Engage with efforts to disarm and regulate private security. Invest instead in community-led public safety initiatives.
Citizen is a privately-owned “public safety” app that reports neighborhood crime to residents. It has 5 million active users, more App Store downloads than Twitter (Forbes), and is backed by venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital, which is also investing in heavyweights like Cisco, Instagram, and YouTube (Sequoia). It’s a rebrand of an app called Vigilante, which actually encouraged users to go after suspected criminals (Tech Crunch). After the Pacific Palisades fire last month, Citizen sent the full name and photo of a suspected arsonist to 860,000 users. Citizen put a $30,000 bounty on this man, who was unhoused (Oaklandside), and, as in its days as Vigilante, encouraged its users to “get out there and bring this guy to justice” (Vox). As it turns out, he was innocent.
Days later, the news broke that a black Citizen SUV was prowling Los Angeles. Citizen said the vehicle, connected to a local “subscription law enforcement” firm, is part of a “pilot project.” It seems Citizen plans to augment its surveillance and vigilantism network with private police (Vice). Many have expressed concerns that this could lead to harassment and violence based on racial profiling.
The past year has thrown light on two pillars of American white supremacy. On one hand, the police commit atrocities against Black and Brown people with few consequences. On the other, neo-Nazis and militant nativists commit “lone wolf” attacks in an attempt to provoke a race war. (For why we don’t refer to such zealots as terrorists, see this previous article.)
Citizen exemplifies a third pillar: the vigilantes, civic groups, and private companies that enforce white supremacy. Unlike the police or National Guard, they aren’t an arm of the state. And unlike neo-Nazi mass shooters, they aren’t right-wing revolutionaries seeking to replace the political order with something even worse. This third pillar is composed of organizations that operate, with the tacit or official support of the authorities, to maintain the current economic, political, and racial order. That is, they are private enforcers of what supporters of a deeply unequal society might deem “public order.”
In the past, the government empowered citizens to kill Indigenous people and kidnap people who escaped from slavery. The 20th century Ku Klux Klan recruited white Protestants who felt threatened by immigration and the Bolshevik revolution (Britannica). Though the Klan wasn’t the government, “in Muncie, Indiana—the ‘Middletown’ that sociologists Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd studied as the embodiment of 1920s America—the mayor was a loyal Klansman, as were the president of the local school board and the secretary of the YMCA.” “Sundown town” legislation that barred people of color after dark was enforced not only by local police but also by the threat of lynchings from local residents (The Atlantic). Last year, New Mexican law enforcement saw an ally in the New Mexico Civil Guard, a militia organization that shot an antifascist counterprotester (History News Network).
In 1892, thousands of Southern and Eastern European immigrant mill workers went on strike. The owners, Carnegie Steel, brought in 300 heavily-armed private soldiers from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, who murdered 7 striking workers as they attempted to clear the mill (Britannica). At this time, the Pinkertons were larger than the U.S. Army (History).
In the present day, private security firm G4S was paid $1.7 million to run Guantánamo Bay. Israeli government-contracted G4S to run prisons in the occupied West Bank where children are kept in solitary confinement (Guardian); in Australia, an Aboriginal elder was “cooked to death” in a G4S prison van (Guardian). A G4S subsidiary was acquired by another security firm, Allied Universal, making it the third-largest employer in North America (Yahoo).
Section 8 residents are patrolled by private security with automatic rifles and mauled by their guard dogs (Chicago Reporter). Though not law enforcement, campus police are able to harass and abuse non-students residing close to campus. In one case, University of Chicago police stopped, stripped, and beat a man with a malfunctioning car horn (Leagle). See the interview with Alecia from the Cops Off Campus coalition. Mall security killed a Black man in Detroit who died crying out “I can’t breathe” (Huff Post). Private security stabbed a man in the chest after confronting him for theft (Fox 5). When Luis Quintero tried to explain a parking dispute to an Allied Universal security officer at a Texas mall, she pulled a gun with her finger on the trigger (ABC 13).
When fighting for racial justice, we need to keep violent non-state actors like vigilantes and security firms front and center. Citizen is both: a massive business that both inspires vigilantism and aspires to become privatized law enforcement. As Hari Ziyad wrote in a piece on abolition, “Safety is not a universally recognized phenomenon, as much as it is pretended to be. The meaning of safety depends on what exactly you find worthy of protection” (Salon).
The app Citizen has 5 million users. It has encouraged vigilantism and unjustified arrest and is taking steps to become private law enforcement.
Private security firms have committed numerous killings and abuses with little oversight.
White vigilante groups have long collaborated with law enforcement to enact racist laws and commit extrajudicial murders.
We need to interrogate “public safety” in a racist, classist society.