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How Can I Extend Peace When Everything I Represent is War?

When what you have to offer is financially significant, but devoid of the lips, the lives, and the heart of those with whom you want to commune, there is much work to do.

by Martin McKinney
with images by Sophia Har

Photo by Sophia Har
Photo by Sophia Har

It has been said that love is unable to occupy limitable spaces. That love flows from our pores and, as a result, pushes open the doors and fills to the brim all spaces that it enters. Love can conquer all things. I've met, and continue to love, people that have made me consider that this must be true. It's likely that rigid conceptions of relationship and love means that many of us have missed opportunities for new love and loving relationships that are life giving. Thankfully, these chances present themselves often, if we are able to receive them.

But this is not an essay about the boundlessness of love. It is about my effort to reconcile the reality of my identity with the asseverations I say that I represent. It is the reality of my identity that fails to reconcile with what I have hoped for in my life. I am in Colombia recognizing that I am here for peace and thinking about the crisis represented by my culture. How do I offer peace when my whole life is one of war, when everything that I represent is meant to destroy and replace? If love is kind, and I believe myself to be kind, why do I invoke war as my protector and why do I seek its solace and answer to quench my thirst?

How do i reconcile my violent culture with my presence in a culture tired of war?

As I walked through the airport in Bogota recently, I remember thinking of how beautiful the airport was. I marveled at the activity and the newness of the terminals. I wandered though the place and thought, 'I could live here,' pridefully reminding myself of my sense of humanity toward the people in the country, as if the value of the country resides in my assessment of its airport quality. I had found my travel partner, whom had gone off to other interests, and me, I breezed up to the gate agent and said, "yo no ver mi la puerta!" The agent looked at me, turned around, spoke to someone else, turned back to me and said "yo no tampoco," derisively. Immediately, my blood boiled, but as I began to count backward, I realized that the Spanish language I had so deftly tried to use, and the cheeky grin that I am so used to employing, would not result in the action I was hoping for. I had, in a matter of moments, transitioned from peace to war. This represents the reality of what it means to be a U.S. citizen in this part of the world.

Many of my friends in the U.S. are working to bring attention to Plan Colombia, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and other trade agreements and their deleterious affects on countries like Colombia. They reason that these plans will proliferate military activity in Colombia and wipe out the economic activity of entire communities of people. And they are correct. We should work to end these types of agreements. But we cannot ignore that while we call for an end to these agreements and their sort, we are also unwilling to live without the safety and security they provide. They allow us to continue to claim a moral position that is not based in our nation's national values, nor our interest in cultural dominance.

Photo by Sophia Har
Photo by Sophia Har

The more time I've spent in countries like Colombia, the more it is clear to me that I arrive under the tent that someone else has built. While it's comforting to think that tent represents paved ground, it is often clouded in ideas about supremacy that we don't care to acknowledge. I suspect that the people of Colombia operate under an expectation that they are the monkeys in the organ grinder’s story. I suspect this because it is the reality of movement building, and the relationships people of color have with dominant communities, in the United States. It is my experience in the various circles I operate in now and in my past career. To understand this analogy one need only turn to the story and its history.

I sat with Boris the other day and he told me of how, during the conflict in Colombia, the army would stop cars along the road and remove the occupants and separate them. They would check the identification of all the passengers and some would be allowed to return to the vehicle and others would be arrested. He said that many times, the army would suspect that the severed person was a guerrilla and that person would be killed. He said that this was a regular occurrence and inflicted severe psychological damage on the community. I told him how in the United States, as a teenager, we would similarly be stopped and friends would be snatched from the car by civilian police and taken away. While these friends weren't killed – they were temporarily disappeared and taken to the police station – we understood the emotional damage meant by the state with this behavior. This was purposeful force meant to demonstrate the power of the state.

As we departed the town headed back to Barranquilla the next day, army personnel were stopping vehicles along the road. I could not help but wonder if people were being killed in these stops even in the aftermath of war. What we do know is that these stops are continuous visual reminders of domination and readiness, and while they are affecting the stopped person, they also have a lasting effect on those who are simply bystanders.

And yet, this is the easy story to tell. It is the story that seems fitting, because it allows the dominant culture to deflect from its own virulent commitment to maintain the structures of sovereignty. When we think of police violence, it is easy for us to find the lowest common denominators that invoke our rage. Police violence is wrong in any context, in any society, and we should shout from the rooftop and proclaim this. But it's much harder to call to account the systems that are created for us and by us in order to extend our fetishization with objects (and bodies) to other societies. In these visits, we focus our attentions on how to improve the other society in a bid toward humanitarian colonialism, where we press for the people to think like the dominant group, and to want like the dominant group. We seem to be committed to a policy of privatization of support instead of insisting that the primary goal of the government is to redress and redistribute. This is violent policy. It is policy that supports a neo-liberal agenda of post-racialization, and progressive thinking about antiracist movement building in a bid to financialize bodies and eviscerate culture and pull toward shared understandings of hierarchy.

Photo by Sophia Har
Photo by Sophia Har

When I arrived in Colombia, I observed the many differences that exist in the visual and environmental understandings that I expect. There were people everywhere, and they seemed to move non-linearly. There seemed to be no order to the way buildings for commercial and residential use were configured and where they were placed. My every movement was planned by way of taxi or automobile, and this was always preceded with a price negotiation. The public buses are belching pollutant, scorchingly hot and the driver is likely having a cellular conversation as he bumbles through the mass of traffic. The "Americans" are relishing that they can speak Spanish fluently, and perfectly, some looking at me with disdain as I trip through the conversation. Street food is everywhere with eggs kept on hot shelves and meat butchered on street corners. Music is loud and disruptive and people like to dance outside until the wee hours. I've seen scores of motorcycles with people holding babies as they sped through the streets. There are signs and graffiti drawn across buildings, light poles, streets and across overpasses. And immediately upon my arrival, I noted with sadness, every effort being made to avert my gaze on these things. It is violent to enter into a culture and be unwilling and/or unable to disavow one's own normative understandings and soak in what is not understood. But this is the tent that was built and left for me.

What must we do to break the culture of sovereignty? 

The violence that has been ingrained in me solicits my hosts to not see me as part of the imperialist culture of which I am a part. It asks them to reason that the imperialism that I represent is privatized and packaged away because I am here with you, and I speak your language. If I am honest, I know that it's not true. If it were, I would propel myself into the culture by embracing the deep historical connections that we share because the pain of death, brutality of beatings, and disregard for the hearts of suffering people would bleed from the ground and into my spirit. I would be given food, and I would recognize the ancestral values that bind us together in this food. If I am emotionally connected, I would understand that while learning the language is important for completing my purchases, or arriving to my destination, it is not as valuable in allowing someone to possess my heart. And if I am true, I know that, despite my words of acknowledgment and passionate rejection, the effort to seek, or extend, my own financial interests into the culture are always boiling beneath the surface. But I am not that honest; my culture has taught me that honesty is not the path to success. This is the violence that I carry with me, under the banner of peace.

Photo by Sophia Har
Photo by Sophia Har

And so, I am personally tasked with finding a way to extend the love of the people who are not here, and I am tasked with bracing the tent of welcome for those who follow. I am working to be a friend to all the people I meet, knowing that despite the conclusion of the fighting here, war still exists in me, and I, with my cultural understandings, have repackaged and reintroduced it to a place that is weary from war, but nonetheless understands the way of the world. It is pulsing through me and it is always there. I am trying to suppress the fire that resides in me to destroy and rebuild to my liking, aware that what I have to offer is really insufficient as a replacement. And unfortunately, I will return to the United States and pick up where I left off, glad that I came, gladder that I left.

When what you have to offer is financially significant, but devoid of the lips, the lives, and the heart of those with whom you want to commune, there is much work to do. Some might think it war-like to destroy the tent that was left with the best of intentions. I, however, think that a tent that is built with the hands of war, receives a better life in its destruction. In this way we can, together perhaps, look for a way forward in peace.

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