A Song to Stop Urban Shield
The 1999 WTO protests in Seattle marked the beginning of what has become a rapid militarization of U.S. police departments all across the country. In the name of public safety and terrorism prevention, it’s now not uncommon to witness scenes of police arriving in tanks and other armored military vehicles to protests, or teams of officers in riot gear and high tech weapons raiding people’s homes. This dangerous trend is, among other things, a step in the direction of becoming a fascist country.
In 2007, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern led efforts to create the Urban Shield program. Urban Shield is an annual weapons expo and SWAT training program that attracts regional, national, and even international police and other public safety official participants. It is a federally funded program that claims to be also be focused on disaster response readiness. However, essentially none of the funding is being allocated to support local emergency planning agencies, or the medical and public health services which are so critical during a disaster.
Furthermore, the impact of the program on the community in the East Bay and beyond has been quite negative. In a study released by the Stop Urban Shield coalition in 2016, they reported the following:
1. Emergency response personnel such as firefighters and EMTs were being trained to view every crisis as a potential “terrorist attack,” and that such situations require military-like thinking. As such, their training often privileges the teaching of use of force tactics over live saving measures.
2. During a two year period (2014-2016), 67% of SWAT deployments by reporting Bay Area law enforcement agencies involved non-critical incidents, mostly serving search, arrest and parole warrants.
3. The Urban Shield expo and training itself is rife with racist and anti-Muslim imagery and stereotyping. Mock terrorist suspects frequently wear “Arab” looking clothing. T-shirt companies sell shirts that read “Black Rifles Matter,” mocking the Black Lives Matter movement. This year’s Urban Shield even featured a booth for the Oath Keepers, who are listed by the Southern Law Poverty Center as a hate group for their anti-government, anti-Islamic, and racist ideologies.
Overall, the increased militarization of law enforcement agencies here in the Bay Area has cost tax payers millions of dollars, and has resulted in even more violence and oppression of people of color and poor folks than there was before. In addition, Urban Shield has weakened our emergency response systems and networks by placing a hyper focus on possible terrorism in the Bay Area, while neglecting crisis situations that are far more likely, such as earthquakes.
On September 22, members of Buddhist Peace Fellowship joined the Stop Urban Shield coalition to protest Urban Shield in Oakland. In response to community pressure over the winter, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors created a Task Force to review Urban Shield and offer recommendations. The September meeting was their final one, and included in the discussion was a vote on whether the community could accurately speak to the community impact of Urban Shield in its report to the County Board. During the public comment section of that discussion, Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s LiZhen Wang spoke to the task force about her family’s experience living under militarized rule, and its impact on multiple generations.
Following a handful of additional speeches, Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Katie Loncke led the group in the video at the beginning of the article in the Stop Urban Shield song. The song both disrupted the norm of public comment (usually a series of individual speakers), and also offered images of community desires in lines such as “housing, health care, parks and schools/no more tech surveillance tools!” Furthermore, the element of joy was brought into an arena where it rarely appears, shifting the overall mood of the room. Somewhat surprisingly, the task force voted in favor of a resolution that said that the group was not capable of speaking to the community impact of Urban Shield, which essentially meant that the Alameda County Board would need to do further study if it wanted to have community impact data and a narrative to go along with that data.
The next day, Saturday the 23rd, task force member and Urban Shield supporter Mike Grant made comments that confirmed exactly why community members had little faith in the body’s ability to speak to the true impact of Urban Shield, particularly on communities of color and on poor folks in the Bay Area. In response to an e-mail from a local, conservative news outlet, Grant wrote the following: “Today was the last meeting for the Urban Shield Task force. With that I must say this group of people (Stop Urban Shield) are nothing but a group of terrorist them selves. I can and will tell you they are endangering this country with their BS And lies. All they talk about is Muslim this Muslim that and people of color …” The fact that nearly half of the members of the task force had financial ties to Urban Shield, as well as views like those of Mr. Grant, were among the many reasons why the Stop Urban Shield coalition never stopped protesting and trying to uplift community voices, even in the meetings of a committee that was supposed to represent them.
Buddhist Peace Fellowship has been happy to be a part of the Stop Urban Shield coalition’s work, and we look forward to the day when all our police forces are demilitarized.