Corporations Are Funding Police Repression

From the Amazon to Hubbard County, Minnesota, corporations are funding the repression of protesters. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, about the history and future of corporate collaborations with the police. Kelly also talks with attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard about newly exposed documents that reveal the lead prosecutor in Hubbard County sought corporate funding for the prosecution of Line 3 protesters.

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. We talk a lot on this show about building the relationships and analysis we need to create movements that can win. But in order to do that, we also need to understand the forces of repression that seek to destroy those movements. So today, we are going to talk about what happens when corporations fund the police. We’ll be hearing from Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, with the Center for Protest Law & Litigation, as we revisit the situation in Minnesota, where hundreds of criminal cases against Water Protectors are still pending. We’ve talked previously on the show about how the Enbridge corporation funneled $2.9 million into local police departments in Minnesota to ensure the construction of Line 3, a now fully operational pipeline that moves tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. The movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline cost Morton County a reported $40 million. When Enbridge sought a permit for construction work on Line 3, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission insisted on including a clause that would create a so-called “Public Safety Escrow Fund” to cover municipal costs associated with the pipeline’s construction, including the policing of protests. In short, Enbridge would pay to police the construction of its own pipeline.

These funds reimbursed police for the surveillance, harassment, torture, and violent arrest of Water Protectors working to stop construction of Line 3. We are revisiting this story today because The Center for Protest Law & Litigation has recently obtained documents revealing that Jonathan Frieden, the lead prosecutor in Hubbard County, Minnesota, who is seeking to incarcerate Line 3 protesters, sought to fund those prosecutions using the Enbridge escrow. And having read these documents, I can say this was not a prosecutor who thought he might get compensation — this was a furious and confused official who sunk a lot of public money into prosecuting Water Protectors, believing all the while that Enbridge would foot the bill.

In the documents, Frieden talks about his staff’s overtime hours, and claims the language of the permit clearly entitles his office to these funds. The funds were denied, but when I read the refusal from the Line 3 Escrow Account Manager, Rick Hart, I noticed that he wasn’t arguing that it would be unethical or impossible for Enbridge to fund prosecutions — he said simply that prosecutions did not fit the criteria outlined in the permit clause regarding reimbursement. So, if this model isn’t quashed, the next county considering a pipeline project might try to tweak it to ensure corporations cover the cost of prosecuting protesters. We should definitely expect to see this escrow model recur, as a means of stamping out resistance to corporate harms. Because it worked out well here for Enbridge and for the police. Oil companies also have a history of manipulating prosecutions, so if this entire model isn’t reined in, I have grave concerns about where it will lead.

So we are going to talk about those recently exposed documents, and about the legal fight to eliminate this kind of funding, but first, I wanted us to reflect on this whole corporate escrow situation in the larger context of policing. Because, in some ways, what we are seeing is very consistent with the history and character of U.S. policing, and yet, this funding model could drastically alter how protests are policed in the United States. So, we are going to try to offer a bit of grounding and context for this development.

I also want to be clear that this is not a conversation about why we need public funding, instead of private funding, for the police. Because the money that agencies that policed Line 3 construction received should not have come from taxpayers. That funding should not have existed at all, because there was no need for the drone and helicopter surveillance that Water Protectors experienced, or for the chemical weapons that were unleashed on them. There was no need for the beatings or the rubber bullets. There was no need for the brutal arrests or the police overtime hours cops bragged about to the protesters they brutalized. There was no need for the “field force” training or tactical operations that Enbridge paid for. Like Line 3 itself, none of those things needed to exist or occur. I believe it is essential that we defund the police and reduce their contact with the public, and what’s happening in Minnesota has only reinforced that position. But we do have to examine this corporate funding model, that would allow corporations to become police superfunders anytime people organize resistance to corporate harms, because this is an escalation, and it’s one we need to factor into our analysis and our organizing.

To give us a sense of how this escrow both mirrors the history of policing, and ventures into disturbing new territory, I talked with author Alex Vitale about the relationship between corporations and police. Alex joined me on the show last year to talk about the history and character of policing in the U.S. That episode was called “You Can’t Divorce Policing From Murder and I do recommend doubling back if you missed it, because it’s full of essential history. As for the escrow model, Alex had some thoughts to share.

Alex Vitale: So it really raises this whole issue about the functioning of the criminal legal system and policing in particular. So we kind of live with this mythical understanding that police equals public safety, and this obscures a deeper reality about the actual nature of policing. The situation going on in Minnesota, seems like this extreme aberration of a private corporate interest, basically paying for private policing on its own behalf. But this, in fact, is the fundamental origin and nature of policing. Over time, it has tended to take more legitimate forms that obscure this fundamental relationship, but that relationship persists. So what we see in the creation of policing throughout the 19th century, is that it’s driven by the need to create a force that can manage resistance to regimes of exploitation and profound inequality, whether it’s colonialism or slavery or industrial exploitation.

And so early police forces were used to break strikes, suppress slave revolts, to engage in counterinsurgency against anti-colonial forces. And they weren’t necessarily paid by a particular employer to break a particular strike, although that happened, and I’ll talk about that in a second, but that the whole system of policing was a way for corporate interests to create their own force that was capable of managing disorder across a broad front. So a great example of this is that a hundred years ago, there was a movement of labor uprising in Pennsylvania in the coal and iron fields, and employers tried to use local police to break up strikes, but these forces were small and also had some loyalty to the local small town populations. So their first impulse was to create what was called, the coal and iron police, which were basically private security guards, who were deputized at a cost of a dollar a piece, by the employer, and the state of Pennsylvania gave them law enforcement rights.

But this put all of the cost onto the coal and iron producers, and it lacked public legitimacy, so that when they used brutality, shot people down in the streets, murdered people, it was clear that it was the coal and iron companies that were behind it. So instead, they create the Pennsylvania state police, that is independent of local political control, but has the patina of state legitimacy and independence, and is paid for by all taxpayers, not just the coal and iron producers. And this force, which becomes known as the Pennsylvania Cossacks by local miners and industrial workers and union members, engages in a reign of terror that has nothing to do with producing public safety. It has to do with suppressing worker mobilizations. So what we have today is a situation where policing has been created with this patina of serving the public interest, and of course there are times in which they stop a mugger or they prevent some horrible thing from happening.

So, they focus on those things as examples of their public safety function. But when push comes to shove, what remains is this production of a social order that benefits certain people and institutions, over others. And in times of austerity, when local governments lack resources, in part because people with money don’t want to pay any taxes, when there’s a threat to the social order, there can be limits to the ability to respond. And in this case, what we see is a local corporate interest willing to pay some taxes, in essence, but only if those tax dollars go to provide private policing to protect their corporate interests. Essentially they’ve created company towns where they control law enforcement, to serve not a public safety function, but an order maintenance function. And that is really revealing, at the core, what policing has always really been about.

KH: As I told Alex, the escrow funding model also reminded me of what’s happening in countries where there is less ambiguity about the fact that police are the strongmen of fossil fuel corporations. Carceral violence and brutality are escalating against Indigenous land and Water Protectors here in the United States, but in the Global South, things are much worse.

AV: So when we look at policing internationally, we see the same kind of company town phenomena occurring in the Amazon, occurring in the oil fields of Nigeria, where basically police work for the extractive industries, and their primary function is to suppress resistance to extractive functions, whether that’s driving out Indigenous populations, suppressing labor, organizing by the workforce, et cetera. And in those cases, there’s much less need for legitimacy seeking by the institution, because they’re often operating in profoundly undemocratic context, with authoritarian state power behind them. So this raises the question, is what we are seeing in places like Minnesota, a devolving of the legitimacy of the state and the legitimacy of policing, in favor of a more authoritarian and obviously openly corporate controlled state?

KH: Something I have learned about collapse is that people are usually participating in it well before they realize as much. People move through collapsing systems, trying to reproduce conditions and relations that can no longer be reproduced, and they keep doing it, because some changes are very hard to conceptualize. But things are changing. We are living in catastrophic times, and for the powerful, controlling resources and the movements of people will be higher priorities than this country’s myths about the purpose that police and the criminal system serve.

So we have to understand these escalations as they occur, and we have to help people understand what’s happening now. And as Alex told me, we have to take this opportunity to emphasize that these systems lack legitimacy and to name what is actually needed.

AV: You know, there is an interesting contradiction here, which is that elected leaders at all levels are so committed to austerity, to tax cuts for the rich, subsidies for corporations, and the cutting of basic services, that even when they’re presented with a significant political challenge, they have difficulty mobilizing the resources to suppress those movements. And so it’s literally, at times, bankrupting these little towns because the state and federal government has not been quick to come in and provide a robust repressive infrastructure. And that has caused private interest to have to step in on their own behalf. That is a weakness of the state and a kind of contradiction that we could potentially take advantage of, which is to point out that the state is fundamentally lacking in its basic functional legitimacy, that it is unable to provide the kind of most basic services that people need, because it’s so trapped in this ideology of budget cutting, and everyone’s on their own.

And so I think we need to continue to press this idea that the solution to our problems is not constant privatization and budget cutting, it’s solidarity, it’s increasing democracy, it’s providing for people’s basic needs. And so I think it’s really important to point out that when we privatize, what we do is we’re basically just unleashing the power of the richest and most powerful forces in our society, with no real checks, oversight or accountability. And so we don’t just need accountability for the police who are brutalizing us on the picket line. What we need is accountability for a broader system that fails to provide for people’s basic needs.

KH: Crisis distills the character of capitalism. Politically and environmentally, we are on a catastrophic trajectory, here in the United States, and we should expect the character of policing to be further distilled, and expressed more blatantly, as police defend the interests of the ruling class. As Alex outlined, we need to make people understand that what’s happening in Minnesota is not an aberration. In fact, I think we should ultimately expect to see some version of this mechanism anywhere corporate interests are concerned — unless the practice is effectively eliminated.

As a Chicagoan, I’m thinking about the rebellions that occurred here, and in many other cities, back in 2020. On the first night of rebellion here, police raised the bridges downtown, trapping protesters to gas, brutalize and arrest. Why were the police waging war against protesters? Because they were rebelling downtown, which threatened this city’s wealth. Chicago’s corporate interests were imperiled. As violent as the police were that night, I shudder at the thought of corporations creating mechanisms to supercharge police departments with multi-million dollar infusions whenever they feel threatened. Imagine if, anytime a video of a cop killing a Black or brown child went viral, the police got a new corporate infusion, to defend against rebellion. That’s not prognostication, by the way. It’s extrapolation, based on what we are seeing, and the trajectory that we’re on. Because this is a time to understand what present trends portend and to organize people in opposition, so that we can create a different future.

I also spoke with Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, who is a constitutional rights litigator and the co-founder of the Center for Protest Law and Litigation. The Center provides constitutional rights advocacy, criminal defense and other support for movements. The group became involved in the Line 3 struggle in 2020, when they were contacted about a need for attorneys to defend Water Protectors. But in addition to its rapid response work to ensure Line 3 protesters had attorneys, the organization also assumed another mission: to fight the corporate escrow funding model.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: We’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people come to Northern Minnesota, to join with hundreds of people already in Northern Minnesota, Indigenous-led communities and Water Protectors standing up against the extraordinary destruction being caused by this completely needless pipeline. And those folks have been subject to levels of repression, brutality, suppression, surveillance, harassment, torture, and all of this is being funded through this Public Safety Escrow Trust, where Enbridge is able to just pour millions of dollars. The police are able to look at that and know that if they take certain actions or bill for certain time, they can access that money. It incentivizes not only the departments themselves, because the departments of course are inflating their budgets and the documents that we’re able to put together, we can see the significant increase, percentage increase in these small county Sheriff’s department’s budgets, but it incentivizes the individual deputies and sheriffs who are billing overtime to carry out this work in service to the pecuniary interests of the corporation.

And the threat that this poses to democracy overall, and the threat that it’s posed in practice in the immediate to these Water Protectors who have stood up non-violently, peacefully for what they believe in and to protect all of us and to stop a climate catastrophe. This is a danger that I don’t think any of us can turn away from. I believe that it’s crucial that we all stand in support of the Water Protectors who have risked so much at Line 3 and on the larger issue of stopping this structure and making sure that we don’t see it replicated anywhere else.

KH: As I mentioned at the top of the show, Mara’s organization exposed the documents that revealed Jonathan Frieden, the lead prosecutor in Hubbard County, sought to fund Line 3-related prosecutions using the Enbridge escrow.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: As part of our investigation into this entity and this structure, we have been demanding and prying out thousands of pages of documents for many months, from many different entities, many counties. And in a batch of documents that we obtained, we could see that the lead prosecutor for Hubbard County, which is prosecuting hundreds of Water Protectors with really astonishing charges, has himself sought money, oil money, from Enbridge through this Public Safety Escrow Trust Fund. Those documents demonstrate that this prosecutor was engaging in prosecution of Water Protectors, these extreme charges, false charges, overcharges that he and his staff were putting in overtime and anticipating overtime pay carrying out these charges, which are completely improper, at a time when he expected that all of that work, all of those hours would be reimbursed by Enbridge.

This raises very significant constitutional due process issues for the defendants in these matters. Because when you have police and prosecutors incentivized to carry out public law enforcement or justice authority to carry out and use that public authority in service to the interests of an entity that is paying them or that, in other words, you only get paid these funds for carrying out work that is “to keep the peace around the pipelines,” which means repressing and prosecuting Water Protectors. That raises these fundamental, constitutional issues that we are addressing.

KH: In one communication, in addition to requesting funds, Frieden expressed concern about the escrow’s reimbursements being limited to costs accrued within 180 days of the pipeline’s completion. Frieden wrote, “I’m wondering whether that might be changed in the future given the significant amount of resources my office will be expending over the next six months in the prosecution of criminal acts associated with Line 3.”

The existence of these documents calls into question whether the prosecution would have pursued some of these charges at all, had they not believed corporate compensation was guaranteed. Those of you who checked out our November episode about the charges Water Protectors are facing may remember that these cases are not typical. Prosecutors have, for example, creatively reinterpreted the state’s theft statute in order to charge protesters who locked themselves to construction equipment with felony theft, because they had shown an alleged “indifference” to the property owner’s rights. Two Water Protectors were also charged with attempted assisted-suicide for crawling into a pipeline to halt construction.

I have seen a lot of excessive charges during my years as an organizer, but even I have been shocked by the way prosecutors have handled these cases, both in terms of the extremity of the charges and the pursuit of so many defendants. With over 1,000 arrests, you would expect a lot more throwaway cases, where the state would either drop the charges or try to deal down to a minor charge.

My first impression upon reading the litany of the felonies and gross misdemeanors Water Protectors in Minnesota are facing was that this was a spectacle, and that spectacle was meant as a warning to others who might attempt to defend the Earth. When I learned that the prosecutor apparently thought corporate money would cover the whole endeavor, it made even more sense. And the thing is, the next prosecutor just might have that stipulation in writing.

But whether or not prosecutors benefit from the next bureaucratic well of oil money, these documents further illustrate why this funding model cannot be allowed to exist. When actors within the carceral system believe they will be rewarded, and accrue more training and resources, and expand the capacity of their departments, by going hard on a particular group of people, they will produce spectacles of carceral violence and judicial cruelty on command. As Mara told me, all of this lends itself to a future we don’t want.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: The issue of the Public Safety Escrow Trust is one that extends beyond Northern Minnesota. In Northern Minnesota, we’ve seen county after county become, in essence, company towns for the pipeline corporation, where they have poured so much money into those towns and we can see through the Public Safety Escrow Trust Fund, huge sums of money, millions of dollars, into law enforcement offices for, not only regular time hours, but exceptionally huge overtime hours of the police.

This becomes a model that we are concerned will be implemented across the United States, that anytime a corporation comes to a town and the people are objecting or rising up or opposing what that corporation is doing in their town, be it environmental devastation or destruction of workers’ rights. If this becomes the model, all that the corporation has to do is create a fund through which the police are paid to “keep the peace,” which then means that they can bill for their time repressing the opponents, the political opponents of the corporation. It’s for this reason that our organization, that Center for Protest Law and Litigation is preparing to mount a significant challenge to the legality of the structure, because we believe it portends an extremely dystopian future.

KH: An escrow trust that pays for policing so that a pipeline can be built is a perversion of the concept of public safety. Police are inherently violent and fossil fuel extraction threatens life on Earth. Activists anticipate that this particular pipeline will have the impact of 50 coal-fired power plants. It also threatens the drinking water of millions of people. We need to continue to rally around Water Protectors who are facing charges, and we have to call out these police and prosecutors now, while questions of legitimacy still have the potential to create controversy. Because that condition may not last.

Helping people understand these systems for what they are is deeply important work. So if you have listened to this entire episode about how a police funding structure works and why it’s bad, thank you, and I would also ask that you not keep this information to yourself. If you think this is worrisome or terrifying, tell people about it. This is a time for us to develop a shared, clear-eyed understanding of what we are up against, because we are going to need that analysis as we move forward.

Meanwhile, the Water Protectors who have fought to stop Line 3 still need our support. They took direct action to prevent an environmental atrocity. Even when it became clear that the charges would be steep and excessive, they never stopped fighting. They made choices about who they were going to be in an era of so much death-making, and they took action. We should continue to support them, and we should all contemplate our relationship to atrocity in these times, because we all have to decide how we will live, who we will be, and whether or not we will act, as this system’s violence continues to unfold and people continue to resist.

Fortunately, the collaborative team of attorneys who are representing Line 3 resisters have successfully moved to dismiss the outrageous “felony theft” charges leveled against Water Protectors in Hubbard County. They have also succeeded in a number of other motions to dismiss on behalf of Line 3 protesters. These dismissals are important victories and heartening reminders that sometimes the good guys win. And I hope they keep winning.

I want to thank Alex Vitale and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard for sharing their insights with us, and for all that they do. Please do check out Alex’s book The End of Policing, which is an absolutely essential text on the history and nature of policing in the United States. Everyone should read it. You can learn more about the Center for Protest Law & Litigation at protestlaw.org.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Music credit: Son Monarcas, Ambientalism, Stefan Mothander, Ebb & Flod and Curved Mirror

Show Notes