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Privatizing Liberty

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As Mayor Bloomberg's forces swooped down on Occupy Wall Street, news reports described the "hundreds of police and private security guards" who had re-taken Zuccotti Park. Those private guards were used against public citizens who had been exercising their civil liberties in a public area.

That's not just wrong. It's un-American.

This incident holds an important lesson for anyone who loves our freedoms: when something public is made private, our liberties are privatized, too. And privatized liberty isn't liberty at all.

Privatizing Liberty

Zuccotti Park. New Yorkers knew it as Liberty Plaza Park for nearly half a century. Like other sites in New York, the plaza was created through an agreement between the city and a private company, United States Steel, that wanted to erect a building that exceeded the city's height limits. So the city made them a deal: you can take up more than your share of the public skyline, but in return you have to give the city some open space at ground level.

This wasn't a gift. It was a fair exchange between two parties, a private corporation and the people of New York. The people gave up a chunk of their skyline, and the owner agreed to provide an open -- and, by agreement, fully public -- space in return. New York City makes these deals fairly often. The plazas created by these agreements are called "privately owned public spaces," or "POPS," and the city has lots of them.

The Mayor may want to read that phrase again: it doesn't say "privately owned private spaces." Both the owner and the city are obligated to keep them for public use, in the public sphere, with all the laws and freedoms that apply to public space.

The park's current owner, Brookfield Properties, rebuilt the park with private donations after it was damaged in the 9/11 attacks. With Mayor Bloomberg's permission, they also overstepped tradition and the bounds of propriety by renaming the park -- not for the thousands of innocent people who died that day, but for their own chairman.

The symbolism is perfect: they replaced a treasured word for freedom with the name of a rich guy who'd done nothing to create the park. With the Mayor's blessing, they literally privatized the word "liberty."

Like I said, perfect. Tragic, but perfect.

Private Dicks

Brookfield overstepped its bounds when its CEO sent the mayor a letter saying that the Occupation "violates the law, violates the rules of the Park, deprives the community of its rights of quiet enjoyment to the Park, and creates health and public safety issues." Those aren't decisions a private company, even an owner, should make about a public space. They are judgments an elected official makes on behalf of a free citizenry.

This week Bloomberg and Brookfield have used the park's semi-private status as an excuse to invade a public space with a private security force. Whoever these guys were -- besides rude and uncivil -- they served as a kind of Blackwater militia, but targeting New Yorkers instead of Iraqis. (At least Brookfield says it fired the guard who called a citizen a "faggot.")

When it comes to privatization, it seems the Mayor has boundary issues. He has repeatedly used the park's private ownership status to claim that the public has fewer rights there than it does in other public spaces. That's false. But then, that's the problem with "public/private partnerships." The "public" partner always gets rolled the public one.

But then, that's how these people are. Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile. The lesson of Zuccotti Park is: never give them an inch.

Thin Blue Line, Thick Green Wallets

News reports noted the presence of two different groups, New York City police officers and private security guards, but in some ways that's become a distinction without a difference. The NYPD is frequently rented by the same Wall Street banks that broke the law, crashed the economy and got away with it. As Pam Martens reported in Counterpunch, Rudy Giuliani created an operation called the "Paid Detail" unit that turns New York's Finest into a "rent-a-cop" service for anyone with the money to pay for it.

And who has more money in New York than the banks? As Martens reports, companies like Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and the New York Stock Exchange have rented the Thin Blue Line with the cash from their Thick Green Wallets. Even after the Stock Exchange was found to have illegally taken over public streets and walkways and "created a public nuisance," nobody was fined or arrested.

But then, it must be hard for a cop to arrest anybody that he sometimes has to address as "boss." Maybe that's one of the reasons why a retired Philadelphia police officer, Capt. Ray Lewis, was willing to be handcuffed and arrested by fellow officers during the protest. Capt. Lewis called their rationale for arresting him a 'farce' and promised to return.

2011-11-18-raylewis.jpg

(photo by permission of the photographer, Lauren Thorpe)

New York isn't the only city that rents out its police force. But the financial capital of the nation bears moral and civic responsibilities that Mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg have disrespected and violated. The photograph of Capt. Lewis is like an image of law enforcement's honor, handcuffed by the mercenary instincts of Gracie Mansion's two most recent occupants.

Checkbook Democracy

But then, why would Michael Bloomberg be expected to understand that privatization is undemocratic? He "privatized" the electoral process, one of our most sacred democratic institutions, by buying himself the mayoralty. And he spent unprecedented levels of campaign cash from his personal billions to do it. Then, when he didn't like the term limits that the people of New York had decreed for their mayor -- well, he "privatized" that, too.

But this isn't really about Michael Bloomberg. Despite his reputation for healthy self-regard, even the billionaire mayor is only a symptom of a much larger problem. Rich people have been buying elections for so long that it's become the newest form of self-indulgence, conveying even more status than a Citation jet or a private island. Public office is the newest must-have item for the excessively vain and excessive well-to-do, a kind of vanity press for the self-published authors of their own meritless political careers. Bloomberg is merely today's most conspicuous, extravagant, and fiscally irresponsible member of an increasingly ordinary club.

You don't have to be a billionaire to run for office these days, of course. But if you're not, you'll spend most of your time begging them for money. No wonder the 1 percent call all the shots in government. They own it.

I've always thought it would be a good idea if elected officials wore the insignia of the corporations that sponsor them, the way race car drivers do.

Sold American

Republicans want to privatize Social Security and Medicare. The Bush and Obama Administrations have privatized law enforcement on Wall Street by asking banks to police themselves. And during the devastating San Diego fires, residents learned that AIG had created a private fire department that saved the homes of its clients while other nearby houses burned.

Privatized police. Privatized fire departments. Privatized prisons. Privatized armies of Halliburton and Blackwater soldiers. When for-profit companies perform government functions, they'll do it in a way that makes them money. That's not hard to understand, but our "leaders" keep doing it anyway.

Why? Because they've privatized their consciences, too.