From Watts to Ferguson


Rick Perlstein in In These Times (Scott Olsen/Getty Images):

In Ferguson, police racism is built in, institutionalized in the town’s business model of using revenue from fines to pay its bills (and in the process, turning some residents into unemployable criminals). The encounter with Ferguson’s fierce justice system, if you are black, works like this: You have an overwhelming chance of being cited or arrested by police, for doing little or nothing that is wrong. A report from the legal group ArchCity Defenders found that in 2013, “the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about three warrants and 1.5 cases per household,” an incredibly high rate. Then you are likely to face a fine you cannot afford to pay—ArchCity Defenders calculates that the average fine is $275—or a summons to a court that is rigged against you showing up on time. “The bench routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late to receive an additional charge for failure to appear,” reads the report. Thus, you might end up in jail—with a criminal record that frequently bars employment.

That Kafkaesque sense of futility explains some of the frustration that boiled over in Ferguson with the shooting of Michael Brown. But that’s only one half of it. The other part is political.

Ferguson’s six-person city council has only one black member. It’s been much discussed that the dearth of African-American political representation has been helped along by what has been described as the apathy of black voters there, only 1.78 percent of whom turned out from one of the city’s black townships in a recent municipal election. But reporters on the ground in Ferguson—and possibly the Justice Department—should be looking at whether the powers that be have been practicing the sort of dark arts of malapportionment that disenfranchised other municipalities with sizable black populations in the past. Boston, for example, was able to defy a 1963 state law demanding school integration for nearly a decade by electing its school board “at large,” instead of by district. And prior to its 1967 riot, Newark’s Mayor Hugh Addonizio practiced a form of “urban renewal” that had a political twist: By building high-rises downtown, he was able to break up geographic concentrations of blacks, to ensure they would have no political power base.

Black Fergusonians have shown that they will vote when they have something to vote for and know that their vote will count. Seventy-six percent of them turned out in November 2012, when Missouri was a key swing state for Barack Obama’s reelection. When it comes to local elections, they might just be making the rational decision that a hike to the polls is a waste of time. Even that one black council member, Dwayne James, has baffled observers by remaining mum in the face of the single issue now galvanizing his constituency, Michael Brown’s killing. He’s said only, “Our city charter provides that our mayor is the spokesperson for the city.”

More here.