Resisting Police Militarization

Ali Issa & Tara Tabassi

As national organizers of War Resisters League, and as people committing our lives to challenging militarism globally, we do not often experience moments when our work comes together; where people power is stronger than people in power. But much came together on September 5th, 2014, and we could feel that people power strength. A cross-community rally outside of the Oakland Marriott Hotel in Oakland, California - the host of cop-shop weapons expo Urban Shield - was the culmination of months of local and national organizing across the United States. Towards the end of the day we were excited to hear the announcement: Oakland Mayor Jean Quan promised that Urban Shield would end its 8-year run and not be hosted there next year. As organizers celebrated this development, we also understood this was just the beginning - not only of our work against Urban Shield, but in forging synergy between movements against war, militarism, police violence and for the self-determination of all communities worldwide. As the Stop Urban Shield coalition said in our statement the next day:

Organizers have asserted, however, that their work is far from over. While Oakland will not host the trade show and training, they have not received guarantees that the city will completely withdraw participation, i.e. providing city funding, sending city agencies and offering city sites for future Urban Shields. In the words of Lara Kiswani of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, “We say no to Urban Shield anywhere; we say no to militarization everywhere.”

Protests against Urban Shield: Photograph Credit: Ramsey ElQare of www.elqarephotography.comProtests against Urban Shield: Photograph Credit: Ramsey ElQare of www.elqarephotography.com

 Urban Shield has been held in 3 locations, Boston, Massachusetts, and Central Texas, in addition to Oakland, California. Further underlining this expansion is the clear growth of the national grant program which provides Urban Shield with its fund: the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). The Department of Homeland Security program offers over 500 million in grants to ‘high risk’ urban areas in the U.S., and grew by nearly 30 million last year alone. UASI provides equipment such as drones and armored personnel carriers, but above all it trains police departments and emergency response teams in the tactics of counter-terrorism. That is to say: Urban Shield, the clearest and most spectacular example of expos that drive militarism deeper into our communities, runs programs running in dozens of cities across the U.S. (39 last year) as quieter and more pervasive cousins. Further, Urban Shield’s reach is felt globally, with platinum vendors featured such as Safariland. This key weapons manufacturer exports tear gas and other repressive technologies to Brazil, Bahrain and Canada, just to name a few. Concurrently, police departments from Israel, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates compete in the trainings gaining and imparting militarized strategies. Not an anomaly, these types of gatherings often proudly claim that the next will be “more international than ever.”

That is exactly why our efforts to Stop Urban Shield have expanded as well, to focus on its central financial backer--the Urban Areas Security Initiative. It is our contention that more cross-community coalitions have enough power and more to remove this force from their communities, and instead use those resources for community-determined emergency response that does not amplify the power of police and military. This has born fruit in the area that receives the highest amount of UASI funds - New York City - at 178 million in 2014 alone. WRL’s initiative to “Defund [Commissioner] Bratton’s Army” has received enthusiastic response across the city, as Bratton announced a new counter-terrorism unit, called “the strategic response group” units earlier this year. The New York Police Department is not only a domestic force. It operates in eleven countries outside the US, including Yemen, Germany, Afghanistan, and Israel to coordinate repression around the globe.

As WRL member Skanda Kadirgamar noted at a recent ‘Safety Beyond Policing’ press conference in New York City:

“Just as we need to reinvest the 1.3 trillion the U.S. spends on the military every year, New York City needs to put resources in building communities, not occupying them. That communities say NYPD ‘occupies’ their neighborhoods isn’t a metaphor. It’s the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Bratton’s announcement of the DHS-funded Strategic Response Group earlier this year just underlines that fact. Machine guns and counterterrorism tactics isn’t what New York needs, it’s schools and health services. Invest in life!”

Urban Shield will only deepen the crisis of police violence and repression faced by our communities. Instead of building the NYPD's power to criminalize, control, and kill people, we need resources that keep communities healthy, whole and free to flourish. We will not stop until we have them. Not stopping means knowing where we are going. Knowing what world it is we want, and living that in our practice of resistance. Knowing that we must transform the culture of repression and fear all around us into cultures of care, support and solidarity. Not stopping means pushing for something radical we might call, revolutionary nonviolence.