Rose Brewer, PhD, is an activist-scholar specializing in political economy, social movements, and studies in Africa and the African diaspora. She is a professor of African-American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, where she is the Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor and previous chairperson of the Department of African American and African Studies.
Professor Brewer was interviewed by Science for the People on October 20, 2022 for her work with the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP), a revolutionary organization that seeks to recapture and redevelop the historic antiwar, anti-imperialist, and pro-peace positions of the radical Black movement.1 Through community organizing, movement support, and political education, BAP confronts and subverts U.S. militarized repression at home and permanent war agenda abroad.
SftP: Can you tell us about the work you do around resistance against militarism and United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) through the Black Alliance for Peace?2
Brewer: Black Alliance for Peace is just a little bit over five years old, and the AFRICOM initiative is one of the most sturdy and significant pieces of work done by BAP. The idea of having military bases on the continent has really gathered steam since the Bush administration, and from the idea that was presented by the Defense Department in 2007.3 It didn’t really get catalyzed until 2008. There’s always been, or for quite a while, pushback against having those bases by the countries on the continent. More recently under the mantra of “fighting the war on poverty,” more and more of the African countries have allowed military bases to come in. Our work in BAP has really been a tremendous pushback against this for a number of reasons. BAP is an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial formation, concerned with the persistence of the neocolonial realities of not only Africa, but other parts of the world, and indeed on the tremendous negative impact by the U.S. empire and its alliance with what we call “comprador class”—the governing structures of those societies. Basically that means the [African] elites who are in relationship with the Defense Department for those bases. Their public message is to provide “military training” to those various nations on the continent for protection to “secure democracy.” But of course none of that has really happened.
SftP: What are the roles of science and technology, including social science, in neocolonialism and militarism on the African continent?
Brewer: I really had to sit with that, because it’s very significant in a lot of ways. I want to generate a longer history, because this has been a very significant aspect of militarism in this country for quite a while. We have members who say from the very first time that Africans were stolen, militarism played a significant role. If we fast forward to the Imperialist World Wars and the post-World War II period, this really ratcheted up quite a bit in relation to the question that you’re asking. The RAND Corporation was put into effect in 1948 and they recruited both natural sciences and social sciences into their think tank. A lot of that conversation was around nuclear arms, and the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in that post–World War II period—the beginning of the Cold War. Another key arena was around 1956 when American University created something called the Special Operations Research Office, and they got money from the Defense Department. Here you really did see quite a number of political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists in relationship to military experts. Again, it’s the Cold War—the tension around communism and so-called democracy—and they brought the social scientists in to look at the nature of communism, political organizations, mobilizations, and the nature of social change.
However, it’s my understanding that the American War in Vietnam led to a level of critique against social scientists being involved in research funded by the Defense Department for military purposes. But it’s never gone away, and we can fast forward to the current period. A lot of the military funding that flows into the academy goes to political science. There’s always been a big coterie of engineers, physicists, and the natural sciences that have always gotten a lot of funding from the Defense Department, given the interest in weapons. But there’s also this social science aspect of it, which really looks at the human component of war and militarism. And international relations (IR) studies have also received quite a bit of funding from the Defense Department. We’re talking about millions of dollars and social scientists who get big grants of more than a million dollars to do research and writing. So there’s definitely an interplay and intermeshing between these scholarly entities. I call it the corporate university, to place more emphasis on the relationship between the security state and the university. They’re reading everything we’re reading, and more. That’s the logic, or illogic, of how they move.
We think of war through the technical aspect of it: the machinery, the bombs. But war is not simply this. There is a sociology: practitioners, generals, decision-making entities. Who are they? How do they move?
But there was pushback by the late 1960s, because everything was blowing up here from the Black Power movement to resistance on college campuses, and to the pushback against universities who capitalize on defense funding. As a matter of fact, down the road from me, there was an explosion that was at the University of Wisconsin–Madison regarding this very matter,4 as well as the pushback to eliminate the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). As a matter of fact, as I was getting into this whole issue of the corporate university, even more funding has been funneled into the sciences without a set of critical questions. What are we doing carrying out this research for the military? And of course there are people who push back. But the corporate university looks a lot like corporations in the twenty-first century with a top-down strategy where elites really push a particular agenda. The humanistic areas have really been given short shift, like ethnic studies. So the academy reflects a lot about what this society represents as it carries out the needs and interests of the war machine. And the budgets that could go to human needs are not going there.
SftP: What has been done with all of this war research produced from the academy? How has it been used?
Brewer: It’s published. It was produced as materials for those think tanks. We think of war, or how the media looks at it, [through] simply the technical aspect of it: the machinery, the bombs, the actual folks who are fighting. But war is not simply this. There is a psychology. There is a sociology that practitioners, generals, those decision-making entities are drawing upon to understand what is the nature of the sites. Who are the people? How do they move? So they’re using this material in a very harsh and nefarious way, but it isn’t as much hand-in-glove as the use of the military equipment. And it doesn’t get as much attention.
So that’s a social science question, but it’s being deployed as a security question and as a U.S.-interest question, in terms of that interrelationship among the social psychology, the social science of it, and the hardware aspect.
SftP: Does AFRICOM play a role in this story, and specifically on how science and technology is leveraged for military purposes?
Brewer: We haven’t really explored that as much as we’ve looked at the number of coups that have happened on the continent—two in Burkina Faso in 2022 alone. These are often fighters who have been trained by AFRICOM. It also trains militaries in Africa, to the extent that the various nations don’t have their independent military anymore in most instances. So they’re selecting out potential military commanders, leaders, and using the tools of the U.S. military to position them in relation to the interests of the United States. Mali, for example, has gold and other tremendous resources that are needed and utilized in other parts of the world, but especially in terms of the mining interest of the United States. The political economy of militarism on the African continent has everything to do with the resources that the multinational corporations depend on. A disproportionate number of them, of course, are seeded here in the United States. So it’s that convergence of politically understanding the economic terrain on which AFRICOM is seated and understanding the political dynamics in those places.
SftP: Would you say that the use of science and technology for neocolonialism and militarism is inevitable?
Brewer: Let me put that in a slightly different context. Inevitability, in the sense that time, place, and condition has situated the most capitalist society in the world (which is the United States) to articulate its own full-spectrum dominance—that is, it being the leading force in the world—while the majority of the world is pushing for multi-polarity. And when the Second World War (the Second Imperialist War) ended, the United States was the leading force. The complexity of where we are now means that in order for this empire to continue what we call its full-scale dominance, the status-quo of science and technology are necessary. [But] if we have a world that is catalyzed toward peace, that’s a different kind of question. So I’m making a distinction. If we are holding onto our position of dominance, then yes: science and militarism will be convergent. If we are fighting and resisting, and articulating a vision where the possibility of peace, the disarmament of nuclear arms, the possibility of the people and the planet living in good relationships, then no: they are not an inevitability, though it requires particular political demands.
SftP: Is there a relationship between how science and technology are used for domestic repression in the United States versus how they are used for warring abroad?
Brewer: BAP makes that connection between here and across the world. There’s the 1033 program where military hardware can be acquired by police departments and are used predominantly against communities of color.5 For example, here in Minneapolis, the city is debating a proposal by the police department to employ drones for policing.6 I live in the city where the George Floyd murder happened, and all that military hardware was out in full effect. The militaristic training of the police is comparable. As a matter of fact, you remember the warrior training that Derek Chauvin received, using the knee on the neck.
You can’t deal with domestic issues in isolation. They are inextricably linked to the global questions.
This is also not disconnected with what’s happening on the African continent. The defense budget in this country is tremendous, and the extent to which these resources are deployed is just beyond the pale, and that connection between police departments and the military has been solidified even more deeply. So, 1033 allowed that to happen.
SftP: What would a science that’s leveraged for anti-imperialist struggle look like?
Brewer: Science for the people! That’s what it would look like. The idea of science for the good of humanity, which does not deploy resources to exploit and expropriate. To build a just and fair world, and use information, knowledge, and expertise to that end.
We’re in a tremendous period of climate catastrophe. Hundreds of scientists signed a document just a few weeks ago saying that we cannot continue the way we are. The planet is on fire. Here, scientists can leverage their position for the social good, for peace. Like technology–what is it used for? Who controls it? In whose interests? Those are the questions that I think matter and move us toward the kind of science for the people that you all are lifting up.
SftP: Do you see ways in which communities living throughout Africa have done what you’re saying—reclaiming science for anti-imperialist struggle for antiwar struggle, or otherwise resisting its use for militarism?
Brewer: There’s a lot of resistance going on. I think one of the less well-known things is who are the allies and collaborators with BAP. Many of those collaborators are doing everything that you’re saying. We have a number of organizations that are not here, but are rooted on the continent that work with the Africa team, with the United States Out of Africa,7 engaging in political resistance and organizing the people with the kind of political education and knowledge that’s needed. For example, on October 1, 2022, we had a webinar composed entirely of activists from the continent who spoke to militarism, AFRICOM, and the comprador class on the continent. So, that kind of solidarity to dismantle it, to take it out of the continent, is a big piece of what organizations there are doing. And that continues to weigh in not only on the continent. You might have seen the media releases on Haiti and the pushback against sending U.S. troops there.8 A lot of this is about self-determination. If you do have a civilian military, that’s one thing. If you have a military that’s trained by an empire, that’s a very different thing.
SftP: What are the demographics and geographies of these movements that have been popping up throughout Africa? How are women playing a role? How are young people playing a role? Are there particular types of resistance seen more in the rural areas versus the urban areas? Is it arising out of folks who have also been impacted by climate change and how it interacts with militarism?
Brewer: There are a lot of layers to what you just put on the table. As I mentioned before, the continent is very young, so a lot of the resistors are our young people. The people who have been most harmed by the neocolonial order are young people, women, and folk who have traditionally made a living by farming. This catalyzes folks to respond, to rise up.
If we look at South Africa, which I would say is most connected to the political economy of capitalism, where the economy has resided in the hands of the minority white population. Here even getting access to housing and potable water is contested. Much of the protests and resistance in South Africa is against land grabs.9 The people who are most harmed are those who have contributed least to climate change.
SftP: And what should liberation movements that we’re building here in the United States or anywhere else learn from the struggles of African peoples against AFRICOM, militarism, and imperialism?
Brewer: That brings us full circle back to the role of an organization like BAP. There’s such an insularity in this society about the depth and breadth about what this country does in the name of the people, all wrapped in security issues and terrorism issues, which are really façades to what’s beneath it. When you get into the left in this country, you can’t deal with domestic issues in isolation. They are inextricably linked to the global questions. You can’t resolve the issues of imperialism domestically, without knowing that this is an imperial nation with an empire that is all over the world, with eight hundred military bases all over the world. That’s what we’re dealing with: that’s how power is deployed. That’s how it’s maintained. That’s how it’s threatened.
- ↩“Mission,” Black Alliance for Peace, accessed November 11, 2022, blackallianceforpeace.com.
- ↩ Through AFRICOM, the U.S. Department of Defense engages in military operations and training with allied governments throughout Africa for the purpose of advancing U.S. foreign policy interests in the region. Since AFRICOM was established, the number of drone strikes, military activities, incidents of deadly violence, and insurgent Islamist groups in Africa have skyrocketed. U.S.-trained military officers have also been responsible for a number of coup attempts in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Mauritania, and Gambia in recent years. See “What We Do,” United States Africa Command, accessed November 14, 2022, www.africom.mil.; Nick Turse, “Violence Has Spiked in Africa Since the Military Founded AFRICOM, Pentagon Study Finds,” The Intercept, July 29, 2019, theintercept.com.
- ↩ U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa, by Lauren Ploch, RL34003 (2011), 1.
- ↩ Preston Schmitt and Doug Erickson, “The Blast that Changed Everything,” On Wisconsin(Summer 2020), onwisconsin.uwalumni.com.
- ↩ Under the 1033 program, the Defense Department has transferred over seven billion dollars worth of surplus U.S. military equipment to nearly ten thousand police jurisdictions, essentially free of charge. See also Charlotte Lawrence and Cyrus J. O’Brien, “Federal Militarization of Law Enforcement Must End,” American Civil Liberties Union, May 12, 2021, www.aclu.org.
- ↩ Devlin Epding, “MPD to Begin Using Drones,” The Minnesota Daily, October 20, 2022, mndaily.com.
- ↩ For more on BAP’s U.S. Out of Africa campaign, see blackallianceforpeace.com.
- ↩ In February 2021, Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse refused to step down when his term in office ended. While the Haitian people responded with mass protests, the United States had thrown its support behind Moïse. For more, see “Latest Statements and Press Releases on Haiti,” Black Alliance for Peace, accessed November 14, 2022, blackallianceforpeace.com.
- ↩ See Nnimmo Bassey, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa (Pambazuka Press: Cape Town, 2012), 159.