Yesterday, Louisville, Kentucky’s Metro Council unanimously passed “Breonna’s Law,” banning the type of no-knock warrants that cost Black Louisvillian Breonna Taylor her life. This step was long overdue. Breonna Taylor, shot in her home by intruding, unannounced police officers, was killed in March. It took months of protests for even this limited, obviously reasonable measure to be adopted. The city has paid a high price in the interim: during the last few weeks of protests, at least eight people have been shot, including David McAtee, a Black man killed by authorities in a controversial altercation on June 1. It is a sad commentary on my hometown that so much had to happen for the system to even begin to admit its wrongdoings, let alone correct them.
Situated on the banks of the Ohio River, at the crossroads of the northern and southern United States, Louisville is a unique city in many ways. Nonetheless, it shares with the rest of the country a troubled legacy of racism. The righteous anger expressed in the streets of Louisville – and around the country these past few weeks – demonstrates a truth Washington has long ignored: despite the trillions of dollars spent in the name of national security, despite the stock market peaks, despite the largest GDP in the world, Americans – especially Black Americans – are not safe.
The numbers are clear: in Louisville and the US at large, the security of Black Americans, whether personal, health, or economic, is routinely violated. In Louisville, Black men are ten times more likely to be the victims of homicide than White men, Black women are one hundred times more likely to be killed than White women. In the predominantly Black West End, life expectancy is fifteen years shorter than in the mostly White East End. This disparity has been highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic: despite accounting for only 23% of the population, Black Louisvillians account for 32% of the deaths. Education remains an inadequate remedy for the city’s racial inequality: in the twenty-two years after the Cold War ended, college-educated Black Louisvillians lost 55% of their wealth. White college-educated wealth went up by 86%.
We have funneled money into a national security state that fails to protect Americans, especially Black Americans and other Americans of color, from the security threats that are actually killing them.
The statistics for the US as a whole are just as damning. One out of every one thousand Black men in America can expect to be killed by the police. US counties with above-average Black populations have three times the COVID-19 fatality rate as counties with above-average White populations. Economic inequality across the country parallels the racial inequities of Louisville. In 2016, the average US White household was nearly twelve times wealthier than the average Black household. Indeed, even a Black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than a White household headed by someone with at most a high school degree.
This is not the personal, health, or economic security that Louisvillians or Americans deserve. There are numerous reasons for our current predicament – some of them stretching back four hundred years. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that rather than trying to remedy these pressing inequalities, Washington has instead set its own arbitrary definition of national security, channeling money in that direction.
It is not as though the US lacks the resources to address the grievances expressed in streets across the country this weekend. True, our country’s racial inequities will not be overcome overnight. But when compared to the vast sums freely spent on the $1.9 trillion we spent over the last seventeen years on the Iraq war, the $1.7 trillion we plan to spend on nuclear weapons in the next thirty years, and the $732 billion we spend on spend on defense every year, we have invested far too little on trying to redress ongoing racial injustice.
This is not a new problem. Long before his hometown renamed its airport after him, Muhammad Ali asked “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Had President Johnson understood this point of view, perhaps his Great Society would have achieved its promise. Bereft of political and economic capital due to the war in Vietnam, the Great Society unfortunately fell far short of its potential.
Today, the national security world is tragically following in Johnson’s footsteps. We have continued to sacrifice the security of the most vulnerable Americans for questionable overseas adventurism; we have funneled money into a national security state that fails to protect Americans, especially Black Americans and other Americans of color, from the security threats that are actually killing them. This has not only led to a shortchanging of US citizens, it has also perversely contributed to a post-9/11 militarization of police, making the problem of police accountability even worse. Such national security malpractice has also been noticed and exploited from overseas. One need only look at how Russia preyed on racial divisions to suppress Black turnout in the 2016 elections and is already plotting to incite White nationalist violence ahead of this year’s elections. We can and must do better.
A nation is secure only if the individuals who make up that nation are themselves secure. Breonna Taylor, like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, was not secure. The scale and institutionalization of this insecurity is shocking, as shown by this week’s release of the official Louisville Police incident report of Taylor’s death. Virtually blank, what little information it did include was egregiously dishonest, denying that a forced entry took place, even though the officers used a battering ram to enter the apartment, and listing Taylor’s injuries as “none.” In reality, she was shot eight times.
There are some nascent signs of change. In a break with his past, even Sen. Rand Paul has moved on this issue, releasing legislation this week to ban no-knock warrants on a national level. Such steps inspire hope but they are no excuse for complacency. The coronavirus pandemic, the recent demands for police reform, and the Trump presidency are all forcing us to reassess what it is we as a country are doing. How is it that a country nominally so strong, rich, and forceful can be revealed to be so insecure, divided, and fragile? That reassessment must include redefining national security — for all Americans.
Akshai Vikram is the Roger L. Hale Fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. Ploughshares provides financial support to Inkstick Media.