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How Organizers in One City Are Trying to Stop Militarization From Slipping Into Their Community

Oakland activists are working to stop Urban Shield, a militarized weapons expo and training program, from coming to town.

A scene from an Urban Shield training in 2012.
Photo Credit: screenshot


Heavily armed officers, weapons drawn, move across a bridge draped with a banner reading “No war for oil” and “We are the 99%." One corner of the banner sports the A anarchist symbol. Shortly after, they capture their targets: protesters.

This scene may be all too familiar to protesters. But it’s actually a staged police training put on by Urban Shield, a SWAT team training program and weapons expo that has taken place in the Bay Area for the past seven years. This year, as last, Urban Shield’s weapon show takes place in the Oakland Marriot Convention Center in downtown Oakland, CA, September 4-8.

In a city that has a tense relationship with police, hosting a conference that is ultimately an effort to militarize policing and hawk weaponry doesn't sit well with community members, who are organizing to stop Urban Shield from coming to town.

“They try to put Urban Shield under this umbrella of public safety because there’s also collaboration with fire departments and emergency medical response teams,” said Kamau Walton, a War Resisters League organizer. “But the tools and the tactics they are utilizing, that they gain from the vendor show are being used against community members on a regular basis. And these are not emergency situations, these are peaceful protests, like the ones we’ve seen in Ferguson.”

How Urban Shield Promotes Police Militarization

The excessive weaponry and force used on Ferguson protesters has sparked a national conversation around the militarization of local police. In a speech, President Obama even ordered a review of the Defense Department’s 1033 program that has provided $4.3 billion worth of military equipment to local law enforcement since 1997.

However, there’s more to the story than the 1033 program. The Urban Areas Security Initiative, a Department of Homeland Security grant program, is the source of funding for Urban Shield. The UASI program awards state and local law enforcement agencies billions to purchase “tactical,” often military-grade equipment. 

Urban Shield, which began in the Bay Area in 2007, has expanded to Boston, cities in Texas, and even overseas in the Middle East and Africa. Cytel Group, a contract research organization that trademarked Urban Shield, has also worked with the Israel Defense Forces. Cytel organizes Urban Shield along with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Cytel’s president is a former Alameda County assistant sheriff.

Urban Shield consists of two components: a weapons show and workshops, which will take place at the Marriot, and training exercises, which are conducted throughout the Bay Area. At the weapons expo, venders shows off automatic rifles, armored vehicles, surveillance gear and more. There are also drones, which police departments are increasingly considering using in the wake of Ferguson. Safariland, a U.S. company whose tear gas has been used in Gaza, Ferguson and Oakland, will also be present.   

J.D. Nelson, public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said that militarization of the police has been in place since the country began. Nelson said people tend to “pick and choose” what they don’t like about it, adding that almost everyone uses GPS devices, which was a technology created by the military.

Pressed on the seemingly excessive weaponry for local enforcement, Nelson said, "The interesting thing is that after 9/11, they said ‘We’re going to have to ramp up the security and the infrastructure,’ but they never said ‘We’re going to have the military do it,’ they said ‘We’re going to have law enforcement do it.’ So people ask us to do a lot of different things, and then when you have to have the equipment to do it they say, Well, yeah, no, maybe. So I think maybe those decisions have to come from somebody else."

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