Over the weekend, the city of Boston hosted Urban Shield, a training for police and first responders that simulates scenarios such as an explosive device on mass transit or a “terrorist takeover” of a convention center. Though the headlines and official information released by the city called Urban Shield a “public safety training,” photographs from 2012′s Urban Shield-Boston training feature police dressed in what looks like military gear hanging out of an armored military-style Lenco BearCat vehicle, which, for many people living in Boston, is the exact opposite of what safety looks like.
While some in the national media spotlight just over a year ago questioned what many considered an “extreme response” by police to the Boston Marathon bombing — one that involved a lockdown of the city and SWAT teams roving the streets of Watertown — few drew the connection to the ongoing SWAT raids and militarized police presence in Boston neighborhoods where primarily poor people of color live, like Roxbury and Dorchester. Militarization is what some Boston residents experience on a daily basis; for them it is not an exceptional situation reserved for an “emergency.”
Many in Boston have raised the issue of the violence that continues on the streets of these neighborhoods, violence that generally goes unrecognized by the city. While Boston continues to grieve the loss of life of those killed in the tragic marathon bombing, many ask, “What about the loss of life where I live?” It seems that, to Boston, some lives are less important than others.
Not only does Boston not seem to care about the loss of life in these neighborhoods, but it channels resources into policing, detention and surveillance, which ultimately do far more harm than good, using the sad reality of street violence as a justification. People who are under assault by police and other U.S. law enforcement agents want resources invested that will actually strengthen our communities, from affordable housing to better health care and schools, and support for other vital community institutions. The reality of policing as it is experienced in Roxbury and Dorchester will not stop violence because, on the whole, it serves to amplify violence.
With trainings like Urban Shield, we see a new wave of justification for increased militarization in the name of “emergency preparedness” and “public safety.” While the marathon bombing and other “mass casualty” incidents are indeed tragic, they are very rare compared to the ongoing violence faced by some Bostonians everyday. Millions of dollars are being funneled from the Department of Homeland Security into police departments that use these resources to train in military tactics. We have been seeing these tactics put into practice in Boston neighborhoods through SWAT and ICE raids. These resources are also invested in the purchase or transfer of military weaponry, including large armored vehicles, AR-15 rifles and surveillance programs, like those that spy on Muslims and Leftist political groups throughout the city.
When federal and local funds are used to militarize police, the result is increased police violence in our neighborhoods, which further stigmatizes, isolates and criminalizes individuals instead of addressing the root causes of violence at the community level. It results in the continued profiling, surveillance and targeting of Muslims, immigrants, people of color and dissidents of all backgrounds.
Take, for example the case of Dr. Tarek Mehanna, the young Boston Muslim community leader who the FBI targeted and pressured to become an informant in 2011, then locked up when he refused. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office then proceeded to surveil and pressure other Boston Muslims to testify against him and prevent them from voicing support. Around the same time, the FBI entrapped another young Muslim man in Boston who is now serving out a 17-year sentence in a brutally isolating “Communications Management Unit” of Terre Haute Federal Prison in Indiana, just as Tarek is. These two follow a pattern. There are hundreds of similar cases, where the same tactics are thrown at Muslims and activists with unsettling ease.
It goes without saying that none of these things will keep us safe. But the real question is: when federal agents, police and city officials champion highly militarized trainings like Urban Shield as “public safety” exercises, who counts as the public?
In opposition to Urban Shield on Sunday, in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, a coalition of community organizations called Stop Oppressive Militarized Police, or STOMP, along with the War Resisters League’s Facing Tear Gas campaign, held a speak out for Bostonians opposed to the militarization of our city and the bogus justifications for why we should except this as the new status quo. (Check out the hashtag #stompbos for dispatches from the event.)
We want an end to trainings that normalize SWAT raids, to Boston’s “Fusion Center” which is at the heart of the new DHS-backed hyper surveillance and to programs like “1033″ that directly transfer military hardware from the Pentagon to local police departments, free of charge. We are calling on the city to resource our communities and help to ensure our well-being without police and military-style interventions.
We are building power together, and demilitarizing Boston is only the beginning.