Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, first proposed the idea of a Department of Peace in a paper called “A Plan of a Peace- Office of the United States” in our country’s earliest years in 1793. He thought the Department should have an equal footing with the Department of War and that a Secretary of Peace should have the power to establish schools in every community of the new country. Rush also thought Department would venerate human life.
The idea that originated in Rush’s imagination wouldn’t die. Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, suggested a Department of Peace at a Cause and Cure for War Conference in 1925. American Disciples of Christ Minister Kirby Page wrote and distributed a proposal for a cabinet level Department of Peace and a Secretary of Peace in 1926. Federal legislation on a Department of Peace has been proposed at different times. In 1935, Senator Matthew Neely (D-West Virginia) wrote and introduced a bill calling for a Department of Peace. Numerous bills were introduced from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. In 1947, Representative Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) proposed a bill to create a Peace Office in the State Department.
No federal legislation on a Department of Peace was introduced in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In 2001, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced a bill for a Department of Peace. It was reintroduced in every Congressional session from 2002 to 2009. Kucinich made a Peace Department a part of his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns.
After many attempts and suggestions, the United States still has no Department of Peace, but something similar was born this year on a municipal level. On June 20, 2017 the City Council of Oakland, California voted for the creation of a Department of Violence Prevention (DVP) intended to curb the violent injury and homicide that are prevalent in the area. The DVP aims to reduce violence at the city level, enlisting a department chief that will function at the same administrative level of the Chiefs of Police and Fire of Oakland.
With consideration to Oakland’s law enforcement history, the formation of a department devoted to minimizing violence through a public health approach comes with incredible possibilities for community growth. When there is a focus on preventing violence rather than reacting and responding to it, there is far greater chance of the fostering of relationships between law enforcement and community members. The Oakland DVP may empower citizens to be active participants in their governance and will hopefully compel local law enforcement to acknowledge the human dignity of those they police.
The DVP allows there to be a more uniting rather than divisive objective: the treatment of violence as a symptom perpetuated by greater social factors rather than violence as an inherent quality. The focus of primary rather than secondary prevention at the community level allows the quite elusive, large scale issue of violence to be tangible and people-oriented, therefore granting the possibility of concrete solutions.
With Oakland as the pilot, it will be critical to examine the positive impact that preventative departments such as the DVP could have on the future of other cities and their residents. If peace is the ultimate goal, it is essential we begin to approach it through unifying, community-based means, such as Oakland is working towards, rather than the polarizing, militarizing ways we have allowed ourselves to grow indifferent to.