Urban Shield isn’t security

November 6, 2013

Alex Moyle reports on protests to expose the growing militarization of police repression.

A COALITION of faith, labor and community organizations in Oakland, Calif., held an October 25 action to protest the start of Urban Shield, an annual conference for law enforcement agencies from around the world to engage in training exercises and check out the latest in police weaponry.

Throughout the day, the Facing Urban Shield Action Network (FUSAN) picketed the downtown Oakland Marriot convention center. After holding a press conference, the demonstrators then marched to Oscar Grant Plaza to join with another protest commemorating the two-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland. Together, the groups held a symbolic re-occupation of the space where, two years earlier, riot police from a dozen law enforcement departments violently attacked and dismantled the Occupy Oakland encampment.

Inside the convention center, the weapons bazaar for paramilitary and police organizations featured vendors of sniper rifles, armored vehicles, tear gas, surveillance equipment and drones. Included among the vendors was Safariland, a known human-rights violator and mass manufacturer of tear gas and crowd-control weapons. Additionally, local paramilitary police units were able to meet with and learn from counterparts more experienced in direct, violent political repression--such as SWAT teams from Bahrain, Qatar, Israel, Guam and Brazil.

Oakland rallies against the Urban Shield program
Oakland rallies against the Urban Shield program (Darin Bauer | Indybay.org)

Outside, the perimeter of the building was barricaded and watched over by riot police. Undercover officers dressed as caricatures of Occupy protesters moved through the crowd and radioed back reports. FUSAN protesters carried signs declaring that health care, jobs, education and housing--not military police--are security. Speakers included families of victims of police violence and Scott Olsen, the former Marine whose skull was fractured two years earlier when police repressing an Occupy protest shot him in the head with a tear gas canister.

"As a victim of police brutality, it is very important to me to be here today," said Olsen. "As an Iraq War veteran, I see the same tactics and tools being used to militarize our police force and dehumanize the public."

THROUGHOUT THE day and into the night, speakers criticized the logic of the enormous investment in Urban Shield--reportedly $7.5 million--which would be enough to award Oakland youth with 90 full-ride scholarships to California's state universities, hire a multitude of teachers for desperately underserved public schools, or build a new wing for Children's Hospital Oakland.

While austerity has ensured that funding for jobs, education and public housing are in desperately short supply in the East Bay, the twisted logic of capitalism has provided seemingly limitless funding for anything purportedly related to counter-terrorism and repression of domestic dissenters.

In the words of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb:

Urban Shield represents the psychology of fear and force, and the opposition to it--the Facing Urban Shield Action Network--represents that of the demand for peace and community. Our goal is to expose the deep corruption present in the cooperation between these vendors and these agencies and contractors. And to ultimately not only prevent them from coming back to Oakland, but to warn other cities not to consider hosting it.

Urban Shield represents the hyper-militarization of police functions that has been accelerating for the past couple decades. In countless American cities, heavily armed paramilitary SWAT units, with little to no connection to the community they patrol, police with the same hostility, disdain and violence one would expect of a foreign occupying army.

For many living in urban areas, militarized police brutality and harassment is commonplace enough to not warrant much surprise. The racist war on drugs has already acclimatized a whole generation of urban youth of color to routine police searches and harassment at any moment on the street, in their schools, or in their homes. Increasingly, SWAT has become the tool of choice to this end. They are foot soldiers on the frontlines of enforcing the policy of mass incarceration with the predictable consequences of the dramatic growth in the U.S. prison population and the tragic and ever-growing list of people of color shot down by police.

The hostile mentality of the police towards protesters, and the left in general, is deeply ingrained in Urban Shield. Footage of highlights from Urban Shield 2012 included anti-terrorism exercises featuring SWAT teams attacking protesters brandishing "No blood for oil" and "We are the 99 percent" signs. Exercise scenarios included "violent attacks" by anarchists and animal-rights "terrorists."

This antagonism was certainly on display in response to the relatively small and entirely peaceful protest at the Oakland Convention Center. In addition to the barricades around the building and police milling outside the Marriot, downtown Oakland was congested with vans filled to capacity with police in riot gear. The city of Oakland also sent out a bulletin warning business owners to prepare for violent attacks from protesters and issued tips, such as emptying cash drawers.

Apparently unaware that the police force itself--let alone machine-gun and grenade-launcher-toting police--is a fairly recent historical phenomenon, police spokesperson Sgt. J.D. Nelson insisted that the militarization of police is something that has occurred "from the beginning of time." He further explained that while they may make people uncomfortable, armored vehicles are often the "safest" way to deal with violent situations.

FOR THEIR part, protesters did not share Nelson's belief in the permanence and inevitability of militarized police or his reassurance that police use military hardware in the interest of our "safety."

"The elephant in the room is that inequality is on the rise," said Scott C. of Oakland. "Discontent is on the rise. Poverty is on the rise. Instead of dealing with this in a humane way, the ruling class is just arming the shit out of these militarized police to defend against any challenges to that status quo, because for them all that matters is that profits are on the rise too."

Beneath the thinnest veneer of a series of public-safety exercises, Urban Shield is an embodiment of the disturbing fusion of the military-industrial complex with the prison-industrial complex. The political viability of Urban Shield hinges precariously on the assumption that the social ills of urban life are best dealt with through repression, surveillance and the overwhelming violence of the state.

The Urban Shield tradeshow brings together those who believe that a repressed society is a safe society with the arms peddlers who want to turn a profit (at public expense) by militarizing police and repressing urban areas. Opposing Urban Shield, and police militarization in general, is an essential aspect of opposing urban repression and the New Jim Crow. Building networks of public resistance to such blatant carnivals of urban repression is essential work.

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