Friday marked the beginning of the seventh annual “Urban Shield” event, in which law enforcement agencies from across the globe participate in war games and attend a weapons technology show.
The event, which ran until October 28, was sponsored by weapons manufacturers such as ATK, which makes everything from small caliber bullets to depleted uranium ammunition, and Safariland, which exports tear gas to governments across the world.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which helps fund the event with a grant reportedly worth millions of dollars, the purpose of Urban Shield is to “purchase surveillance equipment, weapons, and advanced training for law enforcement personnel in order to heighten security.” In other words, it’s a training event to ensure law enforcement officials are prepared to fight terrorism.
More than a dozen federal law enforcement agencies were expected to attend the training, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), along with more than 100 different police, fire and sheriff departments, and “private partners.”
Oakland, Calif., played host to this year’s event, even though Oakland City Council members never approved anything related to it. The cash-strapped, crime-plagued city won’t be receiving much of a financial reward, if any, for hosting the event, and even dished out $200,000 so the Oakland Fire Department could participate in the training.
Though it’s a global event, Urban Shield has historically been held in California because it’s overseen by a California-based private firm, Cytel Inc. The host city changes annually.
Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern was responsible for coordinating this year’s training event and his office reportedly will receive $7.5 million in federal grants for doing so.
Law enforcement officials were scheduled to train alongside security forces from countries such as Bahrain, Israel and China. Law enforcement officials in attendance were able to browse and purchase a plethora of weapons, from the latest in munitions to armored cars and drones.
Because of the event’s reliance and focus on weapons manufacturers, some have referred to the event as “war games,” citing the event as proof that local police and fire departments are increasingly becoming militarized.
Leery about the true intent of the event, Andrea Pritchett, a founding member of Berkeley Copwatch, called Urban Shield a melding of anti-terrorism and active-shooter training with fire and rescue operations. “There’s a conflation between disaster preparedness and military war game scenarios,” Pritchett said.
Pritchett’s concerns have been mirrored by more than 30 community and peace and justice groups who say that the event will only lead to “more police and state repression, more tragedy and more death — since these weapons are used primarily against our communities,” as a peace group called Facing Tear Gas puts it.
Olivia DeVry is a nurse who works in East Oakland, where this year’s Urban Shield event was being held. She says that during a recent trip to Arizona, she saw the effects of militarization on communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing that exercises such as Urban Shield exist because the defense industry is desperate for more clients.
“With U.S. troops out of Iraq and now pulling out of Afghanistan, defense contractors are looking to make money elsewhere,” DeVry told the East Bay Express. “They don’t care about us and they don’t care about Oakland.”
Rev. Daniel Buford of Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland agrees, telling the Oakland City Council during a meeting on Tuesday that police “militarization is applied racism.”
Lara Kiswani of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center made similar comments in an interview with Common Dreams, saying, “What Urban Shield represents to us is the epitome of state repression that has been impacting communities of color and immigrant communities for decades.
“Different strategies of surveillance against Arabs and Muslims and Brown and Black people are being used as tactics against our people back home. This is the militarization of the police.”
According to a post on Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner blog, this year’s Urban Shield event began on the second anniversary of Occupy Oakland protests, when two-time Iraq veteran Scott Olsen was shot in the head by police with a tear gas canister, resulting in a skull fracture. Though he is still alive, Olsen has not fully recovered from the injury and suffers from speech problems and neck pain.
Blogger Davey D further claimed that police trained how to handle Occupy protests at an Urban Shield event. The post goes on to quote another Bay Area activist’s interview on Hard Knock Radio:
“Urban Shield arises out of the incorrect assumption that suppression methods, such as the Wars on Drugs and Terror, as well as profiling tactics such as gang injunctions reduce violence in our communities. In fact, the opposite is true. The militarization of police and increased use of suppression tactics in schools, prisons, at the border, in our streets and against our youth are counterproductive to community well-being. Spending billions of dollars to militarize police agencies is deeply misguided. “Instead of pouring resources into the militarization of police, we need to promote a culture of peace and health, and not one of more violence, war, poverty and incarceration. That is why over 20 groups in the Bay Area oppose Urban Shield and seek to hold our local government accountable for the massive waste of resources on policies and practices that do nothing to sustain our dreams or well-being. We want to send a clear message to repression profiteers and police that they must be directly accountable to the communities they now patrol. Instead of militarization, invest in life.”
In an opinion piece for Oakland Local, one resident wrote that while Sheriff Ahern believes having local law enforcement “learn from and with security forces from countries that use force against their citizens will make us more secure, and he may believe that purchasing a military drone will protest us,” but the writer raised fears that both “tear at the fabric of our already fragile community.”
The piece continued with calls for action to protest the training, concluding that the residents of Oakland and of the United States deserve better from their law enforcement:
“What we will be getting is a training that fosters distrust between police and community, which is what military action requires—modern day war requires enemies and ‘us against them.’ It cannot handle too much fraternizing with or building relationships with civilians. Urban Shield is part of a nationwide trend that fosters up warriors instead of community partners.”