Ferguson: Poster City for Municipal Extortion

by John Reed

March 23, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic may have said it best when he said Ferguson was run by a gang, but Ferguson certainly is not unique. A U.S. Justice Department report painted a vivid picture of the police and courts shaking down low-income, Black residents of Ferguson in order to pad their own pockets and support the agenda of a white power structure. Since then, news reports across TV, newspapers and radio have shown that the practice of targeting poor people for selective ticketing, fines, and fees to support local governments and government contractors is endemic in at least 44 states.

Attorney General Eric Holder comments on the Justice Department’s findings in Ferguson.

Much has been made of the racist root to municipal racketeering in Ferguson, and that racism is real. The Justice Department report shows the racist attitudes of white police and city leaders, and race-based hypocrisy of those same officials, and how their attitudes played into conscious decisions to use the police and courts to legally extort money from African-Americans. But commentary has focused on only the most superficial signs of racial disparity–the preponderance of whites on the police force and in city government–ignoring the fact that many nearby communities run by Black politicians practice the same policies. For even where African-Americans have achieved nominal political control, they still operate with a justice system dominated by wealthy whites, and in an environment where the rules of economic growth and prosperity are set by wealthy whites.

In fact, while racism is very much a root of official racketeering in Ferguson, there is another equally important root: the fiscal crisis of municipal government. A common critique of extortionate policing in Ferguson and elsewhere in St. Louis County is that it is caused by fractured government creating a multiplicity of tiny municipalities unable to support themselves. The proposed solution is consolidation to create fewer and larger jurisdictions.

With its population of more than 23,000 residents, however, Ferguson is not that small, but rather on the larger side of municipal government in the United States. According to the National League of Cities, only 15 percent of municipalities in the United States have 10,000 or more citizens. Fewer than seven percent of municipalities have 25,000 citizens or more. If Ferguson has a fiscal crisis because of its size, then over 90 percent of municipal governments are in fiscal crisis.

The Fiscal Trap and Fatigue

Without a doubt, local governments across the country are in a state of fiscal crisis, and many if not most of those local governments are suburban. As Mitchell Silver, former president of the American Planning Association, has pointed out, in many municipalities the taxes collected on typical single-family, suburban homes are less than the cost of providing basic municipal services to those homes. In the past, suburban living was subsidized by federal grants, taxes on corporate office parks or factories, or shopping malls. In some cases they still are, but in communities like Ferguson, factory closings and tax breaks have eliminated that subsidy.

How municipal leaders respond to that crisis depends partly on the opportunities available to them and partly on their attitudes and prejudices. Many cities have chosen to squeeze money out of those citizens least able to defend themselves. Others have sought to create town centers with denser housing options, which generate more taxes, or retail that will draw regional shoppers and sales taxes. Yet others have sought to create new business parks. Ferguson tried all of the above.

Ferguson is one of the municipalities with land in a large new business park in St. Louis County called NorthPark. There has hundreds of millions of dollars of new construction in NorthPark in the last five years, including the new corporate headquarters for Express Scripts, the largest pharmacy benefit management company in the country and the twentieth largest corporation in the United States. Yet because of the tax breaks intended to encourage development, Ferguson’s budget shows the city has never collected more than $200 a year from development in NorthPark. Total municipal revenue over five years from the development has been less than $1000.

A new $50 million building, only one of the developments at NorthPark, which has generated less than $1000 in income for Ferguson.

Ferguson also has tried to redevelop its historic downtown into a restaurant and entertainment district to attract spending from people working at NorthPark. That, however, costs the city money. Rather than raising taxes to cover the costs of turning their downtown into a playground for corporate managers, city officials decided to make African-American and poor residents carry the burden through extortionate policing.

Although protests continue almost nightly, they’ve mostly dwindled to small groups. There is still widespread support for the aims of protestors, but fatigue has set in. Ferguson has become a magnet for opportunists of every stripe, from the Billy Graham Crusade to corporate whitewashing and the Urban League. Many people now speak about wanting a return to normal, but preferably a better normal.

Not surprisingly, most political activity has shifted into a more “normal” gear to focus on legal reforms and elections. There are calls for folding municipal courts throughout the area into state courts following the precedent set by the Missouri Supreme Court in abolishing Ferguson’s municipal court and turning the city’s municipal cases over to the state circuit court. There are calls for legislation to restrict municipal court fines and stop cities from using them for general revenue. There are Ferguson city council elections in April and a drive on to recall Ferguson’s mayor. And from the right, conservatives are offering their self-styled “right-to-work” legislation as a cure for discrimination and unemployment.

Such activist groups as the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), Missourians Organized for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), and Working Families are focusing on the April elections to increase Black voter turnout to elect more Black representatives to the city council. While such a focus is both expected and necessary–because ceding the electoral ground to more conservative forces ensures their continued dominance–the challenge is to do it in a way that brings the root fiscal and economic issues to the forefront.

The battle for more African-American bodies in city government is a crucial battle, but insufficient to change the way municipal government acts in Ferguson and similar cities. The task is to couple the campaign for more representative government with policies that challenge the corporate stranglehold on municipal finances, and with political education that the fight is long and does not end with an electoral victory, but only begins.

John Reed is an activist in the St. Louis area.