By Pam Campos-Palma
On May 25th, millions witnessed the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, triggering uprisings across the country that were met with an eruption of even more brutalizing police violence. Watching the systematic violence carried out against protesters made me feel like I was once again watching the coordinated, complex terrorist attacks the military trained me to analyze — only this time I was watching it being carried out by local police against citizens and journalists. The mobilization of the National Guard, then President Trump’s abuse of the military and his threats to unleash America’s troops against their fellow citizens has had me in the most intense organizing sprint of my life. Between responding to messages from concerned active duty and National Guard troops in fear, organizing the military and veteran community at large, partnering with the Movement for Black Lives, tracking and analyzing ethno-nationalist threats, and continuing to engage with national security/foreign policy colleagues, the last month has been life-changing and surreal. I hope to find some time to write more about it but for now I’ll be catching back up where I left off.
In the midst of this revolutionary moment, there is a very strange disconnect between the wave of political energy unleashed by the hurricane of multiple, simultaneous crises the US currently faces and the tepid, inert feeling surrounding the presidential election. At a time when a mass popular movement and grassroots mutual aid networks are setting the pace for resistance to rising anti-democratic, white supremacist forces, the Biden campaign has not come close to matching the energy in the streets.
In the past month there have been some signals of adjustment and positive structural changes from the Biden camp. However, the operational impact of those changes remains to be seen, particularly as it relates to coalition building, peace and security, defense, and international relations. The campaign’s out of touch rhetoric and inability to meet the moment has not caught up to the tremendous opportunities presented to make inroads with voters needed to win in November.
The clearest injection of progress happened one month ago when the Biden campaign hired Karine Jean-Pierre (a progressive strategist formerly at MoveOn) and Julie Chávez Rodriguez (a former Kamala Harris campaign advisor) into senior roles in a move to focus on diverse outreach. In addition, there was the announcement of Biden-Sanders “unity task forces,” a response to progressive movement leaders’ open letter demanding that Biden make strategic changes to earn the youth vote. While the six unity task forces boasted a compilation of diverse surrogates and advocates, the scope of authority of these task forces has remained unclear and they risk being merely symbolic. Ideally, unity task force members are working towards winning coalitionary strategies and making innovative, transformative personnel choices for a potential Biden administration. However, from lived experience I know that a seat at the table alone does not automatically mean you’ll be given a menu or something to eat. It remains to be seen how the campaign will prevent its stated commitment to diversity from devolving into tokenizing leaders of color to serve as shields or apologists for another affluent white man’s failings.
Despite the youth movement letter including a demand that Biden “commit to seek congressional approval on any authorization of war and support repeal of 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force,” no Biden-Sanders foreign policy task force was convened. It is likely that immigration and climate task forces will have to discuss international cooperation, defense spending, and national security. But this is another example of foreign policy being treated as either a closed-off elite space not open to grassroots partnership or as a peripheral afterthought, rather than the central battleground that Trump has and will continue to fight on.
One former Obama official told Peter Beinart that the working groups are mere “window dressing,” with little input into policy formulation. Looking at Biden’s core foreign policy advisors, it’s easy to see how separated Biden’s braintrust is from the progressive ambitions that the working groups symbolize. However, a significant divergence is increasingly clear between Biden’s closest advisors, who are overwhelmingly people seeking a return to what they see as the good old Obama days, and many of their former Obama administration colleagues who are working toward the stronger, transformative foreign and security policy the current moment demands. Due to rank and power, the former threatens to become the dominant mode of thinking in a potential Biden White House. In truth, such misplaced nostalgia presents a major risk to winning the White House at all.
As the Biden camp continues to hedge its bets rather than pursue stronger collaboration with progressives, it is not a surprise to see more open letters attempting to guide and push him, precisely on foreign policy. One, of which I am a signatory, was launched by 60 organizations and over 200 community leaders, educators, writers, and artists, and its ask is simple but critical — withdraw the xenophobia-fueling “Unprepared” ad and stop using scapegoating, nationalist messaging in the campaign. A second, broader open letter, signed by 50 groups, asked Biden to move his foreign policy platform to the left. The letter expressed the need for commitments on a lengthy list of issues, including defense spending, sanctions, nuclear policy, and diplomatic relations.
However, despite these foreign policy efforts directed at the Democratic nominee, the anti-Chinese ad is still up and there’s been little change in rhetoric based on the generous feedback by those directly affected by the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and state violence more broadly. Biden’s regressive rhetorical stumbles have persisted, most visibly in his continued attempts to out-hawk Trump and in the campaign’s statement about Israel-Palestine, which reinforced dangerous tropes that scapegoated Palestinians and has now been decried by a litany of progressives across different communities.
The fact is, it shouldn’t be this hard. The Sanders and Warren campaigns marked a clear path on security policy, and grassroots communities have been direct about how critical it is for Biden to follow that path. Any shadow of a doubt on whether a more transformative position is popular has been demonstrably dropkicked aside by the powerful alignment of forces around the Movement for Black Lives and the call to re-imagine true public safety that includes everyone from leftists and freedom fighters around the world to Mitt Romney and NASCAR.
Yet in the face of this, the Democratic nominee for president has doubled down on answering deep structural rot and a status quo that is killing us with old reformist bandaids no one asked for. As the Movement for Black Lives’ deep wisdom and strategic organizing builds the kind of momentum for political change that the Biden campaign could only dream of producing, it is critical for the foreign policy and national security establishment to find the humility to get in formation instead of continuing to get in the way. History and the world have their eyes on us — activated Americans of all stripes in the streets understand that being doggedly on the side of freedom is the only option in this moment. It would do the Democratic nominee well to join us in the real world.
Pam Campos-Palma is a political strategist, advisor and organizer focused on peace & security. She served in the US Air Force for over a decade as an operations intelligence analyst and is a trusted leader and advocate bridging grasstops policy and grassroots movement worlds. You can find her on twitter at @_pamcampos.