Behind the Power of 41 Bullets: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore

by Bob Wing

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is on the cutting edge of theorizing and fighting domestic militarization in this country. A long time activist, Ruthie is now assistant professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley. She also remains on the frontlines of struggle as a member of the Prison Moratorium Project and Critical Resistance. In July of 1999, ColorLines invited Ruthie to do a forum to help us get a deeper hold on the causes and consequences of domestic militarization.

Q: What are you talking about when you use the term “domestic militarization”?

A: Let me give you some examples. The NYPD shot 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo because he fit a profile; he’s dead. The Riverside (CA) police killed Tyisha Miller with more than a dozen bullets while she was sitting in her car, and then traded high‑fives. The LAPD beat a criminal rap on excessive force, despite their globally broadcast brutal attack on Rodney King. And today, the U.S. is the biggest jailer in the world, with nearly 2,000,000 people behind bars; two‑thirds of these prisoners are African Americans and Latinos, almost all poor.

These deadly encounters are symptomatic of domestic militarizationthe overkill that comes from several decades of the State, meaning the government at all levels, arming itself with personnel, weapons, laws, and increasingly popular ways of making sense of the world. So, at the end of the day, people like Diallo, Miller, and Kingblack people and poor people of color generallyhave been made into enemies for whom lethal aggression is an “appropriate approach.”

Industrialized surveillance, arrest, conviction, and punishmentnot necessarily in that order!are at the heart of domestic militarization, just as industrialized killing (to borrow from Omar Bartov) is at the heart of the military industrial complex.

And don’t forget weapons manufacturers, prison construction companies, intellectuals who do research and development on a variety of frontsfrom profiling “enemies,” to designing the latest equipment and buildings, to producing sound bytes that influence public opinionand community boosters who want more police and prisons, more courts and laws. All this costs more than $100 billion dollars per year.

Q: Does domestic militarization represent an important change, or is it just a fancy name for more of the same old repression?

A: True, repression is a constant role of the State. But, in fact, a new State is coming into being, built on a firm foundation of prisons. By “new” I don’t mean necessarily original, but rather something that differs considerably from the “warfare‑welfare” State that everybody between the ages of 30 and 60 grew up in.

The new State is shedding social welfare in favor of domestic militarization. Programs that provide for people’s welfare, protect the environment, or regulate corporate behavior have been delegitimized and jettisoned. There is a new consensus among the powers that be that focuses the domestic State on defense against enemies, both foreign and U.S.-born. What’s new is the scale of militarism being directed at people inside the U.S., and the scope of what comes into the crosshairs of the prison industrial complex rather than some helping agency.

Q: What is driving domestic militarization? Whose interests does it serve?

A: Nothing is inevitable, and the State is not some monolithic ruling class entity. Still, I think domestic militarization is basically the response of big money and both the Democratic and Republican parties to major economic and political crises and changes that have emerged since 1968. The response has been that the welfare side of the State, that grew from the 1930s’ New Deal through the 1960s’ War on Poverty, had to be attacked in the move to change priorities from guaranteeing workers a decent share of the pie to making workers accept whatever they could get. Obviously, if workers are going to be disciplined, it takes a pretty big, military‑quality, stick.

Economically, the State has been regeared to help U.S. big business defeat new challengers in the globalized economy that has developed in the last thirty years. Press down wages, reduce the social wage represented by social welfare programs, increase the investing power and wealth of the rich, lift regulations on business, privatize, promote free trade with the weak (e.g. NAFTA), protectionism against the strong (e.g. Japanese autos), timely military interventions, etc.

Politically, the State has been transformed to deal with the fact that the new economy is drastically reducing the number of jobs and the wages paid to unskilled, less educated workers–basically to poor folk or gonna‑be-poor folk (youth). A huge number of these folk are people of color. Since many of them won’t have jobs and money, what is to be done with them? Right now, they’re warehoused, in deadend schools and prisons.

The 1960s and early 1970s showed the incredibly powerful political potential of poor people, especially poor people of color. In the 1990s, this group of folk has grown tremendously, and will into the future. Powerful people–white men and their many‑hued and gendered agents–are afraid they may be challenged. Domestic militarization and prison not education, public health, or good jobs is their answer. California, with its high tech economy, vast disparities in wealth and dramatic demographic change, is on the cutting edge.

Q: So it sounds like you’re saying domestic militarization is a powerful link between the 1960s and today.

A: Absolutely. In some ways 1982 was a watershed year. That’s when, for example, California embarked in earnest on the biggest prison construction program in the history of the world. However, the decisive move toward domestic militarization was sparked by Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign for President on an overt “law and order” platform.

By 1968, radical activism and urban rebellions produced widespread disorder throughout society. Remember? The National Guard was called in to quell urban rebellions and campus revolts across the country. That activism attacked two of the pillars of this country, war and racism. At the same time, the golden age of U.S. capitalism was ending as the rate of profit began to fall for the first time since the buildup for WWII.

The right, led by Nixon, fought to regain the presidency. They pointed to social disorder to persuade voters that the War on Poverty Democrats were failing to govern and obstructing economic progress. The more that militant anticapitalism and international solidarity became everyday features of U.S. antiracist activism, the more the State and its ideologues responded by, as Allen Feldman puts it, “individualizing disorder.” They called political activists criminals and proposed that social disorder could be resolved via arrest or State‑sanctioned killings rather than fundamental social change.

The Nixon campaign helped agitate U.S. voters into a pulsing panic over crime and criminality, and to redefine the legitimate domestic State away from the War on Poverty and toward domestic warfare. Nixon claimed the urban rebellions proved that the welfare State had failed, and should be met with guns instead of butter.

Then the federal State slipped into fiscal crisis as its resources were drained by the Vietnam War. Starting in 1967 and 1968, big capital got Congress to drastically cut corporate and bank taxes, which aggravated the crisis, but blamed the War on Poverty. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, voters staged tax revolts, led by capitalists, especially big property owners. The most famous of these was Proposition 13–the Jarvis/Gann Initiative–in California in 1979. State and local governments followed the feds into fiscal crises of their own.

In turn, social services, especially those programs which could be characterized as benefitting poor people of color, were cut to shreds in the name of punishing “welfare queens.” Yet domestic militarization proceeded apace. In fact, nobody who runs against big government–not Ronald Reagan, not Pete Wilson–actually reduces the size of government. Despite the fiscal tightening, police budgets and prison construction picked up, especially with the War on Drugs, which goes hand‑in-hand with a generalized war on youth. This move came to fulfillment in the 1980s and 1990s. Gen X and Y are feeling the impact of what began with the baby boomers, but which has now taken on a new character, has become domestic militarization and the prison industrial complex.

Q: But why was domestic militarization the State’s response? Why not just neglect?

A: Nothing is made from nothing. Domestic militarization is rooted in the unique history of this country. The U.S. has a standard of aggression which can be summed up as “Shoot first, ask questions later.” State‑sanctioned violence has been central to the formation of this country from the beginning. This violence is inextricably linked to another unique feature of the U.S. State: that it is also a completely racialized State. Race, and the hierarchies that race represents and hardens, are in the fabric of social structures and social power. Race and war.

First, the U.S. was conceived in slavery and christened by genocide. These early practices established high expectations of governmental aggression against enemies of the national purpose, such as revolutionary slaves and indigenous peoples, and served as the crucible for development of a military culture that valorized armed men in uniform as the nation’s true heroes. Prisons and reservations were established throughout the land to control freed Africans and dispossessed indigenous peoples. Racialized imperial aggression enlarged U.S. territory, and reproduced through warfare these fundamental oppressive relations.

Although State power has been used against white workers, the early extension of the vote to Euro‑American males established government as their milieu and State power as their instrument. The development of the U.S. master‑race democracy, or, as Howie Winant puts it, “the dictatorship of white men,” both depended on and fostered a connection between State power and national belongingness, with everyone else thus characterized as to some degree alien, if not actually The Enemy.

Second, the high incidence of war waged by the U.S. correlates with, and, according to Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner, explains high levels of intra‑national violence, especially murder. When the U.S. goes to war, as happened in 1991, and again this year, the domestic homicide rate goes up. In other words, the racial, warfare State models behavior for the rest of us.

Third, the U.S. national standard for excusable or justifiable murder is remarkably aggressive. In a 1921 Supreme Court decision overturning a murder conviction of a man who chased and killed someone who had earlier picked a fight with him, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “a man is not born to run away.” Well, if a man is not born to run away, the virile State surely sets the example: virtually every murder by police in the U.S. falls into this category, while at the same time men and boys measure themselves against this cult of masculinity as though it were truly an inborn condition.

In short, the mentality, or common sense, that domestic militarization both feeds and draws from is historically grounded by these particularities of the U.S. experience: The legitimate domestic U.S. State is the racialized national security/warfare State, not the welfare State. The local world is, and always has been, a very dangerous place. And, the key to safety is aggression.

Q: Domestic militarization is obviously a great danger. What can people do to organize?

A: At a local level, a number of groups have produced arrest guides in response to gang sweeps, the increased likelihood of injury, and other everyday features of domestic militarization. The arrest guides explain how the outcome of cases is generally determined in about the first 30 seconds of contact with the police. Distribution of these guides, and the conversation that goes with handing them out, has helped young people in Los Angeles and other communities begin to start organizing themselves, as they see both the systemic nature of domestic militarization and the potential power in numbers who resist.

In a more deliberate fashion, people have been working for nearly a decade to maintain the Los Angeles gang truce and extend it into a national conference of street organizations and organizers.

But a question activists against domestic militarization constantly confront is “What about crime in my neighborhood?” We have yards of answers, but we still have to put together the arguments into a vision for a demilitarized future that jives with the politics of possibility for those whom we must persuade.

Former Governor Pete Wilson’s Juvenile Crime Initiative will be on the March 2000 ballot in California. It panders to the fears of elderly people and others who self‑identify, through experience or imagination, as victims of young people. But, as a mother in Los Angeles said many years ago: “Don’t give up on our kids just because the system has.” This proposed law explicitly gives up labeling its targets as the “kids who don’t want to be saved.”

I don’t know any other way to say this: it is about time youth were romanticized again. The United States is rightly afraid of the kids it has abandoned, which is to say most of them. Young people were the champs of the 1960s. I believe that if young people went out in great numbers throughout California, to do canvassing and voter registration, in a Freedom Winter reprise of Freedom Summer, the bloom would be back where it belongs–on our collective future.

I think the time is right to make that happen. But Freedom Winter, and the Spring it will promise, can only come into being in solidarity with every kind of organization–labor, retired, teachers, housing, faith–that looks ahead conscious of the past’s terrors and beauty. All of us should be obsessed with building a future radically different from the one we’re heading into, in the final year of the bloodiest century in the history of the world.

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