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A group of students huddle outside a classroom door, waiting for instructions. Soon, the all-clear is given. The door is held open by a peer as the high schoolers move in wearing black police helmets, weapons drawn, quiet yet determined.
Appalachian Theatre of the High Country's virtual screening of Maisie Crow's 2021 film At the Ready, which follows a high school law enforcement club in Texas, depicts the rigorous training of a group of seniors at Horizon High School in El Paso. The film gives voice to a perhaps little-known perspective on Border Patrol and law enforcement agents, two roles particularly controversial in the border town of El Paso.
Horizon High School's law enforcement club trains students through immersion, with mock drug raids, (fake) gun handling, handcuffing, and more. It's exciting, and many of the students become fascinated enough to pursue law enforcement post-grad with dreams of protecting their own community and/or the US border.
The irony – and main point – of this documentary deals with the fact that all of the students training to protect the El Paso border from in-coming Latinx immigrants (and otherwise) are themselves Latinx. In fact, the city of El Paso is 83% Hispanic. Thus arise a series of conflicts both internal and external for these students who are pursuing careers that seemingly contradict their very identities.
Three students become the focus of the documentary: two current seniors in the program and one alum who has recently joined the Border Patrol. Through their stories, we learn that while Border Patrol agents have recently become a symbol for anti-Latinx racism and xenophobia, it turns out that about half of the total US Border Patrol happen to be Latinx, too. Cristina, who has just graduated and joined the Border Patrol, has been mostly supported by her parents. In Spanish, her father explains that he is very proud of his daughter for her career aspirations and though he acknowledges the reputation that the agents have in his community, hopes for positive things that Cristina can do, maybe even "saving the lives" of some migrants who may be in danger while crossing the border.
Cesar, a current senior and member of the law enforcement club when this film was made, faces his own dilemmas about becoming either a police officer or a Border Patrol agent. Cesar lives with his mother and little brother in El Paso, but his father lives across the border in Juárez. When Cesar was young, his father was arrested for smuggling drugs into the United States from Mexico. He was arrested, though allowed to stay in the States, as long as he didn't travel elsewhere. According to Cesar, his father immediately went to Juárez and is now forbidden from re-entering the US. Cesar begins the film set on his career, despite the connotations it may have for his own father. (When Cesar tells his dad about his career interest, his father says, "but you would let me in, right?" "I wouldn't do anything to risk my job," Cesar replies.) He eventually quits the club, deciding that it is best to focus on nurturing his relationship with his father. He crosses back and forth over the border frequently to visit.
Finally, Mason (who was known in the film as Kassy but has since transitioned genders and is known by his new name), is the leader of the club. Mason's father is rarely home, and Mason spends much of his time alone. Among other things, law enforcement club provides not only a career track, but also a much-needed social outlet. Throughout the film, we see the loving mentorship of several teachers, former law enforcement members providing parent-like support for their students, and camaraderie between the students.
Meanwhile, the documentary inserts newsclips of current events, featuring the horrific separation of migrant children and parents at the border that occurred under the Trump administration. The law enforcement club discusses these as well as other issues of border security. In one heated conversation about whether or not it would be a good idea to militarize the border in anticipation of the recent "caravan" of migrants from Central America, one student said he thought it would be necessary to do so. His opponent quickly replied: "I don't get how he can say that – he literally lives in Juárez!"
Crow does a good job of presenting two conflicting yet sympathetic perspectives of these students and El Paso law enforcement. On the one hand, Border Patrol and the police force provide stable careers and solid pay, so we see the same appeal that the students do. We also see the crucial role that this club plays in the students' lives, making it easy to be attracted to a lifetime of similar experience. On the other hand, as Cristina sees on her first few days of work, the job can be demoralizing and the duties straight-up cruel, particularly when your detainees are in diapers. Yet, Crow does not cast judgement. Viewers are left to make their own decisions about these positions and those who fill them.
You find yourself rooting for the students' success; however, there are many disturbing moments brought upon by the club itself that make you wish they'd choose to do something else. In several instances, the instructors make it clear that officers have the right to shoot criminals. Rather than a "last resort" policy, the instructors talk about busting into drug pins or other raids and "lighting them up." "Chest and head," one teacher specifies. The students then become conditioned to think of shooting "criminals" as a major part of their potential job. One student is even overheard telling his peer he wants to do "some John Wayne shit" as he waves his plastic gun. This recurring insistence on violence as a first resort and dehumanization of those being arrested brings to mind the recent images of Haitian refugees being whipped by law enforcement on horseback. It is terribly discouraging. In their training, the students seemed to be taught like soldiers to wipe out an enemy, rather than, as Cristina's father may have hoped, an ally of the community, promoting safety for all people.
The Appalachian Theatre will continue through the fall with several more movies available for streaming. At the Ready will remain on-demand through Thursday, September 30. Please see the sidebar for more details.