Eleven instructors of the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps shuffled into the school board meeting in late March like men on death row who might be handed an 11th-hour pardon. Hopeful skeptics. Just two weeks before, the San Francisco Unified School District had sent them pink slips — proof that the school board was making good on its three-year threat to kick them to the curb.
The message, passed by a 4-3 school board vote in 2006, was this: Hell, no, you can't have a program run by retired sergeants and colonels in the peacenik capital of the Left Coast. Sorry, our kids will not goose-step around the courtyard in uniforms. As things stand now, the instructors must dismantle their programs at seven high schools in June. It's the first time anywhere in the country that JROTC has been kicked out of a school district solely on ideological grounds, according to Paul Kotakis, the program's national spokesman.
It has been a quintessential only-in-San Francisco battle — the military ambassadors playing the rogues, and the lefty progressives as the establishment — and one that will not die. At that March board meeting, two commissioners (both of whom have taken pains to reassert their liberal antiwar credentials despite supporting the program) introduced a resolution to bring JROTC coughing back up on shore. That day's Examiner had indicated that the new post-election lineup on the school board might provide the four votes needed to do just that.
The combatants set up camp for the re-enactment of so many previous battles. Armed with their "I love JROTC" and "JROTC keeps me off the streets" posters, the clean-cut high schoolers scribbled last-minute changes to their speeches. One instructor saved a seat for Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who introduced a bill in February to force the school board to save the program. Graying antiwar activists filed in, wearing the regalia of the left: a "Give Bush the Boot" T-shirt, "Military Out of Our Schools Now" pins, a camouflage combat jacket of a Marine who said he was out of jail for refusing to go to Iraq.
It would be a long wait. The meeting started 45 minutes late because of the tardy arrival of board president Kim-Shree Maufas, the mother of a former JROTC cadet and a skeptic of the program. With the JROTC measure scheduled for a first reading — no vote — far down in the agenda, Maufas denied a commissioner's request to move the public comment earlier in the meeting to let the kids get home, as has been done at nearly every meeting they've attended. (Ma had also requested earlier that day that the item be taken out of order, a courtesy for high-ranking officials.)
With the JROTC instructors in the lobby on edge and grumbling about "disrespect" and "delay tactics," even school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe interpreted Maufas' move as a political statement: "I don't think this is so much a message to the kids, but to the other commissioners about whether this should have been brought up again."
Maufas finally called public comment at 9:55 p.m., three hours into the meeting. And the circus began.
Cutting in front of the dozen students lined up behind the lectern, the pinstripe-suited president of the San Francisco NAACP, Amos Brown, and Robert Powell, the head of the city's JROTC, ate up four of the allotted five minutes spitting fire at the commissioners for making the kids wait. "This is democracy? We're not in Zimbab-we!" the usually affable Powell barked. Maufas simply raised her eyebrows.
Teenagers from HOMEY (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth), an antigang group in the Mission, offered a rebuttal: "We need people to teach us right from wrong, not to shoot for our government. ...What is the JROTC doing for my community? Not nothing," one said to loud applause from the activists in the room.
After the testimony, Commissioner Jane Kim, a critic of JROTC, stated that the five-minute limit was a rule, not an insult: "I think the adults knew this, and you organized folks to come out knowing there was five minutes total," she said. JROTC instructor Greg Bullard later shot back: "Does she think we're going to let the first reading go forth without us showing our support? It's an arrogant comment, and you can print that."
Well past midnight, Maufas referred the resolution to save JROTC to three committees that will recommend how the board should vote, supposedly in May. The instructors fear this is "death by committee" (two of the committees, one of which has decided not to meet in April, have a majority of presumed opponents) or a delay tactic to let the clock run out till June and then claim there's nothing they can do. Maufas says it's just normal procedure.
In the lobby, buzzing with emotion after public comment, a JROTC cadet broke into tears: "That was so not five minutes!" A JROTC dad-turned-activist snapped at a Military Out of Our Schools activist making a beeline for the pizza ordered by Assemblywoman Ma: "That pizza is for the JROTC students!"
That's what all this is about, right — who cares more about the kids? Yet in what JROTC-supporting board member Jill Wynns calls "the most blatant example of politics that aren't really about students," the high schoolers have become pawns in a political showdown between two factions so polarized they each dismiss the other's arguments as lies.
The anti-JROTC contingent is convinced the program is a rotten tool of recruitment into a homophobic military that, if not creating cannon fodder for America's wars of imperialism, pumps out "yes sir" automatons who don't question the military like they do. The JROTC folks insist they take misfits and brainiacs, the straight and the queer, and turn them into leaders who respect themselves, each other, and their country.
And as the issue gets mulled by school board committees this month, only one outcome is assured. Someone will lose.
On a basketball court behind Lowell High School, the members of the JROTC flag team counted to 20, whipping flag poles in sharp movements like so many ninja samurai. The props themselves are ingrained with San Francisco values: In the mid-'90s, the school board banned the air rifles used in target practice and the decoy ones used in drill competition, leaving the cadets to twirl the politically safer poles instead.