50 Years Later: The Long March From Selma To Ferguson

Terrance Heath

On Wednesday, nearly fifty years after the “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery, the Department of Justice released a damning report of its investigation of the police department and municipal court system in Ferguson, Missouri. The Department of Justice (DOJ) report on Ferguson uncovers both the same racism the Selma marchers stood against, and the same economic consequences.

When riots ensued in Ferguson, after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and again after the grand jury’s failure to indict officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, the unrest was sometimes attributed to “outside agitators.” The DOJ report reveals a city government, police department, and municipal court system driven by racial bias, and that preyed upon Ferguson’s African-American population. The conditions in Ferguson, detailed in the report, suggest that the riots had deep roots in the African-American community’s anger at a system so racist that many people who hadn’t lived with it hardly believed it could exist today. It sounded like something from another era.

The city raises a significant part of its annual revenue through fines and court fees primarily levied against African-American residents. This year, the city expects to raise $13.36 million, $3.09 million of which will come from fines and fees. According to the DOJ report, the city government’s focus on raising revenues through increasing payments of fines and fees turned the police department into a collection agency, and the municipal court into “shakedown central,” where the Fourth Amendment’s due process and “equal protection” guarantees were ignored.

In the Ferguson police department, evaluations and promotions depended upon “productivity.” Officers saw African-Americans as both potential offenders, and sources of revenue. Despite accounting for 67 percent of the city’s population, African-Americans accounted for:

  • 85 percent of traffic stops,
  • 90 percent of citations,
  • 93 percent of arrests,
  • 88 percent of cases where police used force,
  • 95 percent of all “manner of walking in roadway” charges (aka, “Walking While Black”), and
  • 100 percent of the police canine attacks reviewed by the DOJ.

In 2013, Ferguson’s municipal courts issued 9,000 arrest warrants for minor infractions, for which jail time is usually considered too harsh. The courts issued arrest warrants for people who failed to pay fines on time, as well as for failing to appear in court. Courts tacked on extra fines and fees missed payments and appearances, creating a vicious cycle in which minor infractions resulted in massive debts, jail time for inability to pay, and loss of employment and/or housing.

The DOJ uncovered racist emails between city officials. One suggested that Barack Obama wouldn’t last long in office because, “What black man holds a steady job for four years?” Another joked about an African-American woman who received a $5,000 check from “Crimestoppers” for terminating her pregnancy.

City officials knew Ferguson’s system was harming African-Americans. In another email, one official noted the lack of a community service option, which would “keep those people who simply don’t have the money to pay their fines from constantly being arrested and going to jail, only to be released and do it all over again.” Other emails revealed a double standard, as officials claimed that African-Americans who couldn’t pay their fines lacked “personal responsibility,” even as they wrote-off tickets for themselves, their relatives, and their friends.

To read the DOJ report is to step back in time fifty years, to the era when government policies helped turn Ferguson into a city once ranked as the 9th most segregated in the country; a city where one-fourth of the population, and 28 percent of the African-American population, lives in poverty; a city that relies on fines and court fees paid by struggling African-Americans for one-fifth of its revenues.

It’s not just Ferguson. In November, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute explained how, “explicit intent of federal state, and local governments to create racially segregated metropolises.”

As protesters chanted in the streets of Ferguson last fall, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell. The conditions detailed in the DOJ report on Ferguson exist in cities across the country. Last month, three groups filed joint lawsuits against Ferguson and nearby Jennings, charging the cities with creating modern-day debtor prisons filled mostly with African-Americans. Last year, the DOJ investigated similar abuses in the Newark, New Jersey, police department. An NPR investigative series revealed that all 50 states tack on extra fines and fees, and that poor people who struggle to pay fees inflated by those penalties are sent to jail.

This weekend, Americans will celebrate the progress made on civil rights, in the 50 years since the march from Selma to Montgomery. The DOJ report on Ferguson, and similar abuses occurring in many other cities, is a sober reminder that the long march towards equality and “justice for all” is far from over.

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