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Military-Enlisted Students Are Getting Called Up for “Riot Control”

Students who should be learning about struggles for racial justice are being deployed to repress those struggles.

A police officer keeps watch as people are arrested after the start of a citywide curfew outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse on August 29, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“I’m a soldier and I have been called up for riot control.”

This sentence appears in three emails that arrive in my inbox in late August, a few days before classes are set to begin at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM). Written by students, the emails are brief and lack subject lines, as though written in haste. They acknowledge that the senders will miss our first scheduled class session.

Following these initial messages, a second set arrives with attachments: form letters from commanding officers explaining the situation to supervisors. Each is worded slightly differently but carries a version of this sentence: “Please excuse our Soldier and your employee/student from all civilian obligations during this period to allow them focus on their mission.”

Only the last of the three email attachments specifies what I immediately suspect: These students are being deployed to nearby Kenosha, the most recent site of Movement for Black Lives uprising, in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Protests the day of the shooting resulted in property damage as well as the use of tear gas and flash bombs against civilians by Kenosha police. Subsequently, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers imposed an 8 pm curfew and called up the National Guard to “guard infrastructure” and “protect” Kenosha firefighters and police.

I respond to all three messages, and suggest that the students might be able to attend our first virtual class, if they have internet service available. Only one student responds to this suggestion, with a one-sentence, unsigned email: “I won’t be able to.”

The pace and tone of these emails unsettles me. Both students and commanding officers seem uncertain about when their deployment will end. “When I will be released is still unknown,” one student writes, the passive voice conveying a sense of anxiety.

The emails arrive as I am in the process of completing preparations for classes moved fully online because of the pandemic. As I construct my syllabi for U.S. History, 1607-1875 and Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies, the challenges of 2020 — including unprecedented struggles for racial justice, a pandemic particularly devastating to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) populations, and uncertainty about access to voting rights — are on my mind. Accordingly, I construct ways to encourage students to think about these issues historically and critically, to relate the world of scholarship to their experiences.

Many UWM students have been involved in Movement for Black Lives protests in Milwaukee this summer; many responded to the shooting of Blake by making the hour-long drive south to Kenosha to participate in demonstrations there. Some UWM students worked as jail support for Adelana Akindes, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, UW-Parkside chapter, and one of 20 protesters detained and held overnight by Kenosha police without access to a phone call or charges.

When I mention to one of these students that some members of my classes have been called up for “riot control,” they startle. “I don’t think I’d feel safe in a classroom in which other students have been doing that,” they say. I’m aware that they are imagining the deployment of state violence against protesters this summer in Portland and other cities in the name of “riot control.”

And I wonder how safe the student-soldiers feel in their newly issued riot gear, and whether some of them may previously have been attending protests this summer, as well.

Military service is how many of our students finance their higher education, how many first-generation, working-class and/or BIPOC students gain entrance into a public university system increasingly made inaccessible to them by soaring tuition. ROTC recruiters frequent school halls and career forums; their email and paper solicitations fill the inboxes of high school students, from sophomore year on. As the “access campus” of the University of Wisconsin system, UWM serves the highest proportion of military students in the state: 1,000 current students are veterans or enlisted.

Most likely, the students being deployed to Kenosha are National Guard reservists. Under this program, “citizen/soldiers” train one weekend a month and attend a two-week training once a year. In an “Education Support in the Army National Guard” promotional video, young people, most of them people of color, praise the support they receive. “Through the National Guard, I’m able to go to school basically for free,” says a young, Black woman.

The “Today’s Military” website advertising this program states, “National Guard units assist communities in their state during emergencies like storms, floods, fires and other natural disasters.” With its talk of “citizen/soldiers,” the website makes being a reservist sound like a kind of civil service. It doesn’t mention other possibilities, like being deployed for “riot control” against communities that look like the ones you come from.

While most student-soldiers are impelled by the financial necessity illustrated in the promotional videos, I wonder if many of them also imagined that they might serve their communities by signing on. “Citizen/soldier” guard units are visible in Wisconsin at free COVID-19 testing sites; they distribute food, as well. Certainly, few of the students who enlisted envisioned themselves being deployed in their hometowns, potentially wielding the forces of state against their fellow students, against people they know.

While many of my students this semester were born after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, continual warfare since that date has transformed their lives. Collective financial investments in militarism diverts public monies away from education and social programs, resulting in soaring student debt as well as diminished opportunities after graduation in a job market reeling from imposed austerity on everything but military spending. The financial impetus to enlist is itself created by militarism. In addition, our many foreign-born students contend with a Department of Homeland Security fed by post-9/11 militarist budgets and bent on collaborating with local police departments to deport longtime denizens. Enhanced policing profiles young people of color, trailing them on and off campus.

It’s mid-September now. The streets of Kenosha are quieter, though protests continue. Two of the military-enlisted students have returned to class; I haven’t heard from the third one.

Attending college is a bet on the future. To finance this wager, many of our students are forced to accrue debt, or to take on roles, like becoming soldiers, that they didn’t necessarily imagine for themselves. As the pandemic widens existing fault lines of inequality and mass media awareness of the continuing deaths of young people of color at the hands of police increases, this future is increasingly difficult to imagine.

Students are being pulled from their classrooms to be deployed as soldiers — possibly against their own communities — in order to be able to pay for their education. Instead of attending classes on struggles for racial justice, they are being mustered to repress those struggles. In this unpredictable and perilous time, teachers must ask: What does educational justice look like for all of our students? How can we work toward accessible higher education that does not force students to contemplate a lifetime of debt or military service?