Community groups organize against urban war games in Oakland

Oakland City Council members were surprised at recent meetings to hear opposition to what would ordinarily have been a rubber-stamp approval of a Fire Department reimbursement request. The resolution in question provides funding for Urban Shield, an annual event sponsored by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. Oakland is a city which is already known for having transparency issues, “a deeply troubled police department under federal oversight”, and a “process that shields the people making key decisions about its future from much public scrutiny”1. This year, community groups gathered together, and came forward to challenge officials on these specific issues raised by Urban Shield, namely: transparency, accountability, human rights and funding priorities.

The resolution requested $200,000 to reimburse the Fire Department for a “safety drill”–part of what Urban Shield’s sponsors sell to the public as disaster-preparedness training for local police and fire departments. Meanwhile, public records show that the Sheriff’s office is being paid up to $7.5 million in federal funding for Urban Shield. In reality, Urban Shield is the largest urban SWAT exercise in the USA and includes “competitions” that take place throughout Bay Area city streets, simulating the use of force against protesters, as well as a trade show that private manufacturers use to market their latest weaponry, crowd control gear and other hardware to police.

For activists, the event represents an intersection of many of the problems facing ordinary people today-in particular police violence and investment in militarism rather than in public services. These issues include the Oakland Police Department’s violent suppression of the occupy movement, as well as police killings of unarmed civilians like Oscar Grant–murdered by a BART officer who claimed have been to be reaching for a taser like those sold as “non-lethal” tools by Urban Shield vendors. The exercises also connect with misplaced funding priorities that feed a culture of militarism, heavy-handed policing and incarceration, rather than addressing community needs such as jobs, healthcare, housing and education.

There are now at least 50,000 SWAT raids every year in the United States. Oakland’s own “Tango Teams” have injured and killed numerous Oakland residents over the years, including protesters and journalists during OPD’s war on Occupy Oakland. According to Police Magazine, “Law enforcement agencies responding to…Occupy protesters in northern California credit Urban Shield for their effective teamwork.” The law enforcement trade publication also suggests that cops should expect to face off against protesters more often “given today’s continuing sour economy.” James Baker, who is president of Cytel, the company that oversees the event, said after the 2011 games that Urban Shield had already helped coordinate the state response to the protests after Oscar Grant’s killing: “The planning was amazing.”

Urban Shield also reaches beyond the US. It brings together more than 150 local, state, federal, and international agencies as well as private defense contractors–and includes police from Bahrain, Israel, Guam and Brazil, to name only a few of the participants with lengthy records of misconduct and human rights violations. The tactics taught are used by Israeli colonialism and Bahrain’s dictatorship, which keep subject populations under military occupation. Reverend Daniel Buford of Allen Temple Baptist Church suggested to the Oakland City Council that if the city was to connect with the Israeli government, it ought to be about how to keep Israeli weaponry such as Uzis “off our streets and out of the hands of our young people, rather than training our people on how to do checkpoints like they do on Palestinians.”

Following public comment, most council members were visibly taken aback by the nature of this event, and criticized a police representative for failing to provide them with clear information in advance. Several councilors also voiced concern around the “culture of violence” that this represented, and took issue with the kind of image and message this “gun show” sent to young people. One council member, Lynette McElhaney, thanked the clergy and activists who opposed it for being “the conscience of our community”, and several expressed disagreement with the spending priorities behind federal funding in general. In the end, nevertheless, the reimbursement went through, with just two council members, McElhaney and Rebecca Kaplan, voting against it–and one abstention. However, the Council voted unanimously to send a letter to the Oakland Marriott which is the main venue for Urban Shield 2013, informing the hotel of their disapproval.

Urban Shield opponents plan to continue organizing at the Alameda County level, and mobilize for the October 10th meeting of the Board of Supervisors who oversee the Sheriff hosting the event. Urban Shield’s October 25 kick-off exhibition will be met with a day-long community witness and walking picket, followed by a 5pm rally.

As a coalition outreach letter explains:

Recognizing that, for people of color, poor and working class people, gender and sexually non-conforming communities, and other oppressed groups, heightened policing hardly translates into safer communities, but rather greater surveillance, incarceration, and repression of progressive and radical social movements, our coalition has formed to refuse the ongoing militarization of our communities and to advocate for alternatives to policing… While we may not be able to stop Urban Shield this year, if we use Urban Shield 2013 as an opportunity to do education, outreach, and cross-movement building, perhaps we can stop it from happening again.

In Urban Shield, we see that these instances of violence are not just parallel, but are actually the product and collaboration of some of the same institutions, backed by the US Federal Government. The people who carry the weapons have often trained together, and the same companies profit from the militarization of police inside the US and the sale of tools of repression abroad. The availability of vast sums of money through federal grants, like those supporting Urban Shield, to wage “war” on terrorism or drugs, but not on poverty, encourages local officials to look to repression and incarceration to solve social problems. More fundamentally, responsibility lies with the inhuman priorities of a system which always finds funding and resources for violence, but is unable or unwilling to meet real human needs when it does not happen to be profitable.

Urban Shield has grown considerably since the Alameda County Sheriff began hosting it six years ago. These violent war games are not new, a predecessor exercise named “Urban Warrior” took place in 1999, and served strikingly similar purposes: “To ready Marines for the likelihood that battles in the 21st Century will be focused in the world’s rapidly expanding urban areas” and to test “combat operations in an urban environment against a backdrop of civil unrest, and restore order.” But training for urban combat once reserved for Marines now seems to have moved to local police departments.

The Facing Urban Shield Action Network was initiated out of the War Resisters League’s Facing Tear Gas campaign, and more than 30 Oakland community organizations have signed on, including the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County and a number of faith-based organizations such as Allen Temple Baptist Church, social and economic justice coalitions and NGOs such as Berkeley Cop Watch, the Bay Area New PrioritiesCampaign, the East Bay Alliance for a Safe Economy, and local chapters of national organizations such as the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the International Socialist Organization and many more.

1) Thomas Peele: Opaqueland works hard to keep the public in the dark; Contra Costa Times, 9/28/2013 – http://www.contracostatimes.com/columns/ci_24183740/thomas-peele-opaqueland-works-hard-keep-public-dark

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