‘Urban Shield’: where hostility towards minorities meets policing on steroids

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Activists in Oakland, California hold a banner during a protest against Urban Shield. September 5, 2014. (Photo: Al-Akhbar English-Adam Hudson)

The 2014 Urban Shield exhibition, a trade show and comprehensive training exercise for US police agencies and SWAT teams, took place September 4 through September 8 in Oakland, California – this expo, which alleges to “improve regional disaster response capabilities and provide a platform for national and international first responders, as well as the private sector, to work efficiently and effectively together when critical incidents occur,” is proudly supported by federal agencies and organizations. The governmental departments and institutions sponsoring Urban Shield include the United States Army, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology, which is the research and technical development arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The racist and orientalist magazine The Counter Terrorist, which is “the USA's premier informational journal for law enforcement, intelligence and special operations professionals” according to Security Solutions International, was among the “non-lethal” items advertised and sold at the exhibition. Vendors such as United States Homeland Security, armored commercial and tactical vehicle manufacturer IAG, the Mastagni Holstedt firm, which represents law enforcement agencies, and Elephant Hunter Clothing littered the exhibit with reprehensible pro-police, pro-military acclamations. Elephant Hunter Clothing has pro-law enforcement and US military products for men and women that are found at many such exhibitions, some of the product they advertize include t-shirts reading “L.A. Crime” on the front and the following text inscribed on the back: “There is no ‘nice’ way to arrest a potentially dangerous, combative suspect. The police are our bodyguards, our hired fists, batons and guns. We pay them to do the dirty work of protecting us, the work we're… too civilized to do ourselves… The tradition continues." Another t-shirt reads “Men of violence”, and another “Smile now, Die later” – both feature armed skeletons, the latter has the number 187 printed on the front, a number which is also featured on a few of their listed products. The number 187 is a reference to California penal code section 187 which defines the crime of murder.

Shane Bauer, staff writer at Mother Jones, attended the Urban Shield exhibition and not only had his media badge taken but he was was then removed from the Urban Shield SWAT training event by a police officer, by order of the police captain. Bauer had been updating his Twitter page with information on items and hawkish merchants live from the trade show, as well as a severely troubling Urban Shield exercise featuring the University of California, Berkeley SWAT team. UC Berkeley SWAT was briefed that “a Muslim took a Jewish man hostage.” This fictional Muslim subversive had “read a website on ‘jihad against Israel,’” according to the exercise. “The Muslim in the #UrbanShield exercise had a bucket of chemicals to ‘hurt the Jew for what he's done to his people,’" tweeted Bauer. This unsettling exercise, coupled with the historic, institutionalized concentration of police brutality unleashed by paramilitary police upon maligned communities, of which includes American Muslims, will only have devastating consequences for these communities.

”Under Suspicion, Under Attack”

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), the nonprofit organization which is “the only national, staffed South Asian organization that advocates around issues affecting South Asian communities through a social justice framework,” just released Under Suspicion, Under Attack, their 2014 report on “an increasingly hostile climate in the United States, characterized by frequent hate violence and rising xenophobic political rhetoric in the national political debate… targeting South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities.” The report’s key findings are daunting, reflecting a well-established burgeoning climate of hostility, revealing that over 80 percent of the instances of hate violence documented were directly motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment:

“The 78 examples of xenophobic rhetoric by political figures documented over a three-year period in this report underline such rhetoric has become more prevalent since SAALT’s previous report on the issue was published in October 2010. Our 2010 analysis tracked 76 examples over a four-year period. Although both reports documented nearly the same number of incidents, the incidents in this report occurred over a three-year period versus the four-year period covered in the 2010 analysis. SAALT tracked an average of nearly 40% more examples of xenophobic political rhetoric since our previous report. It is clear the political speech targeting our communities is more numerous, more insidious, and is more likely to be heard on a national platform. An overwhelming majority of the xenophobic political comments – over 90 percent – were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.”

The bigotry chronicled by SAALT highlights that “not only has this rhetoric has become more prevalent, it has also become increasingly prevalent on national political and media platforms.” Maintaining this atmosphere of prejudice and hostility are not only national, political figures like US Congressman Peter King, who demanded heightened surveillance of US Muslim communities, arguing that they were ‘un-American,’ or outlets such as FOX News, with their tiresome obsession with and monotonous coverage of all things Muslim-related, but local and federal agencies:

“South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities remain the targets of discriminatory government policies such as profiling and surveillance by law enforcement agencies at multiple levels, including the National Security Administration (NSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and local agencies such as the New York Police Department (NYPD).”

In an interview with Al-Akhbar English, Ali Issa, the National Field Organizer for War Resisters League, describes Urban Shield as “a massive weapons expo and militarized SWAT training” that “also trains Fire Departments and Medics, but due to the Department of Homeland Security funding that "emergency-preparedness training" mutates into direct collaboration with police armed to the teeth.” The War Resisters League, the oldest secular pacifist organization in the United States, “has been coordinating with local groups as part of the Stop Urban Shield coalition in the Bay Area, as well as organizing against Urban Shield in Boston and Central Texas, where it is also held.” When asked about Islamophobia at Urban Shield Issa reveals that “Urban Shield used a number of code words to identify "the enemy." "Nutcase" is one that spokespeople have used often this year, but "homegrown violent extremist" (read: Muslim) has also been prominent in the past.”

Global reach meets global resistance

Issa confirms that US law enforcement agencies are not the only Urban Shield participants and that “representatives from police departments around the world do attend.” “This year, Urban Shield publicly announced participants from South Korea, Brazil and Singapore (though there were likely more).” Also, international agencies and organizations that attended last year’s Urban Shield exhibition included the Consulate General of Israel – San Francisco, the Kingdom of Jordan, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Canada, Qatar, and Brazil. Issa sharply notes that Urban Shield is a single illustration “of a process happening all the time, with a lower profile,” making note of intersections shared by communities of color in the United States and marginalized peoples elsewhere: “Like when former lead cop in Philadelphia John Timoney consulted the Bahraini King to repress the freedom movement there, or when Israeli police recently trained former St. Louis chief. Joseph Mokwa, foreshadowing the movement and brutal lockdown in Ferguson.” “On the other side though is where our hope lies: that resistance to policing is also coordinating globally,” says Issa. ”We saw this when hundreds of Palestinians tweeted and e-mailed solidarity with Ferguson this past month and people from Oakland to NYC tried to stop tear gas shipments to Egypt back in 2011. This is how we can compete with Urban Shield and the militarization it represents.”

The police-military institutions sponsoring and consorting with weapons exhibitions like Urban Shield are not only ensuring that police agencies remain militarized but that the rising climate of both xenophobia and Islamophobia does not shift, the latter having a tremendous and direct influence over the use of the former; from what national and local agencies apply this violence to what communities are made victims by this violence. Most disconcerting is that as a result of Urban Shield and similar conventions the use of violence against marginalized communities is not only normalized but rationalized by way of racist exercises, products and an influx of weaponry that are being offered to local law enforcement under the guise of preserving the well being of the general populace.

The bigotry and violence perpetrated by these institutions shapes reality on the ground, as shown by the SAALT report – the recurrent justifications behind the dehumanization and killing of marginalized persons influences the perception and actions of society at large. The warrior cops that so often create bedlam and cause the bloodletting in the streets are being made even before they don their uniforms and take an oath to defend and protect (the state and the interests of the state). The thin blue lines that have been drawn across the map are choking entire communities and the Urban Shield program is but one of many helping to prolong the stranglehold. It is not enough to call for ‘those in charge’ to #FixThePolice, which is in reference to the mainstream ‘work within the system’ approach to influence ‘change’ as we'll as a recent campaign constructed using this appropriated hashtag on Twitter.

The only answer to Urban Shield, and institutionalized police brutality, is to mobilize neighborhoods, and to resist and combat the racism and xenophobia that has been weaponized by local and national politicians and used against the subjugated. There is no ‘fixing’ the police – the very ideology behind this rhetoric must be smashed. It is time to decentralize and demilitarize the police.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'


I am tired now! News on protest and clashes are too much. I see these kinds of news everywhere. Peace is now a dream and trouble is real.

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