Thursday, July 7, 2016


Once again our nation's media cycle is full of the most recent stories of African-Americans gunned down by police officers after initially being detained for minor infractions. This Mother Jones article tells us why these developments are part of a larger structural problem that won't easily disappear, and raises questions that go beyond the obvious race issues involved. 

In "Police Shootings Won't Stop Unless We Also Stop Shaking Down Black People" we learn about police departments being used to help city officials raise revenue through tickets and subsequent fines, which become a big part of funding for city budgets. In effect, police departments become the enforcement arm of a larger extortion racket that preys on the poor and, more specifically, people of color. 

In many places, being pulled over and ticketed for Driving While Black has morphed into being Cited and Fined Because You're Black.

Most of us are aware of The Mother of All Police Extortion Rackets, Ferguson, Missouri:

In 2010, this collaboration between the Ferguson police and the courts generated $1.4 million in income for the city. This year, they will more than double that amount—$3.1 million—providing nearly a quarter of the city's $13 million budget, almost all of it extracted from its poorest African American citizens.

If effect, what we have are small towns that can't be supported by the general tax base. With Republicans adamant about cutting taxes on businesses and the wealthy, cities and towns have had to find revenue from other sources. So city administrators have come up with clever ways to generate revenue, which include ticketing minor driving infractions and citing citizens for nontraffic-related incidents. 

The story of Pagedale, a mostly black St. Louis suburb, is telling. 

In Pagedale you can't have:
* Hedges that are more than three feet high.
* Basketball hoops or wading pools in the front of a house.
* Dish antennas on the front of your house.
* Barbecues in the front yard.
* Alcohol within 150 feet of a barbecue.
* Kids playing in the street.
* Cars parked more than 500 feet from a lamp or an illuminating source.
* Blinds in the house unless they're neatly maintained.

The driving force behind these punitive but seemingly Seahaven - the utopian shore town from the Truman Show - inspired regulations is a simple one.

An ordinary but well maintained street in The Truman Show's utopian shore town of Seahaven, 

After learning about the city of Ferguson's revenue generating extortion racket the state of Missouri passed a law that capped the amount of revenue an agency could generate from traffic stops. The purported goal was to reduce the proclivity to create speed traps in the state of Missouri. 

With traffic fines capped as a source of revenue the town of Pagedale, Missouri had to find new sources of income. This translated into more citations for housing code violations, which many of Pagedale's poorer residents could not keep up with. Citations turned into fines and additional penalties. This helps explain why Pagedale saw a 495 percent increase in nontraffic-related arrests after the state speed trap law was passed.

In effect, according the NY Times, Pagedale turned code enforcement and its municipal court system into "revenue-generating machines" that helped keep administrators and police officers in paid positions. 

Here's the moral of the story: America's poorest and most vulnerable are now being made to pay for their own subjugation. 

More police and sensitivity training is only part of a larger story. While race lies at the heart of what we're seeing in Minnesota and Louisiana - and across America - what we're looking at is also structural. 

I'll leave it at that for the moment.

- Mark

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