G4S: the scandal-embroiled "private security" behemoth that will provide 10,000 "security contractors" to London 2012

Laurie Penny takes a look at G4S, the scandal-embroiled "private security firm" (they're not technical mercenaries because the "security" people who work from them are usually born in the same territories in which they operate) that is the world's second-largest private employer, after WalMart. The company is providing 10,000 "security contractors" to the London Olympics, like these people, who think that it's illegal to take pictures from public land. G4S has lots of juicy contracts around the world, like supplying security to private prisons in the West Bank where children are held. They're also the proud inventors of "carpet karaoke," a technique used at private asylum-seeker detention centres, which is a fancy way for "stuffing a deportee's face towards the floor to contain them."

What difference does it make if the men and women in uniform patrolling the world's streets and prison corridors are employed by nation states or private firms? It makes every difference. A for-profit company is not subject to the same processes of accountability and investigation as an army or police force which is meant, at least in theory, to serve the public. Impartial legality is still worth something as an assumed role of the state – and the notion of a private, for-profit police and security force poisons the very idea.

The state still has a legal monopoly on violence, but it is now prepared to auction that monopoly to anyone with a turnover of billions and a jolly branding strategy. The colossal surveillance and security operation turning London into a temporary fortress this summer is chilling enough without the knowledge that state powers are being outsourced to a company whose theme tune features the line: "The enemy prowls, wanting to attack, but we're on to the wall, we've got your back." If that made any sense at all, I doubt it would be more reassuring.

Laurie Penny: Don't listen to what G4S say. Look at what they do


  1. And police are impartial loyal bastions of freedom and impartiality, who never have made racially motivated arrests, who always make sure to bring fellow bad cops to justice…

    because it’s the private security firm’s fault the UK govt are going the totalitarian route. That also makes sense.

    1.  At least police, armies, etc. are IN THEORY, publicly accountable.  Once you go with private security, armies, prisons, etc.  all bets are off, and its all about the shareholders.  So a few (thousand?) innocent people get their heads cracked open – as long as its profitable, who cares?

        1.  Good question.  But again… in theory, those who are hiring the private security can be called into account via elections and such. (If that’s not the case in truth, we’re all fucked anyway so who cares).   Once these once-public functions are put in to private hands, there isn’t any recourse for well… anyone. 

          1. Elections do not work for changing policy. US (in particular) politics is rife with examples of this.

            Ultimately, fussing about whether the goons bashing British heads in are a private firm or not does not actually solve the problem: namely, that the government has no qualms about whether one’s head gets bashed in or not, otherwise it would have never made the laws to begin with.

      1. Why are all bets off?  Especially if we’re talking about “in theory”.

        In theory private security contractors are subject to laws, audits, contracts etc.  

        Additionally the police will be much happier to investigate a private security firm than do an internal investigation.

  2. I know people who work for G4S and I’ve had their people working to protect me and my colleagues in the past. So I know offhand that, as the article begins by pointing out, there is a truly massive number of people employed by the company and not all of them are the same.

    Just like in the general population, the number of criminals is small. Most of their employees are well-intentioned security guards. Don’t confuse the two, and never try to label them all as being the same – that’s just bigotry.

    1.  It’s not about the individuals working for G4S.  It’s about the system that employs them.  Private companies don’t have public accountability – it’s that simple. 

      (Indeed, bigotry is a good example.  Police have been guilty of racially motivated bigotry in the past – but at least they can be called on it.  They have procedures to track it, rules to try to prevent it, built up over years.  G4S doesn’t have to have anything of the sort.)

      What difference will it make if the employee is good if the procedures they’re following aren’t?

      1. Do public police forces have accountability?  Every single public police for I know of ruthlessly defends their own, right and wrong be damned.  Politicians ruthlessly defend them, and then laws ruthlessly defend them.  I know that unless a police officer is caught on video beating me into pulp without any reason, I am basically fucked as far as retribution goes.  Hell, even if it is as all captured on video, I am still probably fucked when it comes to getting any sort of justice.

        Public vs private at this point doesn’t matter.  Hell, I’ll probably have better luck going after private cops because they have not had decades to build an impenetrable wall of laws that basically declare that they can do no wrong.

        Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see a private police force running around, but that is like saying I prefer water boarding for 5 minutes over being punched in the face a dozen times.  I would actually prefer neither.  

        Police have almost no accountability.  In industrial democracies the best you can hope for is that they can’t be openly corrupt.  No politician has ever been elected on a “lets put better controls on the police and reduce their powers” campaign.  No one from Internal Affairs who is actually doing their job has ever been loved by the police.

        Private police with no accountability vs public police with no accountability?  Eh, I would almost go with the private ones because you can probably fire the fuckers if they screw up bad enough.

        1.  Now you’ve got me thinking. I wonder if its easier to sue private police or “real” police? Maybe that should be how we decide our preference.

          1.  Here in the US, it’s most definitely easier to sue rentacops.  And as long as you have more money than they do, you might even win the case.

    2.  Bigotry is a very loaded trigger word, used to derationalize opposing viewpoints.

      It’s not constructive, but I’m not sure that you intend to be constructive.

  3. I’m not sure if she’s saying the Olympic stadium should be patrolled by the police instead of security guards, or if it should be some company other than G4S that’s doing the security.

    I see some bored G4S person at a Reception desk sign me into an office building somewhere, telling me where the Gents and the lifts are, and I can’t really see them as a member of the “almost-mercenaries” that Laurie Penny does. 

    I don’t like the idea of G4S becoming a private police force and I don’t like the sound of what they doing in the West bank, but the article just doesn’t work for me.

    1. I can’t really see them as a member of the “almost-mercenaries” that Laurie Penny does

      Nor will anyone from the UK who can remember their almost-comical series of prisoner escapes and accidental releases in the 1990s (when they were still called ‘Group 4’).

      Incidentally, are they really ‘the world’s second-largest private employer, after WalMart’? Wikipedia says that Foxconn are bigger (and also McDonalds, if you count franchises).

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