civil liberties

Military budget& Social movements and protest& civil liberties14 Oct 2013 11:18 am

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Frame from video, Urban Shield 2012 Highlights, listed on Youtube as sponsored by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

by Andrew Lichterman

Urban Shield, a huge multi-agency emergency response drill, will be held at sites throughout the Bay Area from October 25-28, 2013. Although often presented to the public as useful for preparing the region to respond for everything from earthquakes and fires to school shootings, Urban Shield primarily is focused on preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. Urban Shield also features a trade show with vendors promoting products ranging from high powered weapons and surveillance equipment to protective gear for hazardous materials response teams. The trade show will take place at the Marriott, in downtown Oakland. The exercise also is a competition, with SWAT teams, hazmat teams, EMT’s and firefighters not only from the Bay Area but from around the world competing for top honors.

A coalition of groups centered in the East Bay is protesting Urban Shield. The law enforcement aspects of the exercise are emblematic of the militarization of policing that took root in the “war on drugs” and has accelerated and intensified in a post 9/11 era. Further, a trade show in downtown Oakland featuring guns and ammunition undercuts long-running efforts to stop the marketing of guns and ammunition, part of broader efforts to stem the tide of gun violence in the city through non-violent means rather than violent repression.

Urban Shield sometimes is portrayed as a general emergency response exercise, but its primary focus is anti-terrorism. There’s a consortium of agencies called the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) that administers Urban Shield. At recent public hearings on Urban Shield, Oakland city officials tried to give the impression that the city’s involvement was limited to hosting the firefighting elements of the exercise, even suggesting that Alameda County, not Oakland, was the proper agency for questions or criticism concerning Urban Shield. All major Bay Area jurisdictions, however, participate in UASI governance: the UASI “Approval Authority” includes “representation from each of the three major cities of Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose and the County of Alameda, County of Contra Costa, County of Marin, County of Monterey, County of San Francisco, County of San Mateo, County of Santa Clara and County of Sonoma.” (Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, The Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy 2012–2014, January 2012, p.5).

A report to that group on last year’s Urban Shield exercise stated that “[s]cenarios must contain a nexus to terrorism” to comply with the Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program. The Urban Area Security Initiative’s Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy 2012–2014 states that

“Threat assessment data indicates that the Bay Area is home to many international and domestic terrorist organizations, making it a prime location for potential terrorist attack.”

Despite the supposed multi-purpose nature of the event, anti-terrorism and military-style police response dominates the imagery, marketing, and substance of Urban Shield. Promotional videos put out by the Alameda County Sheriff’s office, which coordinates Urban Shield, have the kind of highly charged music and pacing normally associated with TV advertising for a football playoff game. The action in the video is dominated by explosions and heavily armed swat teams kicking down doors and engaging in simulated gun battles. Now and then a firefighter or EMT appears, dealing with the destruction one would expect in the wake of one or another scenario with a “nexus to terrorism.”

A frame from a video of highlights from Urban Shield 2012 appears to show heavily armed officers apprehending “terrorists” with banners saying “No war for oil” and “we are 99%.” (see image at top of page.) The frames just preceding show some kind of improvised explosive device. This raises disturbing questions of who our police are being trained to profile and target as terrorists. Both the anti-war and the Occupy movements have been overwhelmingly non-violent, and have involved no activity reasonably described as “terrorist.”

The trade show to be held at the downtown Oakland Marriott is more than just a side show. Exhibitors showcase an array of equipment including guns and ammunition, surveillance devices, software to organize the vast flows of information gathered by police agencies, and gear used by bomb squads, paramedics, and fire departments.

Participating vendors are invited to play an integral part in Urban Shield. Exhibitors pay up to $15,000 to sponsor the event, and those in the upper tiers get far more than a booth at the show. All but the lowest tier can attend one or more Urban Shield dinner events. Vendors who pay $4500 or more get tickets to a “VIP tour” allowing them to view at least eight of the exercise venues. Those that pay $7500 or more are entitled to a “Product Demonstration at a designated tactical scenario.” The vendor application warns that product demonstration opportunities will be filled on a first come, first served basis, and that “[t]o ensure your product is being utilized to its full potential, it is highly recommended you commit your product early during the scenario development process.” A 2012 Alameda County Sheriff’s Department presentation on that year’s Urban Shield exercise showed featured technologies and company logos in slides describing scenarios, for example, the Parrot-AR Drone for a scenario in which “[a] member of the Sovereign Citizen movement drove a truck into a government building which resulted in a partial building collapse and fire.”

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Slide from Bay Area UASI Approval Authority Urban Shield 2012 Presentation, December 2012.

We live in a society where at all levels of government money too often drives policy, and that appears to be the case with Urban Shield. In a time when budgets for public services have been under attack for years, it’s hard for local agencies to find money for emergency preparedness. Homeland Security is a big pot of money–over 50 billion dollars annually throughout the Federal government. And that’s without including Defense Department homeland security spending–another $18 billion per year. But that money comes with strings, such as the requirement that exercises like Urban Shield have a focus on terrorism rather than hazards far more likely to inflict widespread devastation on the Bay Area, such as earthquakes, floods, and fires on the wildland-urban interface. The Urban Area Security Initiative’s 2012-2014 Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy reflects the way the quest for funding shapes this inversion of priorities:

“The purpose of the Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy (Bay Area Strategy or Strategy) is to ensure the Bay Area region has a comprehensive document and system that outlines the region’s risks, capabilities, vision, structure, goals and objectives for homeland security. Having such a Strategy will ensure the Bay Area is in the best possible position to clearly track and articulate its risk and capability needs to local leaders, the State of California and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when seeking resources and funding to enhance homeland security and public safety across the region. The Strategy is designed primarily to address terrorism risk faced by the Bay Area with an understanding that capabilities enhanced to combat terrorism often enhance the ability to also manage natural disasters, such as earthquakes, and man-made accidents, such as hazardous materials spills.”

All of this–the acceptance by local officials, even in a supposedly “liberal” region like the Bay Area, of funding tightly tied to an increasingly militarized internal security apparatus, the incorporation of corporate marketing directly into government activities–might have seemed shocking to many a decade or two ago. The “new normal,” however, is a surveillance-internal-security state driven by an intelligence-police-prison-industrial complex, a new Homeland Security wing of the military industrial complex. As I wrote six years ago regarding Bush-era domestic spying, the Cold War arms race was fueled in large part by power and profit interests having little to do with the common good, exploiting the climate of fear and to sell an endless and ever more sophisticated and expensive array of military technologies and services to the State. But for the emerging police-surveillance-industrial complex, our civil liberties will not be mere collateral damage in larger campaigns selling weapons and wars. They will be squarely in the sights of those who seek to sustain an increasingly two-tier society and to increase their profits by diminishing the freedoms of the rest of us.

The “war on terror” has led to a climate of fear and inflated threats. It has encouraged those in government to view the population as either victims or enemies. Training develops attitudes as well as exercising skills. The “homeland security” approach typified by Urban Shield emphasizes technology heavy, military-style rapid response. We are far better served by seeking solutions that strengthen our everyday public services and the economic and social health of our communities–the strongest basis for mutual aid and recovery in times of disaster. It’s time to end the war at home.

There will be a community witness and picket outside the trade show at the Marriott Hotel, 11th & Broadway, Oakland, October 25, 9am-5pm. For more information, go to

Social movements and protest& civil liberties27 Oct 2011 01:17 am

by Andrew Lichterman

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Oscar Grant Plaza, Occupy Oakland

Early Tuesday morning, hundreds of police officers descended on the Occupy Oakland encampment, driving campers from their beds. The police arrested those who stayed, gassing some and shooting others with “non-lethal” projectiles. Their property was confiscated, the small temporary village, with its kitchen and library, medical tent and children’s area, was destroyed.

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Children’s play zone and medical tent, the kind of threats to public order that required hundreds of heavily armed police to subdue.

But that was just the beginning. When Occupy Oakland residents and supporters attempted to reclaim the plaza– with a march that from most reports appeared, with the exception of scattered incidents, to be nonviolent on the part of the protesters– police responded with overwhelming force. It is clear that large quantities of tear gas and various “nonlethal” rounds were fired at unarmed civilians. I was not there Tuesday night. But I would note that I have been present at many, many demonstrations, including a number that involved objects thrown at police in which the police response was considerably more restrained. I find it difficult to believe in this case that police officers, present in very large numbers, armed and in full riot gear, ever were in significant danger from the demonstrators. It seems more likely that those who decided to deploy the kind of force we saw Tuesday wanted to send a strong message, and perhaps one that would be heard beyond Oakland. (more…)

Social movements and protest& civil liberties21 Oct 2011 03:17 pm

by Andrew Lichterman

These are some reflections on the occupations, having spent time at several and followed many others from afar. The occupations share similarities, but also have local characteristics. I can not speak for any or all of them, but as a participant in the debate they have sparked I can speak, and that is the point. This is some of what I have heard, and some of what I want to say. It is not a time to speak with one voice. The conversation is only beginning. The more it grows and the longer it goes on, the more reason for hope.

Occupy everywhere: reclaiming public space

The occupation movement is a response to internal colonization, to a sense that there is no space in our cities and towns and lives that has not been invaded by immense organizations in which we have no voice. In most aspects of our lives we are commanded or exploited, presented with pre-made, limited choices or no choices at all. And even that is only if our existence is either useful or profitable to the huge organizations that control both the necessities of existence and most social space, real and virtual. If we are neither useful as workers nor profitable as consumers, we are thrown away, pushed aside, squeezed out. Soon there will be no place left to go.

A popular trope used by the mainstream media and in professional political circles to denigrate the Occupy movement is to express puzzlement about “what those people want,” to say they have no “demands.” Yet the immediate “demands” of these occupations are clear. The first is that we have the right to reclaim public spaces (regardless of their legal definition) for their rightful purposes, which are the discussion necessary for the construction of communities that are fair, democratic, and work for all of us, and for the physical activity of constructing such a community. The second demand, equally important, is not really a demand but a call, addressed to all who hear in their capacities as human beings. It is “join us.” It is a call that appeals first to all of us who are politically homeless in the current order of things, who lack the wealth or the position in an increasingly rigid, polarized, and inequitable society to have a voice.

The political classes–government officials elected or appointed in or out of uniform, party operatives, NGO professionals, propagandists masquerading as reporters and analysts in the corporate-owned media– can not–will not–hear either the demand or the call. They cannot hear the call because it is not addressed to them as they demand to be addressed– in their status as officers, officials, or professionals. The demand for the moment only says to those who insist on their roles and prerogatives in the machinery of destruction: you have done enough damage. Leave us alone, while we figure out what to do about it. This demand leaves no place for them so long as they remain within their well-paid roles and does not pay homage to their status, so they refuse to hear it.

The call, on the other hand, addresses people differently and presents us with different choices. For those with no organized power or voice, the choice is: remain silent, and sooner or later one or another of the immense organizations that dominate the life of this planet will take what little you have left. The system we inhabit is inexorably using up the world, and those in the upper echelons of organizations deploying great power plan to be the ones who remain comfortable as long as there is comfort to be had. For those with some measure of power, privilege, and status, the choice is: Come down from your office towers and out of your fortresses, shed your uniforms and your suits, your guns and badges, abjure all claims to status and privilege. Begin with us a new conversation about how we can make a democracy, and how we can find a different path forward for a society gone terribly wrong. Here you can claim to be no more than one more human being with one voice, but also will be no less. (more…)

Secrecy and democracy& Social movements and protest& civil liberties07 Jul 2006 06:57 pm


Air Force personnel filming protesters, Vandenberg Air Force Base, May 2005

Andrew Lichterman

This week brought another in the long line of disclosures of government spying on Americans in the name of “security.” This time it was the California Office of Homeland Security, revealed by the Los Angeles Times to have compiled information about peaceful antiwar protests. These events included several discussed in previous entries here, such as the Walnut Creek, California demonstration on the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion and a demonstration supporting MacGregor Eddy, arrested protesting the many activities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in support of U.S. aggressive war making.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the California Office of Homeland Security intelligence reports on political demonstrations were prepared by a private contractor, SRA International Inc. The media coverage hasn’t told us much about SRA International, but a quick internet search reveals that they are a large information services company that has many contracts with the federal government. Among their services are “data and text mining,” and among their clients are a number of Defense Department organizations and “various intelligence agencies.” As SRA International’s web site notes, “text mining” for “Homeland Security and Intelligence” applications can include “Surveillance of the Web, e-mails, or chat rooms.” SRA International claims its text-mining techniques allow extraction “from free-text document entities such as persons, organizations, places, artifacts, and other concepts of interest, as well as key links between, and events involving, these entities.”

Although the Times reported claims by the California officials that the monitoring of peaceful protests was done in error, the story really raises more questions than it answers. How did this “mistake” happen? If, as state officials assert, there is no ongoing monitoring program that would sweep up the activities of peaceful protesters in its data-gathering net, what is a high powered (and undoubtedly high-priced) contractor that provides such services as “data and text mining” being paid to do? What kinds of precautions, if any, has the state taken to insure that monitoring that encompasses peaceful protest will cease? Was SRA International involved in the collection of raw data, or only in the analysis of data collected by public agencies? If the former, has SRA been told to stop gathering data on peaceful political protests, or only to stop including such information in its reports to the state? If the latter, who was collecting raw “intelligence” in a manner that swept up information about peaceful protests? It’s not enough simply to tell the contractor not to report information they collect on peaceful protesters (which is all the state appears to have done so far).

The Schwarznegger administration’s first response to getting caught with its hand in the civil liberties cookie jar (again) has been to allow the press (and the press alone) to review redacted copies of the series of reports in question, but apparently not to copy them. This response manifests another casualty of the current “security” frenzy, which is government openness. The California Public Records Act does not permit the state to release documents only to the press; once records have been released any claimed exemptions to public access are waived. Further, I know of no provision in the act allowing the state to release records for inspection without allowing them to be copied. Despite the statutory presumption in favor of releasing records, California officials (like most officials) are trying to get away with as little openness as they can probably with the hope of making this story as difficult for the press to cover as possible short of outright stonewalling. The ACLU has, however, filed a comprehensive public records act request for relevant documents, including SRA International’s contract with the state.