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Local Mobilization Against Urban Shield Intensifies

Urban Shield lets police test military weaponry

By John Lindsay-Poland

On both sides of the Bay, the movement to stop the Homeland Security-funded Urban Shield exercise and military equipment expo has reached new influence, as local government officials worry about the federal government’s plans to hunt immigrants and escalate policing actions. So far, however, officials have put off taking definitive action to stop or limit Urban Shield.

Show your support for stopping Urban Shield

Friday, April 7, 9:00 am
125 12th Street, 4th Floor (Hayward/Union City Room), Oakland
Urban Shield Task Force – presentations by Stop Urban Shield and Alameda County Sheriff

Tuesday, April 25, 7:00 pm
2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley
Berkeley City Council – decision on Berkeley’s participation in Urban Shield and other federal policing and surveillance programs

In response to sustained organizing, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on January 10 approved funds for the 2017 Urban Shield only after establishing some new guidelines and a task force to review the program. The action came at the end of a marathon four-hour hearing, with 100 community members signed up to offer public comment, though it was during a weekday. (see “Collaborative Community Voices”) Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern gave a 50-minute presentation on Urban Shield.

The task force is mandated to consider how well Urban Shield prepares the region for emergencies (including both attacks and natural disasters), as well as Urban Shield’s impact on community-police relations. It will report after six months, before the Board considers funding for next year’s (2018) Urban Shield program.

The guidelines that the Supervisors approved for Urban Shield are broad and open to interpretation. They include bromides and vague statements, such as “maintain the finest first responder training possible” and “continue to evaluate existing equipment.” They also include more direct commitments, such as an exclusion of surveillance training, crowd control training, and vendors who display derogatory or racist messages. But what constitutes surveillance or racist messages is not defined.

One guideline excludes the “sale or transfer of any assault weapons and firearms,” but the Urban Shield expo is for showing off weapons to city officials – which can still be exhibited – not to buy them on the spot and take them home.

After hearing testimony from a local School of Americas Watch activist about the Mexican Federal Police’s participation in the 2016 Urban Shield, the Board of Supervisors added a guideline to exclude from Urban Shield “teams from countries with documented human rights violations.” Like other guidelines, however, who gets to decide what this means is not specified. Up to now, the Sheriff and his staff have decided which international teams to invite. Sheriff Ahern told me during an on-the-record interview that there was no human rights review in that process.

AFSC welcomes Alameda County’s creation of a task force to review Urban Shield, although the task force’s membership heavily weighs towards law enforcement. Two of the 18 task force members were selected by community groups opposing Urban Shield. But other members are appointed by the Alameda County Sheriff, Alameda County Chiefs of Police, and other county agencies. Five members are appointed by county supervisors, one of whom will be the City of Alameda’s police chief, appointed by Sup. Wilma Chan. Supervisor Scott Haggerty’s appointee is a gun dealer. BART’s appointee is a member of the agency’s SWAT team, who has participated in Urban Shield. San Francisco officials asked that Anne Kronenberg, who chairs the Approval Authority (board) that oversees Urban Shield, known as the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), be appointed as well. The first meeting of the task force is this Friday, March 10.

Two days after the Alameda Supervisors hearing, the Bay Area UASI Approval Authority unanimously approved FY2017 funding for the Training and Exercise Program that includes Urban Shield for 2018, along with six other regional projects that were each considered separately. An interesting moment in an otherwise dry meeting came during discussion of a $150,000 item related to ‘Mass Care and Sheltering.’ Approval Authority members from San Jose and Oakland spoke in favor of shelter in less-than-catastrophic situations the communities face, when beds are needed for 9, or 20, or 50 people. 

San Francisco, Homeland Security and Urban Shield Funds

San Francisco is the fiscal agent that administers Homeland Security funds that include the Urban Shield training and expo. The funding application for the UASI grant that funds Urban Shield thus came before the San Francisco Budget and Finance Committee.

At its meeting on January 24, Supervisor Malia Cohen and other supervisors posed hard questions to representatives of the Bay Area UASI. “Are you not concerned about the claims that we’re hearing from Alameda County that these dollars are being used to abuse people,” Cohen asked, “or do you dispute what the advocates are saying, and you’re just not in agreement and you don’t think that any abuse has happened?”

After officials told her that Urban Shield is “compliant” with Homeland Security grant conditions, Cohen said: “It sounds like it’s just a matter of convenience. Everyone accepts it, and maybe we just shouldn’t rock the boat. I don’t know if I necessarily buy that argument, coming to the table from a different place. There was a point when slavery was accepted and no one wanted to rock that boat.”

But Cohen’s tone changed in February after meeting with Alameda County Sheriff Ahern. “I now have a fuller picture of the program,” she said. Anne Kronenberg, who chairs the Bay Area UASI and direct San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management, appealed to the Supervisors to approve the funding without restriction in a February 8 letter.

Cohen was one of eight San Francisco supervisors who voted on February 28 to approve the funding application that contains Urban Shield.

As a Sanctuary City, San Francisco officials expressed concern about supporting programs that violate sanctuary policies. The approved resolution for the UASI funding application “urges Alameda County to suspend funding the Urban Shield training program” and prioritize “funding for Planning and Risk Management, Medical and Public Health, Emergency Planning and Community Preparedness, and Recovery” and other areas.

As fiscal agent, the City can set “guidelines and requirements” for UASI grants, but the Assistant City Attorney said the City is only permitted to exercise only administrative control, not programmatic control of how funds are used, and the Supervisors went with his opinion.

The Supervisors also have on their minds the Trump administration’s threat to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities. In response to questions form Supervisor Katy Tang, UASI representatives claimed that 39 positions are supported by Homeland Security grant funds. Only $1.7 million of those funds are used directly to put on the Urban Shield exercise.

The resolution stopped short of pulling the city’s own police and sheriff deputies out of the Urban Shield SWAT competition. Supervisor Norman Yee announced that he will bring forward a resolution to accomplish that. Grassroots advocates will need to press for further action for San Francisco to live up to what it is calling on Alameda County to do.

Here is a sampling of public testimony given during the Alameda County Board of Supervisors hearing on January 10. Speakers were limited to two minutes.

John Jones III

I applaud the sheriff’s interest in training - that’s good, that’s valuable. I remember witnessing 9/11 on TV and just the brave, swift, heroic actions of NYPD and the fire department. That was very inspirational to me.

But at the same time, there’s some glaring omissions in this training. What about training to help folks deal with people of color? Because I’m watching all the supporters and I can’t help but notice, with the exception of one brother and two women, it looks like Trump’s administration. I’m sorry, no disrespect.

Because I’m also on the first line of helping people. What I do is I interrupt cycles of violence in Oakland as the case manager under the Oakland Unite program. So I’m on the streets, on the ground, without a gun, without a bulletproof vest, but I’m able to do the work. My question to you is: who is doing the training? Because if you don’t know who little Yaddi is you can’t be effective in my neighborhood. So I urge, No!

Eddie Falcon

I’m an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran. I served also in Hurricane Katrina medical evacuations, in Basra Prison, and in Guantanamo Bay. And the one thing I wanted to talk about is that militarism is not just gadgets and technology and weapons, it’s a mindset that happens in the military. And exactly like all the presentation depictions of what were called terrorist attacks - except for the one Timothy McVeigh which was years ago - but all the recent ones, if they’re done by someone who is Arab, they’re considered terrorist attacks, but when they are done by somebody else it’s not. And this labeling of people as terrorists or insurgents instead of things like, for example in Iraq, instead of enemy combatants, is what allows for the legitimization of using atrocities against them, like what we’ve seen in Abu Ghraib and Basra and other prisons like that. And this happened here in the United States during Hurricane Katrina too, where emergency response actually turned into policing of the people there. So that is why I call for no Urban Shield, thank you.

Catherine Gillia

I come before you today as I person of faith, a resident of Alameda County in Supervisor Carson’s district, community health worker, and a survivor of violent crime. I am extremely concerned about the increasing militarization of police systems and I ask for you not to approve proposals or the receipts of funds for Urban Shield or any contracts that make urban shield possible. Dear supervisors, I urge you to consider the role of our county in a nation during a time where white nationalism is on the rise at the highest form of government. Where decisions based on the flames of fear are being fanned. Where anti immigrant, anti Muslim sentiment is moving forward at a dizzying pace. Dear supervisors, we are called to be a county of sanctuary not shield, of communication and equity not militarization, of community-led responses to emergencies. As a white woman who lives in Rockridge, I know that too often policing and militarization happen in my name. Where fears of black men and Muslims are used to justify violence against them. I am here to say not in my name. I insist on another way forward. Reparation, reconciliation, new investments, and community based approaches. Please vote to not continue Urban Shield.

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