April 12, 2011

Speech by Chuck Kaufman at opening plenary of 2011 Latin America Solidarity Conference

The following speech was given by Chuck Kaufman during the opening plenary of the 2011 Latin America Solidarity Conference in Washington, DC. Kaufman is the national coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice. This speech does an excellent job of putting the Committee to Stop FBI Repression case into a context of the Latin America solidarity movement and in the context of repression in the United States. For more information about the Latin America Solidarity Conference, please visit http://www.lasolidarity.org

We are convening this conference tonight to build a stronger movement to end US militarism and the militarization of relations with Latin America. It is the culmination of a lot of people’s work and a year-long process. The first step was a Peoples Movement Assembly at the US Social Forum in Detroit last June. The second, a one-day organizers’ conference in Columbus, GA prior to the SOA Watch vigil last November. For the next two days we’ll be building on those meetings, learning, teaching, strategizing and analyzing what we need to do to build a movement that will challenge the very culture of militarism which holds this country in thrall. A culture which makes the United States the greatest threat to peace in the world and which threatens the advancement of democracy and justice in Latin America.

Our work has begun to pay off. This conference has 82 co-sponsoring groups, more than any Latin America Solidarity Conference over the past 10 years. We have an excellent line-up of plenary speakers and an array of workshops that leaves me saying, “How can I pick just one per session?”  But lots of conferences have great speakers and outstanding workshops. We go to them — learn a lot – and then what?  We go home and life goes on.

Let us vow not to let this be just another conference. Let us vow to make linkages here that will last beyond Sunday afternoon. Let us vow to come out of Sunday’s sector caucus meetings with strategies to work together into the future to grow the movement within our institutions of faith, within the labor movement, within academia and among youth and students, among veterans and women from which arise so many of our leaders, and on and on. Let us vow that this is not just a conference but rather a peoples’ assembly from which we will go out – like our courageous sisters and brothers in Honduras – to re-found our nation.

Because our nation needs to be re-founded. Our political system has been corrupted beyond redemption by the economic power of the corporations. We do not have a democracy; we have a corptacracy. Our social contract has been shredded. We need liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor in our own country. Our literacy rate is lower than that of Nicaragua. Our health care system inferior to that of Cuba. Our education system produces people without the ability to think critically and our news and entertainment industries fill their heads with lies and fears that give birth to proto-fascist groups like the tea party.

Only in the area of force do we excel. Our nation’s wealth is squandered on a military grown far beyond any rational need for defense of our territory. We spend as much on our killing machine each year as the entire rest of the world combined. Congressman Barney Frank, who is calling for an immediate 25% reduction in military spending wrote in the Huffington Post,

“For decades, the subject of military expenditures has been glaringly absent from public debate. Yet the Pentagon budget for 2010 is $693 billion — more than all other discretionary spending programs combined. Even subtracting the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military spending still amounts to over 42% of total spending. It is irrefutably clear to us that if we do not make substantial cuts in the projected levels of Pentagon spending, we will do substantial damage to our economy and dramatically reduce our quality of life.”

We have already done substantial damage to our economy. The richest 140 Americans control as much wealth as the 150 million poorest. This generation of youth is the first in our history which can expect real income lower than their parents.

Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1960 farewell speech, gave us fair warning. He said:

 “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

And yet we have let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties and democratic processes in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. We are clearly NOT as free today as we were before.  First it was the Muslims in our midst whose Constitutional rights were trampled. Now it is immigrants – especially the Mexican migrants. And most recently it is those of us in this room – we who disagree with our government’s foreign policies.

On Sept. 24, as I’m sure most of you know, the FBI raided anti-war activists’ homes and offices in Chicago and Minneapolis.  A Grand Jury is considering absurd criminal charges of material support to terrorists for their work on behalf of peace in Colombia and Palestine.  One of the victims of the FBI witch hunt will be speaking tomorrow night at the concert and there is a workshop on the subject that I would commend to you. They are not alone. All of us are at risk due to this effort to criminalize speech and thought.

In January 2010, when returning from a delegation investigating UN stabilization force’s human rights violations in Haiti, just before the earthquake, I was taken into custody by Homeland Security in New York and my co-worker James Jordan was taken off his plane in Ft. Lauderdale. We were each held and questioned for four hours, our papers copied, our cell phone contacts recorded.

Our rights have been seriously eroded here in the United States.

In the 1980s, we matched dollar for dollar Congressional appropriations for the US-directed and funded Contra War against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. We matched that war money by sending material aid, by building schools and houses, by picking coffee and cotton. I’m sure many of you in this room contributed to that effort.

Now imagine if we tried to do the same thing today for the people of Afghanistan. How long would it be before our bank accounts were frozen and we ourselves were put in prison for a long time?  Had you told me in 1987 that I would have fewer freedoms under the first African American president than I did under Ronald Reagan, I would have laughed.

Well, I’m not laughing.  The United States of America has lost its soul, and it is up to you and me to re-found our nation. Sure the forces arrayed against us are formidable.  We need to change our very culture of militarism and savage capitalism. But cultures can be changed. Let us look for our inspiration to the Abolition Movement. Who today can even imagine that the system of chattel slavery was once the law of the land defended from the pulpit to the newspapers to the schools. The fact that slavery is unimaginable today is because the Abolition Movement didn’t give up in the face of overwhelming odds. It persisted until it changed the very culture of its day.

The abolition movement had its Nat Turners, Harriet Tubmans, John Browns and William Lloyd Garrisons and thousands whose names we do not know. Well we have our Bradley Mannings, Cindy Sheehans, Roy Bourgeois, Amy Goodmans and Meredith Abys.

And we have thousands more like those of us in this room. But sometimes we seek excuses for why we cannot win.  Can you imagine John Brown saying, “Well, ending slavery isn’t on the Congressional agenda this year. We’ll just have to work to elect more Republicans.”

Can you imagine Harriet Tubman deciding that leading slaves to freedom wasn’t addressing the root causes of slavery, so she’ll pray for them instead?

Can you imagine William Lloyd Garrison saying, “Okay, I’ve written my annual editorial against slavery, now let’s cover what people really want to know — Sam Houston is marrying a woman 17 years younger than himself!”

Or Nat Turner saying, “Well, maybe things will be better for our children. In the meantime we just have to accept what is. I’m just one guy, what can I do?”

We can’t imagine any of those things because those heroes knew what was the most important injustice of their day, and they were resolute in confronting it….

Let history look back on us the same way as we look back on the abolitionists.

I want to pause for just a second and call out a presente for two of our heroes who we lost in the past year. Rev. Lucius Walker of Pastors for Peace from whom I learned that you never back down from injustice; and Fr. Bill Callahan from the Quixote Center/Quest for Peace from whom I leaned what he called bold dreaming. Please join me: Lucius Walker and Bill Callahan, Presente! Presente! Presente!

I am calling on you and on this conference to declare a Culture War against US militarism. I am calling on us to say, “We will not allow you to make us afraid. We will not allow you to desensitize us to violence through the entertainment industry. We will not allow you to spend the blood of our youth and our indentured immigrants in foreign wars for corporate profit. We will not allow you to short-change us by spending our wealth on the military instead of education, health, and as the indigenous call it, “living well.”  

We will spend our lives, our health, and our sacred honor to liberate ourselves from the culture of death and greed. We will especially stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Latin America and the world who seek to liberate themselves from our military imperialism and corporate exploitation. We will go forth from this conference and build a movement that will change our culture and re-found our nation.

Thank you.