It's Not Just Ferguson

Is it progress if courts just promise to start following the law?
09/12/2017 11:01 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2017
Protestors gather in front of the Ferguson Police Department after the Justice Department released their report exposing corr
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Protestors gather in front of the Ferguson Police Department after the Justice Department released their report exposing corruption in the police department and court system of Ferguson on March 12, 2015.

Every year around the anniversary of the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, journalists and academics ask what has changed since the murder of Mike Brown. They know ArchCity Defenders because we fought thousands of cases in the municipal courts before Mike Brown’s murder, we have filed federal and state class actions challenging the practices in these courts, we have represented protesters arrested for peacefully exercising their constitutional rights, and we published a published a paper detailing the individual and systemic racism in the municipal courts before the Department of Justice issued their investigation into Ferguson’s police and courts.

But they come back and ask us what has changed because they’ve seen politicians in Missouri talk about how they fixed the problems in municipal courts by capping revenue or they’ve heard the Missouri Supreme Court say that municipal courts must now act “strictly in accordance with the principles of due process of law”.

“Isn’t that progress?” they ask.

They see revenue is down in the courts, the long lines they used to see outside the courts are gone, and poor people charged with municipal ordinance violations now have the option to do community service instead of going to jail.

“Isn’t that progress?” they ask.

They read law review articles, they see a new Starbucks go into Ferguson, and they read about the Missouri Supreme Court working with longtime judges, prosecutors, and academics to implement reform in the municipal courts.

“Isn’t that progress?” they ask.

They know the DOJ entered into a consent decree with Ferguson. They know the federal court is monitoring it because once every three months there is a show down at the courthouse where the DOJ, the City attorney, and the $600/hour court appointed monitor get together to say that Ferguson hasn’t met its obligations under the consent decree but it is “making meaningful progress.”

“Isn’t that progress?” they ask.

In response I am often tempted to simply quote Malcolm X, who maybe said it better than anyone ever has in 1964 when asked about America’s progress on racial justice:

No, no, no, no. I will never say that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.

But after working with and learning from people directly impacted by these systems, I now just say ask the people. Ask Keilee Fant, Samantha Jenkins, Nicole Bolden, or Meredith Walker.

HuffPost is hitting the road this fall to interview people about their hopes, dreams, fears ― and what it means to be American today.

Today though, I say ask Fred Watson if there’s been progress. Ask him if these changes matter to him or to any one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have had their lives destroyed by these courts.

Fred exemplifies what many in America want to believe is the American dream. He grew up in the City of St. Louis, went to high school here, and joined the military to fight for his country. He learned a skill there and turned it into a career that paid him well. He came back to his hometown to raise his own family and give back to those who helped him when he grew up here.

In August of 2012, Ferguson police officer Eddie F. Boyd unlawfully arrested Fred and changed the trajectory of his life. In all, Boyd issued 7 citations that day and 2 more after Fred went to Ferguson to complain about Boyd’s behavior. In addition to the illegal acts of Eddie Boyd and the bogus nature of the charges, Fred could not plead guilty to the charges because it would jeopardize his security clearance.

He hired one lawyer to defend him but Ferguson would not change course. Not only did Ferguson refuse to drop the prosecution, it entered a guilty plea on his behalf and applied his bond money to the outstanding charges without Fred’s authorization. He hired another lawyer who explained all of this to his employer but without the security clearance, Fred could not work there anymore. Losing his job meant losing his home. Eddie Boyd’s acts and Ferguson’s prosecution created a domino effect in not only Fred’s life but also his kids’ lives.

Fred fought these charges for five long years. He fought them at great personal risk and through devastating personal loss. He fought these charges through changes lauded as progress in the municipal courts: three judges, two prosecutors, a different city manager, a federal civil rights class action, 365 days of sustained protest, the focus of the entire world on the City of Ferguson, and a DOJ consent decree. Yet after all that, Ferguson kept pursuing charges against Fred Watson.

Yesterday, that all changed. Three years after he lost his $100,000 year job and housing, Ferguson dropped the charges. Unceremoniously and inexplicably, after treating Fred Watson like he was public enemy number one due to his tinted windows, the City of Ferguson decided they would no longer pursue him. Why? Nobody knows. Ferguson prosecutor Lee Goodman simply filed a motion with the court dismissing the case.

Is this a sign of progress? Should we all pat ourselves on the backs because these nonsense charges were dismissed after five years of fighting that cost Fred his job?

What we dare to call progress in St. Louis can only be called progress if you measure change against the worst possible circumstances. We should not applaud because our courts have pledged to follow the law. We should not applaud because our cities have stopped holding poor people and black people for ransom in order to fill their coffers. Don’t throw a parade if you are a judge or a prosecutor who had to be reminded about basic principles of constitutional law.

Revenue is down from $53 million in 2015 to $29 million in 2016 in St. Louis municipal courts. During a hearing of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, committee members were stunned to learn that Clark County, Nevada’s municipal court collected $67 million over a five-year period. If we took the new and improved, massively reduced amount of revenue collected in St. Louis County and projected it over five years, it would be $145 million during the same five-year period. That is twice as much as the amount that stunned people in Las Vegas.

More fundamentally, however, all we have from these courts and towns are promises. They are promises to follow the basic principles of American law. More importantly, they are simply promises from the very same people who have been operating systems that violated the civil rights of poor people and black people in this region for more than 50 years.

While state law and local court rules have been modified, don’t forget that the abuses in the municipal courts were already illegal before Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown. They were prohibited by the United States Constitution, state law, local rules, and the Municipal Court Judges bench book. Further, and perhaps most importantly, they were unethical, immoral, inhumane, and racist.

Regardless, all we have right now are promises to do the following:

  • allow the public to enter the courthouse

  • ask people if they are too poor to pay

  • not to charge illegal fines and fees

  • stop making destitute people pay court costs

  • offer community service

  • take people who are arrested and jailed before a judge within 48 hours

  • not to use the police or jail to raise revenue

  • adequately staff the courts

  • require strict compliance with due process before locking a human being in a cage because she owes the City money.

These reforms merely represent empty promises to follow already well-established law and an acceptance that poor people still deserve to be punished for their poverty.

Should we laud this as progress?

These promises seem especially unimpressive when you consider what had to happen to get courts to make these promises. Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown setting off protests that lasted for more than a year. If people had not gone into the streets, if the QuikTrip had not been set on fire, we would not even be having this conversation today. When people took to the streets they were not just protesting police violence against unarmed black men. They were protesting a system representing the largely uninterrupted collaboration between police, courts, and local governments not only to oppress Black people and poor people but also profit from that collaboration starting with the legalized slavery that built the United States of America and continuing on to Reconstruction era Black codes, followed by the debt peonage that replaced it and the further criminalization of black life and poverty. Whether it is the creation and selective enforcement of trespassing, vagrancy, and panhandling laws or the disparities in traffic stops and mandatory sentencing for drug cases, the legal system has reflected the most pernicious strains of racism in America. In St. Louis, we call them municipal courts. But what they are is poverty producing examples of systemic racism.

On the day Mike Brown was murdered, there were 600,000 active warrants for arrest in a region that only has 1.2 million people, most of them stemming from poverty violations in municipal courts. Poor people and black people were literally killing themselves because they could not get out of jail.

People protested police killings but they also protested 91 cities with 81 courts and 67 police departments. They protested Ferguson’s 32,000 warrants with only 21,000 people. They protested raising 2.6 million dollars in fines and fees on the backs of the poor.

They also protested long lines to pay fines from racial profiling. They protested being locked in a cage because they were too poor to make a payment. They protested St. Ann collecting $3 million dollars from its court, Florissant collecting $2 million, and pretending this was about public safety instead of race and class.

They protested being jailed without access to medication. They fought back against being locked in a cage without blankets, not being given a shower, being forced to share a toilet and strip naked to use it. Black women with children protested being stolen from their kids because they didn’t have $350 in cash.

While the protests continued, ArchCity Defenders published studies and along with co-counsel from SLU Law Legal Clinics, Alec Karakatsanis, Arnold & Porter, Paul Weiss, Campbell Law, Dowd & Dowd, White & Case, the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed federal and state class actions against more than 30 cities to end illegal practices in municipal courts while the rest of the St. Louis legal community kept counting the money they made off of the backs of the poor. ArchCity Defenders published a study documenting the systemic abuses in the municipal courts in August of 2014. We filed a federal class action lawsuit against the City of Ferguson for illegally jailing poor people and black people solely because of their poverty. The DOJ published its findings in March of 2015 and entered into a consent decree with Ferguson. Even though the Ferguson Commission included calls to action concerning the municipal courts, the Missouri Supreme Court appointed a working group to study municipal courts. Even though the people called for police reforms, the Missouri Senate passed Senate Bill 5 capping revenue and ordering the end to many unlawful practices in municipal courts.

Throughout it all, people like Keilee Fant and Samantha Jenkins denounced the systemic abuses of municipal courts. Organizers like Kayla Reed, Kennard Williams, and Julia Ho testified at hearings about the racist, predatory police and court practices. Elite universities and law schools across the country dedicated countless conferences to the horrors of municipal courts, cash bail, illegal fines and fees, and police misconduct.

Given the incredible amount of damage these low-level, superfluous pieces of the criminal legal system have subjected people to, why are we still listening to their promises? How much more data, how many more stories, and how much more testimony do we need before we have the courage to call for the wholesale elimination of courts that prosecute status violations in low-income communities of color that typically stem from poverty as if they were actual crimes?

Stay tuned for what’s next. Follow ArchCity Defenders on social media and online at www.archcitydefenders.org

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