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Activism

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: YouTube.com 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."

Nelson said the “tactical portion” of Urban Shield is only a small part of it. There are also seminars, which feature trainings on how to prepare for rare instances such as mass murders or emergency situations.  

“It’s regional readiness for any kind of disaster—and that’s man-made or natural,” Nelson said, adding that officers have to prepare for worst-case scenarios they may be dealt. “Last year when we had Urban Shield, I heard some of these arguments that militarization has gone too far and two weeks later a nutcase runs into LAX and starts killing people. So you can say, Yeah it’s gone too far. But why has it gone too far? Has it gone too far because the police have done it or because nutcases go into an area and start shooting people? So I’m not sure you’re ever going to get the actual answer to that, but the fact of the matter is there are crazy people out there, there are crazy people that have guns, and somebody has to fix that problem when it happens.” 

What offends local organizers, is not rescue training scenarios, but using political protesters as fodder for crowd control training. And there are no trainings at police departments nationwide, let alone Urban Shield, to de-escalate confrontations between civilians and police.

“There are no seminars, no workshops that are talking about how to disarm or interact with a young black man without murdering him,” Walton said. “There are no workshops thinking about how to concretely increase community safety without the use of these really intense surveillance tools and police weaponry that have been passed down through the military. So all these things are being normalized.”

After the vender show and seminars end on September 5, participating police forces will take part in more than 30 training exercises throughout the Bay Area. The police agencies are then ranked, as if in a competition.

“Part of this is that people are kind of naturally competitive,” Nelson said. “And two it tells you where your squad is at as far as completing the mission appropriately. ”

But Walton said, “These war games that they put on are highly problematic.”

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern told the East Bay Express that the scenarios are created based on “threats” to local law enforcement made within the last five to 10 years. Yet what they consider threats is telling. EBX stated: “In past years, Urban Shield has featured hostage-taking scenarios involving animal rights activists, and the bombing of an oil platform by Anarchists.” 

How Community Organizers Are Resisting Urban Shield

The real-life consequences of Urban Shield in Oakland, where police used stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets on Occupy protesters and a transit cop killed Oscar Grant, has set off community members, who formed a coalition to stop the event. The Stop Urban Shield coalition consists of community organizations that work with people largely affected by police militarization, such as the Arab Resource & Organizing Center and anti-prison industrial complex group Critical Resistance.

The Stop Urban Shield coalition has been in communication with the Oakland Marriot, and has a petition urging it not to host Urban Shield. They have also asked people to call general manger Lisa Kershner and ask her to stop the event. The event, however, is not being canceled, so the coalition has organized a rally that will take place outside the convention center on September 5.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls. But I think what people are not understanding is we cannot stop the group this close to the date,” said Nicole Hankton, marketing manager for the Oakland Marriot. “We would owe them a great deal of money if we canceled their contract this close to the date.”

Hankton said that organizers approached them only two weeks before the event, and the convention center is under the second year of its two-year contract for Urban Shield.

Karen Boyd, a spokesperson for the city of Oakland, said the city would “prefer not to have it,” but the contract is with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Still, the city’s ability to pull strings when it comes to Urban Shield is unclear. While the city council may not approve of the event, an East Bay Express piece stated that last year the Oakland City Council had to approve $200,000 worth of expenditures and reimbursements for Oakland’s police and fire departments' participation in Urban Shield.

Hankton said the organizers’ concerns are valid, and the Oakland Marriot may have some power not to host Urban Shield in years to come. 

“In conjunction with the city, we can make a determination,” Hankton said. “We said that to them in the meeting.”

Yet, J.D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said that Urban Shield will not be taking place at the Oakland Marriot next year, but elsewhere in Alameda County. He said he isn’t sure of the new location and that the change was not due to activism surrounding the event.

“There were concerns last year and we came back this year,” Nelson said. “It was based on availability.”

Obtaining clear information on who has the decision-making power over Urban Shield, Kamau Walton said, has been the biggest obstacle to organizing resistance.

“We’re looking to hold everyone accountable and in addition increase the transparency to what they’re doing with our tax dollars, and with the positions of power we put them into,” Walton said. “Whether we’re consumers, constituents or community members in the places where they work, it is important that we know what they are doing.”

Building a Movement to Stop Police Militarization

Walton said organizers are interested in having talks with the city council when it returns from August recess. They’ve already filed FOIAs to get more information on OPD’s inventory. In the meantime, they are focused on building up a sustained movement to protest Urban Shield, demilitarizing the OPD, and increasing community participation in public safety matters.

“Even if Urban Shield is going on this year, we want to show our power to ensure that it does not happen next year,” Walton said. “ And whether Urban Shield happens or not, the city of Oakland already has militarized tools in their arsenal. So we’re continuing to highlight the issue of highly militarized policing here and across the U.S.”

Perhaps most importantly, Oakland organizers resisting Urban Shield have identified a source of militarization in their communities and they aren’t allowing it to sneak through. Walton encourages others who want to resist militarization to check if their local to international police departments are attending the Bay Area’s Urban Shield or other Urban Shield events held annually in Boston and Texas. It’s also vital to be on the lookout for other sources of militarization.

“As we have seen before in the city of Oakland, when different initiatives or efforts are put out there, whether that’s gang injunctions or Urban Shield, the powers-that-be try to slide those things through without necessarily getting public input,” Walton said. “But we need to have a broader conversation about what the impact of things like this are on our community members on a day-to-day basis.”

The Stop Urban Shield rally will take place Friday, September 5, in front of the Oakland Marriot City Center from 4-6pm. 

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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