California's Muslims confront growing militarisation of law enforcement

California's Muslims confront growing militarisation of law enforcement
As police and military groups from around the world gather to buy weapons and share tips, community groups are facing growing violence, writes Mohammed Harun Arsalai.
6 min read
21 September, 2017
Urban Shield training exercises showcase military-style tactics [Katie Loncke]
Earlier this month, in the Bay Area city of Pleasanton, California, the 11th annual "Urban Shield" weapons expo and training event took place with hundreds of members of local law enforcement as well as security agencies and military personnel from around the globe. 

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office (ACSO) which hosts the yearly expo presents Urban Shield as "a planned training exercise involving local, national, and international first responder agencies" - which, taken at face value seems like a crucial safeguard for emergency situations.

But according to local Bay Area activists the event is blatantly racist and geared towards violence, the militarisation of local police agencies and specifically targets Muslims, communities of colour and political movements.

In past years, the ASCO has hosted security personnel from Bahrain, Jordan and the Israeli military at Urban Shield - which has led to more contention and claims that the intent of the training given to local and international police and security forces is aimed primarily at quelling protests and uprisings.

Urban Shield was previously held in Oakland, California - a city known for its many street rebellions - until 2014, when due to large scale protests and mounting community pressure, the expo was moved to the city of Pleasanton, known for its affluence and for having many police and military officers as residents.
Urban Shield is a vehicle to further the militarisation of local law enforcement in the United States in connection to US imperialism abroad

On Friday September 8, an estimated 500 people marched through Oakland to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors' office to demand an end to Urban Shield. In the past four years, a coalition of Bay Area organisations and activist groups known as the "Stop Urban Shield Coalition" have been getting together in creative ways to shut down the weapons expo and bring attention to its connections to US foreign and domestic militarised security policies.
Hundreds of law enforcement officials join seminars
and training at Urban Shield [Kathryn Gilje]

"Urban Shield is a vehicle to further the militarisation of local law enforcement in the United States in connection to US imperialism abroad," says Lara Kiswani, executive director at the Arab Resource and Organizing Center. 

"We're essentially being treated and targeted as enemy combatants here by local and national policing agencies," says Kiswani. "The connections between the rapid militarisation of local law enforcement and US policies and actions overseas couldn't be more clear than what takes place at Urban Shield - Islamophobia and the War on Terror are central to their exercises - the inclusion of the policing agencies from Apartheid Israel prove this."

AROC has often functioned as a stop-gap for a polarised activist community by uniting a wide array of individuals and political tendencies. The group was essential in the "Block the Boat" campaign against Israel's 2014 aggressions on Gaza. The campaign targeted ZIM Shipping, the largest Israeli shipping line. It spread beyond the Bay Area to the entire west coast of the US and Canada, with dockers refusing to unload the ships' cargo.

Black liberation organisations, prison abolitionists, indigenous and Chicano communities, faith leaders, health workers, and more have united in the effort to end Urban Shield, due in large part to AROC's ability to connect local and international issues.  

"Last year we were successful in getting large numbers out to Pleasanton in the early morning hours to directly confront Urban Shield and shut down some of their exercises. This year we decided to take it to the door of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, who, year after year, continue to 'OK' Urban Shield to continue happening here in the Bay Area", says Kiswani.

"From there, we marched to Lake Merritt, where we organised an alternative resource fair to counter the premises of Urban Shield.

"We demonstrated how community preparedness should look. People left with hard skills on emergency preparedness for earthquakes, fires and first aid as well self defence training, which are crucial in this time where we've seen an alignment between Zionist and white supremacist narratives and violence."

Although the Bay Area and Northern California more generally have long had a problem with racism, police violence and white supremacists, Kiswani says the problem has become much more serious under the presidency of Donald Trump and has manifested in real threats to the safety of communities of colour.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counted nearly 900 incidents of hate crimes in just the ten days following Trump's election win, a noticeable and frightening upswing

In recent months, "Reem's", an Arab-owned bakery in Oakland that brings together art, culture and activism has become a target of the Bay Area's anti-Muslim and anti-Arab "activists".

One stand at Urban Shield's weapons fair. Activists say
the increasing militarisation of law enforcement and violence
against minority communities is no coincidence
[Tash Nguyen]

Further north of the Bay Area, near Sacramento, lies Davis - which, contrary to popular perceptions as a "liberalism and tolerance" area, should be better known for its violence and racism, according to local Muslims and students at the University of California in Davis.

Khalil Shalluf, a UCD student and a former vice-president of the Islamic Center of Davis has in recent days become a target of racism and anti-Muslim bigotry:

"Islamophobia in America is deep-rooted in the country's moral framework; Native Americans suffered genocide at the hands of their ancestors, [then came] the enslavement, mass incarceration, and institutional racism of Blacks."

Under Trump, all marginalised communities are under threat. And as a result, these marginalised communities have been uniting

UCD graduate student and ICD member Muneeza Rizvi said that in recent months her mosque had been subject to various hate crimes, but that the city itself has broader issues:

"While Davis understands itself to be a safe town characterised by multicultural tolerance, like all suburbs that pride themselves on liberal values, Davis is a violent place. 

"We learned this most recently when longtime Davis resident Lauren Kirk-Coehlo smashed the windows of the Islamic Center of Davis." 

Rizvi was referring to a January 2017 incident in which a former Google employee and legal intern for the Sacramento County District Attorney's office shattered the Islamic centre's windows and wrapped bacon on its door handles. 

The problems have continued since then. The local Islamic centre has become the focus of organised anti-Muslim groups, angry about a sermon given at the mosque which was critical of Israeli policies and the siege on al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. 

"A couple of weeks ago, a handful of protesters harassed mosque congregants as they filtered in and out of the mosque for Friday prayers. The protesters claimed to be responding to a controversial sermon delivered by the imam, but they appeared more interested in shouting obscenities about the Prophet than the question of anti-semitism," says Rizvi.

Khalil Shalluf agreed. "The events that day were horrific,"  said the UCD student, also a former vice-president of the Islamic Center of Davis. "I awoke in my nearby apartment to the sound of a blow horn, the voice of a middle-aged right-wing fanatic announcing to the entire city block: 'Your Prophet was a child molester'. I felt as if being called to a battle front, and proceeded quickly to the mosque.

"'Your religion is a cult,' another bigot said to me. He looked over at me, and slowly opened his shirt vest. He then pretended to push a button, and made a gesture indicating an suicide explosion. The intent for violence was obvious."

As a result of ongoing hostilities from racists and white supremacists, communities of colour, in particular Muslim women, have begun to respond to attacks by encouraging and practicing self-defence. 

"These attacks against Reem's have actually provided us with an opportunity," says Kiswani. "As a result, we have organised a rapid response team to show up at Reem's. It has also given us the opportunity to practice 'community self-defence' and build on a history of cross-movement building. In this era, under Trump, all marginalised communities are under threat. And as a result, these marginalised communities have been uniting to fight against a growing fascism."