Wednesday, April 1, 2009

San Diego Silences JROTC guns

The pieces below are almost two months old, but still, it is incredibly inspiring. Over the past couple of years, I've volunteered in San Diego with an organization called The Project on Youth and Non-military Opportunities (ProjectYANO), although for various reasons I haven't been that active the past few months. In any case, here's a bit about the organization from their About Us page:

Project YANO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization that provides young people with an alternative point of view about military enlistment. Many of our members are armed forces veterans who believe that high school students are getting a distorted picture of the military and war from recruiting ads and marketing. In particular, we are concerned that many low-income students and students of color are being diverted away from higher education and into the military, where they are found in disproportionate numbers.

In our base community of San Diego County, Project YANO sends veterans to youth groups and local schools to speak about the realities of military life and war so that young people will better understand what is behind the armed forces sales pitch. As an alternative, students are given nonmilitary options for local job training and college financial aid. Project YANO also urges youths to become community activists and consider pursuing careers in social change.

Our goal is to help young people see a different side to these issues so they will have a more balanced picture and be able to make educated decisions about their future. We encourage them to think critically, search for more information, and then make up their own minds

Since its founding in 1984, Project YANO has sought to educate school officials about the need to give students a more balanced view on the military. We have also urged schools to make students and their families more aware of how to protect their privacy by using their right to opt out if student information is going to be released to military recruiters.

Project YANO’s direct outreach focuses on youths in San Diego County, but we also provide resources and advice to other groups across the country.
Our Resource List describes tools that can be used to organize similar efforts in other communities.

Over the past year or so, YANO has been working with high school students in the city to oppose the installation of firing ranges by the JROTC on school campuses. Besides the obvious problematics of teaching students to fire weapons on school property (especially when San Diego City Schools have a zero-tolerance policy for weapons), the installation of firing ranges exemplies the increased militarization of not only schools, but of black and brown communities in general, so that money for education and employment is diverted away from constructive, productive learning and vocations, and into military activity. For more detailed analysis of this issue, read articles here, here and here.

In February, however, after months of resistance to and lobbying of the school board by students, parents and other concerned members of the community, the San Diego Unified School Board passed a resolution, by a 3-2 vote, to ban all marksmanship training in the district. Here's the text of the resolution:

Resolution in the Matter of Eliminating Marksmanship Training From San Diego Unified School District Schools

WHEREAS, the San Diego Unified School District has a zero-tolerance policy on weapons in schools and seeks, as one of its primary goals, to teach students to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence; and

WHEREAS, the District cannot risk sending a mixed message to students when some of their lives have been recently taken by gun violence;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that any existing school district property used for shooting ranges shall be immediately closed for that purpose and converted for other educational uses by the beginning of the next regular school year.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that marksmanship training, whether it is conducted oncampus or off-campus, and through textbooks or physical instruction, shall not be taught in connection with the San Diego Unified School District and shall be discontinued immediately.

The article below details this activism around, and consequences of, this vote. Below that is a poem written by Ernie McCray, a retired educator of 37 years, about the students that organized around this issue. Although we're supposedly living in a time of hope, cynicism abounds, even among those of us committed to social justice work and to communities of struggle. Within that context, then, the work of these high schools students is truly inspiring for they accomplished something presumed impossible - they went up against systems deeply entrenched in structures of inequality and violence - i.e. not only the educational system, but also that of the omnipresent, and apparently omnipotent, military.

San Diego Silences JROTC Guns
February 10, 2009 (see photos below) - San Diego Unified, located in the middle of one of the largest military complexes in the world, took the uncharacteristic step of banning rifle training conducted under the military's high school JROTC program. Eleven schools with rifle ranges were affected in the nation's eighth largest urban district.

Before the board meeting began, speakers representing local high schools and colleges addressed an outside crowd of 200 students, parents, teachers and community supporters. Some high schools sent so many students that two charter buses, courtesy of the AFSC, were used for transportation. Anticipating a long evening before the school board would discuss the rifle training issue, the Association of Raza Educators provided tamales to help sustain the crowd.

It wasn't until four hours into the board meeting, at 9:00 PM, that the agenda item came up for discussion. The vote was preceded by testimony from about 15 pro- and con- speakers in front of a crowd that was largely in favor of terminating the weapons training program. One school board member said that in all of his many years on the board, this was the most impressive student effort he had ever seen. Even two board members who opposed the resolution expressed their admiration for the students' involvement. When the decision was made, the resolution, which immediately banned all marksmanship training in the district, passed by a vote of 3-2. The crowd then spilled out of the auditorium to hold a loud and joyous celebration.

This achievement was made possible by a collaboration of students and various community groups who first came together in 2007 as the Education Not Arms Coalition. One of their main concerns was the way schools were tracking students into military training (via JROTC) while denying them adequate class alternatives, especially ones needed to qualify for college. Students from African American and Latino families were being disproportionately affected.

To address the problem, the coalition adopted three initial goals--convince the school district to:

-stop placing students into military science (JROTC) classes without their informed consent.
-stop telling parents and students that the class will help them qualify for college, when it won't.
-ban weapons training and JROTC gun ranges in San Diego schools.

All three goals have now been achieved, the first two by a superintendent's directive, the third by school board action. Throughout the over one-year long campaign, high school students have played a central role in educating and mobilizing their peers, with support from a variety of community and college groups.

Audio of the entire Feb. 10 hearing and school board decision is posted on the SD Unified site: Video should be added soon.

For a video news report, visit:

For more information:

About 150 students from a dozen schools, plus another 50 teachers, parents and other supporters, rally at school district headquarters before school board meeting.

As the board meeting begins, a JROTC color guard and students opposing JROTC rifle ranges stand face-to-face for the pledge of allegiance.

After waiting 4-1/2 hours for the school board to vote, cheering students celebrate their victory outside.

Freedom Isn’t Free
(A Shout Out to Some Beautiful Freedom Fighters I know)

by Ernie McCray

You beautiful freedom fighters
came into my life
out of nowhere it seemed
like a cosmic prize,
a glorious surprise.
You’re all so young and dedicated
and so utterly refreshing and wise.
You’re a melody playing in my ears,
a vision of hope dancing before my eyes,
warming and soothing my soul,
giving energy to a belief I strive
to hold inside
that a better world
can be realized.

Please take pride
in how you have risen
out of a society
that gives voice to a philosophy
that “Freedom isn’t free,”
attributing such a philosophy
due to the sacrifices
of our country’s
army GI’s,
and marines giving honor to semper fi,
and flyboys and girls patrolling the skies,
while swabbies keep their eyes
on the sea.
Keep your heads held high
knowing that you intuitively
understand that such decrees
ignore others of this country’s citizenry
who have struggled
when they shouldn’t have had to
Talking about:
Frederick D
and Booker T
and Harriet T
and Sojourner T
and H. Rap and Stokely
and the SNCC
and Schwermer, Goodman and Chaney
found in an earthen dam in Mississippi
and Thurgood and Rosa P
and Martin,
a disciple of Gandhi,
dreaming out loud
in Washington D.C.
and Cesar Chavez
and Dolores Huerta
bestowing dignity
on La Raza as a legacy
and Malcolm
and Medgar
and Gloria Steinem and Fannie Mae
and Al and Jesse
and Muhammad Ali
and Chicanos, like the Brown Berets
and Las Adelitas de Aztlan, bringing awareness
to a people’s culture and history.
And YOU, if you ask me,
because you have
followed in the footsteps
of these heroic personalities,
confronting ever so intelligently
and diplomatically
and insistently
and lovingly
some ugly practices
that were going down
in your schools,
scraping and crawling
against being militarized
against your will,
standing steadfastly
against your schools telling your folks lies
about JROTC,
shining a light
for all to see
on the glaring hypocrisy
of weapons training
where a Zero Tolerance Policy
was said to be.

No, freedom isn’t free
but I have observed with the utmost respect
how you freedom fighters
have paid the price,
how you set out to get a job done,
and how you’ve held yourself erect,
from the day you started
until the day you WON,
refusing to be moved
“like a tree that’s planted by the water”
in an old civil rights anthem sung
at another time when the good guys won.

Oh, this old son-of-a-gun
will hold you beautiful freedom fighters
in a special place
in my heart until my day is done.

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