“Because we deserve better,” I said to every West Oakland resident I encountered. The 87-year-old lifetime resident and the 30-something hipster alike nodded sagely and said, “that’s right.”
I was canvassing with my clergy colleagues, handing out flyers seeking information on the shooting of 23-month-old Hiram Lawrence, Jr. It was late November, 2011.
My friends and colleagues who prioritize security concerns in Oakland note that the first people who will tell you we need more police on the streets are regular citizens and residents in west and east Oakland. And if you’ve talked to a lot of long-time residents, you’ll find that, with some nuance, that’s pretty true.
My friends and colleagues who prioritize civil rights will note that the people who are most frequently unfairly targeted by the police are also regular citizens and residents of west and east Oakland. They point out that the relationship between community and police is broken almost beyond repair, so that the people who need police protection the most also have the least reason to trust the police. And if you’ve talked to a lot of long-time residents, you’ll find that, with some nuance, that’s pretty true.
Tomorrow, October 25, the Oakland City Marriott will again play host to a program called Urban Shield. A combination of anti-terrorism training and gun show on steroids, County Sherriff Greg Ahern established Urban Shield in 2007 as a means of cashing in on federal funding for anti-terrorism efforts. Bay Area police will be trained by and with security forces from Bahrain, Israel and China, and they will see the latest in munitions and armored cars and drones.
If we are a city that is a war zone, some of my friends argue, we need for our protection crew to be armed for battle. And they are not alone. The War on Terror has moved police departments nationwide towards a strategy of militarization as they seek to make us safe in a scary time, to protect us against terrorists and gang members and suburban anarchists alike.
I am tired of watching babies, little girls, teenagers fall victim to violence in our community. So why would I oppose a program like Urban Shield?
If you’ll forgive me for getting a little abstract for a moment, the Founding Fathers agree with me that an overzealous police program invites a police state that does not make anyone safer while costing us the freedom we hold dear. As the conservative Wall Street Journal noted in an article expressing concern about the militarization of local police forces, “Americans have long been wary of using the military for domestic policing. Concerns about potential abuse date back to the creation of the Constitution, when the founders worried about standing armies and the intimidation of the people at large by an overzealous executive, who might choose to follow the unhappy precedents set by Europe’s emperors and monarchs.”
Of even greater concern to me is the ways in which a militarized police force further fragments our already fragmented city. The people who need the most protection in Oakland right now live in the poorest communities. But police states (think Chile or Nicaragua in the 1970s or Soviet Russia or China today) show us that militarized police result in poor people being no safer and having nowhere to turn when they face violence while being made into the collective enemy of middle class safety. Worse, militarization requires a collective enemy, pitting police against segments of the community. This is already a problem we face in Oakland, where the people who feel the absence of the police most also distrust the police most.
And this is ultimately why I am concerned about Urban Shield and what it symbolizes for Oakland: I have begun to lose hope that those who lead our police force want to heal the broken trust between the OPD and a large segment of the population. And they don’t think that they have to, as long as we’re more scared for our safety than we are angry at our mistreatment.
Please note I am making a significant distinction between individual members of the OPD, many of whom join the force with the genuine desire to protect and serve and some of whom have few other options for a job that will support a family in the Bay Area. I actually deeply cherish some of the police I have worked with in Oakland, who care for the future of our youth and the safety of our elders and who seek opportunities to partner with community members in building up both safety and opportunity.
The brokenness is a systemic issue, one that dates back to Henry Kaiser recruiting White police from the Jim Crow south as he recruited Black laborers from the same place in the 1940s, continuing through the police brutality and neglect that led to the rise of the Black Panthers and continuing to the present day where the system implicitly requires an embattled “us versus them” culture from the top down and an inability to acknowledge shortcomings and failings in order to address and change them. (Witness the need for federal supervision of our police department.)
Armored tanks and drones are a red herring in the pursuit of a safer Oakland. Creating communities where the police and people in neighborhoods are in real relationship, where police are part of the solution to and also alternatives to violence for our community’s youth and not simply seen as their antagonists—that is the only real solution to the continuing cycle of violence.
The fact of the matter is that the firepower of our police is not the limiting factor in their success. Partnership with and support by the citizenry is the real limiting factor. I see individual and small group police efforts all over the city trying to overcome the distrust, and I am grateful for the police who put so much time and heart into those efforts, but they are insufficient in addressing a systemic issue. And programs like Urban Shield that widen the gap between police and community ultimately reduce the effectiveness of even those efforts.
Sherriff Ahern may believe that having our community’s police learn from and with security forces from countries that use force against their citizens will make us more secure, and he may believe that purchasing a military drone will protect us. He’s not alone. However, I believe both tear at the fabric of our already fragile community. So tomorrow I will join others opposing Urban Shield, and I am grateful that so many community leaders, including those who advocate for greater police presence in Oakland, will also be standing against a glorified gun show in a city where gun shows are illegal because it has seen too much gun violence already.
What we will be getting is a training that fosters distrust between police and community, which is what military action requires—modern day war requires enemies and “us against them.” It cannot handle too much fraternizing with or building relationships with civilians. Urban Shield is part of a nationwide trend that fosters up warriors instead of community partners.
We deserve better.