Corporations are funding the suppression and repression against protesters, from Amazon to Hubbard County, Minnesota to the Amazon. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with Alex Vitale, author of The End of PolicingThe history and future prospects of corporate partnerships with the police. Kelly talks to Mara Verheyden Hilliard about newly released documents that show Hubbard County’s lead prosecutor sought corporate funding to prosecute Line 3 protesters.
Note: This is a rush transcript that has been lightly edited to improve clarity. Copy may not appear in its final form.
Kelly Hayes Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout Podcast about things you need to know if your goal is to make a difference in the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. This show is all about building relationships and analyzing to create movements that win. We must also understand the forces behind the suppression of these movements in order to achieve that. Today we’ll be discussing what happens when corporations provide funding for 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. Morton County spent $40 million to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. 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. Enbridge would pay for its own police force to protect the pipeline’s construction.
These funds were used to reimburse police for the harassment, torture, and brutal arrest of Water Protectors who tried to stop the 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. You can read the rest of this article. these documentsI can confirm that this was not a prosecutor thinking he was a 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 hoursHe claims that the permit language clearly grants his office access 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. As a way of eradicating corporate harms resistance, it is likely that the escrow model will recur. It worked well for Enbridge as well as the police. Oil companies have a long history of being able to provide services. Manipulating prosecutions, so if this entire model isn’t reined in, I have grave concerns about where it will lead.
We’ll be talking about those recently exposed documents as well as the legal battle to end this type of funding. However, I wanted to first reflect on this whole corporate-escrow situation within the larger context of policing. We are seeing a lot of the same things as the U.S. history and character in policing. Yet, this funding model could dramatically alter the way protests are governed in the United States. We are going to provide some context and grounding for this development.
It is important to clarify that this discussion does not concern why police officers need public funding. Because the money that Line 3 security agencies received should not have come out of taxpayers. Because there was no reason to fund the drone and helicopter surveillance Water Protectors had, or the chemical weapons used against them, that funding should not be available. There was no need to use rubber bullets or beatings. There was no need to make brutal arrests or spend overtime with the police talking about the victims of the violence to the protesters. There was no need for the “field force” training or tactical operations that Enbridge paid for. None of these things, like Line 3, had to be possible or happen. 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.
Alex Vitale, author of the book on the relationship between police and corporations, gave me a glimpse of how this escrow mirrors the history and goes into troubling new territory. 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. Alex had some thoughts about the escrow system.
Alex Vitale: This raises a whole new issue about the functioning and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, and specifically policing. We live with the mythical notion that police equals public security, which obscures the truth about policing’s true nature. Minnesota’s situation is an extreme example of a private corporate interest paying for private police services. This is actually the core nature and origin of policing. It has taken many legitimate forms over the years that have obscured this fundamental relationship but it 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.
Early police forces were used for strikes, slave revolts suppression, and counterinsurgency against anticolonial 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. One great example is the 100-year-old labor uprising in Pennsylvania. Employers tried to use local police to stop the strikes. However, these forces were small and loyal to the small towns. Their first impulse was to establish the coal and iron police. These were private security guards who were paid a dollar per head by the employer and given law enforcement rights by the state of Pennsylvania.
This put all the cost on the iron and coal producers and it lacked public legitimacy. So when they used violence, shot people down in streets, and murdered people, it was obvious that it was the iron and coal companies that were behind it. Instead, they created the Pennsylvania state police. It is independent from local political control but still has the patina and independence of the state. All taxpayers pay for it, not just the iron and coal producers. Local miners, workers and union members call this the Pennsylvania Cossacks. They engage in a reign for terror that has nothing to with public safety. It’s about suppressing worker mobilizations. What we have is a situation in today’s world where policing is created with the patina to serve the public interest. Of course, there are times when they stop a muggler or prevent something horrible from happening.
These are examples of their public safety function. When push comes to shove, however, it is still the production of a social system that benefits some 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. We see that there is a local corporate interest who will pay some taxes. But only if the tax dollars are used to provide private policing for 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. This is a great way to see the core of what policing has always 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. In the United States, violence and brutality against Indigenous land and Water Protectors are increasing, but in the Global South, it is 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. This raises the question: Is Minnesota witnessing a devolution of the legitimacy and legitimacy of police, and a shift to a more authoritarian, clearly corporate-controlled state?
KH: I learned something about collapse that people often participate in it before they realize it. People go through collapse trying to recreate the same conditions and relationships, but it is hard to comprehend some of these changes. However, 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. Alex also said to me that we need to use this opportunity not only to point out the lack of legitimacy of these systems, but also to name what is really 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. This has forced the private sector to take over. 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.
KHCrisis is the key to capitalism’s character We are on a dangerous path politically and environmentally in the United States. We should expect the character and expression of policing will be more refined and blatantly displayed as police defend the interests and privileges 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. The bridges were raised by police downtown on the first night that there was rebellion. They then used gas, violence, and arrest to trap protesters. Why was the police fighting 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 that corporations could create mechanisms to supercharge police departments with multimillion-dollar infusions whenever they feel threatened. Imagine if every time a video of an officer killing a Black child or brown child went viral, the police received a new corporate injection to counter 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 we have to understand the current trends and organize people in opposition to create a better future.
Mara Verheyden Hilliard, a constitutional right litigator and cofounder of the Center for Protest Law and Litigation was also on the phone. The Center provides support for movements and criminal defense, as well as advocacy for constitutional rights. In 2020, the group was contacted by Water Protectors about the need for lawyers to help them defend. The organization was also able to quickly respond to ensure Line 3 protesters had lawyers. They also took on another mission to fight corporate escrow funding.
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. These people have been subjected to brutality, suppression and surveillance, harassment, torture, as well as other forms of repression. All of this is funded by the Public Safety Escrow Trust, which Enbridge can just pour millions of dollars into. The police can look at this and see that they have access to that money if they take certain actions, or bill for a specific time. 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: During our investigation into this entity, we have been asking for and prying through thousands of pages of documents from many different entities, many countries, for many months. In a series of documents we obtained, we discovered that the Hubbard County lead prosecutor, who is pursuing hundreds of Water Protectors with very unusual charges, had sought oil money from Enbridge via this Public Safety Escrow Trust Fund. These documents show that the prosecutor was involved in Water Protector prosecutions. He and his staff were working overtime and anticipating overtime pay to carry out these charges. This was at a time when Enbridge would reimburse all of that work.
This raises significant constitutional due-process issues for defendants in these cases. 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. This raises fundamental constitutional issues that we are trying to address.
KHIn 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.”
These documents raise questions about whether the prosecution would have pursued these charges if they had not believed that corporate compensation was guaranteed. Water Protectors are facing unusual charges, as you may recall if you watched our November episode. 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 accused of attempted assisted suicide for climbing into a pipeline to stop construction.
As an organizer, I have seen many excessive charges. However, I was shocked at the way the prosecutors handled these cases. They pursued so many defendants and charged them with extreme crimes. With over 1000 arrests, one would expect that there would be more throwaway cases where the state would either drop or reduce the charges to a minor.
After reading the litany felony and gross misdemeanors Water Protectors of Minnesota are facing, I was immediately struck by the spectacle. It was meant to be a warning to anyone else who might attempt to defend the Earth. It was even more logical to me that the prosecutor thought corporate money would pay for the entire effort. The thing is, it’s possible that the next prosecutor might put that stipulation in writing.
These documents, regardless of whether or not prosecutors profit from the next bureaucratic well-spring of oil money, further demonstrate why this funding model cannot exist. Actors in the carceral systems will believe they will be rewarded. They will also receive more training and increase their department’s capacity. By focusing on a specific group of people, they will create spectacles that are full of carceral violence. As Mara told me, all of this lends itself to a future we don’t want.
Mara Verheyden – Hilliard: The Public Safety Escrow Trust issue is not limited to 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 police so that a pipe can be built is a perversion in the concept public safety. The inherently violent nature of police and the threat to human life from fossil fuel extraction make them inherently violent. Activists expect that this particular pipeline will have the effect of 50 coal-fired energy plants. It also threatens millions of people’s drinking water. Water Protectors are being charged and we need to continue to support them. We also need to call out the police and prosecutors. Questions of legitimacy can still cause controversy. This condition might not last.
It is a very important task to help people understand these systems. 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 find this troubling or scary, please tell others. This is an opportunity to come to a common, clear-eyed understanding about what we are facing, as we will need it as we move forward.
Our support is still needed for the Water Protectors who fought to stop Line 3. They took immediate action to stop an environmental atrocity. Even though it was clear that the charges were excessive and high-stakes, they did not stop fighting. They made choices about who and what they would be in this era of death-making. 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 also won a number other motions to dismiss for Line 3 protesters. These victories are important and a heartening reminder that sometimes the good guys do win. I wish they continue to win.
I would like to thank Alex Vitale & Mara Verheyden Hilliard for sharing their insights and for all they do. Please do check out Alex’s book The End of PolicingIt is a must-read text about the history and nature police in the United States. It is a must-read for everyone. You can learn more about the Center for Protest Law & Litigation at protestlaw.org.
I want to thank all our listeners for joining me today. Remember, the best defense against cynicism, is to do good. And remember, what we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Credit for the music: Son Monarcas, Ambientalism, Stefan Mothander, Ebb & Flod and Curved Mirror