Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How Ferguson has changed and proposes to

“As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.” — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

RECENTLY I shared a couple of columns from New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof talking about the everyday discrimination black people face and white blindness to white privilege. It stirred some surprising comments on Facebook, although I must say that certain sentiments expressed seemed only to confirm Mr. Kristof's position that so many of us white people just don't get it.

I mean to write my own version, but for now I'd like to pass along three things:

— An opinion piece from the NYT written by Jeff Smith, assistant professor of urban policy at New School University in New York City and former Missouri state senator from St. Louis.

A New York Times graph comparing arrest warrants in Ferguson to other Missouri cities of the same size.

— A news piece by Frances Robles also of the NYT talking about changes proposed for the court system in Ferguson.

I must say that IMHO, you can't look at the arrest warrant chart and not figure that something has been badly amiss in that town.

Michael Brown in his high school cap and gown.

In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power
AUG. 17, 2014

POLITICS, wrote the political scientist Harold Lasswell in 1936, is about “who gets what, when, and how.” If you want to understand the racial power disparities we’ve seen in Ferguson, Mo., understand that it’s not only about black and white. It’s about green.

Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit.

This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County.

Ferguson’s demographics have shifted rapidly: in 1990, it was 74 percent white and 25 percent black; in 2000, 52 percent black and 45 percent white; by 2010, 67 percent black and 29 percent white.

The region’s fragmentation isn’t limited to the odd case of a city shedding its county. St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines. According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent.

Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them. One town, Sycamore Hills, has stationed a radar-gun-wielding police officer on its 250-foot northbound stretch of Interstate.

With primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general. In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people — despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites). This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.

By contrast, consider the city: After decades of methodically building political power, blacks in St. Louis City elected a black mayor in 1993 and black aldermen or alderwomen in nearly half the city’s wards, and hold two of three seats on the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which must approve all city contracts. Well-established churches, Democratic ward organizations and other civic institutions mobilize voters in black wards. But because blacks have reached the suburbs in significant numbers only over the past 15 years or so, fewer suburban black communities have deeply ingrained civic organizations.

That helps explain why majority-black Ferguson has a virtually all-white power structure: a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic, which recently suspended a highly regarded young black superintendent who then resigned; a City Council with just one black member; and a 6 percent black police force.

Many North County towns — and inner-ring suburbs nationally — resemble Ferguson. Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.

The North County Labor Club, whose overwhelmingly white constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements, operates a potent voter-turnout operation that backs white candidates over black upstarts. The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund re-election campaigns. Construction, waste and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side and, usually, the work force as well.

But there’s a potential solution that could help Ferguson reinvest in itself and also help African-Americans compete for a bigger share of the pie: consolidation with surrounding municipalities, many of which face similar challenges. The St. Louis region has seen some preliminary support for the idea, with resistance concentrated in smaller political units whose leaders are loath to surrender control.

Consolidation would help strapped North County communities avoid using such a high percentage of their resources for expensive public safety overhead, such as fire trucks. It could also empower the black citizens of Ferguson. Blacks incrementally gained power in St. Louis City in part because its size facilitates broader coalitions and alliances. Another benefit of consolidation is the increased political talent pool. Many leaders just aren’t interested in running a tiny municipality.

In shrinking cities, politics is often a nasty, zero-sum game. But consolidation could create economies of scale, increase borrowing capacity to expand economic opportunity, reduce economic pressures that inflame racial tension, and smash up the old boys’ network that has long ruled much of North County.

When the state patrol and the national television cameras leave Ferguson, its residents will still be talking about how they can move forward. And they may be ready to expand the conversation so that it’s not just about black and white, but green.

Ferguson Sets Broad Change for City Courts
By Frances Robles
SEPT. 8, 2014

FERGUSON, Mo. — In the first major sign of change in this small city since last month’s police killing of an unarmed black teenager, the Ferguson City Council said Monday that it would establish a citizen review board to provide guidance for the Police Department.

It also announced sweeping changes to its court system, which had been criticized as unfairly targeting low-income blacks, who had become trapped in a cycle of unpaid tickets and arrest warrants.

Municipal court fines are the city’s second-highest source of revenue, leading many critics to argue that the authorities had a financial incentive to issue tickets and then impose more fees on those who did not pay.

Young black men in Ferguson and surrounding cities routinely find themselves passed from jail to jail as they are picked up on warrants for unpaid fines, one of the many simmering issues here that helped set off almost two weeks of civil unrest after the teenager, Michael Brown, 18, was killed by a white Ferguson officer on Aug. 9.

Data from municipal courts across Missouri show that in 2013, the city of Ferguson had the highest number of warrants issued in the state relative to its size. Arrest warrants are often served by municipal courts when someone fails to appear in court to pay fines for a traffic or other violation, like shoplifting, assault or disturbance of peace.

The high rate could reflect more crime as well as heavier prosecution, and it could be indicative of a fraught relationship between law enforcement and citizens. Brendan Roediger, an assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and supervisor of the school’s Civil Litigation Clinic, said that resentment toward the police in Ferguson “is primarily formed around these interactions and not around investigations of serious crimes.”

Mr. Brown’s killing put a national spotlight on Ferguson, a small city in north St. Louis County. The unrest served to highlight longstanding complaints by a predominantly black community that they were being harassed by the police.

On the eve of what was expected to be a tense City Council meeting on Tuesday, the first meeting since the shooting, the city instead pre-emptively announced many changes activists have long sought.

Among other things, the Council was scheduled to vote on capping how much of the city’s revenue can come from fines. The city also announced a one-month window to quash pending warrants, a major victory for the activists and lawyers who had pressed for change and were expected to force the issue at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson’s courts and police department,” one council member, Mark Byrne, said in a statement. “We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously.”

Lawyers and activists cautioned that the change could be truly meaningful only if other municipalities followed suit, because Ferguson is not alone in its predatory tactics, said Julia Ho, a community organizer at Hands Up United, an organization that formed after Mr. Brown’s killing.

“The bench warrants and traffic fines were a regressive tax on the poor and criminalization of poverty,” Ms. Ho said. “If people no longer receive these charges, that’s huge: It keeps people from getting stuck in modern debtor’s prisons.”

The Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit legal group, and law professors at the St. Louis University School of Law recently wrote a letter to the mayor, James Knowles III, asking him to waive all pending fines and warrants for nonviolent offenses. The letter said that the warrants served as barriers to employment and housing and that waiving them would be an important conciliatory gesture to the community.

Mr. Brown was killed after a brief struggle with the officer, Darren Wilson, who was seated in his vehicle. Although the police said Mr. Brown went for the officer’s gun, witnesses have said that the officer fired at Mr. Brown as he fled and continued shooting after he put his hands up in a sign of surrender. A St. Louis County grand jury is evaluating the case and is expected to make a decision by next month on whether to indict Officer Wilson.

The federal Justice Department has its own civil rights investigation into the shooting and the Police Department’s practices.

Thomas B. Harvey, executive director of the Arch City Defenders, said the changes were about three-quarters of what they had requested. “Although it’s not exactly what we asked for, it’s a substantial step forward,” he said.

Ferguson, a city of just 21,135 people, issued 24,532 warrants for 12,000 cases last year, the group said in a recent report. That amounts to three warrants per Ferguson household.

The city’s traffic fine revenue has increased 44 percent since 2011, city records show. When drivers who could not pay failed to show up for court, the city issued warrants and increased the penalties.

About 20 percent of the city’s $12 million budget is paid through fines, Mr. Harvey said. Under the proposal announced Monday, the city will cap that at 15 percent and spend any excess on special community projects.

“The Council believes that this ordinance sends a clear message that the fines imposed as punishment in the municipal court are not to be viewed as a source of revenue for the city,” Ferguson’s Council said in a statement. “We are hopeful that the Council’s clear statement will encourage the municipal judge and prosecutor to explore and utilize alternative methods of sentencing, such as community service, to punish violators and deter similar unlawful conduct.”

Mr. Harvey said he was concerned about whether the fines would actually decrease and expressed skepticism over the fact that the City Council was endorsing a community service penalty that does not currently exist. “That’s still $1.7 million in fines collected, but it is a million-dollar drop,” he said.

The city said it would commit to funding a community improvement program and would hold ward meetings to elicit community input on what other changes should be made.

The city said it would also introduce an ordinance to repeal the “failure to appear” offense in municipal court, eliminating the additional fines imposed on those who do not attend court, and abolish administrative fees, such as the $25 fee to cover the cost of police personnel who arrange for the towing of abandoned vehicles.

Some of the fees the city planned to eliminate, such as the $50 charge to revoke a warrant, were illegal in the first place, Mr. Harvey said.

The city said the municipal judge had established a special docket for defendants who are having trouble making monthly payments on outstanding fines, the city said, giving people the opportunity to renegotiate their payment plans.

At the behest of the City Council, the municipal judge also established a one-month warrant recall program.

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