Copping Out in the Private Sector

By Jesse Harrasta

Anarchists have a long and colorful history of interaction with the Law in its various incarnations. I, as detailed here, am no exception.

Around New Year's, my partner, her son and I were visiting New Haven, Conn., home of Yale University. While searching for a friend's apartment, expecting to spend the weekend there while she was in India, we came afoul of the city's confusing policing structure: The apartment building's security guard saw that we had the key to our friend’s apartment and became irate. He snatched the key from my partner's son, causing the child to cry. Not knowing who he was, we told him he could not simply take a person’s keys. The guard then stepped outside and hailed a passing patrol car.

Both the rent-a-cop and the two officers from the passing police car interrogated us and then called five more officers for backup, which seemed like an extreme measure for a situation involving an eleven-year-old boy and two rather small adults. While our interaction with this bastion of elite white power was tied to issues of class and race (my partner and her son are from South America), I wish to focus here on a key point involving private security firms.

What we did not realize that night was that the “police” car was actually a vehicle of the Yale University security force. Like many universities, Yale has signed an agreement with the City so that their officers patrol the areas around the university grounds. Who are these people? How – apart from fancy equipment and uniforms – are they different from the rent-a-cop at the door of the apartment?

Across the globe, we are seeing a privatization of “security.” And while this phenomenon is at its most grotesque in places like Baghdad with groups like Blackwater, it is also prevalent throughout the United States. In my own city of Syracuse, N.Y., both the University and the Downtown Merchant's Association have private armed forces in formal agreements with the City police. Are the bourgeoisie building militias?

The problems here are numerous, including unaccountability, classism, racism, lack of training, confusion between the public and private sphere and some parts of a city having better “police” coverage because their residents pay for it. Like the rise in private schools, the middle class is withdrawing from the public sphere and creating its own private parallels. In the process, privatizers undermine the public infrastructure, turning safety – what should be a universal right – into an under-funded control mechanism for the poor and a source of corporate profit.

As the economy grows grimmer and people become increasingly desperate, we need to engage the issue of community security. We can’t do this by simply (albeit justly) dismissing the “public option” as corrupt and leaving it to be privatized into oblivion; instead, we must organize real, community-based, accountable alternatives that can be universally employed by all neighborhoods and communities, particularly marginalized ones. Examples like the restorative justice projects that seek to heal communities, the street committees in Apartheid South Africa and the community mediation projects in IRA-controlled Northern Ireland, prove that alternatives are indeed possible.

For more information, I suggest the zine Alternatives to the Police by the Rose City Copwatch.

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