“The best-selling t-shirt at the previous year's expo: a picture of an assault weapon with the caption ‘Black Rifles Matter.’”
On March 27, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Stop Urban Shield Coalition claimed victory in its four-year battle to stop Urban Shield, a war games and weapons convention for cops held in Alameda County every year since 2007. Critical Resistance, one of the most active members of the coalition, wrote on its website:
Urban Shield represents everything our movements are fighting against — from collaborating and training with ICE, hosting the white supremacist militia the Oath Keepers, training with and sending officers to apartheid Israel, glorifying policing and militarization, exploiting tragedies and natural disasters and public health needs, and continuing to align with Alameda County Sheriff Ahern’s support of the Trump Administration — Urban Shield has no place in the Bay Area or anywhere.
I spoke to Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance and co-facilitator of Oakland Privacy, a citizen’s coalition that works regionally to defend the right to privacy and enhance public transparency and oversight regarding the use of surveillance techniques and equipment. She has worked with the Stop Urban Shield Coalition since 2014.
Ann Garrison: Tracy, Americans from Ferguson, Missouri to North Pole, Alaska, and equally remote corners of the US, have all seen their police armed and trained with military-grade weapons, but they might not have heard of the annual Urban Shield military cops convention held in the Bay Area since 2007. Could you describe Urban Shield and its history?
Tracy Rosenberg: Urban Shield grew out of the gradual merger of first responder training and counterterrorism training. Some of its roots lie in the federal 1033 program for sharing surplus military equipment with domestic law enforcement that began during the Clinton Administration. The 1033 program made way for the militarization of local law enforcement from 1994 on. It framed the transfer of large quantities of used military equipment to local police departments free of charge as a new front in the war on drugs. This led to an increase in SWAT activity, always lucrative for local law enforcement through the use of asset forfeiture, and to the grandiose displays of force in response to social unrest, like those seen during the 2010-2011 Occupy Wall Street Movement and in the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri uprising after police killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.
“The 1033 program made way for the militarization of local law enforcement from 1994 on.”
Militarization of the police intensified after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was folded into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on March 1, 2003, just a year and a half after 09/11. FEMA had operated as an independent federal agency from 1979 to 2003, with an independent cabinet seat from 1993 to 2000, but the Homeland Security Act of 2002 turned it into a DHS sub-agency, despite the strong objections of its director, Michael Brown, who stated that the change would “fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions, shatter agency morale, and break longstanding, effective, and tested relationships with states and first responderstakeholders.” Three years later, in 2005, DHS/FEMA’s overly militarized and inefficient response to Hurricane Katrina proved Brown to be prescient. The sight of heavily armed, camo-clad Blackwater Marines rolling through the streets of New Orleans in outsized military vehicles, as though they were in a war zone, drew broad criticism. A 2006 congressional bipartisan committee examining the DHS/FEMA response to Katrina concluded that federal funding to states for "all hazards" disaster preparedness needs had not been awarded to local agencies unless they had requested it for a “terrorism” fighting function.
“The sight of heavily armed, camo-clad Blackwater Marines rolling through the streets of New Orleans drew broad criticism.”
So, in short, the history of Urban Shield is that of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department’s visions of regional counterterrorism exercises that would draw significant financial support from the Department of Homeland Security by replicating the DHS merger of disaster preparedness, first responder, and counterterrorism training.
AG: Could you describe the Urban Shield Coalition, who it is, and how and when it came together?
TR: The Stop Urban Shield Coalition came together in 2014, when the war games and weapons convention was headquartered at the Marriott Hotel in Oakland. The coalition was originally anchored by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Critical Resistance, BAYAN (a Filipino immigrant, anti-imperialist alliance), Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and the Xicana Moratorium Coalition, with significant contributions from the American Friends Service Committee, Ella Baker Center, and Jewish Voices for Peace. Supporting groups that worked independently but in partnership with the coalition included Code Pink, Media Alliance, and Oakland Privacy.
The Coalition and its partners’ first significant effort was a demonstration in front of the Oakland Marriott that included the voices of family members of people killed by police. It pointed to the connection between the militarization of the police and the escalating rate of lethal encounters between police and unarmed Black and Brown people. Congresswoman Barbara Lee moved a fundraiser out of the Oakland Marriott that had been scheduled to take place during Urban Shield, and Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer tweeted extensively from the event—with pictures—until he got kicked out. So did Vice News reporter Julia Carrie Wong.
“Police strong-armed coalition members who jumped on the stage and unfurled a Stop-Urban-Shield banner while the City Councilors ducked out the back door.”
The City of Oakland and County of Alameda announced a month later that the Urban Shield war games and weapons convention would be relocated to the Dublin Fairgrounds at the eastern edge of the county, farther away from the Oakland/Berkeley activist firebrands.
The next year, in 2015, the American Friends Service Committee and Oakland Privacy approached the City of Berkeley and asked them to withdraw their police and firemen from Urban Shield without success. Protestors showed up outside the Alameda County Administration Building during the event and word leaked out about the best-selling t-shirt at the previous year's expo: a picture of an assault weapon with the caption “Black Rifles Matter.”
In 2016, hundreds of protestors rallied outside the Dublin Fairgrounds gates and blocked several entrances to the event for periods of time until 26 of them were arrested.
In 2017, in response to the ongoing community uproar, the County of Alameda convened a 17-member task force to review Urban Shield's effectiveness and impact on the community. In June of the same year, coalition activists packed into a Berkeley City Council hearing that erupted in chaos after the Council voted to continue participating in Urban Shield despite hours of emotional public testimony in opposition. Police strong-armed coalition members who jumped on the stage and unfurled a Stop-Urban-Shield banner while the City Councilors ducked out the back door, and the angry crowd surged outside with police trying to contain them with batons.
Then in August 2017, the Alameda Board of Supervisors, in their first public rebuke of the Urban Shield ethos, vetoed a Sheriff’s Department contract with Strategic Operations, a San Diego-based training props vendor, after Media Alliance brought it to their attention. The Strategic Operations website promised “battlefield immersion” and featured images of Black and Muslim people described as humanoid live-action targets. It invited buyers to choose the skin tone of their target from three available choices: brown, browner, and black. After the event, and to the Supervisors’ disgust, it emerged that the Sheriff’s Department had contracted with Strategic Operations despite their veto.
“The Strategic Operations website promised ‘battlefield immersion’ and featured images of Black and Muslim people described as humanoid live-action targets.”
The Task Force convened by the Board of Supervisors arranged guided visits to the 2017 event, but the process broke down when one member of the Task Force—a gun dealer with financial ties to the event—called other members of the Task Force terrorists. Shortly afterwards, TV footage showed members of the Oath Keepers vigilantes tabling under an Alameda County Sheriff banner at an Urban Shield-branded event.
In 2018, a public records request by Oakland Privacy's Mike Katz-Lacabe provided pictures of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)/ICE agents participating in SWAT exercises at Urban Shield, even though HSI/ICE was not on the list of participating agencies on the Urban Shield website. Both Alameda County and many of the other participating municipalities are sanctuary jurisdictions.
Another public records request from Katz-Lacabe revealed that the Blackwater mercenary firm had contributed to the Urban Shield trust fund and that booth fees had been used in 2008 and 2010 to send Alameda County Sheriff’s Department executives to Israel and Jordan, where they met with the King of Jordan in 2010, a year after the opening of the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) in Amman. KASOTC runs an annual war games and weapons convention for secret police from all over the world. Since 2012, the training director for KASOTC has been Ayman Masri, who retired from a 22-year career as a Deputy Sheriff in Alameda County the year before.
AG: Wow. That’s hard to beat, but I still want to ask you about the corporate press that claimed victory on the same day the Stop Urban Shield Coalition and the local indie press did. They seemed to think they’d gotten their way because the Alameda County Supervisors agreed to let Sheriff Gregory Ahern go ahead and have his Urban Shield convention this year since he already had it all planned. What do you think it’ll take to hold the Supes to their promise that this will be the last? There’ll no doubt be pressure to reverse it coming from inside and outside both Alameda County and the State of California.
TR: The meeting was lengthy and most of the corporate press departed before the Supervisors actually voted, some four-and-a-half hours after the discussion began. The relevant grant from Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative provides $1.6 million in funding for Urban Shield itself, but in total it’s a $6 million grant that also staffs several positions and funds some non-Urban Shield trainings.
Board Chair Wilma Chan put forth a resolution to cancel Urban Shield 2018 instead of waiting till next year, but it lost by a 2-3 vote. Then the Board voted 4-1 vote for a proposal that the 2019 event “would not occur as currently constituted,” but the Sheriff’s Department will probably use this year’s Urban Shield to mobilize and advocate for more of the same. The coalition and the community will have to keep up the pressure, but I believe that the four-year mobilization that began in 2014 has convinced the Supervisors that they cannot continue on the same course.
AG: At the last Berkeley City Council battle over Urban Shield, Berkeley activist and writer Steve Martinot called it a federal protection racket because all the federal funds for training local law enforcement and first responders go to Urban Shield. Cities feel compelled to send their people because that's the only annual training available. Does anyone imagine that the federal government—especially Homeland Security—will redirect those funds to local cities and counties who might develop more community-based, less militaristic training?
TR: Urban Shield played a significant role in all but totally defunding other emergency preparedness training programs. It vacuumed up all the available funding, and I don't think anyone imagines that the Department of Homeland Security will redirect anything. But local elected officials, who accept the funds on behalf of the community, have discretion on what they apply for and how they utilize it, so it is up to them to ask for what they think Alameda County truly needs and to insist that funds will be used for disaster preparedness, not war games and weapons conventions. DHS ties the funds to a definition called “the nexus to terrorism,” but there are nexuses to terrorism in economic inequality, criminal injustice, and homelessness. It is up to us in the region to define that term in a way that’s meaningful to the people who live here.
AG: You mentioned that Oath Keepers were given a permit to put up a booth under the Alameda County Sheriff’s banner at last year’s Urban Shield. They’re a civilian militia armed and organized to fight off an invasion of the United States by UN troops. Did this looney tunes moment cause the Alameda County Supervisors enough embarrassment to contribute to their decision?
TR: The Oath Keepers booth was not at the Urban Shield expo itself. It was at an Urban-Shield-branded “community fair” held in Castro Valley while Urban Shield was underway in Dublin-Pleasanton. The “community fair” was a public relations stunt to promote the event by getting families out to teach their children about emergency preparedness (and counterterrorism). That was a new addition for Urban Shield 2017, and there has never been a rational explanation for the Oath Keepers presence aside from their ties to local law enforcement. They didn’t actually have a booth with an Oath Keepers banner, but they were staffing the Alameda County Sheriff's Department’s booth and passing out their own literature to the public under the Sheriff's banner. That was one of several very embarrassing moments that no doubt contributed to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ decision.
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. She can be reached at @AnnGarrison or [email protected].
Tracy Rosenberg is the Executive Director of Media Alliance, a Northern California non-profit advocating for democratic communications. She also co-facilitates Oakland Privacy, a citizens coalition that works regionally to defend the right to privacy and enhance public transparency and oversight regarding the use of surveillance techniques and equipment.