Last year, during the early months of the presidential primary cycle, groups called Black Lives Matter began to follow presidential candidates, maintaining a presence at rallies, calling candidates out on stage, and highlighting their central concern: that black and brown Americans suffer disproportionately from police violence. The narratives surrounding that violence suggested that those lives didn't matter as much as they should, and that they were held in less regard than the lives of white Americans.
On the Republican side, contenders chose to attack the protesters, implying without reference to reality or to the protestors' words, that by emphasizing black lives, they were suggesting that not all lives matter, whereas in fact the protesters were doing just the reverse.*
On the Democratic side, however, Black Lives Matter made real traction. They pushed the three candidates to utter the names of recent victims of police violence. And all three of the original Democratic candidates (Martin O'Malley has since exited the stage) began to discuss police violence, racial inequality, and the need for reform of the criminal justice system. Left to their own devices, the Democratic candidates would have tiptoed around these issues of fundamental importance. But Black Lives Matter, and their methods--condemned as too aggressive by some of the candidates' own supporters--forced Democratic candidates to confront the persistence of inequality along racial lines in our country.
Both Bernie Sanders, with his historic commitment to civil rights campaigns, and Hillary Clinton, with her decidedly mixed record inside of the Democratic Party, have reassured voters with words and policy proposals that black lives do in fact matter. And to their credit they have grappled, not always successfully, with how to avoid marginalizing a younger generation of activists.
However, in the case of both candidates, it is clear that there are exceptions to their rhetoric, and one glaring one in particular. When the candidates discuss foreign policy, it becomes rapidly clear that black and brown lives cease to matter when they exist outside of U.S. borders.
Take the use of weaponized drones, the weapon of choice in the War of Terror as waged under President Obama. There are multiple programs for state murder in which drones are used to target people in South Asia, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel.
In some programs, individuals on a kill list are murdered because of known acts, contacts, or plans in which they are involved. Their identities are known, although there is no judicial process involved. These programs make a mockery of notions of justice.
More disturbing still are those programs that resemble the very systems of profiling and violence that Clinton and Sanders have condemned in our own country. In these programs, “targets” are evaluated using disposition matrices which track their movements and patterns of behavior, and allow for subjects to be murdered on the basis of probability estimates that they pose a threat of some kind. In other words, subjects are the victims of profiling, wherein they are evaluated and possibly killed based on their approximation to a profile rather than anything they have actually done.
The savagery of drone warfare--which President Obama sought to remove from Congressional oversight--is perhaps best illustrated by the Guardian’s discovery that in a quest to kill 41 named individuals the Obama administration killed 1,147 people. For a “targeted” and “precise” form of warfare, the “collateral damage” is tremendous. And that “collateral damage” comprises people who may in some cases be associates of the dead and who might in other cases be passers-by who became casualties of U.S. foreign policy’s disregard for legal process.
Both Clinton and Sanders support the continuation of a drone campaign. Clinton has given them her full-throated support from both inside and outside the administration, and Sanders has suggested that he would reform rather than end such programs, praising drones because they allow the U.S. to forego the use of intervention on the ground.
Clinton goes further than Sanders by embracing an essentially neo-conservative framework for foreign policy, which imagines that military power can and should be used to re-make the world: some states in the image of the U.S.; others are to be re-worked to better serve the strategic and economic interests of our country. She has emphasized her “expertise” and “experience” during this campaign.
But that record is a terrifyingly vivid demonstration of how little black and brown lives in other parts of the world matter to Clinton in the conduct of international affairs. The wars she supported and advocated in Afghanistan and Iraq claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens of those states while destroying the infrastructure and institutions that supported the livelihoods of millions more. Her advocacy of intervention in Libya and Syria, though motivated by humanitarian concerns, has had similar consequences in the case of the former. And her support for regime change in Honduras plunged a country’s population, most visibly its children, into a state of uncertainty with chronically circumscribed opportunities and has sparked waves of outward migration.
Her relentless and unconditional backing of an increasingly unbalanced Israeli state in its violence against a Palestinian population cast as a frightening “Other” not only illustrates just how poor a diplomat and strategist she is, but has had the effect of shoring up systematic inequality that rebounds to the disadvantage of Israeli citizens and Palestinian subjects.
And her backing of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere across the Middle East helps to enshrine a regional and global regime of inequality and injustice.
Some of Clinton’s actions are motivated by base, nationalistic calculations, and her fulsome embrace of a barbaric War of Terror. In other cases, she is motivated by humanitarian concern. But it is a version of humanitarianism that seems to be about acting without evaluating the consequences, and about salving the conscience of western actors rather than assessing what behavior is actually likely to have positive consequences for those people in danger.
Both Clinton and Sanders are guilty, albeit to different degrees, of neglecting how U.S. international policy generates tremendous violence in the world, violence that disproportionately affects people of color.
If these two candidates are willing to claim that Black Lives Matter, shouldn’t they be asked to reconcile that claim with the adverse consequences of their records and policy for black and brown people around the world? They are asking to be elected President of the United States, and part of their responsibility ought to be framing a more moral international policy that takes account of how it affects the lives and livelihoods of people around the world.
One of our political parties and its candidates have pledge to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, to much acclaim from many of their backers. Surely we—and more importantly the people around the world who watch our process with apprehension—deserve better from Clinton and Sanders?
* A very good explanation of Black Lives Matter for those who think that it means that other lives don’t: “Bob is sitting at the dinner table. Everyone else gets a plate of food except Bob. Bob says ‘Bob deserves food.’ Everyone at the table responds with ‘Everyone deserves food’ and continues eating. Although Everyone Deserves Food is a true statement, it does nothing to rectify the fact that BOB HAS NO FOOD!!”