The U.S. Department of Justice Report on the Ferguson, Missouri police department (FPD) makes clear that the City of Ferguson made raising revenue the primary objective of the FPD and the Ferguson court system. In budgets, memos, emails, commands to police and meeting minutes, the DOJ found an explicit collective program to fund city operations with traffic and parking tickets and public safety fines for minor offenses such as not keeping a tidy lawn. The DOJ documents that Ferguson’s fines are much higher than other Missouri cities of the same size, as are the percentage of all city revenues that comes from fining citizens.
Rural counties in Texas, West Virginia and elsewhere have long had a history of stopping those driving cars with out-of-state plates to pump up the local treasury. Ferguson has taken this gambit one step further by going after its own citizens.
But no one should be surprised or shocked to learn that the Ferguson, Missouri city government financed its operations on the backs of the poor and middle class. It happens all the time, although usually not with the overtly racist element. When municipalities use tax dollars to build new stadiums with more luxury boxes but fewer cheap seats, as happened in New York, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and elsewhere, it represents a convoluted form of taxing the poor and middle class to fund municipal benefits to the wealthy. When states and local governments decide to fund activities by issuing bonds that constitute safe investments for rich folk and pay off those bonds through taxing everyone, it’s another complicated way to shift financing burdens to the poor and middle class. The report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform a few years back didn’t suggest much to help balance the budget but did propose giving rich folk big fat tax breaks while increasing taxes on the poor and middle class, thus shifting to the latter the burden of paying for government. The net effect of the several tax breaks and tax hikes over the past 35 years has been to make the poor and middle class pay a larger share of the cost of government and government services.
These and other mechanisms for making the poor and middle class pay more are far more subtle than the naked wealth grab we have seen in Ferguson. The headlines in the DOJ report depict a contemporary version of highway robbery:
- FPD Engages in a Pattern of Unconstitutional Stops and Arrests in Violation of the Fourth Amendment
- FPD Engages in a Pattern of First Amendment Violations
- FPD Engages in a Pattern of Excessive Force in Violation of the Fourth Amendment
- Court Practices Impose Substantial and Unnecessary Barriers to the Challenge or Resolution of Municipal Code Violations
- The Court Imposes Unduly Harsh Penalties for Missed Payments or Appearances
We can assume that city officials knew that Afro-Americans were arrested and fined at a much higher rate than their representation in the population, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other: the result of using the criminal justice system as a source of revenue and overtly discriminating against blacks in arrests and court treatment pretty much defines the kind of institutional racism that transcends whatever laws are in place to protect against discrimination.