“Militarized” police disaster training program to end after this year
Marilyn Bechtel/PW

OAKLAND, Calif. – In an action called “historic” by the program’s opponents, Alameda County Supervisors voted March 27 to end the county’s yearly Urban Shield tactical police disaster training exercise as it currently exists.

For over a decade, the program – mainly funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – has brought law enforcement and emergency responders from around the county and beyond its borders, to drill responses to mass shootings, terror attacks and natural disasters.

Opponents who have fought a years-long battle to end the exercise say it is “the largest militarized SWAT training in the world,” and charge that it trains law enforcement in military-style repression and criminalization of black, brown, indigenous and undocumented communities.

On a motion by Supervisor Keith Carson, the supervisors voted 4-1 to continue Urban Shield in its current form in September 2018, but to reprogram the event with stakeholder input starting in 2019.

“This is the last year,” Carson said after the vote. “Urban Shield as we know it ends at the conclusion of this vote, after this year’s program.”

Carson’s motion passed after a motion by Supervisor Wilma Chan to end the program this year failed, 3-2.

After the meeting, Shaarif Zakout of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center – one of over 20 organizations in the Stop Urban Shield Coalition – said that after years of “tireless organizing and raising widespread community opposition to police militarization and racism, we consider this a huge victory for our communities.”

While the coalition would have preferred to see the program end altogether, he said, the supervisors’ decision “reflects a significant shift in how the Bay Area can be better prepared for emergencies and disasters in ways that are not based on militarization.”

The supervisors considered Urban Shield’s future for more than four hours.  Over 100 community speakers participated, with opponents greatly outweighing supporters.

Opponents rallied in front of the County building before joining the debate inside.

Speakers emphasized the ways Urban Shield increases the risk that communities of color will suffer police violence, from harassment to incarceration and death, while failing to fulfill its stated rescue mission in disasters.

Lucas Solorzano, an immigrant rights organizer with Causa Justa-Just Cause, said Urban Shield “is actively participating in training the very departments that are leading immigration raids in Alameda County.”

One such raid took place in early March throughout the East Bay. Noting California’s, and the county’s, declarations that they are sanctuary jurisdictions, Solorzano urged that Urban Shield be ended: “Stop Urban Shield and start real sanctuary.”

Refuting Urban Shield’s claims to provide vital disaster preparedness training, Nihar Bhat – a survivor of Oakland’s devastating fire at Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse/artists’ collective in 2016 in which 36 people died – took issue with Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s use of that fire to back his claims about Urban Shield’s essential role in disaster preparedness.

Bhat said those affected by the fire, “even in the midst of trauma, were much better able to organize information on what was happening to those affected,” while many hospital emergency operators were unaware of the fire, even hours later. “If Urban Shield prepared people for a coordinated interagency response, how is that possible?” he asked. “This training is about suppressing uprisings, not about saving lives.”

Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project and a leader in Black Lives Matter Bay Area, said Urban Shield “trains law enforcement to treat our black people, our brown people, indigenous and undocumented people, people living with mental health issues, like enemy combatants … SWAT started off supposed to be an extreme tactic for extreme circumstances; now it’s the reality of black bodies across this country.”

Marilyn Bechtel/PW

Sheriff Ahern started Urban Shield in 2007 as a regional program to train law enforcement to respond to terrorist attacks. It has also featured training for natural disasters. But over the years it has become a magnet for police from across the country, and last year hosted representatives of the far-right extremist group Oath Keepers, as well as participants from ICE.

The annual program also features a weapons expo where private companies market weapons and technology, including drones.


CONTRIBUTOR

Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for the People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.

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