The sight of a Blue Lives Matter flag, with its menacing color scheme, immediately signifies an ideological stance that aligns with brutality, racism, and impunity under the guise of respect for authority. A symbol of institutions meant to protect but more efficient at terrorizing. To see this perturbing emblem casually decorating the walls of a classroom in director Maisie Crow’s documentary “At the Ready” merits great concern.
Mostly observational, with some segments staged as slightly more structured interviews and plenty of text on screen, the film takes place in 2018 at Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas. Note the relevance of the place and time: a border town when the Trump presidency implemented inhumane family-separation policies to handle the migrant caravan from Central America. Such fanning of the flames of anti-immigrant hatred preceded the 2019 El Paso shooting. (“At the Ready” wraps its arc before the tragedy occurs.)
Law enforcement classes are offered at 900 high schools across Texas, creating a pipeline from desk to workforce with the promise of economic remuneration and a meaningful career. Training surpasses theory, as those interested partake in simulacra of drug raids or active-shooter situations sporting replica guns and uniforms. Furthermore, juried competitions with other schools determine how well they can apply the procedures in a seemingly dangerous environment. In truth, this comes off as indoctrination.
As Spanglish scores the hallways, given that the majority of teenagers are of Mexican descent, retired police officers teaching these courses preach loyalty and the opportunity to bypass college. Insidiously, the program preys on working-class children of immigrants often lured in not by conviction but out of necessity. Their parents at home see their involvement as a positive, a pathway into a better future. Decently paying jobs that don’t require a degree appeal to a student body where many are the first in their family to graduate high school, can’t get into debt, and need to help support their households.
Astutely, Crow condenses a sprawling topic and its ramifications to three subjects: Kassy, chosen as commander of the Criminal Justice club and struggling with her sexual orientation; Cesar, a sensitive guy trying to reconnect with his father living in Mexico; and Christina, who’s part of the Border Patrol Explorer imitative for those wishing to join their ranks. By choice, it appears, the director selected adolescents with a degree of ambivalence about the conservative principles presented to them, as opposed to centering their misguidedly “patriotic” counterparts. This trio exercises critical thinking even as they engage in the inherently violent tactical/role playing sessions. There’s hope for them.
In a deceitfully cheerful scene, Christina, sitting at the table with mom and dad, recalls being younger and thinking she’d become a teacher, a veterinarian, or an astronaut and how her predilection for those fields slowly eroded when a more feasible option (Border Patrol) came about. Although her immigrant father beams with pride, not precisely because of the position but just at the notion that she’ll do better than him, the underlying implication is that Christina’s socioeconomic circumstances labeled those dreams as unrealistic, making her vulnerable to fall for what law enforcement promises. Conscious that Border Patrol agents with Latino heritage are frequently deemed traitors, reconciling her beliefs with the heinous home-wrecking acts those agencies enforce turns increasingly traumatic.
Outside from the repetitious montages, the least successful aspect of editors Nina Vizcarrondo and Austin Reedy’s generally dynamic narrative construction, the rehearsals for confrontations or mock-missions don’t appear to provide much as far as skills applicable to quotidian conflict. Everything funnels to these young men and women entering the clan of badges and abuse of power.
Still, for Kassy (who’s home alone all day while her father works) and others, these classes perversely step in as an option of companionship, a family away from home, something to belong to. But as she mentions, it isn’t a safe space, but rather a toxic one for anyone who strays from conventions. We never hear him, but Kassy notes that Mr. Guerra, one of the retired cops turned “educators,” blatantly expresses homophobic views that, as a gay person in the closet, are detrimental to her. It’s easy to believe Guerra holds those perspectives as he vehemently supports for ruffian Ted Cruz solely based on his support for cops.
Like with police departments in the real world, it becomes nearly impossible to separate the adults at Horizon that genuinely care for the students, such as the prominent Ms. Weaver, from the awful values that the group they are a part of embodies as a whole. Yes, not all cops or border patrol agents are inhumane, but what they stand for and condone is.
“At the Ready” and Peter Nicks’ recently released documentary “Homeroom” make an eye-opening double feature on two distinct segments of Latino youth. The latter deals with students of color in an Oakland high school involved in social-justice causes, especially in getting policing out of schools. Together, they form a portrait of the divide between the values of those in a progressive state holding power accountable, and the ones in a Republican stronghold where police are not only inside the school, but also actively recruiting.
Missing from Crow’s work are the opinions of students not part of this curriculum, so we could learn how they feel about seeing their classmates pretending to break into places and about what their school is supporting. Are there no voices of dissent? Is anyone on campus against this, or is the overwhelming support a deterrent for anyone to speak up? “At the Ready” plays like a frightening but necessary exposé of state-sanctioned copaganda targeting young people from marginalized backgrounds to groom them into instruments of their very oppressor.
“At the Ready” opens in theaters and on demand Oct. 22.