This past weekend in Pleasanton, California, a suburb of San Francisco, elite police teams from as far away as South Korea, Uruguay, and Jordan converged for the ninth annual Urban Shield Expo and Conference, one of the largest tactical-police summits in the world. According to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which manages Urban Shield, almost 6,000 volunteers agreed to help SWAT teams coordinate with fire departments, healthcare providers, and other agencies to simulate responses to “mass casualty” events like attacks against law enforcement, mass shootings, and earthquakes. For 48 hours across five counties in Northern California, teams of police dressed like soldiers toted assault rifles down suburban streets and burst into buildings as part of a series of tactical exercises. By most accounts, Urban Shield is now one of the largest training events for militarized police in the world.
While proponents say the program prepares governments for disasters, critics say it’s ground zero for police to refine and exchange repressive military tactics. A campaign called Stop Urban Shield Coalition mobilized at least 150 demonstrators to march in protest against the event through downtown Oakland. “Our goal is to prevent Urban Shield from continuing and stopping the County from renewing its contract,” said Ali Issa, a field organizer with the War Resisters League, one of four groups on the coalition’s coordinating committee. For Issa and the coalition, Urban Shield is the epitome of a militarized security apparatus that maims, tracks, and controls black and brown people.
Sergeant J.D. Nelson, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, couldn’t understand why people took issue with an event that’s meant, in his view, to keep everybody safer in the event of disaster. “Fire and medical teams won’t come in without an escort, period,” he told The Nation. “So police have to have some sort of methodology to lead them so you can save lives.”
But given the history of police relations with their communities, says Mohamed Shehk, a spokesperson for the Stop Urban Shield Coalition, a militarized police force and the criminalization it engenders are the primary threats against America’s nonwhite underclass. “We definitely see Urban Shield as kind of the epitome of the systems we’re working against,” Shehk said.
Urban Shield is funded primarily by a Department of Homeland Security grant called the Urban Areas Security Initiative, which this year will disburse $587 million for mass-disaster security preparations to 28 major cities deemed most at risk. Alameda County will have received $6,358,000 from UASI between November 1, 2014, and February 28, 2016, and $1.7 million of those funds must be spent on Urban Shield. How the money is spent is entirely at the discretion of the Sheriff’s Office, according to Shawn Wilson, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.
The program was initially created in 2007 by the Alameda county sheriff as a regional response simulation for terrorist attacks, but in recent years teams of police from across the country and globe have shown up to train and observe. Teams from across the United States, including the Jacksonville [Florida] County Sheriff’s Office, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the Travis County [Texas] Sheriff’s Office, were joined by counterparts from China and Israel, among others, to study or participate in 58 anti-terror scenarios, although the summit’s main event was a coordinated response to a large earthquake. J.D. Nelson said all of the teams “learn from each other” and leave with new ideas.
The press has mostly focused on Urban Shield’s weapons-and-gear expo, where over 100 private companies hawk things like heat-sensing rifle telescopes, armored trucks, surveillance drones, and even biometric identification technology for law enforcement. According to Nelson, the expo and trainings have become so popular among police around the world that the Sheriff’s Office no longer has to advertise Urban Shield. Instead, he said, “we get people contacting us.”
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Though Alameda County may be the world’s new headquarters for militarized law enforcement, it has a longer history as hotbed of activism. The University of California, Berkeley, is located here, as is Oakland’s Merritt College, where Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party as students in 1966. Years later, organizer Alicia Garza created the first posters bearing the words “Black Lives Matter” the day after George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.
Some of the most intense Black Lives Matter protests in the country have occurred in Oakland, including an action last December during which protesters chained their bodies to the door of the Oakland Police Department. Kamau Walker, a member of Black Lives Matter in the Bay Area, said black organizers there see resistance to Urban Shield as a way of protecting the welfare of black folks everywhere.
“Oakland is used as a testing ground for new tactics and new strategies of state repression,” she said, citing local police use of tear gas against Occupy Oakland as an inspiration for Ferguson police three years later. The visibility of Urban Shield, coupled with heightened consciousness after a year of direct actions, has opened up “a lot of community building space” for new people to join veteran organizers from anti-racist and anti-war groups.
There’s long been a sense here, too, that resisting the police also means resisting the military, according to Sagnicthe Salazar, an educator and organizer with the Xicana Moratorium Coalition, which supports the Stop Urban Shield Coalition and educates Latino youth on topics including capitalism, race, and the history of the oppressed.
“Making the connection between police and the military is simple for black and brown communities because we live in communities where we have constant helicopters flying above our neighborhoods, SWAT teams raiding our apartment buildings, shooting projectiles and tear gas in full riot gear,” she told The Nation.
In fact, Salazar said, the Xicana Moratorium Coalition began working in tight formation with other community groups at the onset of America’s invasion of Iraq. Then more extreme times followed: The integration of police and immigration agents resulted in ever-larger numbers of people being deported, and the FBI began entrapping Muslims and Arabs across California. The number of people displaced by gentrification in the Bay Area increased, and those who remained were targeted by quality-of-life policing. In response to their related struggles, Salazar says the Xicana Moratorium Coalition engages in cross-community education with black and Arab groups about each other’s specific issues.
That coordination has become central to organizing in the Bay Area, said Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which is on the coordinating committee for Stop Urban Shield Coalition. She said last year’s images from Ferguson moved many in the Bay Area’s Arab community to recall Palestine’s occupation by Israel (which continued to have a large showing at Urban Shield 2015).
“These connections are sort of new in terms of understanding the role of policing in the US as an occupying force, which has helped to build solidarity between Arabs and blacks and other brown communities,” she said. “That’s built on a history of work done between black and brown communities in this country, but this particular moment has potential to heighten solidarity and make material impact.”
Organizing has made an impact in Alameda County before. Relentless activism pushed the Oakland City Council to kill plans for a city-wide mass surveillance program, and former Mayor Jean Quan pledged the city would not host 2015’s Urban Shield following outrage over Ferguson. And this year, a police- and prisons-abolition group called Critical Resistance has launched the Oakland Power Projects, an initiative to reduce people’s reliance on police in emergency situations by widening channels of communication between residents and healthcare givers. The first project, which will develop an Anti-Policing Health Workers Cohort made up of doctors, nurses, healers, and counselors, begins this weekend.
Mohamed Shehk, spokesperson for the abolitionist group as well as Stop Urban Shield Coalition, sees the police summit as a way for the state to conflate “health-service provision and military style tactics in a way where receiving healthcare is now inseparable from being confronted with an M16 rifle.” One of the coalition’s goals, he said, was to “make these connections between what’s happening not just in the Bay Area but also other countries and places across the world,” including the Middle East and Latin America.
Like a mirror image, Urban Shield is also building coordination among law enforcement, albeit one overseen by spies. One of the main functions of this year’s Urban Shield was to enhance intelligence-sharing between users of two different emergency management systems, which allow police and other first responders to monitor and issue alerts for various public “incidents,” including mass shootings, natural disasters, and unwieldy protests. But whatever the incident, such coordination is meant to command geographical space like an army with total “situational awareness”—the same phrase used by police and the Department of Homeland Security to justify surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
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The campaign to stop Urban Shield didn’t end after last weekend, said Ali Issa. Having succeeded in drawing enough attention that it’s become an international scandal to many, he and members of Stop Urban Shield are hopeful that they can kick the event out of Oakland and see it abolished entirely.
“This year I feel like it’s definitely broader than it used to be in terms of national attention and groups locally here, especially connecting to Black Lives Matter with other existing movements,” Issa said. “It’s just such a clear example of escalating police force, and it’s becoming a clear target for many different struggles at the same time.”
Sergeant J.D. Nelson from the sheriff’s office had an entirely different opinion. “It’s a great program and every year it gets better than the year before,” he said. He predicts a bright future for Urban Shield and militarized police in a world teeming with catastrophe, which he seems to see everywhere.
“For those who said they didn’t want Urban Shield in Oakland this year,” he said, “when we were down there last year, it was crime-free. Now they had a guy shot next to the hotel [that hosted last year’s summit]. Yeah. Put a thousand police in the area and the bad guys tend to stay clear.”
Putting a thousand police on a city block to prevent random crime may sound like a police state, but Nelson doesn’t see it that way. To him, Urban Shield got the finest seal of approval this year when United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson traveled to Pleasanton to praise the program. “If one of Obama’s cabinet members comes to California to speak to us, they’re pretty happy with what we do.”
But the Stop Urban Shield Coalition is aiming much higher than a single summit. Mohamed Shehk said they wouldn’t stop until they’ve ended the culture and infrastructure that sustains Urban Shield.
“It would be a victory when Urban Shield doesn’t happen anywhere anymore, but it goes further than that. It’s connecting to longer struggles against policing and for self-determination, so whether that comes from organizing against the prison-industrial complex, or police’s war on black people in this country, or migrant communities and the militarization of the border, they are all very much related in this struggle.”