Alarms went off when it was revealed that the armed forces of the United States were using increasing numbers of private contractors to provide everything from transportation to security in war zones around the globe.
Those alarms clanged louder when the indiscriminate slaughtering of unarmed Iraqi civilians by the notorious security firm formerly known as Blackwater were exposed.
Now, the war has come home as wealthy private corporations hire not only security firms, but also public law enforcement officers to ensure that the riff-raff, formerly known as citizens of the U.S., stay out of the way of their money-making schemes and political manipulations.
The Praetorian Guard was established by the emperors of Rome to ensure that neither citizens nor disgruntled military units could harm them. While it may have made sense at first, the story soon changed as the Praetorians became less of a security force to protect Rome's rulers than hired killers for those who could afford them.
Now a new and dangerous Praetorian Guard is emerging in the U.S. What makes it even worse is that our new Praetorians are not simply hired killers like Blackwater, but officers of public police forces whose salaries and pensions are provided by taxpayers until such time as they are needed by those with the wealth to hire them for private purposes.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider the actions of the "white shirts" I mentioned in last week's column, in the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests. A New York City policeman wearing a white shirt, which is supposed to differentiate supervisors from the blue-uniformed line officers, walked up to several women who were already corralled in a police barricade and blasted them in their faces with pepper spray. The women collapsed screaming in pain as the officer who sprayed them turned away smiling.
Shortly after that incident, it was revealed that JP Morgan Chase, one of Wall Street's most powerful players, had donated $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation, the largest such donation ever. JP Morgan Chase CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon could not have been more revealing, saying, "These officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. We're incredibly proud to help them build this program and let them know how much we value their hard work."
The donation is supposed to pay for 1,000 new patrol car laptops and security monitoring software for the NYPD main data center. Surely such a donation couldn't buy off the cops, could it?
Consider that last week's column also noted that 700 citizens were arrested trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. Where were they headed? To protest in the Chase Manhattan Plaza.
Maybe the donation and the arrests aren't connected. But if you believe that, perhaps you'd be interested in buying that bridge.
There's no need for speculation as to whether those with enough money can buy public police protection. They can. In a program started by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the "Paid Detail Unit," private corporations can hire New York City policemen to protect their interests for a mere $37 per hour each, with a 10 percent "administrative fee" paid directly to the police department.
According to a recent Counterpunch article by Pam Martens, not only do these hired cops get to carry guns and handcuffs, they also have the authority to arrest citizens at the behest of the private wealth that hired them. In 2010, corporations such as Goldman Sachs, the World Financial Center and the New York Stock Exchange spent almost $12 million doing just that.
There's no need to look to the East Coast, though, when we have examples right here at home.
Remember those mega-loads Exxon Mobil wanted to ship through Idaho and Montana on narrow, two-lane roads? Guess whom they hired to ensure that no protestors barred their way?
Our own Montana Highway Patrol.
Like most Montanans, I've always respected our Highway Patrol officers. So how is it that they are now for hire by anyone with the money to do so, and they can sweep the citizens who normally pay their wages out of the way of private corporations?
Exxon Mobil is "required to pay for a two-car safety escort by the Montana Highway Patrol," the Missoulian noted recently. Yet the corporations aren't even required to tell the Highway Patrol before they move their loads. "'To be honest, we're kind of lost, too,'" Montana Highway patrol Sgt. Jason Holdenstab told the paper. Holdenstab, based in Helena, is in charge of scheduling the safety escorts. "I'm at the mercy of [transport company Mammoet] when they send me a schedule," he said.
Having our Highway Patrol "at the mercy" of a mega-corporation doesn't sound like a very good idea.
Nor does getting beaten, gassed or arrested by privately hired cops.
But that's the state of America today, as the new Praetorian Guard emerges to stand between citizens and the corporations who plunder them. And the silence from our political leaders is deafening.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.