Sullivan Campaign '09: Part 1
By Joshua Noehrenberg
On May 16th, 2009, local organizers from Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), Veterans For Peace (VFP), Labor Beat and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), just to name a few, gathered in Kresge Hall at Northwestern University to engage in a series of discussions on what it means to demilitarize the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). David Solnit, a long-time organizer with Courage to Resist, and a pioneer of the use of Puppetry at the November 1999 protests against the WTO, led us in a workshop on building a campaign against the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) and military academies, which combine to make the Chicago Public School system the most militarized in the nation. At the end of the session, we set a next meeting time and date, and allotted ourselves several research assignments.
Over the next two months, the Demilitarized U (DU) coalition ebbed and flowed throughout a cycle of bi-monthly meetings. During our one hour sessions, we quickly discovered evidence that the JROTC program in Chicago did not affect graduation rates, when all other factors remained constant, in some cases, gangs formed within the JROTC units, and, perhaps, worst of all, the program functioned as a very important recruitment tool for the Department of Defense (DOD), as anywhere from 30-52% of cadets enlist in the military. So, we begin to craft an ever more detailed strategy and message, started speaking out at the monthly Chicago Board of Education meetings and decided to stop the JROTC from coming into Sullivan high school in Rogers Park, since it was on the waitlist for the DOD's approval.
As we prepared to outreach on the first day of school, September 8th, 2009, we learned that Sullivan no longer remained on the waitlist. Instead, this year marks its first trial-phase at Sullivan high school. This means that if the program gains enough cadets (120), then further implementation will follow. Thus, our goal went from blocking the implementation of JROTC at Sullivan to discrediting it and discouraging students from joining. Most of us feel the need to help provide an alternative.
During the first-day-of-school outreach effort, we received a lot of positive feedback. Although we knew there was opposition, and that violence is a major factor behind the adoption of JROTC at Sullivan, 10 of us arrived at 6:20am, passed out 700 informational leaflets, and gathered contact information from 10 students, 5 parents, 1 teacher, and 3 neighbors, all of whom are willing to help us help them eliminate the program. As kids funneled into the only entrance to the school, many folks expressed their gratitude for our efforts with a heartfelt "thank you," or a friendly honk from their car horn, while our opposition just sat inside and grinned.
Over the next weeks, we followed up with our contacts and outreached to more folks after school. During these visits, we learned of the affect of our efforts. Students told us that their teachers addressed our presence in class and warned them about the negative side of military service. Teacher's notified us that they posted our leaflet in classrooms and break rooms. Parents informed us they will ensure their child does not enroll in JROTC. Neighbors displayed signs saying "No JROTC At Sullivan." Along with these achievements, by the end of the month, we gathered valid contact information from 25 students, 5 teachers, 4 parents, and 5 neighbors.
However, at the "good news" portion of the September 23rd, 2009, Board of Education meeting, retired US Army Colonel Rick Mills, joined by three CPS students, expressed their gratitude for allowing recent Medal of Honor recipients to visit Chicago Schools. While at least two students with him showed less than enthusiastic, original responses, by the end of their fifteen minutes, even the president of the Chicago Board of Education, Michael W. Scott, admitted that these visits came as a surprise. As a young cadet shadowed the president during this meeting, the theme of militarism remained readily apparent. So when our turn arrived, we got two minutes and Joleen Kirschenman, our presenter, delivered an awesome speech. As soon as she said that when you are in the military, "you either kill, or support those who kill," I noticed the young cadet react with disgust, shaking her head slightly, as if she swallowed something not as pleasing to the ear as the words, "valor," "honor," or "commitment."
In October, we invited our contacts to an initial strategy meeting at the United Church of Rogers Park, not more than three blocks from Sullivan. While only two parents showed up (along with most of the coalition members), several students, a teacher, and two neighbors expressed a deep interest in participating but could not make the meeting. However, of the two parents, one of them is an elected member to the Local School Council (LSC) at Sullivan, and volunteered to bring the JROTC issue up at the next LSC meeting, as well as report back on how the other members feel about it.
This all means that if we can build enough popular resistance to the program over the next couple of months, there is a strong possibility the LSC will instruct the principal to shut it down. Also, if our coalition comes to a consensus and can begin to craft an alternative simultaneously, then there is an equally strong chance that we can get $10,000 from the Cross Roads Fund in March for the start up. Perhaps, more importantly, if we can build long-term relationships with everyone involved, then we can keep the pressure on, and move onto the next school without losing what we gained.
Joshua Noehrenberg served in the United States Army Illinois National Guard as an infantry soldier (11B) from 2000 to 2005 until honorably discharged under chapter 10. He deployed with C 1/178th to Germany, Poland, and Ft. Polk, LA (USA) during the Global War on Terror (GWT).