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Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

The Trump brothers, Eric and Donald Jr., have embarked on a new business venture to open luxury hotels in Mississippi as part of an effort to cash in on the state’s blues music culture. These hotels will be far removed from commercial airports or interstate highways and will be in a majority black, economically depressed area “surrounded by cotton and soybean fields,” according to the Washington Post. To complete this outrageous picture, the hotels will reportedly be designed to resemble an “antebellum plantation.”

Let’s put aside the hubris and audacity of the Trump family to attempt to do business in a majority black area, especially post-Charlottesville. Instead let’s consider this key question: why are plantations still being conceptualized by white America as anything other than centers of black enslavement, torture, rape, murder, and intergenerational trauma? One answer: white supremacy.

Picture Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. Its website advertises it as a “tranquil retreat in the heart of Plantation Country,” offering guests the option to stay in cottages offering “all the creative comforts of your own home.” Many Southern plantations, including Oak Alley, also offer wedding packages for those interested in spending the happiest day of their lives drinking champagne over the graves of families forced into bondage to construct the lavish grounds.

In a promotional video titled “Plantation Parade”—a reference to the route tourists can take to visit four adjacent plantations, including Oak Alley—the narrator begins with a tone of reverence:

“Once upon a time, on the banks of the Mississippi River, a storybook world unfolded. A world of romance and riches, of beauty and struggle. Through toil and dedication arose vast working farms and extravagant mansions that would become the most opulent plantations in North America.”

The video goes on to explore the architectural “majesty” of the four plantations, with a few vaguely negative adjectives like “tragedy” and one reference to “those who were enslaved here” thrown in.

It is appalling that in 2017, the mass human rights violations that created the Black underclass continue to be hidden away under the guise of ornate architecture and visions of fanciful white Southern belles in exquisite gossamer gowns drinking sweet tea in the parlor. But it’s also not surprising in a country where the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is at all controversial, where black people continue to be murdered by police with impunity, and where the KKK and neo-Nazis proudly march in the streets to terrorize communities under a president who declares there are some “good people” among them.

There has been much talk of refusing to continue glamorizing and celebrating the Confederacy with Confederate flags, statues and monuments, many of which were erected post-Civil War in times of high racial tension to buttress white people’s wounded egos. This same dialogue needs to reach the most intimate remaining corners of the Confederacy: the very homes that white enslavers lived in. These are the properties where white people meted out forced labor, torture, sexual violence, and the ripping apart of black families daily.

America was literally built on the backs of enslaved Africans, indigenous tribes forced into death marches, the backbreaking labor of Chinese men who built the railroads, and the colonized people of Hawai’i,Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. White Americans continue to ignore this history, and one of the ways we deny it is through perpetuating an idea of plantations taken from Gone With The Windrather than the actual historical record.

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley wrote for The Root in 2015 on her experiences touring Southern plantations as a black woman. Describing her tour at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, D’Oyley writes, “Every time the tour guide made a sweeping gesture alluding to the grandness of a room, I wondered about the enslaved men and women who were forced to work for free to make such luxuries possible.” She continues:

“As the other visitors, all of them white except for a friend accompanying me, oohed and aahed, I wondered if they were picturing themselves heading back in time and imagining what life would have been like then. As a black girl with a great-grandfather born into slavery, I know how I would have lived: enslaved, considered property, doing backbreaking work for no pay, subjected to the demands of Massa and Missy, and living under the threat of violence at any time.”

At the Magnolia Plantation, D’Oyley reports, touring the slave quarters requires going on a separate tour from the main house, which only four out of about 30 members of her group bothered to take. The white female docent referred to the quarters as “duplexes” and gushed about how well-treated the enslaved black families were. At the Hermann-Grima House in the French Quarter of New Orleans, another white docent referred to enslaved people mostly as “dependencies” and “domestic workers.” She admitted, according to D’Oyley, that “the current owners of the home don’t really like the docents to talk about slavery.”

What are we teaching our children when they visit these plantations on school trips? At the Latta Plantation in Huntersville, North Carolina, one of the many educational programs offered to students is the “Civil War Soldier’s Life,” which offers a viewpoint “that neither favors nor discredits” the Union or Confederate sides. What lessons do white students take away in an environment that essentially refuses to “take a side” on human bondage, rape, torture, and murder, and how are black students supposed to process such a field trip?

As D’Oyley writes, “There’s been a failure not just in what white Americans are taught about slavery but in what African Americans learn, too. That’s not by accident.”

Plantations weren’t “storybook worlds” for black people; they were living nightmares and centers for generating the intergenerational white hoarding of stolen labor and riches that continues to manifest today as the racial wealth gap. To ignore this fact, and to set up these historical sites like adorable boutique hotels is to desecrate the memories of the millions whose lives and humanity were sacrificed in the name of white profit.

So what should happen to these plantations? One answer can be found in the work of the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, less than 10 miles from Oak Alley.

The Whitney Plantation’s website advertises it as the “only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery” and “a site of memory and consciousness…meant to pay homage to all slaves on the plantation itself and to all of those who lived elsewhere in the US South.” Some of the highlights include the Wall of Honor, a memorial wall with names and other documented information about each person enslaved on the property; the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a memorial with 216 granite slabs inscribed with the 107,000 names of enslaved people in Louisiana as recorded in the Louisiana Slave Database; and the Field of Angels and Children of Whitney statues, dedicated to the memory of enslaved children.

Educating and working to ameliorate the centuries-long repercussions and legacy of slavery for black Americans should be the central reason for preserving plantations, not for enabling fantasies of white women wearing dainty lace gloves. If plantations are to be operated for the public, let them be museums of the horror of American history and how that history has set the stage for the present. Let the slave quarters be highlighted on tours instead of treated as an uncomfortable footnote. And may any proceeds that exceed the maintenance of the grounds and payment of staff be put back into supporting the local black economy, such as through donations to black non-profits, as one humble step toward reparations.

Now is the time to build on the momentum of the recent gains made by boldly pushing back on our white-washed legacy of racist terror. Only by confronting our demons will we craft a future worth celebrating.

Shannon Weber is a New England-based writer, researcher and editor whose work has appeared venues from Teen Vogue and Patheos to international sexuality studies journals. She is a former professor of women’s and gender studies and has taught at Tufts University, Brandeis University, Northeastern University, UC Santa Barbara, and Wellesley College. 

 

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Think of it as a war system that's been coming home for years. The murder of George Floyd has finally shone a spotlight on the need to defund local police departments and find alternatives that provide more genuine safety and security. The same sort of spotlight needs soon to be shone on the American military machine and the wildly well-funded damage it's been doing for almost 19 years across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

Distorted funding priorities aren't the only driving force behind police violence against communities of color, but shifting such resources away from policing and to areas like jobs, education, housing, and restorative justice could be an important part of the solution. And any effort to boost spending on social programs should include massive cuts to the Pentagon's bloated budget. In short, it's time to defund our wars, both at home and abroad.


In most states and localities, spending on police and prisons outweighs what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once described as "programs of social uplift." The numbers are staggering. In some jurisdictions, police alone can account for up to 40 percent of local budgets, leaving little room for other priorities. In New York City, for instance, funding the police department's operations and compensation costs more than $10 billion yearly -- more, that is, than the federal government spends on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, more than $100 billion annually goes into policing.

Now, add to that another figure: what it costs to hold roughly two million (yes 2,000,000!) Americans in prisons and jails -- roughly $120 billion a year. Like policing, in other words, incarceration is big business in this country in 2020. After all, prison populations have grown by nearly 700 percent since 1972, driven in significant part by the "war on drugs," a so-called war that has disproportionately targeted people of color.

The Elephant in the Room: Pentagon Spending
In addition to the police and prisons, the other major source of American militarized spending is, of course, the Pentagon. That department, along with related activities like nuclear weapons funding at the Department of Energy, now gobbles up at least $750 billion per year. That's more than the military budgets of the next 10 countries combined.

Just as prisons and policing consume a startling proportion of state and local budgets, the Pentagon accounts for more than half of the federal government's discretionary budget and that includes most government functions other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As Ashik Siddique of the National Priorities Project has noted, the Trump administration's latest budget proposal "prioritizes brute force and militarization over diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to pressing societal crises" in a particularly striking way. "Just about every non-militarized department funded by the discretionary budget," he adds, "is on the chopping block, including all those that focus on reducing poverty and meeting human needs like education, housing, labor, health, energy, and transportation."

Spending on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the deportation of immigrants through agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Customs and Border Protection totals another $24 billion annually. That puts U.S. spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon at nearly $1 trillion per year and that doesn't even include the soaring budgets of other parts of the American national security state like the Department of Homeland Security ($92 billion) and the Veterans Administration ($243 billion -- a cost of past wars). Back in May 2019, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight and I had already estimated that the full national security budget, including the Pentagon, was approximately $1.25 trillion a year and that estimate, of course, didn't even include the police and the prison system!

Another way of looking at the problem is to focus on just how much of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and other militarized activities, including federal prisons, immigration enforcement, and veterans benefits. An analysis by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies puts this figure at $887 billion, or more than 64 percent of the federal discretionary budget including public health, education, environmental protection, job training, energy development, housing, transportation, scientific research, and more.

Making the Connection: The 1033 Program
Ever since images of the police deploying armored vehicles against peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, hit the national airwaves in 2014, the Pentagon's program for supplying "surplus" military equipment to local police departments has been a news item. It's also gotten intermittent attention in Congress and the Executive Branch.

Since 1997, the Pentagon's 1033 Program, as it's called, has channeled to 8,000 separate law enforcement agencies more than $7.4 billion in surplus equipment, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles of the kind used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers, and night-vision devices. As Brian Barrett has pointed out at Wired, "Local law enforcement responding to even nonviolent protests has often looked more like the U.S. Armed Forces." Political scientist Ryan Welch co-authored a 2017 study suggesting, when it came to police departments equipped in such a fashion, "that officers with military hardware and mindsets will resort to violence more often and more quickly."

Under the circumstances and given who's providing the equipment, you won't be surprised to learn that the 1033 program also suffers from lax oversight. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) created a fake law enforcement agency and was able to acquire $1.2 million worth of equipment through the program, including night-vision goggles and simulated M-16A2 rifles. The request was approved within a week of the GAO's application.

The Obama administration finally implemented some reforms in the wake of Ferguson, banning the transfer of tracked vehicles, grenade launchers, and weaponized aircraft, among other things, while requiring police departments to supply more detailed rationales describing their need for specific equipment. But such modest efforts -- and they proved modest indeed – were promptly chucked out when Donald Trump took office. And the Trump administration changes quickly had a discernible effect. In 2019, the 1033 program had one of its biggest years ever, with about 15,750 military items transferred to law enforcement, a figure exceeded only in 2012, in the Obama years, when 17,000 such items were distributed.

As noted, the mere possession of military equipment has been shown to stoke the ever stronger "warrior culture" that now characterizes so many police departments, as evidenced by the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams armed with military weaponry for routine drug enforcement activities. It's hardly just SWAT teams, though. The weaponry and related items provided under the 1033 program are widely employed by ordinary police forces. NBC News, for instance, reported that armored vehicles were used at least 29 times in response to Black Lives Matter protests organized since the murder of George Floyd, including in major urban areas like Philadelphia and Cincinnati. NBC has also determined that more than 1,100 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies under the MRAP program, going to communities large and small, including Sanford, Maine, population 20,000, and Moundsville, West Virginia, population 8,400.

A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has similarly documented the use of Pentagon-supplied equipment in no-knock home invasions, including driving up to people's houses in just such armored vehicles to launch the raids. The ACLU concluded that "the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers]."

Who Benefits?
Companies in the military-industrial complex earn billions of dollars selling weapons, as well as building and operating prisons and detention facilities, and supplying the police, while theoretically dealing with problems with deep social and economic roots. Generally speaking, by the time they're done, those problems have only become deeper and more rooted. Take, for example, giant weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon that profit so splendidly from the sales of weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, weaponry that, in turn, has been used to kill tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, destroy civilian infrastructure there, and block the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance. The result: more than 100,000 deaths in that country and millions more on the brink of famine and disease, including Covid-19.

Such major weapons firms have also been at the front of the line when it comes to benefiting from America's endless post-9/11 wars. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States has spent over $6.4 trillion on just some of those overseas conflicts since 2001. Hundreds of billions of those dollars ended up in the pockets of defense contractors, while problems in the U.S., left far less well funded, only grew.

And by the way, the Pentagon's regular budget, combined with direct spending on wars, also manages to provide huge benefits to such weapons makers. Almost half of the department's $750 billion budget goes to them. According to the Federal Procurement Data System's latest report on the top recipients of government contracts, the five largest U.S. arms makers alone -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics -- split well over $100 billion in Pentagon awards among them in 2019. Meanwhile, those same five firms pay their CEOs a total of approximately $100 million per year, with hundreds of millions more going to other top executives and board members.

Meanwhile, in the Trump years, the militarization of the border has become a particularly lucrative business opportunity, with General Atomics, for instance, supplying ever more surveillance drones and General Dynamics supplying an ever more intricate and expensive remote sensor surveillance system. There are also millions to be made running privatized prisons and immigrant detention centers, filling the coffers of firms like CoreCivic and the GEO Group, which have secured record profits in recent years while garnering about half their revenues from those two sources.

Last but not least is the market for even more police equipment. Local forces benefit from grants from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a wide range of items to supplement the Pentagon's 1033 program.

The True Bottom Line
Much has been written about America's failed post-9/11 wars, which have cost trillions of dollars in taxpayer treasure, hundreds of thousands of lives (American and otherwise), and physical and psychological injuries to hundreds of thousands more. They have also propped up sectarian and corrupt regimes that have actually made it easier for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to form and spread. Think of it as the ultimate boomerang effect, in which violence begets more violence, while allowing overseas terrorist organizations to thrive. As journalist Nick Turse has noted with respect to the militarization of U.S. Africa policy, the growth in American military operations on that continent has proceeded rather strikingly in conjunction with a proliferation of new terrorist groups. Put the best light on them and U.S. counterterror operations there have been ineffective. More likely, they have simply helped spawn further increases in terrorist activities in the region.

All of this has, in turn, been an ongoing disaster for underfunded domestic programs that would actually help ordinary Americans rather than squander their tax dollars on what passes for, but obviously isn't, "national defense." In the era of Covid-19, climate change, and an increased focus on longstanding structural racism and anti-black violence, a new approach to "security" is desperately needed, one that privileges not yet more bombs, guns, militarized police forces, and aircraft carriers but public health, environmental protection, and much-needed programs for quality jobs and education in underserved communities.

On the domestic front, particularly in communities of color, police are more often seen as an occupying force than a source of protection (and ever since the 1033 program was initiated, they've looked ever more like such a force as well). This has led to calls for defunding the police and seeking other means of providing public safety, including, minimally, not sending police to deal with petty drug offenses, domestic disputes, and problems caused by individuals with mental-health issues. Organizations like the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block have put forward proposals for crisis response by institutions other than the police and for community-based programs for resolving disputes and promoting restorative justice.

Shifting Priorities
Sharp reductions in spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon could free up hundreds of billions of dollars for programs that might begin to fill the gap in spending on public investments in communities of color and elsewhere.

Organizations like the Movement for Black Lives and the Poor People's Campaign are already demanding these kinds of changes. In its moral budget, a comprehensive proposal for redirecting America's resources toward addressing poverty and away from war, racism, and ecological destruction, the Poor People's Campaign calls for a $350 billion annual cut in Pentagon spending -- almost half of current levels. Likewise, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives suggested a 50 percent reduction in Pentagon outlays. And a new youth anti-militarist movement, Dissenters, has called for defunding the armed forces as well as the police.

Ultimately, safety for all Americans will depend on more than just a shift of funding or a reduction in police armaments. After all, George Floyd and Eric Garner -- just two of the long list of black Americans to die at the hands of the police -- were killed not with high-tech weapons, but with a knee to the throat and a fatal chokehold. Shifting funds from the police to social services, dismantling police forces as they now exist, and creating new institutions to protect communities should be an essential part of any solution in the aftermath of Donald Trump's presidency. Similarly, investments in diplomacy, economic assistance, and cultural exchange would be needed in order to help rein in the American war machine which, of course, has been attended to in ways nothing else, from health care to schooling to infrastructure, has been in this century. When it comes to both the police and the Pentagon, the sooner change arrives the better off we'll all be. It's long past time to defund America's wars, both abroad and at home.


William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Copyright 2020 William D. Hartung