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Police train for war, while the people unite for change

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This past weekend, the City of Boston's Office of Emergency Management hosted Department of Homeland Security funded trainings for law enforcement and first responders, called "Urban Shield". According to the local NPR station WBUR, DHS spent $600 million on these exercises this year alone.

The exercises in Boston included scenarios involving an "active-shooter", a bomb on the subway, a wounded police officer, and a political demonstration, according to local media. 

Meanwhile, community organizations in Boston got together over the weekend to discuss what police militarization feels and looks like at the ground-level. While exercises like Urban Shield happen once a year, the increased militarization and federalization of our police departments impacts communities throughout our region every single day.

As local activist Laila Murad put it,

While some in the national media spotlight just over a year ago questioned what many considered an “extreme response” by police to the Boston Marathon bombing — one that involved a lockdown of the city and SWAT teams roving the streets of Watertown — few drew the connection to the ongoing SWAT raids and militarized police presence in Boston neighborhoods where primarily poor people of color live, like Roxbury and Dorchester. Militarization is what some Boston residents experience on a daily basis; for them it is not an exceptional situation reserved for an “emergency.”

With trainings like Urban Shield, we see a new wave of justification for increased militarization in the name of “emergency preparedness” and “public safety.” While the marathon bombing and other “mass casualty” incidents are indeed tragic, they are very rare compared to the ongoing violence faced by some Bostonians everyday. Millions of dollars are being funneled from the Department of Homeland Security into police departments that use these resources to train in military tactics. We have been seeing these tactics put into practice in Boston neighborhoods through SWAT and ICE raids. These resources are also invested in the purchase or transfer of military weaponry, including large armored vehicles, AR-15 rifles and surveillance programs, like those that spy on Muslims and Leftist political groups throughout the city.

In response to these problems, a new coalition called Stop Oppressive Militarized Police (STOMP) is forming in Boston. The group aims to unite immigrant, black and brown, activist, and Muslim communities to rein in the militarization and federalization of the local police. These communities don't have identical experiences with the authorities, but they face harassment and intimidation from the same forces. Everyone in the coalition wants to make our communities safer, but we disagree that increased surveillance, police militarization, and the integration of federal law enforcement achieve that goal. In fact, those processes are hurting our communities.

While militarized police trainings like Urban Shield might make some residents of Boston feel safe, they have the opposite effect for many of our city's residents. It's time to roll back the militarization and federalization of our police departments, to stop unwarranted mass surveillance, end the drug war, challenge the harassment of political activists, and stop criminalizing people based on their national origin, race, or class.

On Sunday, May 4, STOMP met in Roxbury for the first time, to hold a community speak-out on these issues. Over fifty people from all walks of life and representing many diverse Boston neighborhoods came out to share their experiences with the police, and to discuss their concerns about trends in policing and so-called "homeland security" funding.

People should feel safe in their communities, on their streets, and in their homes. But all too often, the people who are supposed to make us feel safe are doing the opposite. As founder of the community organization Families for Justice as Healing, Andrea James, told the group this weekend, describing what folks called a police "occupation" of Roxbury, "They're not helping us, they're hurting us. If young men stand in a particular place for a while they will be stopped. It's like a prison, where you have no rights."

"We have gone down the slippery slope of completely eradicating probable cause in our community," James said. "We have completely lost our rights."

Exercises like Urban Shield must be viewed within the context of the aggravated war on poor and communities of color in our cities. "The war on drugs was never a war on drugs," James told the assembled activists and community members. "It was a war on us."

It's past time to end the war on drugs, a major driver of police militarization and one of the primary reasons for the degradation of the probable cause standard in communities like Roxbury. While the police gear up for war, community organizations are ready to push back. Civil rights and civil liberties shouldn't be anachronisms. It's up to us to ensure their relevance for all of our people, today and tomorrow.

"We have hope," Andrea James said. "That's why we're here."

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.