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The billions for a more just, less racist America are hiding in plain sight at the Pentagon

You couldn’t blame the legions of marchers who’ve taken over some of America’s streets this past month in the name of justice for George Floyd for wondering which army they were fighting. Many protests have been met with weapons of warfare — with choking tear gas (actually, the UN doesn’t even allow that in war!), sharpshooters taking out eyes with rubber bullets, or cops tossing grenades that go flash and bang, occasionally with an armored personnel carrier as a scenic backdrop.

To protesters, the massive response by helmeted robocops is proving their point that America spends too much on policing, and it does! $115 billion a year to be exact. But what if the problem with “militarized police” isn’t only the police but the “militarized” part?...a sickness that manifests itself in warrior cops at home but also drone strikes in an endless U.S. “forever war” overseas.

What if the money to pay for all the social programs that our over-policed cities really need — to hire school nurses and buy new textbooks, and recruit a new kind of army of social workers and drug counselors — isn’t only supporting your local police, but hiding in plain sight on the left bank of the Potomac River?

Defund the police? Sure. But real men (and women) defund the Pentagon.

“Our security investments have been in too many of the wrong places,” Matt Duss, the top foreign-policy advisor to former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, told me this week, in what could arguably be called an understatement. “We’ve need to have a serious conversation about reducing the defense budget.”

Do we ever! The current Pentagon annual budget of $736 billion is larger than military spending by the next 10 biggest nations — count ‘em, 10, and we’re talking about places like China, Russia and India — combined. (For the curious, only China’s military spends more than that $115 billion America spends just on cops.) Yet somehow, no political leaders from either party ever ask how taxpayers could possibly afford the $1.5 trillion (yes, with a “t”) that’s gone down a sinkhole for the Pentagon’s underwhelming F-35 stealth jet, even as your coronavirus nurse works the ICU wearing a Hefty bag.

The weird part of this, though, is the way that congressional Democrats — who once could be counted on to at least pay lip service to curbing the military-industrial complex — have thrown in the towel on defense cuts in the Trump era. When Democrats re-took control of the House in 2019, their $733 billion proposal for the Pentagon was only a tad smaller than President Trump’s bloated plan.

“Members of Congress are very concerned about being cast as ‘weak on defense,‘” Duss told me — a problem that’s become deeply rooted in the so-called “war on terror” era, post 9/11. There’s other issues — America’s politically wired allies in the Middle East and elsewhere pushing for a U.S. military presence, and defense jobs scattered across so many congressional districts.

Despite all these roadblocks, Congress, led by Duss’ boss, Vermont’s Sanders, last year turned heads with an unprecedented vote to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — thwarted, of course, by a Trump veto. Now, in a George Floyd moment where radical change seems possible, Sanders is pushing an amendment to immediate cut defense spending by 10 percent to funnel more than $70 billion into anti-poverty programs.

Currently the most ambitious dreamer among the defund-the-Pentagon crowd is California Rep. Barbara Lee, the only House member to cast a “no” vote on authorizing the anti-terror war in 2001. Her resolution aims to cut U.S. defense spending roughly in half — some $350 million — which would include canceling Trump’s Space Force (the real one, not the badly reviewed TV show) and getting rid of a majority of America’s global archipelago of military bases. Can’t afford it? With a deep economic recession and pressing social needs, can we afford not to?

Taking on the military-industrial complex isn’t a distraction from the demands on the street for racial justice; rather, it cuts to the core of the problem. Whether armed men are firing tear gas into Lafayette Square or Predator drones into weddings in Afghanistan, the amount of money that America spends on suppressing, attacking and killing human beings is obscene. And there’s a new generation, with a new explanation, that’s figuring this out.