Between October 25 and 28 a major urban security training event and trade expo will invade Alameda County, Calif. Urban Shield, now in its seventh year, is a marketplace of repressive ideas and technologies.
The mood on the expo floor is largely convivial and friendly, with stalls staffed by as many bored salespeople as over-enthusiastic product pushers. Alongside fearsome military technologies are everyday objects like flashlights, mobile phones and bicycles. These signs of ordinariness stand as reminders of how normal the militarization of society has come to seem.
The stated goal of Urban Shield is to improve “regional disaster response capabilities,” but rather than fostering community-focused crisis response, it presents a view of our “high-threat, high-density” cities as always, already violent spaces. This vision of urban life dehumanizes and criminalizes public assembly and nonviolent protest.
The annual event has a variety of backers, including the Department of Homeland Security and over 100 police and military agencies. It features a wide-range of corporate partners peddling their wares from Black-Ops Airsoft training guns to Safariland Group’s body armor and “less lethal” tear gas line. The past participation of governments like those of Bahrain and Israel has already come under scrutiny from journalist Max Blumenthal. This year Urban Shield will host representatives from even more countries, such as Brazil, that are currently struggling to quell popular uprisings and stabilize their international image.
The arrival of Urban Shield’s carnival of control technologies has dozens of Bay Area groups raising pointed questions: Why should their community support the market for policing techniques and technologies that have been responsible for so many deaths and injuries, like the killing of the unarmed man Oscar Grant by a public transit policeman and the police projectile assault on veteran Scott Olsen? The city council of Oakland, located in Alameda County, recently paid $1.17 million to Occupy Oakland participants for injuries suffered at the hands of police with riot control technologies.
The Facing Urban Shield Action Network, a coalition of 20 groups in the Bay Area, is organizing actions this week to make visible the corporate interests at the heart of this growing urban security industry. The coalition has prepared a day-long picket, rally and press conference in front of the Marriott Hotel in Oakland, which is hosting this year’s Urban Shield weapons expo and seminars.
A brief history of selling security
Urban Shield is just one part of a burgeoning homeland security industry estimated to be worth over $190 billion. Sales of “less lethal” policing technologies have been on the rise globally since the uprisings of 2011. According to market researchers at Visiongain, the Arab Spring uprisings stand to “help drive some of the strongest growth rates in homeland security spending in emerging markets over the next 10 years.”
While private-public partnerships have long been a feature of policing technologies, it wasn’t until the 1980s that commercial interests and heavy corporate lobbying really took off. This turn to privatization accompanied a rise in the demand for military and paramilitary tactics and weaponry. A militarized approach to policing led to the sieges in Waco and Ruby Ridge, the crackdown on MOVE and, most significantly, the United States’ expanding “war on drugs.” At the end of the Cold War, surplus technologies and expertise — from X-ray machines to radar networks — were retooled and remarketed to combat the drug trade.
Prior to the 1980s, few advertising venues existed for security technologies. Promotion was mainly confined to illustrated annuals made by military enthusiasts, such as Fred T. Jane, founder of what is now the industry-leading company IHS Jane’s. Today Jane’s sells its “comprehensive view of law enforcement and paramilitary equipment in production and service around the world” for $2,655.
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, corporations both inside and outside the existing security industry began to recognize a business opportunity as counterterrorism budgets expanded. Between 2001 and 2006, the Department of Homeland Security experienced a 195-percent increase in its spending budget.
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More than a decade after 9/11, even as security budgets have tightened under austerity measures, the market for private sector providers continues to grow. Telecommunications, electronics and computing corporations have won a growing number of contracts. In 2010, Hewlett-Packard received a $41.6 million contract to help with the support center for U.S. customs and immigration, following its 2008 purchase of EDS, a leading information services corporations holding a number of Department of Homeland Security contracts.
With advancements in digital and online technologies, this coalescence of security and telecommunications companies continues to accelerate. Major players at Urban Shield include Motorola and Verizon, which last year showed off its 4G LTE capabilities. Across the world, from London’s Counter-Terror Expo to Qatar’s Milipol, expo partnerships are bringing together traditional arms security with information-security vendors.
While the United States, alongside Israel and the United Kingdom, remain leaders in the security marketplace, expos and major marketing events are not restricted to these regions. Global Security Asia began in 2005. By 2011, the expo was drawing over 4,000 visitors with representatives from 13 different national governments. The Middle East mega-event IDEX, the International Defence Exhibition and Conference, celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2012, drawing more than 60,000 people from 52 countries. In India, another security leader, Security Watch India has hosted such events since 2009.
Boasting of penetration into 26 new national markets, weapons manufacturer Condor’s non-lethal technologies marketing director boasts of having overseen a 33 percent revenue increase “via marketing communication tools and trade show participation.”
As the security sector expands, the sale and export of these technologies increasingly occurs beyond the gaze of governments. This deregulation has led to an accompanying loss of accountability as to how these weapons are actually deployed. A complex chain of private third-party sales mean that companies like Condor can claim not to know how their tear gas canisters ended up on the streets. As this industry expands, protest becomes a playground for repression profiteers.
Pushing back at expos
With the wide-scale abuse of tear gas and other crowd control technologies in the Arab Spring uprisings, the European austerity protests and the Occupy movement, there has also been an increase in awareness of, and protests against, the broader militarization of public space and policing. Drawing on decades of resistance to the arms trade by groups like the War Resisters League and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, as well as in the vibrant women’s peace camps of the 1980s, contemporary campaigns are embracing nonviolent direct action in efforts to directly target those responsible.
It should come as no surprise that the Oakland community is pushing back. Militarized police tactics has taken the lives of many of its residents. On October 25, community groups including the Oscar Grant Foundation, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Cop Watch–Berkeley, and the Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace and Justice will gather outside the Marriott Hotel for a day-long picket and rally. Oscar Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson will speak. Joined by Occupy Oakland, the War Resisters League’s Facing Tear Gas campaign will also lead an action targeting tear gas and riot control supplier Safariland Group.
The Facing Urban Shield Action Network has explained that its aim is “to send a clear message to repression profiteers and police that they must be directly accountable to the communities they now patrol.” By exposing these mega-events as profit-driven arenas for marketing, trading and training in violence, campaigners bring corporations’ privatized practices into public view.
Rather than focusing only on weapons dealers, targeting expos exposes the partnerships that create and maintain the military-industrial complex. The web of Urban Shield’s supporters — from the nearby University of California to Marriott Hotel to Verizon to Safariland — clearly demonstrates the need to push back not only on arms manufacturers but on the networked partnerships that legitimize and normalize the militarization of our police, our cities and our everyday lives.