Why Losing the Public Realm to Private Companies Costs Lives – Including the Life of Trayvon Martin

Fuelled by a quest for “security,” a growing us-versus-them mentality has gradually eroded people’s rights and put lives on the line. Trayvon Martin was perceived as “the other” – black and presumably poor – as he entered the controlled space of a private community designed to keep the public out. He was instantly criminalized, which cost him his life.

Trayvon’s is but one of millions of lives curtailed or upended each year by our society’s obsession with “securing” the borders of our communities and our country, and “protecting” the private property taken from our formerly shared commons.  By privatizing land, towns, roads, neighborhoods and schools, along with privately governing and policing these new ownership arrangements, our society has turned fear into discrimination and exclusion, and public goods into private profits. As soon as public spaces and public functions become a private responsibility, privileged citizens and private companies can operate largely without public oversight, transparency or public participation. They follow their private incentives and interests, systematically ignoring and violating the needs and rights of the people – especially people stigmatized as “others.” With our unwillingness to defend the notion of public, to envision ourselves as part of the public realm, and to fully fund public services, our society is on the verge of handing over to private corporate interests the control over our rights and lives.

Yet resistance is on rise, and the outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin is not the only sign that people’s views may be shifting.  From the struggle for the human right to housing and community control of land,  to the fight for human rights at our borders, grassroots groups are taking on the deadly consequences of privatization, securitization and structural racism. Some of these actions are resonating in the mainstream media discourse. The New York Times just ran two opinion pieces, one on Trayvon Martin and the other on immigration, that illuminate the links between the racist criminalization enabled by the privatization of previously public spaces and the human rights violations made possible by the wholesale privatization of immigration and border control functions.

Rich Benjamin writes in the NY Times on March 29, 2012:
“The rise of “secure,” gated communities, private cops, private roads, private parks, private schools, private playgrounds — private, private, private —exacerbates biased treatment against the young, the colored and the presumably poor.”

“Another related trend contributed to this shooting: our increasingly privatized criminal justice system. The United States is becoming even more enamored with private ownership and decision making around policing, prisons and probation. Private companies champion private “security” services, alongside the private building and managing of prisons. […] Thirty-two states now permit expanded rights to self-defense.  In essence, laws nationwide sanction reckless vigilantism in the form of self-defense claims. A bunker mentality is codified by law.”

Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen writes in the NY Times on April 1, 2012:
“Immigration control has traditionally been viewed as an inalienable sovereign function of the state. But today migration management has increasingly been taken over by private contractors. […] Privatization introduces a corporate veil that blurs both public oversight and legal accountability. […] Legally holding governments accountable for human rights violations by contractors requires an additional step showing that it is the state and not just the corporation or individual employee that is responsible for the misconduct. […] And private contractors work to shape policy as well. When Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 immigration bill was passed, 30 out of 36 co-sponsors had received donations from private prison companies or their lobbyists.”

“Today, government outsourcing has given rise to an industry that encompasses nearly every aspect of migration management in countries across the globe. This shift comes at a price: It eliminates government accountability and runs roughshod over the rights of those subjected to private corporations’ control.”