Reversing the Pistons of Empire: One America for Peace

By Greg Moses

OpEdNews / AfterDowningStreet / Bella Ciao / BlackCommentator

Whip lashed by serial collisions of imperial power, dissident movements in the USA brace for the next shocking thing. We have been hijacked into a crashing invasion of Iraq, slammed around by evasive maneuvers in New Orleans, and now along the borderlands of the Southwest USA, signs warn that a highway of accommodation is about to end, dumping us head-on into deserts of aggression upon Latin American peoples.

Into each new crisis, empire roars forward, pumping high octane into its five-piston engine. Whether stirring borderland provocations at home, fighting wars of aggression abroad, or exploiting crises of colonized communities anywhere, the five pistons of empire always work the same.

The first two pistons of empire rub against each other in a dual cycle of excitement: racialization and criminalization. Whether we are talking about war on terror, containment of victims of Katrina, or preparations for aggression upon Latin American immigrants, empire is busy making peoples into races the better to criminalize them wholesale.

The third piston kicks into motion after peoples have been racialized and criminalized. This is the piston of militarization. Guns and propaganda. Brute technologies of power. In Iraq, this piston was stoked on a large scale with advance planning. In New Orleans, as if by reflex, it was improvised overnight. And in the future of the borderlands, militarization is being foreshadowed in word and deed.

The fourth piston is privatization. Political players who deploy military strategies profitize the game so that huge fortunes can be made quickly. In Iraq we see privatization with malice aforethought; in the aftermath of Katrina, privatization on the fly. Along the borderlands, keep an eye out. How much of the militarization will be subcontracted? How much cement will be cast into a great wall, by whom will it be poured, and for how much moolah?

Piston five is legitimization, the sweet arts that consolidate empire’s victory as ‘common good’ and ‘enduring freedom’ for all. This last piston is knocking around under the hood these days. In Iraq and New Orleans, there is a legitimization gap. That would be better news, if the gap in those places didn’t make the border wars seem all the more tempting as a red-blooded thrust to re-energize an imperial base.

So these are the five pistons. One right after the other, they fire up for every imperial advance. And they have been working this way at least since Western Pennsylvania was conquered by settlers and the Pennsylvania legislature taken out of Quaker control and put into the hands of a faction led by Benjamin Franklin. We’re not the first generation of peacemakers to be tossed around the back of the wagon by expansionists for self defense.

Quakers remind us that resistance to the five pistons of empire has been going on at least since the day William Penn named the town of Philadelphia. For Pennsylvania, Penn envisioned an enterprise of peace and reciprocity. Indigenous peoples would be respected, slavery outlawed, etc. A penitentiary would be a dwelling place for thinking things through. For about 75 years, the method worked astonishingly well.

Meanwhile, near Philadelphia grew the Germantown community, with its stream of mystics and cooperative entrepreneurs who came from the farms and universities of Europe into thick Eastern woodlands seeking unification with the One. In 1688, Germantown passed an anti-slavery resolution, said to be the first of its kind among the European immigrant communities of the so-called New World.

So when I travel through the heart of German Texas, near towns named Boerne, Fredericksburg, and New Braunfels, I am reminded that empire has never been a totalizing machine. Surely things could be worse and would be, had we not always in North America grown our own resistance, too. Against the five pistons there are — and for several centuries there have been — five modes of resistance.

Against the first two pistons of empire (racialization and criminalization) resistance poses counterforces of pluralization and legalization: establishing equity between peoples (not just between persons) and working against the tendency for law to be used a weapon of group domination. When George Fox toured America in 1661 (with William Penn) he sat down and slept beside indigenous peoples. To the offense of white Christians, Fox denounced attitudes of Christian spiritual superiority and practices of slavery, too.

In Iraq, the process of racialization and criminalization draws upon thick cultural roots old as the crusades. USA provisional authorities racialized and criminalized Sunni Muslims as a strategy to neutralize Saddamist resistance. Widespread enforcement of de-Baathification violated international laws against collective punishment and provoked deadly backlash, which empire loves to see, because backlash begets backlash, and guess who’s ready to privatize such a colossal mess? Recently, thanks to a film by Arkansas brothers Craig and Brent Renaud, we have watched a guardsman say: every civilian in the Middle East is a potential terrorist, the more killed the better. This well-fed attitude is sure to keep the privatizers in business just a little longer, with each passing month good for a few billion more.

In New Orleans, says grassroots organizer Malik Rahim, white activists with guns were allowed to pass into the city, while black doctors with medicine were not. Whereas guns were welcomed into a criminalizing situation, medicine could not be allowed to humanize. In New Orleans, a Common Ground Collective respects needs of all individuals and takes seriously the differing circumstances that people face. If cops can make allowances for each other when looting stores for ice and batteries, then activists can make allowances for petty theft among desperate victims, too. This is criminalization’s counterforce. Call it legalization of human beings and pluralism between peoples.

Along the borderlands between Latin American and El Norte, pluralism and legalization would mean respecting each other’s needs for free movement, suitable work, and fair pay, regardless of national origin. With militarization threatening the borderlands, it is urgent that we seek de-militarization certainly, but more than that, we have to try for something that has no single word. The opposite of militarization is not de-militarization; it is wholesale commitment to an economy of nonviolence, a prioritization of peaceful means to power among the people. If not pacification, shall we call it peace work? Such work builds the kind of human security that follows from experiences of pluralization and legalization.

Which brings us to the problem of privatization or the exploitation of a militarized situation for profit. The Common Ground Collective in New Orleans points directly toward struggle’s answer: collective, open, democratic organization of resources. I don’t think this precludes private property, but it certainly does debunk private profit as an end in itself. And this denunciation of private profit as the ultimate ruler of values is about as communist as Thomas Hobbes (who said you have to throw out the right to all things only if you want peace).

The final mode of resistance is education. After pluralization, legalization, pacification, and collective organization, education is badly needed to tend the crafts of knowledge and learning — to counteract legitimization.

If these modes of resistance have to be re-invented, then so be it. But we never find ourselves nowhere, especially not right now. I am only trying to think about resistance in hopeful ways as interlocking and multidimensional struggle, already and always on the ground with real life experience of the imperial pistons. De-militarizers are coming to the fore lately, and that’s good. But pluralizers are hard at work, and legalizers, too. Collective organizers are always findable. And educators are widely dispersed and active.

As we prepare to face the pistons of empire at the borderlands, we may look forward to a historical opportunity to unify American resistance from North to South. And that’s far from a nowhere place to begin.


Note: Thanks to Tom Wells and the Speak Truth to Power Series at Schreiner University, Kerrville, TX for commissioning these remarks for a talk on Oct. 19, 2005.

And we will not pay for killing


By Susan Van Haitsma

Not one more death. Not one more dollar.

Dollars and death are connected in more ways than one. The old adage claims that death and taxes are the only certainties in life, but it is the connection between taxes and death that is the real certainty.

The grinding machinery of war needs fuel: soldiers and money. A majority of Americans indicate they want the machine to stop. Parents and students, veterans and military families are working together to withhold human resources from the war. Cindy Sheehan has movingly expressed the ways that one death has been one too many.

But what happens when the majority of Americans want war to stop, and the money to wage it keeps flowing in? Larger bonuses are used to lure enlistees, and more military services are performed by expensive contract labor. The machine rolls on.

What happens when wage earners get together and withhold their financial resources from the war? The amount of money diverted from death to life may be small in the face of the huge US military budget, but the challenge to the system is great. Somehow, when someone says, “Not with my money,” and backs it up with the open civil disobedience of war tax refusal, eyes open wider. “You can do that?” Yes, we can and do. WWII conscientious objector and civil rights Freedom Rider, Wally Nelson, carried his well-used sign, “Haven’t paid taxes since 1948,” up through his last demonstration at age 93. “Say yes to no,” he would say with a smile.

Wally Nelson’s widow, activist and writer, Juanita Nelson, was not the only octogenarian among the war tax resisters who met recently in Brooklyn, NY for a conference of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC), a network of groups and individuals around the USA. Nor was Lincoln Rice of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker the only attendee in his 20’s. But, as we stretched ourselves into a human timeline according to the decade during which we began war tax refusal, the largest groupings were in the middle decades of the 1970’s and ‘80’s.

War tax resistance reached its peak of activity during the Indochina War, with several hundred thousand phone tax resisters and some 20,000 income tax resisters openly redirecting some or all of their federal taxes. A number of well-known figures publicly joined the ranks of war tax refusers, including Joan Baez in 1964 and a group of over 500 writers and editors by 1967. Long-time activist Brad Lyttle, on hand from Chicago for the recent Brooklyn conference, was the first coordinator of National War Tax Resistance (WTR) when it was formally launched in December, 1969 during a New York City press conference that included Allen Ginsberg and Pete

By 1972 there were 192 local WTR chapters across the country.

In 1975, WTR was laid down, and NWTRCC was formed seven years later in response to the growing military budget of the Reagan era. Currently, NWTRCC is comprised of some 40 affiliate groups with area contacts in as many states.

Most war tax resisters consider themselves conscientious objectors. One of Juanita and Wally Nelson’s public statements about their resistance read, “We hope our actions have some effect. But, in any case, simply in order to justify our humanity, we must persist in our attempt to make action serve belief.” Conscientious objection invites a paradox that has been expressed eloquently by soldiers-turned-conscientious objectors like Camilo Mejia and Kevin Benderman; taking an intensely personal, often lonely stand based on one’s conscience makes one feel more deeply connected to all humanity.

Connection with one another is an important aspect of the war tax resistance movement. Peter Goldberger, long-time lawyer advocate for war tax resisters, spoke during the Brooklyn conference to stress the value of the “big tent” of NWTRCC. He believes that the openness and transparency of a shared public witness offers a protective force. War tax resisters tend to be willing to discuss publicly what our society tends to consider private matters: personal income and expenses, financial assets, and our deepest moral and ethical beliefs about life and death.

One focus of the recent NWTRCC gathering involved outreach to young people. A young resister described the anxiety she felt early on about how she would plan for the next 40 to 50 years of life as a war tax resister. She found the prospect rather daunting. Older war tax resisters responded reassuringly that we can take things only one step at a time. Some resisters take the opportunity to reevaluate their situation every year, and many revise their method of refusal over time. In fact, many war tax resisters feel that one of the lessons learned is to live more by faith, trusting that each day’s needs will be met. It is a lesson that contradicts the value placed in this country on long-term personal security and financial investment.

War tax resisters have become active in the counter-recruitment movement. Juanita Nelson, who is invited into school classrooms, counsels us to be sure to talk to students about our war tax resistance. Even for students who are not yet confronted with paying taxes, she believes it is important to plant the seeds of resistance. “In a way, we cheat them if we don’t talk about it!” she says.

A joint effort of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Center on Conscience & War is the “I Will Not Kill” campaign, which educates young people about the concept of conscientious objection. The web site features inspiring photographs of young people holding their I Will Not Kill pledge cards. At the close of the NWTRCC conference, we gathered for a photograph of our own: all ages standing behind a banner that read, “We Will Not Kill, And We Will Not Pay for Killing.” We stood under a tent that could grow big enough to hold every taxpayer whose dollars were not meant for death.

Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation, a NWTRCC affiliate (