Friday, March 06, 2015

American Income, American Injustice

This is, by the by, the 700th post here on this blog (under different names).  Big Hello to all the Crooks and Liars people following Mike's Blog Round-Up link!  Thank you for stopping by, and please check out the rest of this blog.  Also, I have a separate blog at WittyLibrarian And The Book With the Blue Cover, at which I have a current memorial for Sir Terry Pratchett.)

The federal investigation into the dealings of the Ferguson Police Force, not just in the Michael Brown shooting but a litany of complaints against an out-of-control agency, brought up some horrifying revelations.  Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly titled his article about it "The Gangsters of Ferguson," and for good reason:

(from the DOJ report) Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities...
Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue...

There's a word for this: Extortion.

Extortion... is a criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion. Refraining from doing harm is sometimes euphemistically called protection. Extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime groups. The actual obtainment of money or property is not required to commit the offense. Making a threat of violence which refers to a requirement of a payment of money or property to halt future violence is sufficient to commit the offense...

Thing is, Organized Crime never had it so good or easy as corrupt cops and city employees, who extort through excessive fines and asset seizures using the threat of jail and the threat of police brutality to get their money.  The Mafia ain't got sh-t on a police force that basically fines the hell out of its own citizenry.

And why is this happening?  Why are the police and city governments so eager to shakedown their own communities like a bunch of street thug enforcers and their capos?

Let's ask Chad Staton over at the Washington Monthly:
...What exacerbated such practices is the maniacal hold of anti-tax fervor that has trickled down from the federal level to the state and local level. With conservative domination of many statehouses, its clear to any ambitious politician that wants to advance in the Republican Party that their fealty to the ideal of “no new taxes” has to be iron-clad.
This lock-step discipline on taxes has become a principle unto itself. From the beginning, its support has come as a result of racializing social safety net programs. What we see is a feedback loop occurring post “formal” Jim Crow. Black people are seen as “stealing” the hard earned taxes of white people, who then support politicians pledging to never raise taxes. Revenue is still needed to run the government, however, so we see budgets for programs that benefit everyone slashed. At the municipal level, cities target black communities to make up the gap.
This targeting is then justified by the same logic that was used to rail against taxes in the first place, as we see in the report. Several officials cite African Americans’ lack of “personal responsibility” as justification for targeting them for revenue.
As long as America is under the grip of this circular logic, there will be many cities operating the way Ferguson did...

It's a wonderful cycle, isn't it?  The anti-tax crowd pushes hard to cut income and corporate taxes at the federal and state level that could otherwise fund our cities and counties and states.  The county and city governments, forced to find other sources of revenue yet unable to even consider raising their own taxes lest the anti-tax forces throw them out of office, have to rely on fees and fines to cover the costs of running their low-level government services.  As most cities are home to large groups of ethnic minorities, these cities view the minorities not as people but as statistics.  And meanwhile, those same anti-tax agitators (yes, I'm pointing a finger at you, Fox Not-News crowd) rail their base against those ethnic minorities as an ongoing social and economic threat, making it easier to ignore their suffering.

There's another word, phrase actually, that can be used here: Indentured Servitude.  Ferguson PD and other departments like them across the nation use violence and the threat of ruin to force a persecuted group - a poor minority like Blacks or Hispanics - to fork over money.  In order to recoup those losses, those minorities are forced to work harder or place themselves further into debt, only to have the PD show up and take more money.

I wrote awhile back about the police department in Waldo, FL shutting down.  It's a small, dot-on-the-map town in the northeast corner of Alachua County.  If you lived in Gainesville (GO GATORS) and had to drive to Jacksonville, you'd know about this place... because Waldo was one of the most infamous speed traps in American history.  Waldo was so small and so poor a community that the police force couldn't rely on the locals for shakedowns fines, so they went with a ludicrous speed trap instead that netted the unwary drivers from out-of-state or from parts of Florida that hadn't heard of them.  My dad got nailed driving through there once, he even knew about it and even he couldn't avoid getting caught in the speed trap.

I was caught once in a speed trap on I-4 one weekend morning, with a group of co-workers leaving a night shift job.  Our driver was accused of being 20 MPH over the speed limit, but she was driving off an expressway ramp onto the interstate having just left the toll booth and there was no way she had accelerated that quickly to the spot the cops pulled us over.  The Orange County deputy claimed an overhead plane was using some form of radar to track us, which was hard to believe because there were no planes overhead (it was a clear morning sky).  As he issued the ticket he bragged that he "always showed up in court to enforce the ticket" and essentially tried intimidating the entire minivan.  Meanwhile a small division of cop cars were swerving backwards on the interstate to reset themselves to catch more "speedsters," driving more recklessly than any civilians they were hoping to ticket.

We all openly questioned the validity of what those county cops were doing.  I argued the Waldo example, that the county was making some damn ticket quota to grind money out of the local drivers.  "It's worse than that," one of the ladies in the back seat told me.  "The cops are also looking for any undocumented workers they can pull in for immigration arrests.  If they do that, it's like a bonus."

These are just two examples of abusive, money-obsessed police actions I've been aware of my whole life over decades of having lived here in Florida.  How do you think this is like for a Black woman living in Ferguson having to cope with this sh-t five times a week? Via Coates' article:
...In one March 2012 email, the Captain of the Patrol Division reported directly to the City Manager that court collections in February 2012 reached $235,000, and that this was the first month collections ever exceeded $200,000. The Captain noted that “[t]he [court clerk] girls have been swamped all day with a line of people paying off fines today. Since 9:30 this morning there hasn't been less than 5 people waiting in line and for the last three hours 10 to 15 people at all times.” The City Manager enthusiastically reported the Captain’s email to the City Council and congratulated both police department and court staff on their “great work.”
How fares a society when we look at the institutions sworn to uphold the law and protect the citizenry... and see only bullies and shakedown artists?  Out of all the "good cops" we are repeatedly told are out there doing the hard honest work, why are the bad cops who make the Corleones look like saints the ones representing the entire profession?

And this is part of the problems we've been having with asset forfeiture, a program that's been in violation of the very concept of the Fourth Amendment (and even the Eighth and Fourteenth).

Here's the real problem: our cities and counties are tapped out of revenue sources.  Without many states able or eager to raise revenues through a progressive taxation plan - indeed with many of those states eager to cut taxes even further as part of the Far Right agenda of "kill government, let the free market overcharge us" - these cities and counties are going to raid their own communities through abusive tactics.  If we want to end these tactics, we're going to have to as a nation recognize that taxation exists for a reason and that using taxes to pay for public services is a just and fair practice.

Otherwise, the price we're going to pay for all these tax cuts for the rich and powerful will be our communities falling apart. 


Anonymous said...

We simply MUST address the issue of the Pentagon budget. Which now also includes the DHS budget as well.
We have got to stop letting people and the press paint as "not supporting the troops" anyone who asks why the military budget keeps capturing more and more of our taxes, while everything else is being cut. Because they're coming after our SS and Medicare money now, about the only two real benefits our taxes provide anymore.

If we spend every dime to support the troops, while the whole country goes to shit all around us, just what is it we are paying them to defend, anyway? It's obviously not anything for the citizens, all those things are being demonized, marginalized and cut faster than you can say "where'd the funding go?"

So it must be we are paying them to hold it in trust for the rich people who will soon take it all away from us, because being a landowner implies you are a citizen, and they won't tolerate any of the non-rich owning what by divine right should only belong to the parasite class. Or it soon will, in The Fascist Republic of America.

Paul said...

Dear Anonymous:
The blog comments remain moderated because I had a bad experience a few years ago with Chinese spammers (I think they were Chinese, they never answered back to my German). Also, there are the occasional posts that get just the abusive posts that go nowhere. I try to post comments that are relevant or argue a point.