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Urban Shield: a Federal Protection Racket

In 2015, Berkeley, California City Councilor Max Anderson voiced this eloquent opposition to militarization of the police during the annual Bay Area Urban Shield war games and weapons expo: 

The culture that’s cultivated by the type of training that you receive becomes the way you conduct yourselves . . .

When I was in the Marines in the early ‘60s, all our pop-up targets that we practiced on were Asians. You know now they’re Middle Easterners, so it kinda shifts, and so the rationale and the justification for targeting people on these bases shifts along with it.

And when military weapons follow military thinking into our police ranks, you know we have a problem. You know it’s a problem of association because when you’re in a combat situation, you’re thinking about survival, and you’re thinking about enemies and friendlies. And when you inculcate that into our environment here, and we start thinking about the citizenry as either being friendly or enemies, and react accordingly based on what designation we lay on people, then we’re sliding down that track.

What could better describe the prevailing mindset of U.S. police? And we all know who’s on the enemies list that they feel compelled to kill to survive: Black and Brown people, Muslims, and poor people.

Philando Castile, a Black citizen of Minnesota, calmly and respectfully told Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, “”Sir, I have to tell you I do have a firearm on me,” without pulling it out. Officer Yanez responded by firing the seven bullets that killed Castile in the back seat of a car, then started screaming, sobbing, and wailing, “I thought I was gonna die!”

In 2014, writer and activist Kevin Alexander Gray explained a far less tragic example of police perceiving people of color as enemy combatants threatening their lives in a war zone—in this case, Columbia, South Carolina:

. . . the young man [Levar Jones] pulled into the gas station.

As he pulled into the gas station, he was taking his seat belt off. The highway patrolman followed him into the gas station. As he was getting out of his car, walking into the store, the officer got out of his car and asked him for his driver’s license. And the young man turned around to get his drivers’ license. 

He first felt his pocket and then he turned around to get his driver’s license, probably out of the console of his car, and the officer started shooting. And even as the fella fell to the ground, he was more calm than the officer, saying, “Why did you shoot me? You asked me for my license. Why did you shoot me? I wasn’t going anywhere.”

So, it’s obvious that the person that got shot—Levar Jones—Mr. Jones was calmer in the situation than the officer.

In that case, Levar Jones survived, and the officer, a state trooper named Sean Grouber, was fired and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. Grouber pled guilty but three years later, as of March 2017, Levar Jones was still demanding that he be sentenced. 

Berkeley becomes a test case

The Bay Area Urban Shield expo takes place on the weekend of 09.11. Like other Urban Shield expos around the U.S., it promotes the 09.11 ethos of “fighting the war at home.” The promotional video “Urban Shield: Honor the Past, Prepare for the Future” features police officers claiming that since 09.11, they’ve become front line defenders against acts of war. “We have to realize that the battle is no longer going to be overseas,” says one. “You know it used to be that, if you were in the military, that was when you went to fight a battle. And if it was here, you were dealing with local criminals and local crime. But [now we’re] realizing that at any date, something could strike our area and we may have to respond to a domestic terrorism threat.”

Berkeley did not withdraw from Bay Area Urban Shield in 2015, despite Councilor Max Anderson’s eloquence. However, the Urban Shield Coalition grew and forced the issue again this year. Several municipalities have not participated in one year or another and for one reason or another, including needing their officers at home on the job. None, however, have withdrawn as a matter of principle, so Berkeley became a test case.

Black rifles matter in Berkeley?

Weapons and surveillance tech manufacturers pay for the right to hawk their wares at Urban Shield expos. Some of the Bay Area expo’s best-selling t-shirts have read “Black Rifles Matter,” “This gun is my peace symbol,” and “Destruction cometh. And they shall seek peace. And there shall be none.” (Ezekiel 7:25-27, King James Bible).

In his Berkeley Daily Planet essay “The Sins of the Mayor,” Steve Martinot wrote, “The transnational police are what is behind Urban Shield. The FBI operates in Europe and Africa, the CIA interferes in elections on five continents, the DEA makes deals with drug producers throughout the third world, and the NSA surveils us. The local police are their eyes and ears. Against them, we have been thrust into transnational battle.”

In addition to participating in Urban Shield war games, Berkeley Police collaborate with the Northern California Regional Information Center (NCRIC), one of Homeland Security’s 54 information gathering “fusion centers” in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

Roughly 5,000 people from over 100 police and emergency response agencies around the country and the world participate in Bay Area Urban Shield’s tactical training. Israel, Bahrain, Qatar, and China have all sent police to learn about how to subdue their own populations. Morocco and Mexico will send theirs this year.

High Noon at the Berkeley City Council

On Tuesday, June 20, more than five hundred Stop Urban Shield activists became ungovernable at the end of a six-hour Berkeley City Council meeting once it was clear that the Council would not pull the Berkeley Police out of Urban Shield 2017. As Mayor Jesse Arreguin and other councilors discussed tepid motions and then began voting, the crowd drowned them out chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Then a handful of activists climbed on the stage where the councilors were seated, faced the audience and the video cameras, and unfurled a banner that read “Stop Urban Shield, End the Militarization of Our Communities.” Berkeley cops strong armed and cuffed several of them, then the crowd began chanting “Let them go! Let them go!” Councilor Cheryl Davila, an unwavering opponent of Urban Shield, grabbed the microphone and upbraided the police, “You don’t have to break their arms!” As the crowd surged outside, still chanting, police angrily pushed them around with batons and bloodied a 73-yr.-old activist.

Local press, including the big television networks’ local stations, reported the story with considerable sympathy for the Stop Urban Shield Coalition.

The next day an Oakland law firm, Siegel and Yee, submitted a “correct and cure” letter to the Berkeley City attorney, cc’ing the mayor and the county clerk. The letter accused the Council of violating the Brown Act on Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies in several ways that included voting as the meeting ended in the cacophany of protest and police response:

. . .as reported, Mayor Arreguin attempted to hold a vote on an amendment to the agenda item that was unclear, not properly publicly reported, and ultimately not completed. The public recalls hearing the votes of only three to four council members before the meeting was halted. California Government Code Section 54953(c) prohibits a secret vote by the council and demands that all votes and abstentions be made public. A vote that was incomplete or inaudible cannot constitute the public vote required by the Brown Act.

The letter demanded that the Council reconvene and revote.

The next day Mayor Arreguin wrote, on his official Facebook page, that there hadn’t been time for him to explain his position on Urban Shield at the meeting and that “My goal is in six months, we will move towards leaving Urban Shield permanently.”

That was not the cathartic moment the Stop Urban Shield Coalition had been hoping for, and few seem to trust it, but some consider it a partial victory. Media Alliance director Tracy Rosenberg, who has been a part of the community organizations urging Berkeley to take a one-year moratorium on participation, commented: “In fact, the mayor’s proposal for permanently withdrawing is stronger than what we asked, which was to take a year off. However, another year of sanctioned military training is another year of reinforcing dangerous policing trends even as the rate of police killings goes up. We can identify alternatives and withdraw at the same time, and we should.”

Why not withdraw this year?

The Berkeley City Council voted to form a subcommittee to explore alternatives to Urban Shield training, but why didn’t they do that two years ago, after the current mayor, who was then on the council, and several more councilors supported the first wave of opposition? And can’t Berkeley officers remember the training they received last year for another 364 days? In one of the meeting’s loonier moments, one councilor said that he’d changed his mind about Urban Shield because Berkeley Police need more SWAT team training in advance of right-wing ideologue Milos Yiannopolous’s return to Berkeley and the protests that will no doubt inspire.

One of the main problems is that money for established regional training has dried up as federal grants have gone to Urban Shield, and the federal government began running a protection racket. On the KPFA Evening News, Steve Martinot compared it to the NYC mob in the 1920s:

The Police Department, in their 40-minute PR presentation at the beginning of the council meeting, were explaining how they need a connection to Urban Shield in order to get assistance for emergencies. So what they were actually saying was that they have to be a member of these federal agencies in order to get assistance from the federal government for a local emergency. So, if you look at it, that means that the federal government is actually a shake down operation because it’s requiring that the police department sign up for one of these federal agencies in order to get this assistance.

That’s like the mob operating in NYC in the 1920s and ’30s. Meyer Lansky and Jake Shapiro, they organized an employers association in the garment industry in the ’20s and they went to these garment employers and said, ‘You’re gonna join our employers association, or you’re not gonna get any deliveries and pickups from the truckers.’

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Ann Garrison is an independent journalist who also contributes to the San Francisco Bay View, Global Research, the Black Agenda Report and the Black Star News, and produces radio for KPFA-Berkeley and WBAI-New York City.  In 2014, she was awarded the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize by the Womens International Network for Democracy and Peace.  She can be reached at ann@afrobeatradio.com.

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