At the onset of the twenty-first century, the US security state exemplifies the kind of militarized social control that has become a key buttress to a global regime of deepening inequalities, injustices and indignities. This study explores how three social movement groups, broadly from the Christian left, majority white and middle-class, resist the US security state by envisioning and enacting solidarity with the state’s targets. Original data collection includes weeks of participant observation, forty-nine semi-structured interviews, fifty-four follow-up surveys, and an archive of hundreds of courtroom statements with three protest communities: 1) School of the Americas Watch, which seeks to close the military training facility at Ft. Benning, Georgia; 2) the Migrant Trail Walk, part of the US/Mexico border justice movement; and 3) Witness Against Torture, a grassroots effort to close the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center. I identify a political practice among these groups that I term solidarity witness by which these activists come to see, feel, and know injustices that do not most immediately impact them personally and then testify widely to the complex impacts of state violence. Solidarity witness is both performative and prefigurative. Through ritual protest and embodied, sometimes high-risk tactics, these activists expand the sphere of politics while nurturing internal cultures of opposition. Their mode of resistance reveals the importance of affect, embodiment and morality in social movement mobilization.
While the groups in this study do intend to change state policies and institutions, their chances for melioristic reform have appeared to be small in practice. Their acts of ethical witness in the public sphere and principled refusal in close community instead highlight the limitations of policy change under a global, neoliberal security complex. In the face of impervious US political institutions and only the smallest pretense to real democracy, the practice of solidarity witness allows these activists to reckon with legacies of privilege tied to the oppression of others while also seeking to disinvest in this privilege in meaningful ways. Theirs is ultimately a conception of solidarity in which state violence and injustice impacts everyone, but in ways that must not be made equivalent. Solidarity witness allows these activists to satisfy a desire for self-respect, to craft a current existence that seems more dignified, moral, just and imaginative than their lives previously permitted, and to attach themselves to a collective struggle for a better future.