If you see heavily armed men roleplaying the Benghazi attack in Berkeley this weekend, you might think you’ve stumbled onto a movie set. But you’re actually witnessing America’s police officers preparing for the Apocalypse. They’re competing in a 48-hour disaster training simulation called Urban Shield, which presents US streets as a war zone.
Urban Shield is the largest SWAT training exercise in the world, and it’s also a trade fair where police can shop for shiny military gear. It’s a crucible for police militarization, it’s paid for by your tax dollars, and it’s coming to California on September 9th.
Previous Urban Shield events have involved mock hostage situations and terrorist radiological attacks as well as overseas episodes like Benghazi, presumably to get US police in the mood for viewing us all as enemy combatants.
But Urban Shield isn’t just about war and terror, it’s also about fun and games.
As you read this, hundreds of police officers are looking forward to an exciting weekend of enacting Armageddon-like scenarios. They’re going to enjoy “the adrenaline, excitement and fatigue of America’s largest tactical exercise,” according to a breathless article in Tactical Response magazine. The 48-hour training is staged as a kind of Combat Tactic Olympics. More than 30 teams of law enforcers who race each other across the San Francisco Bay Area. Prizes are offered for stellar performance in categories such as SWAT tactics and explosive ordnance disposal.
This game mentality makes its way back from Urban Shield to the streets. According to Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown, “sometimes it seems like our young officers want to get into an athletic event with people they want to arrest.”
Treating crisis events as fun doesn’t stop there, as some of the military gadgets sold at the Urban Shield trade fair are marketed like toys. The vendor of a 3-D printed drone told Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer that it drops stuff “like in Hunger games.”
If you think it sounds exaggerated to say that police enjoy militarized violence, consider that Denver police told Radley Balko that it’s “fairly common to take sports stars on drug raids.” And in Craig Atkinson’s documentary Do Not Resist, police trainer David Grossman is filmed lecturing a room full of officers on the thrill of a violent raid: “Finally get home at the end of the incident and they all say, ‘The best sex I’ve had in months.’”
At the Urban Shield trade fair, this sense of pleasure spills over into humor at the expense of Black Lives Matter — which, lest we forget, is a movement that grew out of grief for beloved humans who were killed by the police. At 2015’s Urban Shield, officers could buy a t-shirt bearing the legend “Black Rifles Matter” around an image of an assault weapon. Another shirt depicted a gun sight surrounded by a joke, “this is my peace sign.”
Urban Shield promotes a thrill-of-the-chase attitude to SWAT raids, and it also promotes the idea that there’s virtually no occasion too small for a SWAT team’s deployment. “The logic at work at #UrbanShield is troubling,”tweeted Shane Bauer in 2014. “If SWAT teams are needed for muggings, pedophiles & suicide response, why have regular cops?”
SWAT raids have increased from 3,000 a year in 1980s to 50,000 a year in 2015 and there’s no reason to suppose that will slow down. Police have another strong incentive to deploy SWAT teams: it’s a chance to use their military gear. The Pentagon’s notorious 1033 program, which provides military weapons to police, takes them away if they’re unused after a year. This gives police departments a powerful motive “to get into one of those armored vehicles armed to the teeth and in a pre-dawn drug raid of a family home hit a suspected low-level, non-violent drug offender who was seen to be in possession of one-half of a bag of marijuana,” as former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper explained to Stephen Colbert in August 2014.
In just such a SWAT raid to arrest an alleged pot dealer in 2014, Georgia police threw a flash-bang grenade into the crib of a 19-month-old toddler named Bounkham Phonesavanh. The lower half of his face was torn “down to bone, down to his teeth,” according to burn trauma specialist Dr. Walter Ingram. He is permanently scarred by third degree burns and he still finds it painful to swallow two years after the injuries.
America’s police have acquired $39 billion worth of military arms since the 1990s, including, bafflingly, 12 thousand bayonets. This military arsenal is disbursed by a little-known government agency, the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), whose motto is “from warfighter to crimefighter.” The motto seems at odds with federal law, which bars the military from fighting crime on US streets.
But military force is precisely what’s being sold to our civilian police force at Urban Shield. Cops can get training from the Israeli Special Forces, bringing America’s police into alignment with a military that envisions the streets as a literal war zone and members of the civilian population as the enemy.
The explicit justification for all of this is that police are facing unprecedented threats to their own lives. The official Urban Shield 2015 poster showed an officer in helmet and goggles pointing an assault rifle directly at the viewer. He’s crouched in a shooting position above a clock that has stopped at 9:11, alongside the words “Critical training 4 critical times.” This echoes Urban Shield’s official slogan: “Intense training for intense times.”
The medical dummies pictured below were on display at Urban Shield in 2014. If you’re a police officer, how could you not be terrified? And we all know that when police are afraid, bad things can happen, given how often “in fear of his life” is invoked as a reason for fatally shooting civilians.
Urban Shield trains police to respond with swift violence to perceived threats, which seems likely to often end badly. Notably, the officer who killed Phillando Castile in July 2016 took a disaster-training course called “The Bulletproof Warrior” a few years before he shot Castile dead.
The rational for Urban Shield is that police now face unprecedented threats, as several officers who attended told the Guardian in 2014. But this idea is actually a myth. Conditions for officers are safer, and freer from crime, than they have been in decades. Not only that, the number of police killed by firearms is lower than it’s ever been:
The phrase “police militarization” has become almost anodyne, we’re so used to hearing it. At this point, we need something stronger to describe what Urban Shield is selling. America’s police are being Special Force-ified. They’re being Delta Force-ized. They’re acting out Call of Duty. They’re roleplaying Storm Troopers.
The Fight Against Urban Shield
Around 1,000 protestors from across California are headed to Pleasanton on September 9, organized by the Stop Urban Shield coalition. Mohamed Shehk, the National Media and Communications Director of Critical Resistance, is calling for as many people as possible to mobilize in Pleasanton. The coalition also asks that people spread the word on social media, and sign the petition calling on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to put an end to Urban Shield in California.
The Californians protesting Urban Shield on September 9 are a diverse coalition. They emphasize that Urban Shield should worry all of us. “By being out there on September 9th, we are demonstrating resistance to policing and militarization and a collective commitment to health and wellbeing of our communities,” said Lara Kiswani, the Executive Director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, part of the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. She continued, “while the same forces backed by US imperialism to oppress people across the world are coming together to train with police forces in our local neighborhoods, all our communities must come out together and join forces to resist global policing and militarization.”
The weekend before Urban Shield, Bay Area residents met up in an Oakland workshop to paint cardboard signs calling for healthcare and housing, not bullets and brutality. The Stop Urban Shield Coalition has designed protest signs that are an uplifting contrast to the Storm Trooper imagery of Urban Shield, around images of painted houses, hearts, and apples.