Public Policy is hard. But I would like to think that here, in my hometown of Berkeley, we can do a good job of it. Perhaps we can even continue to blaze trails that others can follow as we have on so many other issues.
On Tuesday the City Council will consider pulling Berkeley out of Urban Shield. To the council I say “bravo.” Do it! The same money we get for Urban Shield can be obtained by the city under the same program to increase our resilience to earthquakes and improve our health system. To the police officers who put their bodies on the line, I say “bravo,” but let’s work together to make our community truly safer. To the residents of Berkeley I say “bravo” — let’s make the city a true reflection of our values and our priorities. We are a rich, vibrant, talented and optimistic people, let’s put our heads together and not give into fear.
Terrorism is not new in America, we can trace it back at least to Haymarket in 1886. In the ’60s we all knew about the bombs. In the ’70s we had airplane hijackings and increasingly we saw mass shootings, often by deranged “loners” with no political agenda. On and on, and then 9/11 happened and we went to war, we spent trillions and 100s of thousands lost their lives and we are living the results of that debacle.
Here at home, in the Bay Area, in Berkeley, we’re worried. We’re worried about the lone gunman. About real terrorists, we’re worried about the potential for a bombing. We are afraid, with reason, and we want to *do* something. We want to do something that will protect us. Something that will make a difference. Something that will make it go away.
In our lives we sometimes choose what to worry about, and if we don’t choose, sometimes others choose for us. There are a lot of problems, a lot of issues, a lot to worry about. We worried about WMD in Iraq. We became afraid, and we took action. It turns out that fear, while necessary for survival, isn’t always the best emotion to use when making complex, difficult decisions.
Here in Berkeley, we need to make some decisions about what we fear and how we react to that fear.
The Berkeley Police Department has been on something of a militarization kick recently. It is not so surprising. The federal government built a large number of armored vehicles, high-powered weapons, body armor, grenades and countless other machines of war for which they don’t have an immediate use. The Department of Homeland Security has been encouraging, if not forcing, police departments to acquire these tools and learn how to use them. Jeff Sessions is increasingly raising a contrived and dangerous warning of criminal gangs in the U.S. who he wants us to believe are heavily armed and require a militarized police force to deal with. President Donald Trump has painted a bleak picture of our cities as war zones “worse than Afghanistan.” Fear is on the rise and we must *do* something!
Could a terrorist attack happen here? Of course it could. Would it be awful? Shouldn’t we be prepared? Of course we should. But everything comes at a cost, of funding and of priority, whenever we decide to do one thing, we decide not to do another. We can’t do everything, we can’t completely protect ourselves from every threat. And we have real threats, the biggest one, in my mind is the earthquake we will experience. It is a certainty, the only thing we don’t know is exactly when it will occur. I’ve been fairly involved in earthquake preparedness here in Berkeley as a volunteer. We’re somewhat prepared, but not nearly as much as we could be.
Urban Shield is a federally funded, international, police arms expo and training conference. Berkeley participates through grants provided by DHS and geared for public safety. They are training for an event that might occur, but whose likelihood is low. The police learn military tactics at Urban Shield. Besides “training” Urban Shield has been a place to buy “Black Rifles Matter” T-shirts and other “tchotchkes” that glorify a culture of death and destruction. They practice in scenarios that include “Arab terrorists threatening to kill Jews” and “Anarchist Occupy protesters” using violence to take over our public spaces.
After their high-intensity, action-packed training events, they arrive back home with no realistic way to put their new found skills to use. In other municipalities it has become common practice to put these skills to use in the day-to-day police work that no one ever thought needed to be militarized. These new tactics are used to serve warrants, arrest suspects, and react to “public disturbances”. Not so surprisingly, the tactics used, which call for flash-bang grenades, automatic weapons, and armored vehicles, result in civilian casualties like 7-year-old Aiyana Jones who was shot to death by police in 2010. Under the guise of “fighting terrorism” we’ve been tricked into another overreaction, when you give someone instructions on how to use a hammer, they look for nails.