Stop Urban Shield activists in Berkeley have been busy. They took aim at Urban Shield (a highly militarized police war games and weapons expo) in two different venues this week. On Wednesday night, the Berkeley Police Review Commission (PRC) voted 4 to 2 to cease the city’s participation in Urban Shield, and activists who had been brutalized by Berkeley Police while demonstrating against the program filed suit against the city.
The PRC decision will be passed as a recommendation for the city council to consider. George Lippman, chair of the commission, and Andrea Pritchett were among the commission who attended to observe this year’s Urban Shield scenarios and weapons expo, noting the highly militarized nature of the program. Their observations challenged the idea that the program was necessary
“I didn’t see any training happening at Urban Shield; I saw SWAT teams demonstrate their training. It’s a competition,” stated Pritchett. Speaking to a widely condemned violent police crackdown of a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest in Berkeley, Pritchett continued, “It’s not that the police were unprepared, it’s that they were ill-prepared. It’s because of programs like Urban Shield that the police responded to the Black Lives Matter protests in a war-like fashion.”
The Stop Urban Shield Coalition applauds the commission’s decision. “We welcome the commission’s motion to to halt the city’s participation in this extremely dangerous and racist program, as it’s long past due that Berkeley withdraw,” said Lily Fahsi-Haskell of Critical Resistance, an organization with the coalition. “It is now the responsibility of the Mayor and city council members to heed this call by avoiding the same mistake they made in June, and to definitively say that Berkeley will not support militarization. It’s time to pull out of Urban Shield.”
The date for when the Berkeley city council will discuss this recommendation has yet to be decided.
Meanwhile, seven people who were brutalized by the Berkeley Police while demonstrating against Berkeley’s participation in the highly militarized Urban Shield policing program filed a claim against the City of Berkeley on Thursday.
On June 20th, 2017, the seven turned out to a special Berkeley City Council meeting at Longfellow Middle School to speak against Berkeley’s continued participation in Urban Shield, an annual SWAT training and weapons expo. They were among hundreds of people who gave hours of public comment in opposition to Urban Shield, but the Council proceeded to rush a vote in favor of continuing to participate.
When activists peacefully unfurled a banner reading “Stop Urban Shield, End the Militarization of our Communities,” they were immediately attacked by Berkeley Police officers. The officers grabbed two people, applied excruciating pain holds and arrested them without giving them any chance to leave. Police then forcibly pushed the crowd out of the auditorium and into the street. When people continued to express concern for the two who had been arrested and chant in opposition to the violence of Urban Shield, the police advanced on the crowd aggressively, wielding their batons. Police clubbed Lew Williams, a 73-year-old retired elementary school teacher on the head, causing him to bleed, and struck minister Sharon Fennema, a Berkeley resident and professor at Pacific School of Religion, on the shoulder. A photojournalist was hit multiple times on her arm, which was already injured and in a brace, and her camera was forcefully shoved into her face, bruising her. Police clubbed other protesters repeatedly, even as the activists showed no threat.
“I felt this blow on top of my head and then blood came streaming out,” said longtime Berkeley resident Lew Williams, the retired teacher. “It seemed totally gratuitous that they would hit me like that. I didn’t see it coming. I am positive though that the only weapons or sticks in the vicinity were the batons being forcefully wielded by the police officers right in front of me, including one who had shoved me moments before I was hit on the head.”
Although several Berkeley officers were in close proximity to Mr. Williams, not one officer offered first aid or called an ambulance. Other demonstrators assisted Mr. Williams, who suffered a concussion as well as a laceration on the top of his head. Nor did the police provide any medical attention to the two people who had gratuitously been subjected to pain holds. Dylan Cooke sustained lasting wrist and shoulder injuries as a result of this mistreatment.
During the Council meeting, the Berkeley police chief boasted of how Urban Shield offers valuable training on de-escalation.Yet, just hours later when faced with a nonviolent, peaceful demonstration, police immediately resorted to escalation and violence.
Advocates with the Stop Urban Shield Coalition cited the police’s violent reaction to peaceful protest as a prime example of how Urban Shield trains police officers. “It’s a sad irony that over 500 community members were present to speak out against the violence and militarization of Urban Shield, and were then met with that very violence and brutality by police” explained Ellen Brotsky, a Berkeley resident with the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. “The Berkeley Police Department’s escalation and egregious response to peaceful protest should be reason alone for the City of Berkeley to withdraw completely from Urban Shield.”
Only a few months prior to this June 20th incident, BPD agreed to changes in its First Amendment and Use of Force policies and training, as a result of a federal civil rights lawsuit and a two year Police Review Commission (PRC) process arising from BPD’s response to Black Lives Matter protesters on December 6, 2014. In that eerily similar incident, a Chronicle photographer and a minister were hit on the heads, protesters were indiscriminately clubbed from behind, and BPD used batons to forcefully herd demonstrators from the campus area all the way across the city border into Oakland. Civil rights attorneys Jim Chanin and Rachel Lederman, who brought the prior lawsuit and are representing the claimants here, contacted Chief Greenwood after the June 20 incident to try to discuss the event, but the Chief never responded.
“We are alarmed to see BPD fall back on the same type of needless escalation that failed so miserably before, after promising to change its approach to one emphasizing de-escalation,” said Lederman. “The use of pain without first giving any verbal command or chance to comply; the indiscriminate use of batons without giving a dispersal order or any attempt to resolve the situation peacefully; are all prohibited by BPD’s own policies.”
“There appears to be no justification for a head strike, which is potentially deadly and thus prohibited unless the officer reasonably believes that doing so is necessary to protect the officer or others from death or serious bodily injury,” said Chanin. “What’s almost worse is that neither the officer who did this, nor any of other officers who were nearby, reported the illegal use of force as they were required to.”
The government claim filed today is a prerequisite required before the activists can sue the City of Berkeley in court.