I Vow To Stop Police Militarization: Buddhist Eyewitness to Urban Shield
BY MARCIA ISHII-EITEMAN
05:00 AM, Sunday morning. On the road at dark.
I am observing part of a three-day government-funded, military-style police training and weapons expo in Northern California known as Urban Shield. I’ve already viewed the promotional videos on the Urban Shield website from past exercises and know the basic premise.
1. Arm local police officers with military-grade weaponry.
2. Dress them up in army camouflage.
3. For 48 grueling hours, have police compete for points, rehearsing how to “handle” worst-case scenarios of terrorist attacks.
Based loosely on incidences collected from around the world, the training scenarios are designed to teach SWAT teams competing in Urban Shield how to think and act like soldiers-at-war and to view everyone that moves as a potential enemy combatant to be killed.
Somehow, by the end of the weekend of “games,” these police officers are expected to return to our communities better able to “keep the peace.”
Coming home that evening, I was not ready to begin writing this piece right away. I needed some time to sit on my cushion and return to my breath, as my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has taught. In this way, I have been able to ground my reactions to what I saw at Urban Shield in the roots of my practice.
My practice, your practice
Back in the day, when I trained in aikido (“the way of the spirit of harmony”), one of my teachers would demonstrate how to meet the “gift” of intense energy from a training partner—perhaps coming in the form of a rapid sword strike—by first blending with their movement, then turning swiftly and smoothly from a deeply centered place, and redirecting said training partner (and sword) to a completely new place, such that everyone ended up safe and unharmed. Our sensei would then turn to us students, smile, bow and say “your practice.”
What is our practice as Buddhists, in situations like these, when we witness the deliberate escalation of institutionalized violence?
Buddhism teaches us to practice non-discrimination. This does not mean pretending that we do not see the cruelty, violence and oppression around us. Rather, it means that we look deeply, with our eyes and hearts wide open, to see the essence of what is arising in each moment, its roots, and the interconnectedness of all the parts that combine to create the whole.
Zen teachers call this interdependent co-arising. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this simply “inter-being.” It is both a quality and an act of being and doing. We inter-are. We continually co-create each other and our world.
Some of our co-creations are beautiful, wise and luminous. Some of our co-creations are steeped in violence, anguish and suffering. We generally like to align ourselves with what we consider beautiful and disassociate ourselves from the ugly. But it’s never that clear-cut. We are all responsible for our world.
Watching a police officer chase down fake terrorists, I try to imagine the young boy under the army camouflage. I don’t blame him for engaging in Urban Shield. I don’t know the circumstances that have brought him to this place. He may have eagerly sought out this opportunity to wield automatic weapons against presumed “enemies.” He may have simply been instructed to show up.
Whatever the causes and conditions leading to the police officer’s participation in Urban Shield, he is fully responsible for what he takes from it, and for how he behaves when he returns to duty in local communities. And as a resident of a city that continues to sponsor Urban Shield, I am responsible for speaking against the violence that the program engenders.
Returning to my breath, I send metta (loving-kindness) to all those caught up in this system, that we may awaken to the deeper freedom that comes from loving, respecting and caring for all beings. May we all develop the wisdom and strength of character to stand against the racism and violence that permeates our institutions and our culture.
As idealistic as this may sound, it is not impossible. Buddhist practitioner and former police officer Cheri Maples has already shown us how.
If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her from doing so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key point. If you need to use force, you have to use it, but you have to make sure that you act out of compassion and a willingness to protect, not out of anger.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Urban Shield is not just one loaded gun; it’s thousands.
Begun in 2007, the program annually secures millions of dollars in funding from the Department of Homeland Security to prepare for emergencies related to terrorism. But as documented in our delegation’s Report Card, Urban Shield also promotes racist, anti-Muslim and xenophobic stereotyping. It provides space for — and thereby legitimizes — far-right extremist militia organizations like the Oath Keepers. By intensifying police aggression, it heightens the likelihood that police officers will harm and even kill, rather than help, the most vulnerable in our communities. People like Philando Castile. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
Urban Shield also normalizes cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in ways that dramatically elevate targeted immigrants’ risk of deportation — even in our so-called “sanctuary cities.” And it violates most of the California Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ guidelines for the program itself, such as the prohibition of racist stereotyping, the ban on sale of firearms at the Expo, and the exclusion of participants from countries with records of human rights abuses.
Those of us disturbed by recent skyrocketing U.S. gun sales must understand this trend in light of parallel escalations in the sale of military arms to domestic police. It is no surprise that Urban Shield hypes the purchase of military weapons by civilian police departments.
Detailed analysis by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) concludes that more than 1/3 of homicide victims killed by strangers in the US were killed, not by terrorists or random muggers, but by police. HRDAG estimates that police kill 1,500 persons in the U.S. each year. One thousand, five hundred persons. Killed by police. Every year.
This is why a broad coalition of grassroots community and social justice groups across Alameda County has been organizing for years to end the program. I join the coalition in urging my city of Berkeley to withdraw from the program, and to direct our resources instead towards what our communities desperately need: affordable housing, mental health and youth services, and community-based emergency training.
I vow to redouble my efforts
to stop the continued militarization of our police.
I vow to resist the violent, state-sanctioned oppression
of Black and brown communities.
I vow to undertake these efforts
from a place of love and compassion.
Urban Shield is hosted in California, but affects regions everywhere by militarizing police forces across the world. Please add your voice, whether Buddhist or not, to this movement for peace.
TAKE ACTION NOW!
Sign the Petition (for residents of Alameda County, California)
Touching the Earth, re-imagining our world
Recognizing our interconnectedness requires us to look deeply at the root causes of violence, racism and oppression within us and around us.
When we investigate root causes, we see that we have co-created our society. We have both the responsibility and the capacity to shape it for the better, beginning with ourselves. We can (and must) call out the racist systems and institutions in which we are all embedded. We can (and must) support each other in dismantling these systems, while simultaneously liberating ourselves from wrong perceptions based on fear and ignorance. We must do so from a place of compassion, clarity and ultimately, love.
Whatever you do, make sure it comes from a place of peace, not from a place of fear. Then you will know it is right.
— Sister Đẳng Nghiêm, Plum Village
The weekend after observing Urban Shield, I participated in a deeply moving and powerful POC/LGBTQ meditation retreat in the Angeles National Forest, in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Plum Village.
The most important insights I have tend come to me through the earth (which is to say, they are not of my making). Sitting amongst the pines, leaning into them, and deeply inhaling their delicious fragrance, I felt supported enough to touch my own anguish and rage around Urban Shield, and the depths of historical trauma experienced by communities of color at the hands of the police — in this country and around the world.
The hatred that animates racism is at its core the same hatred that animates misogyny, transphobia, homophobia and sexism. This we know. It’s the same hatred that is expressed in disdain for, destruction of and violence towards our Mother Earth.
Looking more deeply, we see that this hatred is rooted in fear. At a surface level, this could be fear of losing one’s social standing, various privileges or accumulated resources and wealth. It could be fear of those whom we imagine to be so different from ourselves that their identities threaten our own. It could also be that at some level we are afraid of discovering our true selves and of realizing that ultimately we are not so different from each other — that far beyond our narrow conceptions of our separate selves, wrapped up in the narratives of our lives, we share a deeper common spiritual connection as people of the Earth.
Most of us have become so disconnected from our vast (maha) Earth nature that it’s as if we can no longer bear to experience the exquisite vulnerability, the tender heartbreak and joy of letting go of self and reuniting with this maha-Earth-nature. We’ve come to believe with such certitude that our invented separate selves are real, that it can feel almost terrifying to loosen our attachment to these selves and to enter into the freedom that comes with abandoning separation and embracing connection, in what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the ultimate dimension.
But if we take these steps, so much more becomes possible. Rather than thinking in terms of Urban Shields that separate us, we can begin to imagine, for example, an Urban Embrace — a community-led and defined approach to collective care, in which police officers are retrained as healers and guided by community members in how best to serve and meet the actual needs of the most vulnerable in the community.
As we broaden our fields of vision, we see that the viability of continued human life on this planet requires more of this kind of radical shift away from competition, extraction and domination, and towards cooperation, restoration and regeneration. In this way, we may be able to finally meet and embrace our true maha-selves.
Reverence for life ⬄ standing for justice
As a Buddhist, I am committed to the practice of non-violence and to fighting fiercely for social justice — toward the happiness and well-being of all life on the planet. These practices are deeply interconnected and in fact require each other. We all know the phrase, “no justice, no peace.” The opposite is also true. Unless we cultivate the stability, joy and liberation of peace within ourselves and our communities, we will not have the resilience to continue the long struggle for a just society.
As Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s co-director, Katie Loncke, has so eloquently written, our commitment as Buddhists to non-discrimination and non-violence is an aspiration and a daily practice for us, not a rigid standard by which to criticize ourselves when we fall down, or to judge anyone else who chooses another path. Far from closing doors and options for effective action, the aspiration of non-violence in deed and thought opens up many possible ways for us to be creative and skillful in these challenging times.
May all of us awaken
to more skillful, beneficial ways to nourish all beings.
May we explore together
how to bring our true best selves
to the interconnected work
of justice, healing and peace.
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman is a queer Buddhist cisgender woman of color, of Japanese and Czech-German ancestry. Her Dharma name is Earth Holding Courage of the Heart. She lives in Berkeley, CA.