When members of SWAT teams and police agencies from across the country gather in Verona, New York at the end of this month for a massive training and weapons expo, the general public and journalists will be barred from entry.
One man, however, will be honored as a key presenter at the annual New York Tactical Officers Association (NYTOA) conference: Ryan Mauro, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who is designated an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A national security analyst for the anti-Muslim think tank Clarion Project, Mauro has argued that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the highest echelons of the Republican Party, as well as the Department of Homeland Security. He also recently called for expanded spying on Muslim communities, stating that “civilians really need to step up” and start reporting allegedly suspicious activity they see on Facebook.
Mauro has promoted the discredited myth of Muslim no-go zones across the West and fear-mongered over Somali refugees living in the United States. The watchdog organization Media Matters warned in 2014 that “Mauro and other Clarion Project members are not credible sources to discuss issues such as these given their virulent history of Islamophobia.”
Yet Mauro was invited by NYTOA, which describes itself as a “not for profit corporation established to promote training, professionalism and the exchange of information between members of law enforcement, tactical units and crisis negotiation teams within, and surrounding, New York State.”
The fact that a person with Mauro’s background will be training law enforcement officers is deeply troubling and has nationwide implications. The NYTOA conference is just one of numerous police and arms expos that take place regularly across the country, including Urban Shield in Oakland, Calif., which has been met with forceful grassroots resistance.
“There are reasons police violence fill our headlines and politicians ride waves of hate. One of those reasons is SWAT trainings and expos like NYTOA, where Islamophobia and major arms dealers take center stage,” Ali Issa, national field organizer for the War Resisters’ League, told AlterNet. “Unnoticed, these trainings happen all the time, all over the country. Stopping this national phenomenon means empowering our communities to live without fear.”
A Disturbing Defense of Islamophobia
Larry Beresnoy, the executive director of NYTOA, declined to immediately provide a list of police agencies slated to attend, telling AlterNet only that “a number of police departments” were attending the expo.
In one indication of the conference’s scope, a manual for the vendor show advertises that the brochure was mailed to every SWAT and crisis negotiation team in the United States and every “state, local and federal law enforcement and corrections agency in the Northeast.”
The conference will be closed to the public and journalists though, as Beresnoy acknowledged, some police officers will likely be attending while they are on duty and therefore bankrolled by taxpayers. “We don’t allow media into the event,” he said. “We’ve had issues with that type of thing in the past. We’ve had people say their intention is A when really it is B, so we try to have control.”
Beresnoy said he saw no problem with the public being excluded while Mauro is given a platform to train police at his workshop, “The Global Threat of Islamic Extremism (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Iran) & The Threat of Islamic Extremism in America/New York State.”
“Ryan Mauro is a national expert on terrorism and Islamic extremism,” he said. “His entire job is researching the issue. I’ve looked at Ryan’s stuff, looked at Clarion’s stuff. I’ve seen their videos Third Jihad and Obsession. There are many experts who believe that the information is accurate. He has good information to share.”
Beresnoy’s vigorous defense of Mauro is telling. A public scandal erupted in 2011 and continued into 2012 when it was revealed that the NYPD had continuously shown the virulently anti-Muslim Third Jihad to its officers while they were spying on Muslim communities. The public outcry from city councilors and civil rights advocates led to the public shaming of then-commissioner Raymond Kelly.
But Mauro’s inclusion in the conference could be a sign that police are drawing closer to the Clarion Project. When AlterNet asked Mauro what he intends to present during his workshop, he replied that “any teaching regarding these issues must include the important role played by Muslim foes of Islamist extremism.” He went on to cite the alleged role of Muslim informants in penetrating “the Islamist’s inner circle” and described himself as someone who has “received much information from Muslims, as well as having provided information to the authorities related to anti-Muslim violent threats.”
However, Mauro’s references to informants do little to assuage concerns. Muslim-American communities have repeatedly raised civil rights complaints over US authorities’ disturbing histories of mass surveillance, entrapment and coercive tactics to pressure vulnerable individuals, including incarcerated people, into becoming informants.
Substituting SWAT Teams for Mental Health Care?
Mauro’s workshop is not the only scheduled training that raises eyebrows. There are two classes on Krav Maga, described as “the official hand-to-hand fighting system of the Israeli Defense Forces.” This is not the first time US police will be trained to use military tactics by the Israeli army.
One workshop called “Negotiating the Mad, the Bad, and the Sad” appears to make the case that SWAT teams are better equipped than medical professionals to deal with mental health crises.
“Mental health professionals are typically less than helpful to law enforcement: too often they rely on psychological jargon and have little understanding of the realities of police work,” the workshop description states. “However, psychology can play an important part in assisting law enforcement operations in general, and negotiation incidents in particular.”
The partial dismissal of mental health professionals is striking, given that militarized police responses to health crises are often deadly. According to a paper released last month by the non-profit disability rights group Ruderman Family Foundation, “Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.” The Guardian reports that at least 246 people killed by US police in 2015 suffered from mental health issues.
Ariela Perez-Wallach, an organizer for Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Upstate NY, told AlterNet she believes the conference and other events like it “serve as accomplices to the prison industrial complex and only fuel racism, hatred, and police brutality.”
“The Albany police are aggressive and racist, and part of that problem is directly linked to trainings like NYTOA,” said Perez-Wallach. “Dontay Ivy, who was racially profiled and then tazed to death by the Albany police last year, is one of many cases that exemplifies the need to demilitarize the police.”
A Heavily Armed Conference
Such trainings are not innocuous at a conference that will be attended by some of the largest weapons manufacturers in the world. The arms giant Northrop Grumman, which produces missile systems and military drones, as well as the Sa’ar 5 warships used by Israel to enforce the siege of Gaza, is identified as a key sponsor. Major tear gas producers are also named as sponsors, among them Safariland, whose subsidiaries have shipped tear gas and crowd control weapons to governments known for violently suppressing protests, from Bahrain to Israel. Tear gas produced by the company’s subsidiary Defense Technology was deployed during the brutal US crackdown on Ferguson protesters in 2014.
NYTOA advertises a wide range of nearly 300 entities that exhibit at the expo, ranging from the New York Army National Guard to Glock, Inc.
The expo comes at a time of heightened concern about the militarization of police weapons and practices. President Barack Obama has even issued a limited acknowledgement that there is a problem with handing law enforcement military-grade weapons.
In contrast, the conference indicates that a gathering of law enforcement officers is the perfect opportunity for arms manufacturers to market their goods. “Targeted audience of the law enforcement tactical community keeps the percentage of potential buyers high,” a brochure advertises.
Such an overt embrace of runaway police power, coupled with an arms expo and a workshop by an anti-Muslim extremist, suggests that those organizing the conference have learned little from nationwide protests against racialized police violence. The conference has already provoked alarm from human rights campaigners and nearby residents, with nearly 2,000 people signing a petition from the War Resisters League warning that it perpetuates “a growing culture of fear and hate.” Communities from Syracuse to Albany are planning to mobilize in protest of the summit.
“All around the world, the poor and their movements are faced with escalating violence and criminalization at the hands of governments and powerful private interests,” Daniel Jones of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice told AlterNet. “Here in the US, the growing use of SWAT teams and heavy weaponry against poor communities is a chilling example of that trend.”