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Op-Ed: Pentagon budget tied to failed COVID-19 response and police militarization

The Pentagon in Washington D.C., home of the U.S. Department of Defense

We are currently living through two life-altering crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and the long-overdue uprising against racial injustice within our communities. While these may seem like two separate issues, what binds them is how our government has responded. We failed to have the necessary resources to respond to COVID-19 and we responded to police brutality and peaceful protests for racial equality with an uncalled for show of force, equipping our local law enforcement with military-grade weapons.

It’s clear that our priorities are out of whack.

The excess weapons, technology and gear generated by the Pentagon make their way down to our local law enforcement agencies through avenues like the Pentagon’s 1033 program. Under this program, the Defense Department sends high quality but slightly dated equipment to municipal police departments, opening up room for Pentagon officials to justify maintaining, or even increasing, their already obscene three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar budgets. This is both unnecessary and counterproductive, as it only serves to militarize our local police forces and line the pockets of multi-billion dollar defense corporations.

Our communities do not need, nor did they ask for, military equipment. Instead, the government could be spending these taxpayer dollars on essential resources like supplies for health care workers or stimulus money for small businesses. Under the guise of security, this misallocation of funds is harming Americans both physically and fiscally.

The Pentagon can’t solve all of our problems. To confront a global pandemic, health care workers and disease experts are the best people for that job, not the military. Increasing the Pentagon’s budget to support pandemic response would only continue the misuse of our resources. I recently joined dozens of state legislators from around the country to urge Washington to use its power of the purse to prioritize people in states like ours over nuclear weapons, bureaucratic waste and endless war. We need to start putting money into other agencies that are better equipped to confront the challenges we face.

Now, as our nation looks ahead to economic recovery, government officials have the opportunity to reallocate resources to more effectively help everyday Americans. Last year, taxpayers in Illinois sent $33.7 billion to Washington for the Pentagon’s coffers. For each taxpayer in our state, that’s $3,735.35, the equivalent of three to four months of mortgage payments. And half of that money went to private weapons contractors, including $2.2 billion (or $248.07 per taxpayer) to one Maryland-based defense corporation alone.

The excessive military budget can be put toward initiatives at the state and local level that will address the everyday needs of real Americans.

The inflated Pentagon budget affects each and every American. Experts from across the ideological spectrum have warned that spending too much on endless wars and the Pentagon makes us less, not more safe. Money spent on excess military equipment could be used to buy our health care heroes personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical tools as they work on the front lines of this pandemic.

The excessive military and nuclear weapons can be put towards initiatives at the state and local level that will address the everyday needs of Americans. Congress has a unique opportunity right now to include an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would cut the topline Pentagon budget by ten percent, or $74 billion dollars. Considering that the Pentagon has returned $80 billion in recent years because it could not spend it, this seems like a reasonable proposition. Meanwhile, in Illinois, a $74 billion investment could fund any number of public programs, but the important thing to remember is that everything is connected.

In the midst of a pandemic, $74 billion could have been used to send 5.07 million monthly relief payments of $1,200 for one year or 2.03 billion Coronavirus tests in the same amount of time. How we use our money matters. One of the most disturbing parts of this program is how it normalizes militarization in underserved communities. For a country that seems concerned with human rights violations across the world, we’re particularly negligent when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable populations. Over militarizing communities can damage the collective psychology of a neighborhood. Funding the programs that would actually help us through this pandemic isn’t just cost-effective, it’s the humane solution.

I urge our representatives in Washington – especially U.S. Reps. Danny Davis, Rodney Davis, Robin Kelly, Mike Quigley, Bobby Rush and Jan Schakowsky and Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin – to advocate for a reduced Pentagon budget, because our communities need leaders who will fight for them, not for the Washington bureaucracy. For anyone who prefers not to live in a world where U.S. military assets can be swiftly mobilized for domestic affairs but we are unprepared with even the most basic supplies and personnel against a virus that has killed more Americans than in World War I, we need to demand more of our federal leaders and budgets. This starts with urging their support now for proposals to redirect a fraction of Pentagon spending to support human needs, along with other efforts to curtail or end the 1033 program’s transfer of military equipment to local police.

Resolving the current threats to our country will not be solved by building more tanks, armored vehicles or buying more military equipment. They will be solved by rethinking our priorities and giving resources back to our communities.

– The Center Square

Carol Ammons is Illinois State Representative for the 103rd district. Follow her on Twitter @StateRepAmmons. staterepcarolammons.com

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