U.S.
Stephen Lam / Reuters / Landov

Urban Shield reignites militarization debate in Oakland

Activists denounce police weapons expo, recalling Oscar Grant and Michael Brown

OAKLAND, Calif. — The eighth annual Urban Shield, a special weapons and tactics exposition showcasing the latest in law enforcement equipment, kicks off in Oakland on Thursday. But local activists and community members say the host city is an inappropriate choice, given the fate of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by Oakland transit police five years ago.

Urban Shield is a four-day event that brings together law enforcement agencies from around the world — including Israel, Bahrain, Qatar, Brazil, Guam, South Korea and Singapore. A two-day trade show featuring the latest in policing and surveillance technology is followed by two days of emergency-preparedness training exercises throughout the Bay Area. The event began in Oakland eight years ago and has expanded to Boston, Austin and Dallas.  

Local community organizations protested the event last year, citing the Oakland Police Department’s history of violence in the community.

“Oakland is a city with a very long history of resisting police violence,” said Rachel Herzing, executive director of Critical Resistance, one of the organizations pressuring the city of Oakland to break off ties with Urban Shield. “People are offended when the city would bring these kinds of maneuvers and trade show to this city in particular.”

After weeks of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of teenager Michael Brown, the militarization of local law enforcement has become a national concern. Amid the chaos in Ferguson were images of police with armored vehicles, assault rifles and SWAT uniforms that resembled battle fatigues.

Although local activists criticize Urban Shield as an example of a program that encourages unnecessary militarization of local police forces, participants in previous years’ training exercises say they were crucial in their ability to respond to events such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Urban Shield simulation in Oakland
A participant playing a suicide bomber triggers a simulated explosive during an aircraft interdiction scenario at the Oakland International Airport at Urban Shield 2013.
Stephen Lam / Reuters / Landov

“We had been running the Urban Shield program for two years prior to the Boston bombing,” said Urban Shield programs officer James Baker. “So when the bombing did occur, Boston was applauded with how efficiently and quickly they were able to get all of the victims to local hospitals, and that — other than the few killed upon impact — nobody else died as a result of the bombing.”

While Urban Shield is officially billed as a disaster-preparedness exercise, it is funded by the Urban Areas Security Initiative, a Department of Homeland Security program that mandates 25 percent of its funding be allocated to counterterrorism activities.

For this reason, each training exercise must include at least a “nexus to terrorism,” according to the Urban Shield website.

So Urban Shield opponents were outraged when a promotional video for the program showed SWAT teams containing “domestic terrorists” in a simulation of what looks like an Occupy Oakland demonstration.

When it comes to the dramatic police response as seen in Ferguson, Baker said the issue isn’t militarization but lack of training.

“The question is, Are the forces receiving equipment from Homeland Security being properly trained?” he asked. “Do they know what to do with the equipment once they have it?”

Oakland is a city with a very long history of resisting police violence. People are offended when the city would bring these kinds of maneuvers and trade show to this city in particular.

Rachel Herzing

executive director, Critical Resistance

The militarization of U.S. police departments, of course, dates to well before Ferguson.

In 1967, frustrated by the Los Angeles Police Department’s response to the Watts riots and several mass shootings, then–Inspector Daryl Gates formed the first SWAT team.

In his vision, SWAT would be a quasi-militaristic force to be deployed in hostage or crowd control scenarios too dangerous for ordinary police. Two years later, SWAT conducted its first raid — and one of the largest shootouts in U.S. history — at the Los Angeles offices of the Black Panther Party. Officers launched tear gas canisters and fired rounds of live ammunition until the people in the building surrendered.

President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, bringing new meaning to a bill Congress passed two years before authorizing no-knock raids for federal narcotics agents, a practice that later become a hallmark of SWAT raids. While the use of SWAT teams grew throughout the 1970s, it was during the 1980s — and Ronald Reagan’s administration — that they became synonymous with fighting the drug war.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act. Two key provisions in the act laid the foundation for the transfer and use of military-grade weapons by local police departments. The first, the 1033 program, authorized the transfer of excess Department of Defense supplies, giving police departments access to military weapons. The second, the 1122 program, gave a series of grants and discounts to local law enforcement departments to purchase these weapons.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 came another series of grants, this time intended to fight the war on terrorism. One of these grant programs, the Urban Areas Security Initiative, funds Urban Shield.

Still, the majority of SWAT teams in the United States are used to wage the drug war. According to an American Civil Liberties Union report released earlier this year, drug searches account for 62 percent of all SWAT raids today. Poor communities and communities of color are disproportionately targeted, resulting in arrests, imprisonment and in some cases death.

For activists and residents organizing and living in these communities, there was nothing unusual about the Ferguson police response to the protests.

“Nothing surprised me about Ferguson,” said Andrea James, an advocate for incarcerated women in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a community that, like Ferguson, is largely poor and black. “Not that a police officer would pull out a gun, not that 60 percent of the community is a community of color, but they have an unreasonably low number of [officers of color] because they could not find ‘qualified’ candidates.”

“The people’s reaction did not surprise me either,” she continued. “The only thing that surprised me was that it didn’t happen sooner.”

Efforts to scale back the militarization of police departments brought to national attention by Ferguson are beginning to take place nationwide. Last week the San Jose Police Department announced it is getting rid of its M-RAP, a military-grade vehicle designed to protect combat soldiers from roadside bombs, citing community concerns over an increasingly militarized police force. The Davis City Council, also in the Bay Area, has given its sheriff’s office 60 days to get rid of Davis’ M-RAPs.

President Barack Obama has called for a federal review of the 1033 program, which has transferred more than $4 billion of military supplies to local police departments with no oversight. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has scheduled a congressional hearing for Sept. 9 to review both the 1033 program and the overall militarization of police.

Still, activists who oppose police militarization see isolated criticism of programs like 1033 and Urban Shield as only beginning to chip away at a much larger institution.

“We’re going to keep making the connections between the militarization that is happening here in the Bay Area as well as other repression that is happening across the globe,” said Kamau Walton, an Oakland-based organizer with the War Resister’s League.

“Increased militarization and increased policing is not the response to increase safety.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter