Chicago activists protest police militarization

By Shahzeb Ahmed

A group of Chicago area Muslim and civil rights groups are protesting a police training session supported by a major arms manufacturer that includes a speaker criticized for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The groups are protesting what they term as an attempt to advance  a hyper-militarized mindset among law enforcers through the four-day long Illinois Tactical Officers Association (ITOA) 2016 Tactical Training Conference being held in Hoffman Estates until Thursday.

As part of the #stopITOA campaign, the activists claim to have reached out to the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) and the Stonegate Conference and Banquet Center, where the conference is being hosted.

“The conference poses a direct threat to Muslim communities and communities of color across the Chicagoland area,” said Hoda Katebi, spokesperson for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a nation-wide Muslim advocacy group.

She was addressing a press conference at CAIR’s Chicago office last Thursday, where she was joined  by activists from various civil rights organizations such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the Arab American Action Network and the American Friends Service Committee.

“This conference and weapons expo is aimed at training local police and emergency medical technicians ‘like tactical squads in the military’, and increasing the flow of weapons and militarized technology,” said Katebi.

The ITOA is a non-governmental organization that works with the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and other government agencies to train local and federal law enforcement agents as well as first responders. The conferences typically attract personnel from across the state as well as other major cities and nearby states.

Natalia Derevyanny, the Deputy Director of Communications for the Cook County’s DHSEM  said that agency had no role in conference. “We only found out about the protest through the press release issued by CAIR on Wednesday,” she said, adding that the agency neither supports the conference, nor is sending  personnel to take part. “If any of our personnel are attending it in their personal capacity, I don’t know about that,” she said, adding that the DHSEM had reached out to CAIR after the issue was brought into her notice through the press release.

Derevyanny did say, however, that DHSEM conducts trainings in collaboration with the ITOA from time to time. “These are tactical trainings for law enforcement personnel,” she explained.

The activists were especially troubled, they said, by ITOA’s intention to host Sebastian Gorka, “a far-right extremist and Donald Trump consultant” as the keynote speaker.

Gorka is a regular pundit on Fox News and a national security editor for the online publication Breitbart News, a far-right news and opinion website whose founder, Steve Bannon, has been hired by Trump as his campaign’s chief executive. The New York Times has termed Breitbart “an outsize source of controversy — for liberals and even many traditional conservatives — over material that has been called misogynist, xenophobic and racist.”

Gorka has also penned a book, “Defeating Jihad,” in which he calls  for the U.S. to wage a Cold-War style ideological battle against what he calls Islamic terrorism. “We’ve got, tops, five years.  If the next Administration doesn’t go to war — with our Muslim allies — against the jihadists, we could lose this, either kinetically, or from the inside through subversion,” Gorka told Stephen Bannon during an appearance on Breitbart News.

For Muslims, the word jihad means much more than holy war, standing for a struggle or effort  to practice the faith as well as possible and to build a better society.

“His [Gorka’s] bigoted commentary against Muslims is analogous to Trump himself,” said Katebi. “He advocated for baseless surveillance and spying on Muslim communities and mosques for years, violating their civil rights,” she said.

Kalia Abiade from the Center for New Community, an advocacy and research organization based in Chicago, said that “Gorka’s presence at that ITOA conference is just one of many such instances where anti-Muslim trainers and so-called experts are unapologetically bringing their anti-Muslim rhetoric into law enforcement spaces.”

Abiade added that when asked about their anti-Muslim stances, “Gorka and others like him point toward security and claim that it is for the security of the American people.”

“It ultimately boils down to who profits from this,” she said, questioning if such military-style training for law enforcers and first responders  benefits marginalized communities.

“We see this occupation continuously in our communities here in Chicago, where the police are seen as a constant threat,” said Kofi Ademola of the Black Lives Matter movement, as he described the violence perpetuated against the black community by law enforcement personnel in the city.
Ademola claimed that ITOA’s conference was anti-Muslim, anti-black and anti-poor. “They do urban training, they train in urban settings, so whose community is that? That’s my community; your community. That means they are preparing to put a target to my head.”

The activists also berated the Safariland Group, a major supplier of weapons and equipment for law enforcement agencies based in Jacksonville, Fla., which is a corporate sponsor of this year’s ITOA Conference. CAIR has described the group as “a major military-grade weapons manufacturer, whose tear gas canisters have been used from foreign dictatorships to Ferguson.”

Despite repeated attempts to reach them, officials from ITOA and the Safariland Group were unavailable for comment.

The 50-year-old company is a protective equipment and solutions provider to the public safety market and manufactures and distributes goods ranging from handcuffs to body armor and body-cams, according to its website. It also has an active list of the 1961 law enforcement personnel whose lives have been saved through the use of their Safariland products.

Mohammad Sankari of the Arab American Action Network claimed that such trainings are part of a concerted campaign against the Arab and Muslim communities. “One in three members of our community who have been stopped and frisked by police have been asked questions about their race, religion and ethnicity,” he said.

“I am here to represent the very people who Sebastian Gorka talks about. These policies are deeply rooted in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism,” he said.

But he added that the problem runs much deeper than the conference. “If we want to talk about how to address these ills in our community, we need to talk deep; we need to look structural; we need to look systemic. That means closing down conferences such as ITOA,” he said.

Photo at top: Activists pose after the press conference at the CAIR office on Thursday where they called for a stop to the ITOA conference and  militarization of police. (Shahzeb Ahmed/MEDILL)