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Would America fight for me? What does organizing against militarism mean for youth of color? Not simply protesting a distant war in another country, but challenging a war industry firmly rooted within their own communities.

It's hard to imagine that Roberto Harris had once been a proud member of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) program at Thomas Jefferson High School, or that his bedroom had been adorned with a huge American flag and Marine Corps stickers.

Nowadays when asked about his thoughts on war, the young Brooklyn native replies, "I'm never gonna fight for oil that's never gonna heat up my house."

His moment of doubt came during JROTC training, when he was shown the John Wayne classic, The Sands of Iwo Jima. it was the film's depictions of World War II "Operation Firezone" combat missions in Japan, where U.S. soldiers gunned down anyone who was viewed as an enemy sympathizer, including babies, that made Harris realize he didn't know what he was preparing to fight for.

Now an active youth organizer working to counter military recruitment in his Bushwick neighborhood, Harris speaks for many young people of color when he says, "We're already in a combat zone. They pull us out of one combat zone and put us in another one and teach us to kill."

Since Sept. 11, domestic and international wars have merged under the Bush administration into a single, seemingly permanent operation, and young people of color are among the first called to the front lines. For these young people, doing anti-war work does not mean simply protesting a distant war in another country; it means challenging a war machine and industry whose workings are firmly rooted in the U.S., within their own communities.

Staffing the Permanent War

The militarization of young people's lives in poor communities of color, both in schools and on the streets, had become a daily reality long before Sept. 11. In schools that enforce "zero tolerance" policies and whose hallways are lined with metal detectors, the U.S. Army's JROTC program (whose units were doubled in inner city schools by an act of Congress following the 1992 Los Angeles uprising to teach "discipline") teaches young people to shoot on command.

"They're teaching students violence instead of promoting peace," says Nancy Meza, 16, a United Students/Youth Organizing Communities member and student at East L.A.'s Garfield High School. Garfield has only nine counselors for 5,000 students due to lack of funds, yet a fully equipped J ROTC shooting range can be found in the school's basement. ESL students at Garfield are often placed in JROTC instead of overcrowded PE classes without having requested or even consented to it, and are lured into signing up for military service with promises of citizenship and scholarship money.

Bush's education reform bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, helped open up the war on terror's soldier-supply channel even more with a hidden provision that makes federal education funding contingent upon schools' submitting student access information to military recruiters. In order not to have their information given to recruiters, students must submit an "opt-out" form, which in many cases also opts them out from receiving information about colleges. Six months later, in July 2002, Bush issued an executive order stating that non-citizens who enlisted after 9/11 could apply immediately for citizenship so long as the war on terror continued, broadening the military track on which low-income immigrant youth are already placed.

In communities where the military has a steady presence, such as those by the Mexico-U.S. border, the military is the most accessible career path for young people. "When you're standing in Albuquerque," says Fernando Abeyta, an organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project, "whether you look north, south, east, west, there's something that belongs to the military, mad that provides employment." Young people leave military service with the skills necessary to work for the police department, INS, or Border Patrol

When the Front Lines Rebel

At a recent anti-war protest in Chicago, Sherard Holland, a 16-year-old member of the Southwest Youth Collaborative, showed up in his JROTC uniform. Though he says he identifies as "anti-war" and believes that "no matter how you look at it, all wars are wrong," Holland still plans on joining the military after high school, seeing it as a promising career with good benefits and a way to pay for college. Many other students, however, staged walkouts and protests throughout the country, and were met with threats of suspensions, principals blocking doorways and even going so far as to lock doors so that students couldn't get out. In Albuquerque, students at Rio Grande High School, the most underfunded school with the highest student-of-color population in the city, began organizing walkouts following the bombing of Iraq. Police surrounded the school for a month and prohibited community organizers from entering campus. Abeyta says that in the weeks following the beginning of the war, Rio Grande--already known for its political activity around educational issues-was more heavily policed than schools with a predominantly white student body. Teachers at Rio Grande and other Albuquerque high schools were suspended for expressing anti-war beliefs in the classroom. In Oakland, California, a teacher called the Secret Service to interrogate two Asian students who made "threatening" jokes about George Bush in class. The students were interrogated without parents or legal representatives present, now sanctioned under the Patriot Act.

Abeyta thinks young people of color are seen as more threatening to law enforcement and government officials. "When the war is over, we continue to organize," he says. "They know us. We're more of a threat because we're not just organizing against the war, we're organizing for change in policies at the city level."

Beyond challenging recruiters in the schools, anti-war organizing also involves challenging the conditions that leave youth with no option but to join the military. In Harlem, Action for Community Empowerment (ACE) led workshops where young folks discussed the military-industrial complex and the way the media is used to manipulate youth into joining the army. Yet along with this traditional counter-recruitment education work, ACE also organized to have resources redirected to the community through a job creation campaign. Seeing that young people had no summer jobs, no training after high school, and were being left with no option but to join the military, ACE was ultimately able to get city funding to create 82 summer jobs with local community-owned businesses.

Youth of color organizing against the war involves creating spaces of dissent in times when militarized and standardized schooling leaves no room for questioning militarism in their own communities and the world. Questioning the violence in Iraq means reflecting on the violence youth of color themselves experience. In Atlanta, Project South members give their peers "Roots of Terror" workshops to get them to challenge the very meaning of the word "terrorism." For Nanyamka Shukura, 16, the workshops are about "personalizing the terror we go through on a daily basis" by discussing police harassment and brutality, or prison-style "lock-down" searches in Atlanta public schools. For young women at Sista II Sista in Brooklyn, resisting the violence in Iraq is closely linked to resisting violence against women of color in Bushwick. As part of a citywide "Weapons of Mass Resistance" campaign, the young women set up a table in front of the local army recruiting office, calling on young people on the street to question why they have to kill women and children in Iraq in order to get an education.

"For youth of color to begin to question [war] is key to beginning to question the larger role of the U.S. government around the world," says Luis Sanchez, director of Inner City Struggle in L.A. "What's the role of this country? To fight wars around the world and set up empire, or to prioritize its people, provide education, provide health care, provide jobs?"

Organizing Against the Domestic War

In March 2002, as part of the domestic efforts to rid the U.S. of non-citizens deemed a threat to national security, the U.S. and Cambodian governments reached a secret repatriation agreement for Cambodian detainees with aggravated felonies, the majority of whom are young people who came as refugees. In response, a coalition of eight Southeast Asian community organizations from around the country formed the youth-led Southeast Asian Freedom Network. For Borann Heam of the Network, resisting the administration's domestic war tactics involves making connections between the aggressive racism and xenophobia now legally sanctioned under the guise of homeland security and the long-standing criminalization of youth of color. "You don't separate the INS from a criminal justice system that defines young people as criminals when you're working with non-citizen youth," he explains. By coordinating national days of action against the deportations, and resisting what may soon be agreements between the U.S. and Vietnamese and Laotian governments for similar repatriation agreements, youth are "challenging the xenophobia, the legislation that Bush is putting out," Heam says. "And they're making connections between what's happening to them and the war."

Just as the No Child Left Behind Act was being passed in January 2002, die Bush administration expanded the domestic war front by issuing a federal mandate requiring universities to update their international student registration-Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)--databases in order to make them accessible to government officials not only from immigration but also from the FBI, CIA, and local police departments. The University of Wisconsin began to charge international students, the majority of whom are from South and East Asia, a "service fee" to cover the costs of the federal mandate. Whereas before 9/11, the university had served as a mediator between international students and the government, it is now being turned into a spying agency, in which international students are effectively being forced to subsidize their own racial profiling and surveillance. Student organizing efforts led the Madison city council to condemn the fee, and the university to defer the fee for one year. For Suri Kempe, an undergraduate from Malaysia and leader of the International Students Campaign, the issue is much larger than a $50 service fee. "SEVIS is part of the Patriot Act," she explains. "It has an impact on the government's use of discriminatory tactics in the war against terrorism."

At a New York City protest just after the bombing in Iraq, someone carried a sign with a photo of a young Arab girl, accompanied by the slogan, "Save The Children." The sign was telling of the larger, white-dominated "peace" movement that arose after 9/11--framing war as an unfortunate event happening somewhere else, and "peace" as an extreme form of international charity. Yet for young people of color in the U.S., "the war" is not something taking place an ocean away. Organizing against war means resisting militarism and warfare in all its forms, whether it's on another continent or in their own classrooms and on their streets.

"I know for a fact that America wants me to fight for it. But America would never fight for me," says Roberto Harris, the ex-Marine recruit. "The army would never come fight for me on my block."

Lisle Montano is an organizer with the Center for Immigrant Families in New York City. She is also a member of Estacion Libre, a people of color collective in solidarity with the Zapatista struggle in Chiapas, Mexico.
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Title Annotation:report
Author:Montano, Lisie
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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