A long-lived urban legend states that cities have a quota system in place for parking enforcement officers. One retired traffic officer in LA recently said that this is no legend, but a hard fact. In particular, says the retired officer, at the end of the year, when the LA Department of Transportation is preparing to close the fiscal books, ticket officers are instructed to work overtime and write 32 tickets during a 4-hour overtime shift. So watch out during the holiday season in LA. They are apparently coming to get you.
“Coming to get you” takes on a whole new dimension in Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson. While Mr. Brown paid the highest price, African-American citizens of Ferguson have routinely been targeted by the police and criminal justice system to raise money for the city. This is what Attorney General Eric Holder summarized during his presentation of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. I note in particular Mr. Holder calling the police force in Ferguson a “collection agency.”
A summary at the beginning of the report has a section entitled “Focus on Generating Revenue.”
The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved. City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”
– DOJ – Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department
In other words, the city told the police, in effect, we need money: write more tickets. Write harder. But that’s only the beginning.
Say you get a parking ticket for $151 and you can’t pay it. You then will have to face increased fines on that ticket, to the tune of, say, $550. Oh, and you’ll also have to spend six days in jail for failure to pay on time. A situation like this can continue on until you end up owing over $1,000. This is not a hypothetical situation. This is the plight of an African American woman in Ferguson, who still owes over $500 on top of the $550 on top of the original $151 parking ticket she received in 2007. One wonders if the officer who issued her the original ticket received a bonus, like a trader on Wall Street does after a good year. After all, the ticket has now inflated by nearly 700% over its original value. Markets get giddy over such numbers.
The report states that 67% of the population of Ferguson is African-American, but this population accounts for 93% of the arrests. So black folks are disproportionately paying for, well we can’t call them services, can we? They are basically being forced to fund their own oppression.
And African-Americans face oppression, massive oppression in Ferguson at the hands of the police and a very compliant justice system. The report cites many instances of dubious arrests, vulgar treatment, and physical assaults. To be black in Ferguson, Missouri in 2015 is to live under Jim Crow rules from a half-century ago. The only thing missing are the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs.
Mr. Holder called for “concrete action” to correct these wrongs. After the Attorney General presented his report summary, Ferguson mayor James Knowles made statements to the press. He said that one of the three city employees cited in the report as having sent racist e-mails while on duty was fired. The other two are under investigation. “We must do better not only as a city but as a state and a country. We must all work to address issues of racial disparity in all aspects of our society,” Mayor Knowles said.
That’s not good enough. The report reads like an ante-bellum horror novel. Ferguson doesn’t sound like a city. It sounds like “Racism, Inc.,” a business that can oppress harder than anyone else, and for profit. The only way to solve the problem is to get rid of the current infrastructure and start over. The entire police department should be fired, from the chief on down. All city employees who participated in Racism, Inc. activities should similarly be dismissed. And any elected official who either aided Racism, Inc. or knowingly turned a blind eye to its practices should face recall elections. The evil must be rooted out and eradicated.
But that’s still not enough. Black folks have to vote. I remember hearing an interview during the Ferguson protests last year where one organizer said that voting isn’t a luxury that many black citizens can participate in because of work obligations or other life issues. As the Justice Department report makes painfully clear, being black in Ferguson is a life issue, even a life or death issue. During remembrances of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March, we are reminded that the year after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, the racist sheriff who terrorized the marchers was removed from office. Black folks were finally able to register to vote without any bullshit. They did so, and they exercised their franchise to remove an evil. The same needs to happen in Ferguson.
How many other Fergusons are out there in the country? How many other cities and towns use their poorest citizens as piggybanks to stuff city coffers, terrorizing them in the process? These questions scare the shit out of me, because the answers are likely as incalculably horrific as the Justice Department report.
© 2015, gar. All rights reserved.