By John Lindsay-Poland
An increasingly broad set of Bay Area communities are questioning the militarized policing represented by the annual SWAT competition and military expo known as Urban Shield.
San Francisco supervisors Avalos, Campos and Mar wrote their Alameda County counterparts October 6 to urge the county to “suspend its proposals for funding for Urban Shield and instead take the opportunity to seek funding for” other emergency preparedness needs, including medical and public health and recovery. San Francisco is the fiscal agent for the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (BAUASI) that funds the Urban Shield exercises. “In the current climate of increased concern about the militarization of police, we run the risk of alienating residents whose investment, support, and collaboration are essential to robust emergency response planning.”
Fawaz Harraro, who was a volunteer in Urban Shield exercises in 2013, testified that “I didn’t learn anything that had to do with first responding. Honestly, I saw it as our police getting to play with their toys.” Harraro said the community doesn’t need Urban Shield. “When I volunteered as a ‘victim,’ they dressed me up in makeup, they had us lie down as victims, and it really just felt like they just wanted to play a game. It wasn’t a training.”
Activists turned out at the last Board of Supervisors meeting before an October 14 deadline for funding proposals to BAUASI for the use of 2017 funds, yet the Alameda County Under-Sheriff present at the meeting claimed that the Sheriff is not submitting a proposal in this cycle, while continuing plans to coordinate Urban Shield in 2017.
This testimony followed the major protest on September 9 at the Urban Shield military expo itself, at Alameda County Fairgrounds in suburban Pleasanton, in which more than 500 people participated, with more than 100 peacefully blocking gates. Twenty-three were arrested in civil disobedience and are scheduled to appear in court on November 10. Many participants in the demonstration reported feeling inspired and energized by diverse speakers at the rally. The San Francisco Chronicle and other media ran the protest as a top story, framing it around police weaponry.
A community meeting of 50 activists and residents at the West Oakland Youth Center on September 19 reflected on non-militarized responses to crises and emergencies. “How come we need to separate the community from the first responders? What if the community was the first responder?” asked Nadia Spearing, who came to the meeting from San Mateo, reported the online newspaper Oakland North. “I think a large part of the problem is we have police policing communities that are not their own, we have first responders responding in communities that are not their own.”
A key component of Urban Shield is its use – or cooptation - of emergency medical technicians, integrated with militarized SWAT team responses to emergencies. For that reason, the growing concerns expressed by EMT and other medical personnel about the training is illuminating. More than 50 public health professionals urged the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on October 7 to exclude Urban Shield from funding proposals in 2017. The letter signers said they are “extremely supportive of Alameda County developing, supporting, and increasing its capacity to respond to emergencies,” but that militarized training “hurts our communities’ safety and security, perpetuating existing trauma in communities that have seen a disproportionate presence of law enforcement.”
The union (UAW Local 2865) representing 15,000 teaching assistants and other student workers in the University of California system also urged de-funding of Urban Shield, which comes on top of a unanimous resolution by the UC Berkeley student senate calling for UC campus police SWAT team’s withdrawal from Urban Shield exercises. The UAW Local 2865 letter highlighted an example of emergency response programs that public funds should support: the San Francisco Community Awareness & Treatment Services, which organizes transport for homeless people and people with addiction to needed facilities, including health facilities. Faith communities in the Bay Area, including First Congregational Church of Oakland, Jewish Voice for Peace, Seminary of the Street, and the East Bay Meditation Center, have also publicly called on Alameda supervisors to de-fund Urban Shield.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis Taylor added his voice for de-funding Urban Shield in an October 25 column: “Urban Shield is funded by the federal government, but the Alameda Board of Supervisors approves the use of those funds. It’s time for supervisors to give their stamp of disapproval,” he concluded.
Sheriff Greg Ahern, who coordinates Urban Shield, called Taylor to respond, claiming that Urban Shield offers training necessary for terrorist incidents and that police budgets have been cut since 2008. Taylor welcomed the gesture of communication and found common ground in sports, but pointed out that Homeland Security has given $34 billion in grants to law enforcement and “agreed to disagree” about Urban Shield.
The coalition opposing Urban Shield’s misplaced priorities issued a ten-page report, Urban Shield: Abandoning Hope Not Building Hope, that describes how Urban Shield is funded and its impact, while making the case for practical alternatives for emergency preparedness. The report was presented to Alameda County Supervisors on September 13.
Sheriff Ahern is scheduled to speak about Urban Shield to the Alameda Board of Supervisors on December 20. The community will be there to listen and express our concerns. We invite you to join us.
John Lindsay-Poland is coordinator of AFSC San Francisco Wage Peace.