High Energy and Commitment in Chicago Youth Activists Demand Military-Free Schools
by Jorge Mariscal
On the weekend of July 17, over 250 activists from across the country converged on Roosevelt University in Chicago for the largest meeting ever of counter-recruitment and anti-militarism organizers. Retirees from Florida and California, concerned parents from Ohio and Massachusetts, veterans from New Mexico and Oregon, grandmothers from Texas and North Carolina joined with youth organizations such as New York’s Ya-Yas (Youth Activists-Youth Allies) and San Diego’s Education Not Arms to consolidate a movement intent on resisting the increased militarization of U.S. public schools.
The building overlooking Lake Michigan vibrated with the positive energy of the diverse participants—people from different generations, regions, and ethnicities mixing together and exchanging stories about their struggle to demilitarize local schools. For many senior citizens from the East Coast this was the first time they had met much less learned from Chicana high school students who live in border communities near San Diego. For those relatively new to the counter-recruitment movement, the experience taught them more about the on-going process in which young people are increasingly subjected to military values and aggressive recruiting techniques.
Organized by the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY), an alliance of over 180 organizations, the conference included workshops and caucuses on a variety of subjects ranging from the role of class and culture in counter-recruiting, women in the military, and legislative approaches to challenging militarization.
The growth of the counter-recruitment movement benefited greatly from the Bush administration’s slide into totalitarianism. While established organizations like Project YANO of San Diego and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Youth and Militarism program had been working for decades to demilitarize youth, the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 for the first time alerted many to the insidious nature of military recruiting in schools. Many newcomers to the movement began with “opt-out” campaigns to protect students’ privacy and then moved on to the issue of military aptitude tests (ASVAB) that are often administered covertly in school districts nationwide.
Although some activists during the Bush years saw counter-recruitment solely as an antiwar tactic, the participants at the NNOMY conference understood that militarism is an issue that must be confronted with long-term strategies. As many of them told me, it is less an issue of stopping current wars (although that is important) than it is of inhibiting the power of the military-corporate-educational complex with the goal of slowly transforming an interventionist and imperial foreign policy.
The symbolism of the conference location was especially important given that the Chicago public school district is the most heavily militarized district in the nation. The current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was superintendent of the city’s schools and oversaw the expansion of JROTC and military academies. Today, Chicago has more academies and more JROTC cadets than any other city in the country. Under Duncan’s leadership, it will more than likely become a model for the rest of the country.
As Sam Diener reported at the NNOMY conference, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 mandates that the military work to increase the number of schools with JROTC from the current total of about 3400 schools to 3700 schools by the year 2020 (a list of schools targeted for new units will be posted shortly on the Peacework Magazine website).
The larger context is alarming. The decades long defunding of public education, the resultant decline of K-12 systems across the country, and the growth of the charter school movement has produced a situation in which the Pentagon is free to wade into the wreckage with an offer many parents cannot refuse. In a classic shock doctrine maneuver, the military exerts increasing influence in public schools offering desperate parents programs that will teach their sons and daughters discipline and “leadership skills.” As Gina Perez explained at the NNOMY meeting, working class youth with limited options, many of whom are active in their community churches, believe they can “make a difference” by joining JROTC.
Despite the Pentagon’s denials, there is no question that militarized school programs operate as covert recruiting programs. Recent studies show that about 40% of all JROTC cadets end up enlisting in the military. Activists working in Georgia recently obtained school district documents that refer to the goal of creating “African American and Hispanic children soldiers.” What the Pentagon hopes to produce, however, is not cannon fodder as an earlier Vietnam War-era analysis might suggest but rather an educated workforce able to complete the complex tasks of a well-oiled, increasingly high tech, military.
Given the difficulty recruiters have had finding enough high school graduates to fill their quotas, especially in those Latino communities that will provide the largest group of military-age youth for the foreseeable future, it makes sense that the military would attempt to create its own pipeline. If the public schools cannot turn out enough qualified potential recruits, the Pentagon will do it. Neoliberalism in the United States may not mean generals in the Oval Office. But it may mean children in military uniforms marching in formation at a school near you.
The model for this aspect of the militarist agenda is the Chicago public school system where for several years minority neighborhoods have seen the increasing encroachment of the military. Science teacher Brian Roa, who has written about the Chicago experience, described in a recent truthout article how Mayor Daley and Superintendent Duncan oversaw the expansion of military academies. “One day the Navy occupied one floor of our school,” Roa said at the NNOMY conference, “and before we knew it they had taken over the second and then the third floor.”
At San Diego’s Mission Bay High School, funding for college preparatory courses was decreased while the principal implemented plans for a Marine Corps JROTC complete with firing range for air rifle practice. Latino students created the Education Not Arms coalition and successfully convinced a majority on the San Diego Board of Education to ban rifle training at eleven high schools. Similar success stories were recounted last weekend all of which suggest that not only is militarism a high priority issue for the new century but also that youth activism is alive and well.
The fact that President Obama’s daughters attend Quaker schools while his Secretary of Education oversees the expansion of military programs for working class children is one more glaring contradiction in Obamaland. The young people who attended the NNOMY conference are aware of the contradiction and left Chicago vowing that they will not passively stand by as their schools become centers for military indoctrination.
More information on the counter-recruitment movement is available at the NNOMY website: http://www.nnomy.org/
Jorge Mariscal is a Vietnam veteran and a member of Project YANO (San Diego). Visit his blog at: jorgemariscal.blogspot.com/