of cigarettes from a convenience store with a counterfeit $20 bill.

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"I can't breathe," Floyd could be heard repeating in the video of his arrest that has since triggered global outrage.

For African Americans, the incident told of a crassness and humiliation that they were simply no longer willing to tolerate. "Is that what a black man's life is worth? $20?" Floyd's brother, Philonise, said in his testimony to Congress on Thursday, a day after this brother was laid to rest.

"What we have to do is recognise that the funeral of George Floyd, where tears are flowing... they have [similar] funerals in the West Bank because of US policy [and] US bombs mediated through [the] Israel Defense Forces," West told MEE.

"They have funerals like that in Yemen... they got funerals like that in Pakistan, in Afghanistan. They've got funerals like that in Mali.

"They've got funerals like that all around the world that the United States is very much playing a disproportionate role in facilitating, if not playing a direct role. So in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr, we have to be morally consistent in our critique of US racism, militarism, poverty, as well as materialism," West said.

'Worth of a Black man'

At a time in which America has entered a deep economic depression following the scourge of Covid-19 related-deaths, unprecedented unemployment levels, and a deeply divided political climate under President Donald Trump, Floyd's murder has triggered some of the largest protests the US has seen since the civil rights movement.

Protests have taken place across all 50 states, in towns and cities of all sizes. On any given day, multiple rallies and vigils take place in New York City, Washington DC, Chicago and other major metropolises.

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Demonstrators have also called for defunding and abolishing the police, arguing that policing practices are institutionally racist and new systems need to be introduced.

It is widely acknowledged that Black people are shot and killed at disproportionate rates by the police, leaving entire communities perennially terrified and uneasy.

"I think that the fundamental impulse behind the rage is the indictment of elites who are unaccountable. So it has to do with police power and police murder in the Black community," West said.

"It has to do with Wall Street power and Wall Street crimes in terms of the legalised looting that's been taking place for so long on Wall Street, with high levels of wealth inequality flowing from there. It has to do with Pentagon power, and the not just the drones dropped on innocent people all around the world in Yemen and Libya and Pakistan and Afghanistan and other places." 

'Obama the war criminal'

West reserved some of his choicest criticism for former president Barack Obama, who spoke in favour of the Black Lives Matter protests last week.

"It's amazing to see brother Barack Obama out there acting like he's part of the vanguard and struggling against police power when Black Lives Matter emerged under his administration, with his Black attorney general, with his Black [secretary of] homeland security," West said. 

"But he helped militarise those police departments. He helped generate the levels of poverty when he had bailed out the Wall Street criminals. And we haven't gotten to the foreign policy yet, in terms of dropping bombs on innocent brothers and sisters in different parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, and Asia. We haven't even gotten to the killing of innocent Palestinian brothers and sisters with the US-supported Israel Defense Forces," West added.

'My experience on the ground is that when people now see the politicians and people now see the neoliberal spokespersons come forward and act as if they are so militant, act as if they are so radical, they say: hey, we were born at night, but not last night'

- Cornel West

The US has provided Israel with $142.3bn, making it the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since World War II, the majority of which has been military assistance. Since the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US-led "war on terror" has seen invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of people displaced.

West, once a supporter of Obama, has been an ardent critic following Obama's handling of the financial crisis, which saw his policies bail out banks and ensure major bank executives were let off the hook for their roles in the crisis. Under Obama, economic inequality in the US skyrocketed.

He has since called Obama a "black face of the American empire and he [has], in my view, commit[ted] war crimes with his drones in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and Libya".

Obama's administration oversaw regime change in Libya and helped to normalise the 2013 Abdel Fattah el-Sisi-led coup in Egypt, quelling democratic civilian aspirations in Cairo, which had repercussions throughout the entire region.

Obama also administered 542 drone strikes that killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians, during his time as president.

'We got to be honest'

Though police brutality in the US has a long and chequered history linked to the protection of white property, joint training exercises between Israel and US police, commentators say, have fundamentally changed the nature of policing in the US. 

"As soldiers in the Israeli army regularly receive orders to shoot to kill, always with the assumption that they are neutralising a dangerous enemy, the training they give to US police has translated into the rapid-fire murders we have seen there in recent years," as Nada Elia writes.

West said that talking about the connections between Black Lives Matter and US militarism should not be treated as a "luxury".

Over the past few weeks, corporate brands, themselves with dubious labour practices in the US or abroad, have felt the need to make statements in support of the movement, too. Ben & Jerry's, the Vermont-based ice cream brand, was venerated for its stern message on dismantling white supremacy, a plaudit that was short-lived once activists pointed out that the brand was still profiting from its operations in Israeli settlements. 

"My experience on the ground is that when people now see the politicians and the neo-liberal spokespersons come forward and act as if they are so militant, act as if they are so radical, they say, hey, we were born at night, but not last night," West said.

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"In the end, if you really want Black people to be free, and I do, Black people will never be free under a system of predatory capitalism. We will never be free under a system with imperial tentacles, [we] will never be free with Pentagon elite running amok with militaristic policies and killing people in Latin America and in the Caribbean, and so forth.

"So it is not a luxury which is theoretical or academic, to say 'Oh, we don't have time for interconnectivity and interdependency, [and] we've got to deal with this particular issue'. That particular issue is always already connected.

"It's like asking Palestinian brothers and sisters, let's just talk about the plight and predicament of Palestinians without talking about US imperial policies. You can't do it, if you really love Palestinians.

"I say the same thing about my Jewish brothers and sisters. They are catching hell in France, they are catching hell in Russia. They are catching hell in various parts. Anti-Jewish sentiment goes hand in hand as well with other systems. So in that way I get pretty fired up when people want to try [and isolate issues so much] that they downplay the systematic character of the oppression.

"No, we've got to be honest, in terms of what freedom is all about. We got to be honest, in terms of what we are up against."

* You can read the full interview with Cornel West here.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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