The determined street protests against the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri have diminished, but the anger of the community has not. Demonstrators are still demanding the arrest of Darren Wilson, the officer who fired the fatal shots, but it seems unlikely this will happen. The county prosecutor has declined to recommend any charges to the grand jury, and public calls for the prosecutor’s removal have been ignored by the Missouri political establishment.
While the protests and the militarized police reaction brought the profiling of African American youth to national attention, they also uncovered the systemic nature of the constant police harassment and ticketing of African American motorists in the St Louis area. Some journalists attribute the problem to the multiple underfunded towns in the county, but the economic imperative for local authorities to raise revenue through disproportionate penalties for minor offences is a national issue. As local budgets are cut due to the economic recession, the police are squeezing the poor to support their own activities.
At a tumultuous Ferguson council meeting last week, its members were besieged by citizens who denounced racism, police harassment and the council itself. They demanded to know why Wilson had not yet been taken into custody, why young African Americans were so frequently arrested, and when there would be an overhaul of the police department. Above all they demanded an amnesty on outstanding court fees and warrants: “You make your money off our backs,” shouted one resident. But the mayor, James Knowles III, announced that the council would not answer any questions and would only listen to public comments. At this point, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “He was met with shouts of protests and the sight of attendees rising to their feet, pumping their fists in the air. ‘Shut it down,’ they yelled. During the constant barrage, council members looked out over the audience and remained mostly expressionless. They had arrived with police escorts more than an hour before the meeting. And when it ended around 10 p.m., they left through an exit off the stage without interacting with the crowd. … ‘What I see up there for me, is taxation without representation,’ said Louis Willis, a former mayoral candidate.”
Even before Brown’s killing, there had been simmering anger over the way the city had been financing itself from court fees and fines generated by aggressive policing, in particular intensive traffic enforcement which raised court revenues by 44 percent over the last three years. In an attempt to defuse this anger, the council introduced a new rule that limited the contribution of fines to the town’s budget, but this is merely window-dressing. As The Guardian pointed out: “under the new rule, Ferguson could collect 15% of the $20.2m total revenue that the city is expecting for 2015. This is more than $3m, an increase of $943,800 on the total taken in 2014 under the existing system.”
The rich (and white middle class) have separated themselves off from the urban centers into more affluent enclaves, and refuse to pay their share of taxes that would allow opportunities for minorities and youth. An investigation by the Washington Post found that poorer towns in St. Louis County derived up to 40 percent of their annual revenue from fines and fees collected by their municipal courts from low-income residents. “Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines …”
However, it is not only the St. Louis region where aggressive policing is used to extract funds from citizens. Detroit is a much more significant example of how so-called “broken windows” policing of minor infractions is used to impose a higher tax burden on poorer residents. The mostly African-American residents of the city “face an added cost of living as the city police pile on nuisance fines to crack down on smaller crimes,” reports The Guardian. Yet just a few miles from the center of Detroit is Oakland County, the fourth wealthiest county in the U.S. Robert Reich points out: “Forty years ago, Detroit had a mixture of wealthy, middle class, and poor. But then its middle class and white residents began fleeing to the suburbs … By the time it declared bankruptcy, Detroit was almost entirely poor. Its median household income was $26,000. More than half of its children were impoverished.” If the metropolitan boundary had included the surrounding suburbs, he writes, “Oakland’s more affluent citizens would have some responsibility to address Detroit’s problems, and Detroit would likely have enough money to pay all its bills … But because Detroit’s boundary surrounds only the poor inner city, those inside it have to deal with their compounded problems themselves. The whiter and more affluent suburbs (and the banks that serve them) are off the hook.”
A prominent law enforcement official writes: “Many law enforcement agencies are facing the reality of severe budget cuts, reduced workforce, and the elimination or reduction of many law enforcement programs. Today, police chiefs are being asked to look for ways of economizing, increasing efficiency, eliminating redundancies, and finding revenue sources. … cities will begin to see successes at nearby agencies and look to new revenue streams as a panacea to forestall reduced services or even bankruptcy … there is a clear presumption of need for law enforcement to generate new income streams.”
For some police departments, seizure of cash from motorists who the police claim are connected with drugs has become a major new income stream – even though they are never charged with a crime. A three-part series by the Washington Post described how hundreds of state and local police agencies were relying on seized cash to fund their budgets, despite a federal ban on using the money this way. “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million.” Steven Peterson, a former DEA agent, told reporters that agency leaders saw cash seizures “as a way to provide equipment and training for their guys. If you seized large amounts of cash, that’s the gift that keeps on giving.” Of course, minorities are disproportionately targeted for cash seizures.
The problem for the ruling elite is that the structural pressure for sharply-increased extraction of funds from minority communities is undermining the popular acceptance of the system of authority, the consent of the governed. When the poor refuse to be sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalism, that poses a real threat to the legitimacy of the state. That’s why federal authorities had to step in quickly to defuse the protests in Ferguson when war-zone-like images from the clashes got national attention. But the anger of the community at last Tuesday’s meeting shows the conflict is far from being resolved. Residents challenged police harassment by counterposing to it the founding principles of the US constitution, demanding that political equality entitles them to equality under the law. At the very start of the meeting, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, “Shouting erupted during the Pledge of Allegiance, during the phrase ‘and justice for all.’ ‘For all!’ many cried.”