On War, Imperialism, and Racism

*This is a transcript of a speech prepared by historian Russell Rickford for a protest against Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s scheduled visit to Cornell University on March 21, 2018. Cheney’s trip was postponed due to inclement weather. Organizers plan to protest whenever he arrives on campus.


U.S. Soldiers on Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Iraq, Dec. 8, 2009 (Wikimedia Commons/DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eileen Kelly Fors, U.S. Navy).

I am tired. Bone tired. They just murdered another unarmed Black man, gunned him down in his grandmother’s yard in Sacramento. This was shortly after Marielle Franco, a queer black activist, was killed in Brazil, and a maniac in Austin, Texas, began blowing up Black people.

Meanwhile, Israel is deporting Black folk and Libya is literally selling African immigrants as slaves. And now, amid all this wretchedness, Dick Cheney comes to town.

The College Republicans knew exactly what they were doing bringing this war criminal to our doorstep as we mark the 15th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq and the 50th anniversary of the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. We can only conclude that these young people wished to demonstrate publicly their contempt for humanity.

So here we are. Because Americans, as a rule, have very short memories, allow me to recount the crimes of Cheney and the other demons who led us into the inferno of endless war.

They lied about weapons of mass destruction, crafting a propaganda campaign on a mountain of deceit.

They launched an illegal invasion and military occupation opposed by virtually the entire world.

They slaughtered civilians, plundered oil reserves, and shattered a beautiful and ancient civilization.

They engineered a “Global War on Terror” that ravaged the planet, engendered ISIS, and spawned a flood of proxy wars, sectarian violence, and refugees.

They spent trillions of dollars, profiting handsomely (Cheney’s own Halliburton made $39.5 billion from the Iraq War) while demolishing the social contract, gutting public programs, and shredding civil liberties here at home.

They inflated an already bloated military complex, saddling us with an imperial presidency, an executive branch endowed with the power and machinery to wage permanent war in multiple territories with practically no oversight from Congress or the American people.

They left behind a charred husk of a democracy, a nation driven by an insatiable appetite for oil and conquest.

Cheney’s presence here today, obscene though it may be, offers a timely reminder that the U.S. is currently at war in seven countries, and is carrying out military operations in several more.

How do we comprehend that bizarre reality? What does it mean to live in the belly of the beast, if you possess a conscience and are more or less awake? It means, as James Baldwin noted, to live in perpetual rage. It means, as well, that you have a sacred responsibility: you must fight empire at home.

You know, a rather dispiriting conversation unfolded among some of the good liberals of Cornell in the days before this protest. Many were obsessed with the propriety of the activities being planned by students. Was Cheney going to get a chance to speak? Were students going to be respectful? Were they going to be considerate? Were they going to be polite? The discussion went on and on, revealing our timidity and quiescence.

You see, here in the academy we worship decorum. We revere civility. And we promote it with all the eloquence and piety we can muster. But hardly anyone is willing to oppose war. Or imperialism. Or racism.

We are so worried about Cheney’s rights. What about the rights of the 150,000 children his death machine annihilated in Iraq? What about the one million-plus civilians? Who will speak for them?

What hypocrites we are! None of our respectability or free speech absolutism ever saved a single victim of empire. We pontificate and deliberate and temporize. Yet in the end, we defend no one but the powerful.

How foolish we are to believe we are not directly implicated in America’s assault on humanity! Foolish, indeed, when it is agonizingly clear that perpetual war compounds the vilest tendencies in our society.

The trauma experienced by people of color at the hands of killer cops is inseparable from the relentless destruction of brown bodies in the name of the War on Terror. The proliferation of torture and detention regimes—from Abu Ghraib to CIA black sites—is linked to a domestic prison colossus predicated on the disposability of nonwhite people.

War accelerates environmental devastation, deepens our dependency on fossil fuels, and strengthens the corporate stranglehold on foreign policy and domestic affairs. It intensifies misogyny, white supremacy, and xenophobia. It breeds structures of surveillance, repression, and insecurity. And, inevitably, it generates more and more carnage.

As we “march for our lives,” desperate to shield our children from the next psychopath with a gun, we would do well to consider the breathtaking violence our government unleashes on poor countries every day. As has been said before, bombs dropped overseas fall on our heads.

Yet here at Cornell we are too refined to raise our voices. Too polished. We may organize a panel or deliver a lecture. But we never dissent. We contemplate and theorize. But we never, ever act.

I am afraid, young people, that we have left you no choice: You must shame us! Defy us. Confront the petty bureaucrats and the guardians of the status quo. It is too late for us. For God’s sake, save yourselves.

Struggle with all your heart. Resist with everything you’ve got. Fight like your life, like your unborn children’s lives, like the habitability of the planet, depend on it. Agitate! Disrupt! Rebel!

You know as well as I do that the whole system is rotten. It’s not just the Republicans. It’s the Democrats. It’s not just the conservatives. It’s the liberals. It’s not just the politicians. It’s your parents. Your professors. Whether we are active conspirators or passive spectators, we are all complicit. We have constructed a morbid culture of individualism and materialism. And our cruelty and greed echo throughout the world.

So defy us. Defeat us. Do what you have to do. Smash racism, patriarchy, and Islamophobia. Crush the war machine. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t seek approval. You have the right; the authority.

You don’t need expertise. You don’t need sophistication or a fancy vocabulary. All you need is will. Resolve. Belief. And that most revolutionary trait: Love. Love for the masses. Love for the oppressed.

I know you’re scared. I am, too. But I am not going to quit. I hate war, imperialism, and racism. And I’ll never stop fighting for justice. And you know what? I’m not alone. There are more of us than they are of them. We, the workers and immigrants and prisoners and refugees. We, the despised and dispossessed and exploited and occupied.

Truth is, they fear us. They can bomb. They can shoot. They can imprison. But they cannot defeat us. In the end the fascists will lose. And they know it!

So take heart! It is a beautiful struggle. It is a long and difficult one, too. As they say in the African American tradition, “Children, don’t get weary. Don’t you get weary. Don’t get weary ‘til your work is done.”

Thank you. Bless you. Free Palestine!

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Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of 'We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.' A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Comments on “On War, Imperialism, and Racism

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    Outstanding article and commentary which quite aptly describes our hopelessness. Especially the 2 party monopoly which guardians of the status quo insist you wear like a straight-jacket and after 100 years has brought nothing but division and acrimony as the country’s sad inheritance. A living trust that has a guaranteed return of ‘nothing’ save for talking point and rhetoric.

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    You make me cry good tears. #NeverAgain

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