At SWAT team expo, protesters decry police militarization

Vendors market drones and semiautomatic weapons while relatives of those killed by police raise alarms

James Rivera Jr. was killed by Stockton, Calif., police in 2010.
Justice for James Rivera

OAKLAND, Calif. — On Friday morning, a small crowd of activists looked on as Carey Downs, a middle-aged man from nearby Stockton, held up a black-and-white photograph of his son, James Rivera Jr. "On July 22, 2010, my son was shot dead by two Stockton police officers," said Downs as he pointed at the photograph, which showed a young man’s back marked by a bullet wound. "It was the day before his 17th birthday."

The activists were gathered outside a Marriott hotel in downtown Oakland. Inside, the Urban Shield 2013 conference was taking place — an annual training event for 150 local, state, federal and international law-enforcement agencies, hosted by the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. Friday was a trade show for vendors to promote the latest in law-enforcement technologies, including automatic and semiautomatic weapons, surveillance drones and nonlethal crowd-control weapons. Over the weekend, participants engaged in 54 training scenarios staged in cities throughout the Bay Area.

Urban Shield was conceived in 2007 by Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern as a way to secure Department of Homeland Security funding for law-enforcement training. Although the event is in its seventh year, this was the first time that it was met with any kind of community protest.

Outside the hotel, the roughly 100 activists assembled to protest what they term the militarization of the police and the history of police brutality in the Bay Area. Many of them blamed conferences like Urban Shield for promoting "war games" in local communities; some held signs that read "Stop the killing of black and brown youth!"

Downs and his wife, Dionne Smith-Downs, drove from Stockton, a few miles northeast of Oakland, to share their story.

"They stopped my son minutes before his death and then let him go," he continued. "Then the officers did what they call a pit maneuver to push the car he was driving into two metal mailboxes and then into the side of a garage. When my son began to back up, they began shooting an AR-15 assault rifle and 9-mm pistols at my son."

Downs and Smith-Downs say that, three years later, they have yet to see an official police report or any accountability for their son’s death. The Stockton Police Department first said Rivera’s car fit the description of a carjacking, then later said they began to shoot because Rivera was backing up his car.

Rivera is one in a long list of casualties of police violence in the Bay Area — the vast majority of whom are black or Hispanic and live in low-income neighborhoods. Just this week, 13-year-old Andy Lopez of Santa Rosa was shot seven times by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy who said he thought Lopez was armed. The gun Lopez was holding was a toy that fires pellets, according to news reports.

"It is sad to be going to so many funerals instead of graduations, and we want to change that," Downs told Al Jazeera.

Domestic terrorism

Poster calling for protest against Urban Shield conference.

Although Urban Shield is billed as a "first responder's training" for fire departments and emergency-response teams found includes fire-safety and medical training, activists say it receives most of its funding — $7.5 million — from the Department of Homeland Security and carries an emphasis on law enforcement, particularly anti-terrorism training. (Urban Shield did not respond to requests for comment.) Because of its Homeland Security funding, each training exercise is required to include at least a nexus to terrorism, turning standard emergency-response training into anti-terrorism training. A standard fire-safety training has become an anti-terrorism training to contain an anarchist bomber, and a standard police search for a criminal has become a manhunt for an extremist.

Many of the activists assembled Friday said they were concerned that Urban Shield encourages law enforcement to label nonviolent protesters domestic terrorists.

"The whole trade show is focused around profiling and weapons used on protesters — which they are now considering terrorists, as we have seen in some language in recent years,” said Noura Khouri, an Oakland-based activist and organizer of the Urban Shield protests. A video produced by Urban Shield 2012 showing highlights from the event features armed police officers arresting "terrorists" holding signs that read "We are the 99%" and "No war for oil."

Organizers of Urban Shield 2013 did not respond in time to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

International implications

Coincidentally, Urban Shield 2013 fell on the two-year anniversary of the Oakland Police Department's raid on Occupy Oakland, when, in addition to the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to control the protests, 27-year-old Marine veteran Scott Olsen was shot in the head with a beanbag bullet.

"As a victim of police brutality, it is very important to me to be here today,"Olsen, who suffers permanent brain damage due to his injury, told Al Jazeera at the protest on Friday. "Also, as an Iraq War veteran, I see the same tactics and tools being used to militarize our police force and dehumanize the public."

The Oakland Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies credit Urban Shield 2011 — which took place on the University of California, Berkeley, campus only a few weeks before the eviction of Occupy Oakland — for providing the necessary tactics and training to control the protests.

Although many of the activists were protesting Urban Shield's implications for Bay Area communities and the Occupy Oakland protests, some organizers see its impact as international, citing one of its many corporate sponsors, SafariLand. The company specializes in selling arms, protective gear and nonlethal crowd-control devices to local law enforcement. It is also ships tear gas and other nonlethal equipment to law-enforcement internationally.

"SafariLand ships tear gas and other crowd-control weapons all around the world, most recently to Turkey, where it was responsible for repressing the pro-democracy protests there," said Kimber Heinz, an organizer with the War Resisters League's Facing Tear Gas campaign.

SafariLand owns Defense Technology, the Wyoming-based nonlethal weapons company that manufactures the tear gas used this summer to disperse pro-democracy protests in Turkey. In 2012 it was used against student protesters in Quebec and the year before that on Occupy Oakland. Defense Technology tear gas has also been used by police forces in Israel on Palestinians and in Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt.

In addition to hosting SWAT teams from every major U.S. city, Urban Shield 2013 also welcomed police from Israel, Guam, Brazil, Bahrain and Qatar.

Said Heinz, "This kind of collaboration is very unsettling for those of us working against the militarization of the police and the repression industry."

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