In a late-night move that sparked ire in the crowd, the Berkeley City Council announced it would postpone its vote on whether to continue to participate in the controversial Urban Shield program that provides federal resources and training to local first responders.
There were still dozens of people lined up to speak when Mayor Jesse Arreguín made a sudden announcement at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday following a flurry of activity from city staff. Arreguín said it would not be right for officials to vote on such an important topic at 1 a.m. No staff report or council discussion took place due to the lateness of the hour.
More than 100 people were still crowded into council chambers after waiting more than five hours to speak. Most attendees demanded that the city withdraw from Urban Shield and the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) because of concerns they militarize police. Many of the speakers were immigrants or their allies who said their communities are disproportionately targeted by the program. Others said it’s simply against Berkeley values to be involved.
“We don’t need or want militarized policing,” one woman told council. “We should take the money from this initiative and put it into earthquake safety,” another speaker said. Many spoke of the climate of fear under the current federal administration, and the importance of Berkeley’s sanctuary city status, as reasons to pull out of the program.
Public comment began at about 11:50 p.m., before a staff presentation or questions from council, which usually come first. A couple speakers described the importance of the training for law enforcement and disaster preparedness, but the vast majority of people in the room said they were there to oppose Urban Shield and tell officials why Berkeley should not participate.
In its written staff report, the city said it has sought UASI money in the past for things like disaster preparedness caches in student housing, bomb disposal and detection devices, an armored van for police and a 3-D laser scanner to help at crime scenes. UASI has also provided training, available to Berkeley police, about bomb awareness, HAZMAT and medical response, school shootings, public information, disaster recovery and campus emergency prevention. According to the staff report, the program provides money for “equipment and training, but not weapons.”
The highest-profile training local activists have taken issue with is called Urban Shield, which includes both in-depth mass casualty scenarios — on a much larger scale but similar in purpose to last month’s “active-shooter” drill at a Muslim college in North Berkeley — as well as a trade show critics say contributes to the militarization of police. Police Review Commissioner George Perezvelez, recently in a Berkeleyside opinion piece, argued in favor of the training scenarios but said BPD should skip the vendor show.
One speaker Wednesday, from the Bay Area Arab Resource & Organizing Center, said the group has been working since 2014 to stop the program and had “built massive opposition.” She told council Berkeley cannot be a sanctuary city and also support Urban Shield.
“The fact of the matter is you need to pull out,” she said.
Arreguín said council will schedule another public hearing solely for the Urban Shield item and to decide whether Berkeley police can accept federal money for an armored panel van. Council previously voted to accept the money, but did not make a final decision. Public comment will be taken again at the next meeting. A date for that meeting was not set.
After Arreguín’s announcement, a representative from the crowd of activists expressed his dismay and disappointment that council would not act.
“There’s no democracy here tonight. These are working people who worked all day, came here and waited and waited and waited to have their voices heard,” he said. “So we’ve decided we’re walking out.”
He continued, “You want to do it again, we’ll be back. It’s a shame. We’re not going to participate in a shame.”
At that, the crowd began to chant, loudly, “stop Urban Shield.” The group marched out of the room waving signs. Council took a brief recess before hearing several more public comments and then adjourning.