Grassroots Resistance as 'Police Militarization' Expo Descends on Oakland

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Grassroots Resistance as 'Police Militarization' Expo Descends on Oakland

While world watches US law enforcement, 'Urban Shield' brings defense contractors, law enforcement agencies, and SWAT teams for war games and arms trade

Berkeley Police Department Urban Shield Team 2009 (Photo: Berkeley Police Department)

Sustained resistance in Ferguson, Missouri — in the face of riot police, and military service members, and war-grade weapons and vehicles — has forced the issue of police racism and militarization into the national and global spotlight.

As the summer closes on a note of outrage, forces driving police militarization — including defense contractors, law enforcement agencies, and SWAT teams from around the world — are converging in Oakland, California on September 4th through 8th for the 9th annual "Urban Shield" exercise and weapons technology expo that is bankrolled by arms manufacturers and the Department of Homeland Security.

They are being met with protests from grassroots organizations and local residents who say Urban Shield is not welcome in their city — or anywhere.

"People all over the world are watching the militarization of U.S. law enforcement and making the connections between militarization on the global level and local policing," Lara Kiswani of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center told Common Dreams. "This is an opportunity for us here in Oakland to demonstrate how we stand against militarization."

"Exact Opposite of Safety"

Coordinated by Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, Urban Shield is funded in part by the Urban Areas Security Initiative, which was founded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The event has a long list of "partners" ranging from California law enforcement agencies to international bomb squads to oil corporations to defense contractors. However, the details of the "training" and arms trade slated to take place at the event, as well as a full list of funding sources, is not being fully disclosed, and public records requests from community organizations have gone unanswered. An internal memo (PDF) from Ahern's office, obtained by the War Resisters League, finds that Urban Shield comes at a cost of at least $1.7 million to U.S. taxpayers.

While Urban Shield is billed as an event to bolster rapid response to disasters and terrorism, local residents have a different take. "Urban Shield gets sold to local communities as emergency preparedness, but the technology and weaponry being traded and the kinds of maneuvers they are doing are hyper-militarized and rooted in racism and fear mongering around terrorism, fueled by money from the Department of Homeland Security," Rachel Herzing of prison abolition organization Critical Resistance — one of the numerous organizations organizing the protests — said in an interview with Common Dreams.

According to Kiswani, Urban Shield's use of the "terrorist" threat to justify this massive "militarized" gathering is "one way the targeting of Arabs and Muslims is used to justify the further criminalization of black and brown communities." 

The likely participation of repressive states — including Israel — has sparked concern among grassroots organizations. While Urban Shield has not disclosed the full list of participants for this year, organizers say that the past participation of numerous Israeli security agencies — including the Border Police Unit Yamam, which carries out extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinians — indicates that Israel is certain to play a role in this year's gathering as well. Israel's participation strikes an especially raw nerve for organizers given the state's recent military assault on the besieged Gaza strip, as well as revelations that at least four law enforcement agencies deployed to Ferguson were trained by Israeli security forces.

Meanwhile, the event is spreading far beyond Oakland. Since Urban Shield was founded, it has expanded to other U.S. cities, including Boston, Dallas, and Austin.

"Urban Shield is the epitome of the militarization of the police happening on a national and global scale, and the main purpose of urban shield is for law enforcement agencies to come together to learn how to better repress and control our communities," Mohamed Shehk of Critical Resistance told Common Dreams. "They do it under the guise of public safety, but these law enforcement agencies are exactly the thing that are causing a threat to our communities. They are the exact opposite of safety."

Grassroots Push-Back

Urban Shield will be met on Friday with a rally and noise demonstration organized by the coalition Facing Urban Shield and carrying the message that Oakland is not a "testing ground for repression," according to a statement from the War Resisters League. This follows a week of education and action in Oakland, organized by grassroots groups, aimed at informing local residents about the Urban Shield event happening in their back yards. The organizations participating in this coalition span a broad range of constituencies — from the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network to the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action to the  Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

The coalition has already achieved a major victory against an event that, just a few years ago, was virtually unknown to the public. Following a community campaign urging the Marriott Convention Center — which is owned by the city of Oakland and managed by Marriott — to cancel its contract with Urban Shield, organizers received confirmation from the Convention Center on Tuesday that the contract will not be renewed next year. Herzing says that the coalition was not given a clear reason why the deal was severed, or who drove the decision — in keeping with Urban Shield's lack of transparency. But Herzing said she's certain that community pressure played a critical role.

Oakland has long been the site of police brutality and local resistance. Just five years ago, the BART Police murder of unarmed 22-year-old African-American man Oscar Grant in Oakland touched off mass protests in the city. "I think it's really insult to injury to host this thing in Oakland," said Herzing. "Oakland has very long history of police violence and very militarized responses to black and brown communities here and also has very strong history of resistance."

"We Aim to Dismantle Police Militarization"

Urban Shield comes amid the ongoing militarization of U.S. police, showcased in Ferguson and enabled by a patchwork of programs facilitating collaboration between police and law enforcement.

The Pentagon's 1033 program, which was established in the 1990s, authorizes the Department of Defense to donate what it considers surplus military equipment to police and sheriff departments in the United States. Meanwhile, the 1122 program allows police to purchase military weapons deemed non-surplus at a reduced price for purposes of "counter-drug, homeland security and emergency response activities." Since September 11, 2001, the federal government spent billions of dollars on grants to assist in the arming of local police departments with military-grade weaponry recycled from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the 2011 findings of the Center for Investigative Reporting.  As a result, combat equipment ranging from Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to grenade launchers to automatic weapons are being used to patrol U.S. streets, enter homes, and crack down on protests — from Boston to Ferguson.

The influx of weapons has led to the heavy arming of paramilitary SWAT teams, which were used increasingly throughout the 1970s and exploded during the onset of the War on Drugs. They are now used for policing activities ranging from drug raids to delivery of warrants. A recent ACLU report found that, between 2011 and 2012, SWAT raids conducted by local, state, and federal police disproportionately target people of color.

A coalition press statement slammed the vast impacts of these programs, which include: "SWAT raids that disproportionately impact the Black community happening 100 times per day in the U.S. often under the banner of the War on Drugs; ICE raids that force immigrants into dehumanizing detention and deportation proceedings; and surveillance and infiltration of mosques and Leftist political organizations."

Tara Tabassi of War Resisters League told Common Dreams via email, "We aim to dismantle all police militarization programs: Urban Shield, UASI, 1033, 1122 and Fusion Centers. Achieving that though, we would still be faced with the mentality of police militarization, domestically and globally. Occupation is not just about weapons, whether in Ferguson or Palestine. It exists because the present social order requires it, and that's why we are seeing a movement growing — from Boston to the Bay — that gets to the roots of the problem by demanding community self-determination."

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