Stop Urban Shield, Stop Violence Against Our Communities

On September 5th, hundreds of people converged outside the Marriott Convention Center in downtown Oakland to protest the 9th annual Urban Shield.  Sponsored by numerous federal agencies, most prominently the Department of Homeland Security, and hosted by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, Urban Shield is a weapons and surveillance technology vendor show and a series of militarized training exercises for police and emergency responders.  While the conference claims to be about emergency preparedness, a quick glance through its website shows that the event is really about bringing together private security companies, the military, and local and international policing agencies to profit off the increasing surveillance and repression of communities of color in the U.S. and abroad. 

The protest outside the Convention Center focused on the effects of military and police violence on a broad range of communities.  In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder and the police response to protesters in Ferguson, protesters demanded an end to racial profiling and militarized policing.  Heart-wrenching testimonies from the families of Alan Blueford, James Rivera Jr., Andy Lopez, Mario Romero, and Oscar Grant reminded us of the devastating and too frequent loss of young men of color to police violence.  Some speakers connected this violence to the bombing of Gaza, the occupation of Palestine, and the increasing use of Israeli military strategies as a model for domestic policing in the U.S. Other speakers emphasized the enduring legacy of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, the targeting of Black communities in the U.S. by the police, and that governments around the world are using the same increasingly oppressive tactics and technology to suppress political dissent.  Together, these many voices demonstrated the interconnectedness of seemingly different struggles and the need to engage together in a fight not just to end Urban Shield but to end global state repression.

Organized by a coalition of groups including Critical Resistance, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and the War Resisters League and endorsed by a long list of local organizations including the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, the protest was a huge success.  As a result of pressure from these grassroots groups, the Marriott Convention Center has decided not to host Urban Shield again and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan announced that Urban Shield will not take place anywhere in Oakland next year.  However, as important as these victories are, there is still much work to be done.  Urban Shield is still slated to happen elsewhere in Alameda County next year as well as in venues in Massachusetts and Texas.  In addition, Urban Shield itself is just the tip of a very large iceberg.  Opposing the growing global network of militarized security forces is a much larger struggle.  

Urban Shield and the global security collaborations it represents present a specific threat to South Asian communities around the world.  At the same time, it presents a critical opening for South Asian communities in the United States to build coalitions and organize against it.  There are many reasons why South Asians must take a stand against Urban Shield’s brand of global repression.

First, Urban Shield is part of the globalization of a War on Terror that relies heavily on war-based technology and tactics that circulate between South Asia and the U.S.  For example, vendors at Urban Shield are marketing many of the same technologies that are used in drone strikes in Pakistan; this technology, initially developed for the U.S. military in war zones abroad, is now available to police departments in communities of color within the U.S.  Similarly, Urban Shield draws an international audience and seeks to globalize militarized approaches to perceived national security threats. In light of continued repression in Kashmir, suppression of political dissent, efforts to build closer relationships between India and Israel, and the development of an increasingly authoritarian state under the Modi government, the Indian government is certainly a key player in the War on Terror.  It is only a matter of time before the tactics and technologies marketed at Urban Shield are used on minoritized groups and political dissenters in South Asia.  Therefore, challenging the spread of these technologies here is essential to challenging state violence everywhere. 

Second, the Islamaphobia that underwrites Urban Shield is palpable.  The very rationale for Urban Shield depends upon the labeling of Muslim and immigrant communities as foreign terrorist threats.  Amidst images of SWAT teams, Urban Shield’s website prominently features a clock set to the time of 9:11. Many of the training exercise feature terrorist combatants contributing to the idea that emergency preparedness is about continued vigilance against internal enemies.  For example, pictures that surfaced on twitter showed an Urban Shield exercise where police were challenged to deal with a Muslim extremist student at a local university threatening an Israeli student with a bucket of deadly chemicals.  Other scenarios for training exercises included a terrorist attack on the Golden Gate Bridge, a shootout with “homegrown jihadists,” and “foreign terrorists” hijacking a public bus.  These exercises only serve to reinforce the already widespread police and Department of Homeland Security surveillance of Muslim communities.  In a recently released report, SAALT has documented the connection between Islamaphobic and xenophobic sentiment and hate crimes against the South Asian community.  The activities of Urban Shield most definitely amplify these concerns.    

Finally, a strong stand against Urban Shield is also an important act of solidarity with Black struggles against police violence and a growing prison industrial complex.  The United States currently incarcerates nearly 2.5 million people, and African Americans are incarcerated at close to six times the rate of whites.  Racial profiling and violence directed at Black people are a routine part of daily policing operations.  South Asian communities are often positioned in contradictory ways in relation to these processes.  On the one hand, we are thought to be model minorities whose supposed successes in the U.S. are used to reinforce anti-Black racism.  On the other hand, especially in the post 9-11 context, many of the same state apparatuses that have been developed to police Black communities are now also targeting Muslim and South Asian communities.  Often, our investment in being model minorities keeps us from challenging anti-Black racism.  Instead, we need to recognize the ways that the policing apparatuses that have targeted Black communities can just as easily be turned against South Asian communities in opportune moments. 

In recent weeks, images of SWAT teams attacking protestors in Ferguson with military grade equipment have raised significant concerns about the militarization of local police forces.  However, the use of military force to suppress communities of color in the U.S. is nothing new.  Initially developed in the 1960s as a response to the Watts riots, the original purpose of SWAT teams was to crack down on political unrest in Black and Brown communities.  One of the first targets of SWAT operations were United Farm Worker demonstrations, and SWAT teams were actively deployed against the Black Panther Party and a variety of other leftist groups.  The primary purpose of SWAT teams has always been to suppress political dissent and to maintain an existing political order that is rooted in capitalism and white supremacy.  In the 1980s as a part of the War on Drugs, another highly racialized policing project, SWAT teams proliferated benefiting from the transfer of surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense through the 1033 program.  The heavily armed SWAT teams of today are a direct result of these concerted efforts to repress and control communities of color, not just wayward police officers who have been given too many dangerous military toys.

The growing demand to demilitarize the police is an important one, and challenging events like Urban Shield draws attention to that demand.  However, if there is anything that Urban Shield and the racist history of policing in the U.S. teaches us, it is that the police and military are two faces of the same system of global repression and racism.  While the military protects U.S. imperial interests abroad, the police control and repress Black communities in the U.S. specifically and communities of color and working class communities more generally.  Both institutions devalue the lives of their targets who are seen, at best, as collateral damage in efforts to protect national security and, at worst, as enemy combatants. 

Therefore, in the wake of Ferguson, the point is not simply to take military equipment away from the police, it is to challenge the role the police play in enforcing racial inequality and the devaluation of Black lives.  After all, Michael Brown wasn’t killed by a tank or AK 47.  He was killed by a police officer wielding anti-Black racism and a standard issue gun.  It is imperative, that South Asian communities take strong stands against anti-Black racism and recognize that police violence against Black communities is related to surveillance and detention of immigrants and Muslims in the U.S. and the military violence that targets our communities around the world.  A statement recently released by New York based organizations CAAAV and DRUM makes just these connections and offers us a model of how we might move forward.  They write:

. . . every lost life is a reminder of the violence that Black communities face within the system of white supremacy. As immigrant communities, we must recognize and challenge the ways that the U.S. state has been built on anti-blackness that devalues Black lives and Black people’s humanity. . . .  We must unite together to demand that the U.S. police and military be accountable for the perpetual violence that they commit and accept responsibility. As organizations that are committed to the long term work of challenging police brutality and violence in all of its forms, we demand an end to the violence in Ferguson. We demand an end to the killing of Black teenagers. We demand an end to hate violence that kills women, trans people, and immigrants every day. We demand an end to gendered violence that tears our families and communities apart. We demand an end to U.S. wars abroad. We ask that all Asian and South Asian community members stand with us to demand an end to violence in all its forms.

 The interconnections between state violence in all its forms is particularly evident in events like Urban Shield, and organizing against it offers an important opportunity for South Asian communities to explore how our experiences of violence are related to those of other communities.  In making these connections, we might build on the work that many South Asian organizations already do to resist the surveillance and detention of immigrants in the U.S., as well as the violence in our homelands. Let us take a stand against the prison industrial complex in all its global manifestations, while challenging anti-Black racism within our own communities.



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