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Private Cops vs. the Public Good

The Other Police State

by DAVID ROSEN

On November 20th, the Center for Corporate Policy, a Washington, DC, good-government group, issued a revealing study, “Spooky Business: A New Report on Corporate Espionage Against Non-profits.”  Written by Gary Ruskin, it confirms one’s worst suspicions about the ever-expanding two-headed U.S. security state.

One “head” of this apparatus consists of the formal law-enforcement, security juggernaut.  It includes the vast network of federal, state and local entities that are duly, “legally,” constituted to maintain law and order.  It maintains state power.

The second “head” consists of a parallel “police” force, local and national corporate entities that use legal — and often questionable — practices to undermine democracy, most notably a citizen’s right to object to what s/he perceives as an unjust business practice.  It maintains corporate power.

Together, the public-state and private-corporate security system is gaining ever-greater control over the lives of ordinary Americans.  They constitute the postmodern, 21st century policing apparatus.

The revolving-door thesis acknowledges the link between government employees and private corporations.  Pres. Eisenhower warned against it in his legendary 1961 Farewell Address in which he publically identified the military-industrial complex.  In the last half-century, the revolving door has become an unquestioned, acceptable career path for upwardly mobile bureaucrats.  So, few were surprised when Timothy Geithner, former Sec. of the Treasury and head of the New York Fed, and one of those who orchestrated the banking plunder known as the Great Recession, took a job as president and managing director of Warburg Pincus, a leading private equity firm.

“Spooky Business” shows that many leading U.S. corporations are retaining the services of former federal security personnel to wage campaigns to subvert Constitutionally protected citizen rights.  It details the practices of Bank of America, BP, Brown & Williamson, Burger King, the Chamber of Commerce, Chevron Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, Kraft, McDonald’s, Monsanto, Shell and Wal-Mart.  Going further, it argues that to pull this off, these companies hire former employees of the CIA, FBI, NSA, Secret Service, the military and local law-enforcement.  As Ruskin shows, these “security officials” are linked to infiltration, espionage, surveillance and other tactics that are intended to undermine ostensible threats posed by nonprofit organizations, activists and whistleblowers.

The two-headed security apparatus is nothing new in America.  It traces its roots to the post-Civil War era, a period of industrialization, immigration and urbanization.  Then, especially in both big cities and the recently settled West, the formal state was weak, law enforcement still being development.  Thus, many private companies turned to private security efforts to resolve differences.

The tension – and increasing integration – of the state and the corporation has shaped the U.S. since the Civil War.  The interlinking of public and private policing is the gravest threat to American democracy. The security state flourished during the anti-Communist, McCarthy ’50 and again against anti-war and black activists during the ‘60s.  It is now being implemented as the war against “terrorism.”

* * *

The decades following the Civil War were an era of modernization.  Many among the respectable classes shared the perception that the country’s moral life was degenerating.  Social ills were mounting, painfully evident in the growing number of the urban poor, in the increase in beggars and prostitutes on city streets as well as an increase in saloons, gambling dens, dance halls and dime museums throughout the country.

Making matters worse, these upstanding citizens felt that police corruption was widespread, helping to turn vice – drink, gambling and prostitution — into a profitable business.  In response, “good government” reformers embraced two strategies to confront what they saw as the crime threat.  One involved establishing a network of private prevention societies; the second saw greater reliance on private police services.

Prevention groups first emerged in England in the early-19th century and got started in the U.S. in 1866 with the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).  By the late-19th century, a host of these groups operated in New York and other cities.  Elbridge Gerry established the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in 1866; Anthony Comstock, with the backing of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), founded the NYSSV (or SSV) in 1873; Howard Crosby founded the Society for the Prevention of Crime (SPC) in 1877 to fight “white slavery,” prostitution; and in 1884, the Rev. Benjamin DeCosta established the White Cross Society promoting purity (i.e., sexual abstinence) until marriage.  In 1892, Rev. Charles Parkhurst established the New York City Vigilance League to fight vice.

During this period, the New York state legislation, along with others throughout the country, empowered prevention societies with law enforcement authority.  New York initially gave the SPCC the power to issue warrants, followed by the power to conduct arrests and engage in vigilante-like raids on private amusement resorts.  These societies, in effect, privatized law enforcement.

A second front in the development of private policing involves the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Allan Pinkerton founded the company in 1850 and, during the Civil War, he helped foil an assassination attempt against Pres. Lincoln and served as head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the Secret Service.  In the decades after the War, Pinkerton became the nation’s leading private police agency.

A recent biography by Beau Riffenburgh, “Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland” (Viking, 2013), sheds light on how the agency used undercover detectives to crush worker protests, undermine unions and defeat more violent groups.  McParland served as an undercover detective amidst the bitter Pennsylvania coalfield battles of the mid-1870s.  He garnered national media attention as the lead witness in a sensational trial against the Molly Maguires, nine of whom were convicted.  Riffenburgh’s account reads, at times, like a potboiler.

McParland’s success against the Molly Maguires moved him up the Pinkerton ladder.  Over a four-decade career at the company, he eventually came to run it’s Western division in Denver.  In 1894, he played a major role in the break up of the Cripple Creek, CO, miners’ strike, and he supervised the 1896 campaign against the Wild Bunch, a gang of bank and train robbers led by “Butch” Cassidy.  His last great effort, investigating the assassination of a former Idaho governor from 1906-1907, pitted him against “Big Bill” Haywood, Clarence Darrow and the mineworkers union.  It ended in McParland’s utter failure as all those accused—and against whom he testified—were acquitted.

Riffenburgh details many of the questionable—if not illegal—practices McParland and other detectives employed: undercover infiltration, covert surveillance, bribery of witnesses, deception of authorities, planting false evidence, giving false confessions, serving as agent provocateurs, destabilizing unions and using vigilantes to beat back any threat to their corporate client’s interests.  Their principle clients were the railroads and coal companies.  Nothing was unacceptable.  And, given the findings of the Center for Corporate Policy study, little has changed over the last century-plus.

* * *

Private security is big business in the U.S.  According to estimates in the “Spooky Business” report, the private security business is a $50 billion enterprise involving nearly 2,000 companies.  According to Inc., among the nation’s leading private security firms (and their annual revenue in $/millions) are: Universal Service of America ($718.1/m), Accuvant ($420.2/m), Defense Direct ($394.9/m) and LifeLock ($276.4/m).

“Spooky Business” details a dozen or so cases in which leading corporations employed private security firms to engage in dubious, if not illegal, activities against a variety of nonprofit organizations.  These groups’ focuses range from the environment, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety pesticide reform and nursing home reform to gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control.

Most illustrative, the study details the campaign backed by Dow Chemical and a number of public relations firms, including Ketchum and Dezenhall Resources, against Greenpeace.  These companies retained the now-defunct private security firm, Beckett, Brown, International (BBI), to conduct the campaign that included electronic surveillance, hacking, wire taping, infiltration, theft of confidential material and even the search of Greenpeace’s trash.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread surveillance conducted by the NSA confirm many people’s worst fears: once-lauded principles of American democracy are in jeopardy.  We are all being constantly tracked, monitored and surveilled.  The state security system is using an ever-growing variety of techniques in this effort.

“Spooky Business” extends the NSA revelations from the federal government to private corporations.  It details how some companies use the security apparatus, including questionable espionage tactics, against anyone who challenges their authority.  The study extends the analysis made by Heidi Boghosian, the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, in “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance.”  Orwell’s 21st century security system is really watching you.

David Rosen regularly contributes to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and Huffington Post.  Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net