Police brutality is the exception rather than the rule. So says conventional wisdom. A white police officer pulls a black motorist over in Watts on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. A backup officer arrives on the scene, as does the driver’s mother who lives nearby and begins to berate her son. Both mother and son protest the arrest, and both are beaten by the police. The incident escalates into demonstrations that last for days and at the end of which there are 34 dead and thousands injured. Fifty years later, the Watts riots are still a symbol for racial discrimination against blacks in the United States.
So it was also one year ago in Ferguson. On Aug. 9, 2014, a white police officer wanted to arrest a black man for walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk. That incident escalated as well, and in the end, Michael Brown was shot dead, and the city suffered days of rioting. Many people were injured. Two reporters were arrested and briefly detained on a charge of obstructing the police. In Ferguson this week, thousands gathered to protest against discrimination and march in Brown’s memory. Again, the incident resulted in violent clashes.
Authorities Declare a State of Emergency in Ferguson
In the past 12 months, unarmed blacks have been the victims of police brutality in cities from Cleveland, Ohio, to Plainview, Texas and on to Baltimore, New York, North Charleston and Cincinnati. These statistics are not recorded systematically. After exhaustive research, The Washington Post has concluded that 40 percent of those unarmed victims killed by police action were black, despite the fact that blacks only make up 6 percent* of the total population. One thing is certain: These can’t be exceptions. Even if conditions have improved for blacks in the U.S. since the Watts riots, there is still an almost institutionalized racism that in the final analysis has led to many fatalities.
Close inspection reveals that many victims had been stopped for ridiculously minor offenses: Michael Brown was illegally walking in the roadway; Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati had a missing front license plate; Sandra Bland in Prairie View had neglected to signal her lane change; Walter Scott in North Carolina was behind in his alimony payments, and his case demonstrates this problem perfectly. After his divorce, he took a minimum wage job just in order to make his alimony payments. He fell behind and was heavily fined for that infraction. With the next missed payment, he was jailed for several weeks and therefore had to forfeit his job. That resulted in his having to take an even lower-paying job after his release from jail. He tried his best, but his best wasn’t good enough. Because he feared even heavier fines and jail time, he tried to flee — if one can even call his limping gait that. The police officer wasn’t being threatened by Scott, but he shot him in the back nonetheless.
Countless communities punish minuscule infractions of the law by imposing extraordinarily high monetary fines, which can grow even larger during their course through the legal system. In San Diego, for example, paying a speeding ticket starts out at $35, to which are added administrative fees for things such as state review of the sentence, district court review, court costs, DNA tests and much more. Final costs for the $35 ticket can exceed $235, and not all socioeconomic groups are equally affected. In San Diego, African-Americans and Latinos make up one-third of the general population but pay nearly two-thirds of the fines.
Commemorating Michael Brown in Ferguson
In Ferguson, the police issued more than 16,000 arrest warrants in 2014 — in a city of 24,000 people. The majority of these resulted in monetary fines paid to government agencies. Such is the case in San Diego and other financially shaky communities. Ferguson’s police department and courts accounted for $1.4 million in income for the city in 2010. This year, that will rise to $3.1 million, one-third of the city’s budget.
From a policy viewpoint, this shows that declining tax revenues — due mainly to Republican neoliberal attitudes about taxation, but partly also to Democrats who share the same attitudes — are being replaced with other ways of getting money out of people’s pockets. Above all — and here’s the real scandal — the money is coming mainly from the pockets of minority citizens, and most of that from blacks. The fact that many of them land in jail and some even lose their lives because they are poor is an accepted cost of doing business.
Police brutality is thus a natural byproduct of systemic inequality and despite conventional wisdom is the rule and not the exception.
*Editor’s note: African-Americans make up 13.2 percent of the U.S. population.