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The Police and Court System: Neoliberal America’s Tax Collectors

Last week Biloxi, Mississippi became the latest city to be sued by the ACLU for running a “modern-day debtors’ prison.” Over the past two months similar suits have been filed by the ACLU and others against the governments of Jackson, Mississippi, Benton County, Washington, New Orleans, Alexander City, Alabama, and Rutherford County, Tennessee.

The criminal justice system has increasingly become the preferred way to fund city governments in the modern neoliberal nightmare that is the United States. The police target the poor for petty infractions that produce fines. When predictably these fines cannot be paid additional fines are piled on top and the person is thrown in prison. In many cases private collection agencies are hired to hound poor people with their increasing mountain of fines collecting money constantly but rarely closing accounts. Milking the poor for city revenue has allowed local governments to provide massive tax breaks for business community and the wealthy. In other words these programs create yet another way to redistribute money from the working class to the capitalist class.

In their investigation of Ferguson, Missouri earlier this year the Department of Justice came to exactly this conclusion: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has comprised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department… and has also shaped its municipal court.” Internal communications between city officials and the police department revealed that they conspired to squeeze the poor in order to fill budget shortfalls. All told nearly a quarter of Ferguson’s revenue comes in the form of fines and Ferguson is not even the most egregious offender in St. Louis County.

A recent investigation by NPR revealed that the practice of leaning on the poor to subsidize local government—effectively subsidizing tax breaks for the wealthy—is hardly unique to Ferguson or Biloxi. All across the country fines are being used to generate revenue. An analysis by NPR revealed that 41 states charged people “room and board” fees for imprisoning them, 43 states charged people for the use of a public defender, 44 states charged fees for probation, and 49 states charged for the use of ankle monitors. Since 2010 every state with the exception of Alaska and North Dakota increased these fees in order to generate more revenue. In a statement regarding the lawsuit filed against Biloxi ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury summed up the situation, “It’s essentially a jailhouse shakedown. Cities across the country, like Biloxi, are scrambling to generate revenue, and they’re doing it off the backs of poor people.”

Because class and race are so closely linked in the United States this focus on squeezing the poor has meant the targeting of black and brown people in particular. Looking through data released to the Department of Justice the New York Times found that in Ferguson, where 67% of the population is black, 85% of vehicle stops and 93% of arrests were of black people. A 2011 report from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights regarding racial profiling again revealed the problem to be widespread. A 2007 study in Arizona revealed black, Latino, and Native American people were far more likely to be stopped for “traffic violations” than white drivers. In West Virginia a 2009 study revealed black drivers were stopped at 1.64 times the rate of white drivers. Similar studies in Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas yielded the same results. Even when researchers focused narrowly on individual counties—such as studies conducted in Sacramento County, California and DuPage County, Illinois—they found that driving while black is a stoppable offense.

And this is hardly a new phenomenon. A 1992 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel revealed that the Volusia County Sheriff’s Department targeted black and brown drivers along I-95 for roadside shakedowns where police used civil-asset forfeiture laws—laws that legalize theft of private property by police—to seize money and property. The Sentinel’s analysis of officer dash cams revealed that “almost 70% of the motorists stopped were black or Hispanic, an enormously disproportionate figure because the vast majority of interstate drivers are white.” The Sheriff’s Department seized nearly $8 million in the scam.

More recently a series by the Washington Post revealed that since 2001 “there have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere without search warrants or indictments… totaling more than $2.5 billion dollars.” Writing under an alias Illinois Deputy Ron Hain explained the purpose of this literal highway robbery stating, “All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.” Internal communications gathered by the Post revealed that police and the city government in Washington DC planned on increasing revenue gained by civil-asset forfeiture in their future budget projections.

For a peek into how these forfeitures work on the ground consider the case of Ron Henderson and Jennifer Boatright Texas natives driving with Boatright’s two young children from Houston to Linden. After stopping at a convenience store in the town of Tenaha they were tailed by police for several miles down the road at which point they were pulled over. The officer claimed that Henderson who is Latino was driving in the left lane for too long, the kind of flimsy excuse used in racial profiling based stops. Upon searching the car the officer seized $6,037, the couple’s entire savings, which they had brought with them to purchase a used car. At the station the county district attorney laid it out for them, they could either give the city their money or she would have them arrested for money laundering and child endangerment. She made it clear that the latter charge would result in Boatright’s children being put in foster care. In tears Boatright purchased her children’s freedom from the town of Tenaha for just over $6,000.

The neoliberal project demands that money be redistributed from the working class to the capitalist class—a case of Robin Hood in reverse. One way to do this is to transfer the burden of funding the state from the wealthy to the poor. Using the massive police state that was developed during the drug war, local governments found innovative new ways to “tax” the poor through the targeted efforts of law enforcement. Because class and race are intertwined in the United States this has increasingly put black and brown people in the crosshairs of the police. And since policing is an inherently violent and racist institution it has increased the opportunity for police officers to murder black and brown people.

This is the final tragedy of this story. In South Carolina Walter Scott was pulled over for driving while black and subsequently murdered by police. In Cincinnati Samuel DuBose was pulled over for what the county prosecutor dubbed a “chicken crap stop” and when DuBose refused to get out of his vehicle the police officer shot him in the head at point blank range killing him instantly. Sandra Bland was pulled over in Waller County, Texas for the crime of having too much melanin in her skin, when she contested the legitimacy of the stop the officer pulled her out of the car slammed her head to the ground and arrested her. Three days later she was found dead in her jail cell lynched by unknown assailants—most suspecting the Waller County police. Countless lesser known victims abound, in Portland Keaton Otis was pulled over by police because, according to the arresting officer, “this guy… kind of looks like he could be a gangster.” Otis only had a minor traffic violation on his record when police officers shot him 23 times killing him.

Police represent the monopoly of violence exercised by the state. If we accept that under capitalism the state in any form is simply as Marx put it the dictatorship of the capitalist class over the working class then the police are the organized violence of the capitalist class. It is only through this lens that the organized extortion of the working class by the police and court system with all of its tragic consequences can be understood. And if we accept this premise then the abolition of the police becomes a revolutionary demand. Abolishing the police stands before us as a historical task much as the abolition of slavery confronted American workers in the mid-19th century. The police cannot be reformed, they can only be abolished.

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Brian Platt is an aerospace machinist who lives in Seattle.

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