Reflections on Ferguson, Missouri: Three Years Later by Warren Bull
Please consult the Huffington Post, Atlantic
Magazine and ThinkProgress for additional information.
To understand why people in Ferguson, Missouri were primed and ready to protest when police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, it helps to know some history. Ferguson was one of several little towns in St. Louis County where police departments, staffed almost entirely with Caucasian people, issued traffic tickets to drivers who were nearly all African Americans. Municipal judges, another group with very few members of any ethnicity except Caucasian, collected fines to pay for city government. Journalists who arrived to cover the unrest in Ferguson also discovered long lines outside packed municipal courtrooms. Prosecutors would often sit alongside the judges. Children were banned; sometimes the public was excluded also. Judges made explicit threats to jail people unless they came up with the money to pay traffic tickets. People who couldn’t pay the fines might sit in jail for days or even weeks.
The cities created debtors’ prisons and made poverty a crime. In jail people were often denied medication and blankets. They were kept in filthy conditions. Sometimes the cells lacked a toilet.
While people protested the killing of Michael Brown three years ago, they also protested Ferguson having 32,000 arrest warrants out for a population of 21,000. Two thirds of the citizens had outstanding warrants, mostly for minor infractions. They protested other St. Louis County cities exploiting African American citizens such as St. Ann, which extracted $3 million from its citizens, and Florissant, which harvested $2 million from reluctant residents. Threats of jail were made toward those who could not pay fines immediately. Cool Valley set the speed limit on their small slice of the interstate highway at 55 and has been feeding off drivers, many of whom weren’t aware of the sudden drop in the speed limit, usually 70 miles per hour, ever since. Most arrests are of African American drivers.
Many of the cities were first established by Caucasians. Those people passed segregation laws, hoping to keep African Americans out of the cities. As the number of African Americans increased, the number of Caucasians decreased. City leaders built a system to finance municipal governments on the backs of African Americans. In 1970 99% of residents were Caucasian, 1% were African American. In 2000 44.7% of residents were Caucasian 52.4% were African American.
In 2014 the police chief of the city of St. Louis said some of the towns had practices of police and municipal courts that “victimize those whom they are designed to protect.” The state legislature passed a bill that set caps on the percentage of a town’s budget that could come from fees and fines. The head of Missouri’s Supreme Court issued new rules ordering the lower courts to meet basic constitutional requirements that had been ignored.
Since 2014 some things have changed. Children and the public are now allowed in courtrooms. The revenue raised by municipal courts in St. Louis County dropped from $53 million in 2015 to $29 million in 2016. The city of Jennings paid $4.7 million to settle a lawsuit brought by residents who had been unconstitutionally jailed due to their inability to pay fines. Sometimes now the poorest citizens are given the chance to perform community services in lieu of paying fines.
However, the system remains essentially intact. Most officials in the cities are Caucasian. Most of the fines levied are on African Americans. Now people with attorneys can get a better deal, but people without are still called into court month after month until they pay the fines. Those least able to pay have to leave work and find transportation to court, reducing their earnings and forcing them to pay additional costs.
Too many people still find themselves caught in gears of the revenue machine. Even though the Department of Justice entered into a consent decree with Ferguson, once every three months the city and the DOJ attorneys get together to say Ferguson has not yet met its obligations under the consent decree but it is “making progress.”
If you read about ‘improvement” or ‘progress” please keep in mind that in St. Louis County, Missouri city governments still rob the less affluent and mostly African American citizens to pay the salaries of the richer and mostly Caucasian city officials. That’s not likely to change any time soon. The anger and resentment of citizens is not likely to change either. Expect more civil unrest, more people in the streets, until and unless fundamental changes are made.
The cities described are not the only ones to make the police and judges into revenue producers. Forty-seven states have increased the fines on civil and criminal acts. It is estimated that nation-wide 10 million people owe $450 billion in debt to legal systems. In 2016 the Department of Justice sent out a letter reminding legal authorities throughout the country that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that inability to pay should not be grounds for incarceration.
Although this reads like something out of Charles Dickens, it is the reality that people of color face today.