Radley Balko finally published the story he was working on in St. Louis County. It’s an amazing piece of work, detailing numerous examples of the abusive relationship between the suburban communities and their residents.
When the officer showed up, Bolden filled with dread.
“He was really nice and polite at first,” Bolden says. “But once he ran my name, he got real mean with me. He told me I was going to jail. I had my 3-year-old and my one-and-a-half-year-old with me. I asked him about my kids. He said I had better find someone to come and get them, because he was taking me in.” The Florissant officer arrested and cuffed Bolden in front of her children. Her kids remained with another officer until Bolden’s mother and sister could come pick them up.
The officer found that Bolden had four arrest warrants in three separate jurisdictions: the towns of Florissant and Hazelwood in St. Louis County and the town of Foristell in St. Charles County. All of the warrants were for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Bolden hadn’t appeared in court because she didn’t have the money. A couple of those fines were for speeding, one was for failure to wear her seatbelt and most of the rest were for what defense attorneys in the St. Louis area have come to call “poverty violations” — driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration and a failure to provide proof of insurance.
It may sound like this woman is just a scofflaw — four warrants, for Pete’s sake — but as Radley reveals, the small towns that make up suburban St. Louis County are operated in a way that deliberately creates that kind of situation. Police are constantly on the lookout for new reasons to issue citations, and the system is rigged to encourage mistakes, leading to more citations and more warrants. Some towns have more outstanding warrants than they have citizens. All in the interest of earning money from fines.
Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations.
Radley tells a number of stories of how this system treats the residents. None of the stories are too horrible — people spend a few weeks in jail at the worst — but when multiplied by tens of thousands of warrants resulting from probably a couple of hundred thousand traffic tickets and minor violations, it’s an ugly story. It’s not quite the encomienda used to essentially enslave the indigenous people of South America, but Radley still paints a picture of an extractive economy in which productive people, mostly black, are preyed upon by an elite ruling caste consisting of city managers, police, lawyers, and judges.
When the protests first started in Ferguson after the shooting death of Michael Brown, a lot of people (including me) wondered why this particular death was the one that triggered a response. Why did the residents of Ferguson choose this moment to protest the police? Why were they angry enough to take to the streets this time? Why all the speeches and national attention?
I still don’t have an answer to those questions, but in light of Radley Balko’s story about what’s going on in St. Louis county, I think a better question is why would the people of Ferguson ever stop protesting? Given what’s been going on, they have every right to be very angry.
Look, I don’t want to be accused of moral relativism here. Of course the looting and arson were crimes. But those crimes were nothing compared to scale of outright thievery masquerading as government that the people of St. Louis County have been putting up with for years. There may have been a few dozen criminals among the protesters, but there are hundreds of criminals wearing badges and sitting in government offices.