Berkeley doesn’t need Urban Shield

July 3, 2017

Jeremy Tully and Emily Birnbaum report on the latest effort by the Stop Urban Shield Coalition to a kick the weapons and SWAT-training expo out of Berkeley.

MORE THAN 500 people filed into a special June 20 meeting of the Berkeley City Council, where they were scheduled to vote on the Berkeley Police Department's continued participation in Urban Shield, a weapons expo and SWAT training convention based in the Bay Area.

The Stop Urban Shield Coalition (SUSC), made up of grassroots community and social justice organizations committed to fighting the militarization of the police, organized a broad campaign so that the packed meeting was united in opposition to Urban Shield.

Dozens of community members addressed the City Council for hours, speaking powerfully against the racist violence that conventions like Urban Shield promote both at home and abroad.

When the City Council members finally voted at the end of the night to allow the BPD to attend the convention this year, protesters rushed the stage holding a banner reading "Stop Urban Shield, End Militarization of Our Communities."

As the mayor and City Council members left the stage, police ran in to arrest the protesters who had dropped the banner. Outside, Berkeley police attacked peaceful protesters, hitting one older activist over the head with a baton.

Protesting Urban Shield at a Berkeley City Council meeting
Protesting Urban Shield at a Berkeley City Council meeting (Jeremy Tully | SW)

THREE ISSUES were up for vote at this meeting: Berkeley's participation in Urban Shield, its participation in Northern California Regional Intelligence Centers (NCRIC)--which it uses to search license plate numbers--and the department's request to purchase an armored van.

During his presentation, Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenfield emphasized one of Urban Shield's incidental aspects--its training of police in the provision of basic first aid--as the program's main benefit.

Mayor Jesse Arreguin attempted a last-minute agenda change to move Stop Urban Shield Coalition's presentation up to precede rather than follow presentations opposing Urban Shield by Council of members Kate Harrison and Cheryl Davila. But when SUSC representatives Lara Kiswani and Tash Nguyen protested, with the support of 500 people, they forced Arreguin to abide by the original agenda.

When the hearing was opened to public comment, one person after another spoke powerfully against Urban Shield. Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) member Sharif Zarkout condemned it as an Islamophobic and racist program. Zarkout challenged Berkeley's hypocrisy in claiming to be a progressive city while participating in Urban Shield:

Urban Shield would not even have the tools, weapons and technologies it uses were it not for the warfare happening in Arab homelands. Berkeley cannot say it stands with Arabs, Muslims and immigrant communities while simultaneously giving our police tactics and weaponry tested on the bodies of people in Palestine and Iraq.

Catalyst Project co-coordinator Dylan Cooke challenged the claim that Urban Shield prioritized first-aid training:

I was out at Standing Rock for five weeks this past fall. Part of what I did there was offer my skills as a medic. I've been a first responder to exactly the kind of militarized police violence that Urban Shield brings to our community. I was there the night of November 20, when the police fired water cannons on people in sub zero temperatures, when an elder woman lost her eye because police fired rubber bullets at her at close range, and when a young woman lost most of her forearm because police fired concussion grenades directly into the crowd. The police want to talk about how they were trained to apply pressure dressings to injuries. I can't tell you the number of pressure dressings I had to apply to people that were injured by the police.

Five hours into the meeting, City Council members Kate Harrison and Cheryl Davila presented their proposal to end Berkeley's participation in Urban Shield. Yet it was clear from the beginning of Harrison's remarks that a majority of the council would vote to continue Berkeley's participation in Urban Shield.

Harrison began by defending the City Council's integrity, saying, "Regardless of the vote tonight, this council has allowed you to speak loudly and clearly. This is not an attempt to cover up."

Davila spoke more sharply against Urban Shield, pointing out how the program feeds into the racist logic of the war on terror, and how it has been used to train law enforcement in the suppression of political dissent. Past Urban Shield training scenarios have included police confrontations with Occupy style protest encampments.

Following Davila and Harrison, Stop Urban Shield Coalition representatives Kiswani and Nguyen made their case against the program. Kiswani argued, "Urban Shield cements a militarized approach to emergency response," and invoked the 2013 in custody death of Kayla Moore, a Black transgender woman, as an example of the danger of this militarization.

URBAN SHIELD was started in the Bay Area in 2007 by Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern as a regional project, but it has grown to become one of the largest weapons expos and SWAT training conventions in the world.

It is largely funded by the Department of Homeland Security's Urban Areas Security Initiative, which grants over $500 million every year to cities across the country for counter-terrorism trainings, organization and equipment.

More than 70 vendors attended last year, selling sniper rifles, armored vehicles, tear gas, surveillance equipment and drones. Among the vendors was Safariland, which was condemned by both national and international human rights groups after it was discovered that the Morton County Police Department used their products against the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters on November 20, 2016.

The danger that the heightened militarization of the police poses to political activists is clear in the Bay Area as well. In 2009, Oakland Police Department's SWAT team won the Urban Shield competition. Members of that team included Frank Uu and Patrick Gonzales, both of whom were at the heart of OPD's violent repression at Occupy Oakland.

On the night of November 2, 2011, Frank Uu beat Army Veteran Kayvan Sabeghi with a club so brutally that it ruptured his spleen. Although Sabeghi was charged with no crime, he was held for 18 hours and received no medical attention until released.

Uu's immediate supervisor at the time was Patrick Gonzales, who has been named in numerous lawsuits, including wrongful death, excessive use of force, illegal searches and racial profiling, all of which have led to a combined pay out by the city of $3.6 million.

Images from the 2014 Urban Shield convention showed a dummy in stereotypically Arab clothing representing an active shooter. The inherent racism in this scenario is clear, especially in a country where the majority of mass shootings are perpetrated by white men.

Further evidence of the contempt with which participants view people of color and political activists was a controversy in 2015 when it surfaced that one of the most popular selling items at the convention was a T-shirt that read "Black Rifles Matter" with a picture of a M-16 assault rifle.

The Bay Area has hosted Urban Shield since 2007, but it has not gone unchallenged. Grassroots community organizations including AROC, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Critical Resistance, the War Resisters League, and many others, formed the Stop Urban Shield Coalition and have been building a strong and broad resistance to Urban Shield since its inception.

SUSC has organized rallies with hundreds of people outside the conventions and at City Council meetings. They have organized petitions, call-ins, and teach-ins. The protest at the June 20 City Council meeting is the latest examples of their diligent organizing.

AFTER HOURS of discussion, the City Council moved to vote. First, it voted to purchase the van, and then it approved Berkeley's continued participation in NCRIC, with little opposition outside of Davila.

When it came to making a decision about Urban Shield, Mayor Arreguin, a self-described "unapologetic progressive," proposed that rather than terminate participation in Urban Shield, Berkeley merely suspend its participation for a year.

Arreguin was quickly followed by council member Susan Wengraf, who proposed that any suspension should begin after the next Urban Shield training planned for November. Arreguin, who opposed Urban Shield as a council member before he became mayor, quickly accepted this as a friendly amendment to his proposal.

In a Kafkaesque display, council member Ben Bartlett raised the specter of the alt-right, citing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos' planned return to Berkeley in September. Bartlett defended further Berkeley participation in Urban Shield, arguing that the program prepares police to contend with violence from the alt-right.

In fact, arrests stemming from alt-right demonstrations in Berkeley have largely focused on left-wing activists. Cal Stanislaus student and alt-right figure Nathan Damigo, who was caught on video assaulting a woman in April, has gone unarrested.

Bartlett proposed that rather than make any decision about an eventual suspension at this meeting, the City Council appoint a subcommittee to report back with recommendations in six months. Arreguin accepted this, too, as friendly. Thus Arreguin's proposal went from being for a suspension of participation for one year to continued participation with only the promise of a subcommittee to produce recommendations in six months' time.

AS ROLL was called for the vote, and it became clear that the council would vote to continue participation in Urban Shield, protesters filed to the front of the stage and held out a large banner reading "Stop Urban Shield, End Militarization of our Communities."

It was at this point that the City Council--with the lone exception of Davila--quickly fled the stage, and a dozen Berkeley police rushed in, putting two protesters holding the banner in wrist locks and arresting them. In the hallway outside the auditorium, another half-dozen police stood by in a show of force, replete with a tear-gas launcher.

As the nonviolent demonstration moved outside, protesters spilled out onto the street in front of the school, blocking traffic. Despite BPD representatives having talked at length about how Urban Shield equips them with vital training in de-escalation, it only took a few minutes for Berkeley PD to bring out batons.

In the ensuing scuffle, one older Berkeley resident who had come to speak out against Urban Shield was hit over the head by a police baton.

Bay Area activists have had major victories over Urban Shield in the past. In 2014, the broadly organized Stop Urban Shield Coalition pushed the Urban Shield training and weapons expo out of Oakland.

Despite the Berkeley City Council's vote, the campaign to stop Urban Shield will continue. SUSC's powerful mobilization of more than 500 people to the night's hearing shows that opposition continues to mount to the program and the militarized policing it represents.

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