Militarization, Surveillance, and Profit: How Grassroots Groups are Fighting Urban Shield

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EFF Deeplinks Blog

Militarization, Surveillance, and Profit: How Grassroots Groups are Fighting Urban Shield

Marion County, Oregon SWAT Team members during a training exercise. (Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation / Public Domain)

While all eyes are on the disturbing evidence of police militarization in Ferguson, are you paying attention to what’s happening with law enforcement in your own back yard?

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the answer is yes. A coalition of community groups has come together to call attention to Urban Shield, a four-day long “preparedness” exercise for law enforcement and other agencies that will take place from September 4-8.  They’ve organized a week of education, including a march and demonstration outside of the event on Friday, September 5. To these community groups, Urban Shield represents state violence and political repression, not public safety.

The reasons for protesting Urban Shield are clear. It is one of the ways that local law enforcement gets access to, and romanced by, military and surveillance technologies like the ones we've seen turned against protesters in Ferguson, as well as low-level crimes, across the country.

Urban Shield is coordinated by the for-profit company Cytel Group, and in addition to training exercises, it also functions as a marketplace and testing site for new militarized technologies. The accompanying trade show includes exhibitors from armored vehicle manufacturers to a “counter-terrorism magazine.” In 2013, companies were encouraged “to place their products and technology directly into the hands of SWAT, Fire, EOD, and EMS professionals.” Vending at Urban Shield is touted as a way to get “invaluable real-time feedback for vendor product[s]” since “at the end of every scenario the teams are questioned concerning the benefits and drawbacks of each piece of technology used in that scenario.” It’s unsurprising that Urban Shield has a "try it out" component for law enforcement, since there is an incredible amount of profit to be made from such products, often with federal funds (i.e. taxpayer dollars) footing the bill.

The event is part of the federal Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). UASI is a grant program administered by the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Grant Program (the same program that funds fusion centers). In the San Francisco Bay Area, the grants are coordinated by the Bay Area UASI, a regional coordinating body. UASI grants are supposed to go to “planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density Urban Areas.” The grants have gone to law enforcement agencies all over the country— but the program has been the subject of scathing critique from grassroots groups and lawmakers.

Much of the criticism around UASI is that the grants enable purchases of equipment that no community should adopt without a public conversation. The obvious examples are armored vehicles and so-called “less-lethal” weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets, like those used to violently suppress demonstrators in Ferguson. But UASI funds can also be used to purchase sophisticated surveillance equipment that, absent safeguards, could allow local law enforcement to spy on activists before demonstrations ever take place, or to racially profile people of color in communities like Oakland. Senator Tom Coburn’s 2012 report “Safety at Any Price” lists some of the equipment that has been purchased with UASI money, and it reads like a laundry list of privacy advocates’ concerns: surveillance cameras, mobile fingerprinting devices, automated license plate readers, armored vehicles, and drones. To make matters worse, as Senator Coburn's report points out, there is no evidence that these purchases make anyone safer.

It should also be noted that Urban Shield is not limited to the San Francisco area. Boston and Austin also participate in similar trainings, as has Jordan. And Jordan isn’t the only international connection. As the Urban Shield website boasts, “In 2014, teams from Singapore and South Korea will participate.” Teams in the past have included the French National Police and teams from Israel, Brazil, Jordan, and Bahrain. Police departments from across the country participate as well, including SWAT teams from Newark, Dallas, Chicago, and Travis County, Texas.

None of this has escaped the attention of organizers, who have made it clear that Urban Shield is linked to surveillance of activists and violence against communities of color across the country, but also to political repression internationally. In their words: “The line between police and military is blurring as parallel military tactics are being deployed globally to repress dissent and increase state control over people who are calling for freedom and justice.”

Nadia Kayyali

Nadia Kayyali is a member of the activism team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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