Friday, March 6, 2015

Michelle Alexander on Mass Incarceration, Slavery, the History of Jim Crow Apartheid in the U.S. and the Rise of the New Jim Crow in the 21st Century


Michelle Alexander Speaks Out on “The New Jim Crow"


At New York’s Union Theological Seminary Wednesday evening, legal scholar and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander, author of the best selling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, spoke to a capacity crowd and invited everyone there “to explore the meaning of race and justice at a particularly critical moment in our nation’s history, a time when it seems as though we may be once again at a fork in the road.”

She began, “A nation founded with lofty ideals of freedom and equality but extending those ideals to wealthy white men only is the founding paradox of our nation to this day… Even now, as a black man sits in the Oval Office. For years now I have been obsessed with this paradox — not its theoretical existence but its concrete manifestation in the brutal system of mass incarceration, a penal system unlike anything the world has ever seen.”

Alexander described a society in which one third of black American men spend time behind bars, a figure that jumps to 60 percent for those without a high school diploma. They experience “legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives… Once branded a criminal or felon you are ushered into a parallel social universe in which the basic civil and human rights that apply to others no longer apply to you.”
Alexander’s appearance, hosted by Union’s Institute for Women, Religion and Globalization was the Fifth Annual Judith Davidson Moyers Women of Spirit Lecture, a public forum to discuss the most pressing global issues faced by present day women leaders of faith — issues including environmental justice, poverty, war and women’s education.

Judith Davidson Moyers is CEO of Public Affairs Television.

Michelle Alexander on The New Jim Crow, at Union Theological Seminary

March 4, 2015


Michelle Alexander:  Roots of Today's Mass Incarceration Crisis Date to Slavery, Jim Crow

Thursday, 05 March 2015 
By Amy Goodman and Juan González, Democracy Now!

Video Interview:

As the Justice Department sheds new light on the racist criminal justice system in Ferguson, legal scholar Michelle Alexander looks at the historical roots of what she describes as "the new Jim Crow." From mass incarceration to police killings to the drug war, Alexander explores how the crisis is a nationwide issue facing communities of color. "Today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped, yet again, in a criminal justice system which are treating them like commodities, like people who are easily disposable," Alexander says. "We are not on the right path. … It’s not about making minor reforms and plodding along in the same direction. No, its about mustering the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are as America, reckon with our racial history as well as our present, and build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all."


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Michelle Alexander. Her book is called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It actually came out a few years ago, but it has taken this country by storm. San Francisco Chronicle called it "the bible of a social movement"; Cornel West, "an instant classic." Even Forbes magazine called it "devastating." And The New York Review of Books said, "Alexander deserves to be compared to Du Bois in her ability to distill and lay out as mighty human drama a complex argument and history." This is a transformative book. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, part of the Justice Department’s investigation in Ferguson focused on traffic stops and found African Americans, who account for about two-thirds of the city’s population, made up 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests and 88 percent of cases in which police used force. African-American drivers were twice as likely as whites to be searched, but were less likely to be found with drugs or guns than whites. And in all 14 incidents in which a police dog bit the suspect and the person’s race is known, the person bitten was African-American. The findings reinforce details of a class-action lawsuit filed by Ferguson residents, who accuse local officials of creating a "modern debtors’ prison scheme" that targets African Americans with arrest and fines, and then locks them up when they can’t pay. Here on Democracy Now!, we spoke with Herbert Nelson Jr., a plaintiff in the lawsuit, who has been arrested multiple times. He was asked how his experience made him feel about the police.
HERBERT NELSON JR.: That’s a good question, because the last time I was arrested, the officer said I shouldn’t be afraid of officers. But that same officer, he actually—he was like, "Yes!" He was so excited to arrest me. And that alone made me afraid, because a lot of my friends and family won’t even come to see me because I live in Jennings. They’re scared to come into the county of North St. Louis, North County St. Louis, because of the police and how quick they are to arrest you over a minor, minor, minor traffic ticket.
AARON MATÉ: Herbert, when we were there, there was some hope among some residents that we spoke to that things might get better in the aftermath of these protests, of this organizing in Ferguson and the surrounding areas. Has anything improved in the six months since Michael Brown was killed?
HERBERT NELSON JR.: Far as the policing, no, it hasn’t. It hasn’t. And I wouldn’t honestly say it improved. No, actually, it began—it got worse, because it seems like the crime has went up, and the police are really—the jails are just running in an out, like they’re way more packed than they were before Mike Brown was shot. The jails are way more packed. So it hasn’t improved at all.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Herbert Nelson Jr., who is a plaintiff in this lawsuit, who’s been arrested multiple times. He was sitting next to his sister, Allison. One of her arrests—it’s their mother who comes constantly to the jail to give money. One of her arrests was being in the car with a suspended license. The problem was she was in her backyard in a parked car just sitting inside. And for that, she was taken away. So, Michelle Alexander, broaden this story, from arrests to what they’re calling "modern-day debtors’ prisons."

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, you know, I think this is part of the story that many people are unaware of, the ways in which poor people, particularly poor folks of color, are targeted by our criminal justice system, arrested for extremely minor offenses, the very sorts of crimes that occur with equal frequency in middle-class communities or on college campuses but go largely ignored—targeted, arrested or cited, and then saddled with fines and fees that are nearly impossible for them to pay back. Then warrants are issued for their arrest, for failure to appear in court or to pay back their fees or fines in a timely manner, leading them into a system from which they have little hope of ever truly escaping.

And, you know, we can look back in history and see this is not the first time we’ve done something like this. Slavery by Another Name is an important book that I think all Americans should read, about how, following the end of slavery, a new system of racial and social control was born, known as "convict leasing." You know, after the end of slavery, African-American men were arrested in mass, and they were arrested for extremely minor crimes like loitering, standing around, vagrancy or the equivalent of jaywalking—arrested and then sent to prison and then leased to plantations. And the idea was they were supposed to earn their freedom, but they could never pay back the plantation owners or the corporations the costs of their clothing and shelter, and so they were effectively re-enslaved, you know, sometimes for the rest of their lives. And today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped yet again in a criminal justice system, you know, which are treating them like commodities and like people who are easily disposable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact of this not only for those who, let’s say, are jailed and then lose their voting rights for a period of time, but even for those who are arrested and then this stays on their record, and then the issue of being able to get a job with your arrest record, available to employers now with databases being able to locate any kind of information—the impact of this on the ability of African Americans and other people of color to be able to have some kind of social mobility and move forward?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s absolutely right. You know, I hear people often say, "Oh, come on, it’s just a misdemeanor. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not like they have a felony." Well, today, a misdemeanor can show up on your record, through a few keystrokes on the computer by an employer, and it can be the reason that you’re denied an opportunity to work. It can also be the reason you’re denied access to housing. Public housing officials are free to discriminate against you on the basis of criminal records, including arrest records. And so, you know, what you find is that even for these extremely minor offenses, people find themselves trapped in a permanent second-class status and struggling to survive. So I think it’s critically important that we not dismiss these kinds of charges that are being brought against folks as being minor and shrug them off. No, they can actually alter the course of one’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle, I was wondering if you can read the first paragraph of your book. This is a stunning story that goes back to slavery that I think is so important, that leads us right into this weekend, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, people marching 50 years ago for voting rights, but where we are today, 50 years later.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: "Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

AMY GOODMAN: So, where are we today, 50 years after Selma, not to mention how many years after slavery?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, I think it’s common today for people to say, particularly on Martin Luther King Day, you know, that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go. And, you know, I think the events of recent months, as well as the astonishing rates of incarceration and the existence of this permanent second-class status that entraps millions, shows us that, no, we’re not on the right path. It’s not a matter of having a long, long way to go. We’ve taken a U-turn and are off course entirely. You know, that’s why I say over and over again it’s not about, you know, making minor reforms and plodding along in the same direction. No, it’s about mustering in the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are as America, reckon with our racial history as well as our present, and build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all, no matter who we are, where we came from or what we may have done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, we have a Supreme Court that only recently eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in a decision. I’m wondering your reaction when you heard that decision.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think it’s a reflection of where we are at this particular moment. You know, I believe the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as a very large swath of the American population, really wants to imagine that race and racial inequality is something we don’t have to think about anymore, don’t have to worry about anymore. Colorblindness in the United States today means being blind to racial inequality, does not mean being blind to race itself. And that’s the moment we’re in. And the question is: How do we respond? And so, I am thrilled by the protests that we’ve seen, the creative, courageous, nonviolent protests, but now the question is: How do we transition from protest politics to long-term movement building?

AMY GOODMAN: You know, just recently John Legend and rapper Common won the Oscar for best original song for "Glory," which was featured in the movie Selma. Legend paid tribute to protesters from the civil rights era to today.
JOHN LEGEND: Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.
JOHN LEGEND: We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was John Legend standing next to Common. They both won the Oscar for best song in Selma. Of course, Selma, though it was nominated for best film, it didn’t win. And Ava DuVernay, who was hailed as the director of this film, a young African-American woman, was not nominated for best director. Neither was David Oyelowo for best actor. In fact, there were no black actors or directors who were nominated this year, leading to that hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. But after John Legend spoke, many commentators said he was actually citing your work, Michelle Alexander. If you can talk about the significance of this? I mean, tens of millions of people saw this. Of course, culture is so important in getting out information.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, I was just so proud of John Legend for using his moment on that stage to speak to the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States and to raise awareness of the toll that it has taken on the African-American community. And I am hopeful that more celebrities and people who have a big microphone will follow his lead and begin speaking up and speaking out, because, you know, we are not going to be able to engage in this movement building if we remain asleep and in denial about its existence, because, you know, unlike the old Jim Crow, there are no signs alerting us to the existence of this new caste system. And if you’re not directly impacted, if you yourself have not been branded a felon or are cycling in and out of prison or forced to check the box on employment applications, if this doesn’t actually affect you directly, you can go your whole life and have no idea what is really going on. And so, if we are going to build this movement, we’re going to have to pull back the curtain, speak courageous truths, like John Legend did, and help to inspire a much broader awakening, so that the work of real movement building can get underway.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another tragic shooting and the aftermath of that shooting, the Tamir Rice shooting, the 12-year-old boy who was shot by police, holding a toy gun. And the mayor of Cleveland recently apologized because the attorneys for the city of Cleveland argued in a legal brief that Tamir was responsible for his own death.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And just wondering again about the way that the legal system convolutes its own reasoning just to be able to come up with justifications for what happens.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I thought, you know, what transpired there, where, in papers filed in court, they blame that boy for the fact that the police showed up and killed him within two seconds of their arrival, and said it was his fault, that somehow he had brought this police response upon him, in so many ways, that is an illustration of the larger system of mass incarceration, where those who are targeted and who find themselves behind bars are blamed, and said, "Well, it’s your fault. You brought all of this on yourself." And, in fact, you know, over the last few decades, I think many in the African-American community have been seduced by the argument that, well, this is all our fault. Somehow we’ve brought mass incarceration upon ourselves. If only we would pull up our pants or stay in school or not experiment with drugs, if only somehow we could be perfect and never make a mistake, that none of this would be happening. But, of course, you know, young white kids who make mistakes, commit misdemeanors and jaywalking and smoke weed, they are able to go off to college if they’re middle-class. But if you’re poor or you live in the hood, the kinds of mistakes that people of all colors and classes make actually cost them their lives. And yet, then we turn around and blame them and say, "This is all your fault."

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: John Legend and Common singing "Glory," the Oscar-winning song from the film Selma. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re with Michelle Alexander, professor of law at Ohio State University in Columbus. She’s a civil rights advocate. She’s author of the best-selling book, [The New] Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle, talk about your own transformation. And then let’s talk about what you feel needs to change mass incarceration in this country. But what happened to you?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Oh, yes, what happened to me? You know, when I began working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate, I understood, I got, that our criminal justice system was biased in many ways, and I assumed that it was biased just like every institution in our society is infected, to some degree or another, with conscious or unconscious bias and stereotyping. And so I thought, well, it’s my job just to join with other advocates and lawyers to root out racial bias whenever, wherever it might rear its ugly head in the criminal justice system. And it really wasn’t, you know, until after years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison, you know, "re-enter," only to have one closed door in their face after another, that I had a series of experiences that really began my own awakening. And I came to see that our criminal justice system isn’t just another institution in our society infected with racial bias, but, you know, really a different beast entirely.

And, you know, at that time, there were activists who were saying that. You know, at the beginning of the book, I talk about how I saw posted on a telephone pole a sign that said, "the drug war is the new Jim Crow," and I just dismissed that as nonsense. You know, yeah, our system is biased, but you can’t compare it to Jim Crow or slavery. You know, that’s absurd. But I had a number of experiences that began to open my eyes. And one of them included a young man who came to me with a story of being framed by the police and drugs being planted on him, and I didn’t believe him. And it was only after I came to see that he was telling the truth about vast corruption that was happening in the Oakland Police Department, and that my own biases and stereotypes and my own class privilege had prevented me from hearing him, acknowledging the truth and seeing the reality of what was hidden in plain sight. And that’s really what began my journey of doing an enormous amount of research and trying to listen much more carefully to the stories of those cycling in and out of prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re going through, here in New York City right now, this startling number of cases that are now being reviewed, and especially in Brooklyn, that were at the height of the crack epidemic, and scores of people who were sentenced to prison with false testimony, with police coercion witnesses, and now, one after another, people are being released after spending years in prison because it was all false testimony that was put together by police officers against African Americans and Latinos. It’s become a huge scandal. But it’s precisely that the people could not believe that the system was this corrupt—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that it was doing this on a massive scale.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s exactly right. No, who do we believe? Who do we listen to? Who do we hear from? Who do we believe? You know, and over the last few decades, we’ve heard from the police, we’ve heard from politicians, we’ve heard from prosecutors. But very rarely do we hear the stories, you know, in the media, of the people who have been targeted and demonized. And even when we do, how often do we disbelieve them and think, "Oh, it must be exaggeration. It must be over the top"? But what we’ve seen with the Justice Department report, what we see with the overwhelming evidence that I tried to put in my book, is that we need to pay a lot more attention to the stories and the lived experiences of people who have been trapped in the system of mass incarceration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another aspect of mass incarceration that has obviously been mushrooming in recent years. About 50 percent of all federal prosecutions these days are actually immigration-related prosecutions.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’re having the growth of these private prisons and the mass incarceration of immigrants. Congress, just in attempting to fund Homeland Security, is insisting that everybody who comes in from Central America be jailed while—if they’re caught coming across the border. This whole issue of this expansion of mass incarceration to the immigrant and largely Latino population in the country?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s exactly right. You know, what we see is that this system of mass incarceration, in order to continue to grow, is adapting and is looking for new populations to bring under its control. And particularly the profit motive in the private prison industry is helping to drive much of that impulse. And so, when we talk about ending mass incarceration, we must, in the same breath, talk about ending mass deportation and the criminalization of immigrant communities in the United States today. You know, we see that the same racially divisive politics that gave rise to the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement, those same racially divisive politics are now taking aim at immigrant communities and helping to ensure the continued expansion of the prison-industrial complex, you know, by including immigrants under its control.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, came out under President Obama. What is your assessment? Has President Obama, being the first African-American president, made any difference? Has it made things better? When it comes to the whole issue of mass incarceration, have things gotten worse?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It’s better and worse. It’s better and worse, you know. I mean, there are—I think having an African-American president has been a beautiful, wonderful thing in many ways. I know that I’m grateful that my children know a world where a black man can be president of the United States. It makes a difference to them to know that that’s possible, that such a thing is possible. But I think there’s also been real difficulties as a result of his presidency. One of them is the reluctance, I think, among African Americans to be as courageous in their criticism and their critique of the drug war and mass incarceration and, you know, many of the policies that we see continuing under the Obama administration than they might otherwise be.

You know, the reality is that the rhetoric has changed in the Obama administration, but when you take a look at the policies, they’ve been much, much slower to change. So, you know, under the Obama administration, we’ve heard consecutive drugs czars say that we should no longer be at war with our own people, you know, saying we don’t like the language of the drug war. But then when you look at the drug war budget, basically the same ratio of dollars is invested in enforcement, as opposed to treatment and prevention, as under the Bush administrations and earlier administrations. And so, you know, I think that it’s very tempting to imagine that more progress has been achieved when there is an African American in the White House and a black attorney general saying all the right things, but I think we have to not be so easily seduced by the imagery and insist upon the kind of large-scale policy reform and structural reform and in end to the actual war on drugs, not the language.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in February, FBI Director James Comey called for police nationwide to confront what he said is unconscious racial bias in the wake of a spate of killings of unarmed African Americans. In the speech, Comey said the nation’s endemic racism must be addressed.
JAMES COMEY: Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. … Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of goodwill working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel. A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible, and maybe even rational by some lights. … We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was FBI Director James Comey talking about unconscious bias, not institutionalized use of racial discrimination. But I’m wondering your reaction to his pretty unusual comments for an FBI director.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, I have to applaud him for acknowledging that, you know, there is both conscious and unconscious bias that pervades law enforcement today. You know, he tends to attribute it to police officers being in constant contact with black and brown criminals, and that that jades them. I think that that—you know, that that tells only a very small part of the larger story. The reality is we have been at war with certain communities. Our elected officials declared wars on crime and wars on drugs, which really were not wars on either of those things, but were wars on communities defined by race and class. And that war mentality has infected law enforcement in ways that, you know, seem nearly irreparable. And so, I think it’s important for us to recognize that these biases and stereotypes that exist within law enforcement isn’t simply a product of having to deal with a lot of bad guys on the streets, but it’s the product of a war mentality that has been adopted and institutionalized throughout law enforcement agencies in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to happen? You talk about a movement that has to happen. But also, as you’ve looked particularly at mass incarceration, what has to change?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think a number of things have to change. You know, there’s a whole laundry list of reforms that need to be adopted. But I think we really need to come from the perspective not how do we tinker with this thing or tweak it, but what would a truly just system look like? Would we criminalize the simple possession of drugs for personal use? Would we do that? Or would we treat drug use and drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime? Would we follow the lead of a country like Portugal, which has decriminalized all drugs across the board and stopped caging people who may be in the need of help, and investing in drug treatment and education and support for the communities from which they come? So, we need to end the war on drugs and the war mentality that we have, which means ending zero-tolerance policies. It means transforming our criminal justice system from one that is purely punitive to one that is based on principles of restorative and transformative justice, you know, systems that take seriously the interests of the victim, the offender and the community as a whole. We need to abolish all of the laws that authorize legal discrimination against people who have criminal records, legal discrimination that denies them basic human rights—to work, to shelter, to education, to food. You know, we have to decriminalize—


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes—immigration. We have to grant the right to vote not just to people upon release from prison. You know, so I have trouble with the framing of this as being a movement to end disenfranchisement laws, and say we should be allowing people in prison to vote, like many other Western democracies do. There are often voting drives within prisons in other Western democracies. And here in the United States, we deny people the right to vote not only when they’re in prison, but often when they’re out, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. So, there is so much work to be done in transitioning from a war mentality to a mentality where we extend care, compassion and concern to poor people and people of color, and not respond with a purely punitive impulse.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michelle Alexander, we thank you so much for being with us. The conversation continues. Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She is a law professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. She’ll be speaking tonight at Union Theological Seminary, the Judith Moyers lecture, and on Friday night at the Columbia University conference, "Beyond the Bars: Transforming (In)Justice."

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Juan González

Juan González co-host's Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. González has been a professional journalist for more than 30 years and a staff columnist at the New York Daily News since 1987. He is a two-time recipient of the George Polk Award.

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,100 public television and radio stations worldwide. Time Magazine named Democracy Now! its "Pick of the Podcasts," along with NBC's Meet the Press.
Juan González co-host's Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. González has been a professional journalist for more than 30 years and a staff columnist at the New York Daily News since 1987. He is a two-time recipient of the George Polk Award.

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,100 public television and radio stations worldwide. Time Magazine named Democracy Now! its "Pick of the Podcasts," along with NBC's Meet the Press.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Zoe Carpenter On How Ferguson, Missouri, Uses Cops and the Courts to Prey on Its Residents

How Ferguson, Missouri, Uses Cops and the Courts to Prey on Its Residents
by Zoë Carpenter
March 4, 2015
The Nation
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson speaks during a news conference at the police headquarters on August 13, 2014. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

More than seven years ago, a black woman parked her car illegally in Ferguson, Missouri. She received two tickets and a $151 fine. The woman, sometimes homeless, struggled to pay it off, and over the next several years she was slapped with seven “Failure to Appear” citations for missing payments and court dates. Each of those citations added to the debt she owed the city and resulted in an arrest warrant. By 2014, she’d been arrested twice, spent nearly a week in jail, and had paid the city $550. As of December, she still owed $541.

“Inexplicable,” is how Attorney General Eric Holder summed up her story at a press conference on Wednesday, at which he unveiled the Department of Justice’s long-anticipated report on the Ferguson police department and municipal court. The report affirms what residents have long said: that officers routinely profile citizens based on their race and violate their constitutional rights. Critically, the report addresses the roots of the police force’s discriminatory practices. Not simply the fault of racist cops, the DoJ asserts, they stem from the way the city preys on residents financially, relying on the fines that accompany even minor offenses to balance its budget.

The report traces the pattern of racial bias from traffic stops to arrests to the courtroom and, finally, to a cycle of incarceration and indebtedness. Black residents make up about 67 percent of the Ferguson population. According to the DoJ, they experienced 85 percent of all traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 88 percent of incidents in which an officer used force, and 93 percent of all arrests. They received almost all of the citations for petty crimes like jaywalking. Black drivers were twice as likely to have their cars searched as whites, yet significantly less likely to actually have drugs or other contraband. Of the people who spent two or more days in in the city jail, 95 percent were black.

Overt, grotesque racism among city officials underlies these statistics. The report includes a handful of e-mails between police and municipal court officials that contain derogatory language, such as a November 2008 message stating that President Obama would not be in office long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another, from 2011, contained a photo of a group of women dancing topless and “apparently in Africa” with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”

But a subtler, systemic pressure also encourages over-policing in Ferguson: the way that the city relies on the fines levied on violators to fund itself. “Officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” states the report. This year the city expects to raise $3.09 million of projected $13.26 in revenue from fines and fees, which it levies wherever possible. An unmowed lawn, for instance, costs Ferguson residents between $77 and $102, though in some other cities it’s a $5 offense.

Not surprisingly, DoJ found that the city “exhorts” police to maximize revenue via stops, citations, and arrests, and in some cases punishes them for failing to meet targets. In 2010, for example, Ferguson’s finance director wrote to the police chief that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will hard to significant raise collections next year…. it’s not an insignificant issue.” Each unpaid fine generates other fees and often arrest warrants; in effect, it is poverty that’s punished.

Hunger for revenue influences how officers act, resulting in excessive uses of force—with Tasers and dogs—,violations of free speech and unreasonable stops or arrests, according to the DoJ. It has also made the police a “collection agency” for the municipal court, and in turn transformed the courtroom into a shakedown site, where the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment are abandoned, particularly in cases involving black residents. The court “primarily” uses its authority to “advance the City’s financial interest,” not to advance justice, the DoJ found. The police, meanwhile, use arrest warrants not to protect public safety but as the primary means of collecting outstanding fines.

None of this is particularly surprising to people who’ve come into contact with the criminal-justice system in the St. Louis region. “Municipal courts in this area have always been revenue producers,” said Brendan Roediger, who directs a legal clinic at the St. Louis University School of Law. “It means that bad policing pays off.” Most of the roughly ninety municipalities in St. Louis County have their own courts, which operate part-time and, Roediger says, function much like Ferguson’s: for the purpose of balancing budgets. The town of St Ann, just a few miles east of Ferguson, lost its shopping mall in 2010, and the associated tax dollars. Since then revenue from citations has shot up, from $500,000 to $3.5 million from traffic tickets and fines alone, according to one estimate.

According to Radley Balko of The Washington Post, some towns in St. Louis County collect 40 percent or more of their revenue from fines levied by their municipal courts for petty violations. The town of Bel-Ridge (population 2,700, and more than 80 percent black), for example, was projected to collect an average of $450 per household in municipal court fines in 2014, making those fees its largest source of revenue. That money gets pumped right back into the system; $25,000 goes to the prosecuting attorney for the twelve hours they spend in court each month.

“One of the big fears I have about the DoJ’s report is that it’s going to isolate Ferguson, just because that’s what their purview was, but it’s going to ignore the fact that this is going on in ninety other towns in our region, and in many states in America,” said Thomas Harvey, executive director of the legal aid group Arch City Defenders. “This cycle of being stopped, ticketed, fined and jailed is so pervasive for black people in our region that many folks can’t tell you how many times they’ve been jailed on unpaid fines.” He continued, “I’m not exaggerating when I say that people are literally held in these jails and extorted for monetary payments on a daily basis until they’ve tapped out their friends, their families, everything they’ve got in order to get out.”

Harvey and Roediger think the municipal courts should be dissolved, and the cases turned over to circuit courts. The long list of recommendations for reforms included in the DoJ’s report do not go that far, although the agency did suggest that city reduce fines, develop alternative payment plans, and stop jailing people for failing to pay fines, among other things.

“Nothing is off the table,” Holder warned Ferguson officials during the press conference, noting that although the recommendations are voluntary, his department reserves the right to intervene to protect the constitutional rights of Ferguson’s residents. He nodded to the wider geography of the issue, saying that the DoJ would also work with “surrounding municipalities” to reform their law enforcement practices. It’s “the underlying culture” of the police department and the court system that need to change, he said. As the DoJ’s report shows, the underlying economics need changing, too.

Related Topics: US Politics | Police and Law Enforcement | The Constitution

Renowned Civil Rights Attorney and Activist Michelle Alexander On the Ferguson, Mo. Criminal Justice System of Racial Control needs To Be Dismantled

Michelle Alexander: Ferguson Shows Why Criminal Justice System of "Racial Control" Should Be Undone

Michelle Alexander is a  civil rights advocate and the author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She is a law professor at Ohio State University.


The U.S. Justice Department has concluded that the police and city courts in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination...

The U.S. Justice Department has concluded that the police and city courts in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. Despite comprising about 66 percent of the local population, African Americans accounted for 93 percent of arrests, 88 percent of incidents where force was used, 90 percent of citations and 85 percent of traffic stops. The Justice Department, which launched its report after the police killing of Michael Brown, also uncovered at least three municipal Ferguson emails containing racist language or images. "The report does not give me hope. What gives me hope is that people across America are finally waking up," says Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. "There is a system of racial and social control in communities of color across America. … What we see now is that we do have the power to make things change. The question is are we going to transition from protest politics to long-term, strategic movement building?”


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The U.S. Justice Department has concluded that police and city courts in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the report—that’s being issued today—after the police shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown last August. Brown’s death sparked months of protests in Ferguson and around the country. In a separate report, the Justice Department is expected to clear the police officer, Darren Wilson, of civil rights violations in the shooting of Brown.

The Justice Department study of Ferguson’s records from 2012 to 2014 found African Americans made up 93 percent of arrests in Ferguson while accounting for only 67 percent of the population. In addition, the report found in 88 percent of the cases in which Ferguson police used force, it was against African Americans, and all 14 cases of police dog bites involved blacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Investigators also found that African Americans constituted 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant, 95 percent of jaywalking charges, 94 percent of failure-to-comply charges, 92 percent of all disturbing-the-peace charges. With traffic stops, African-American motorists are twice as likely to be searched when pulled over, even though searches of white drivers are more likely to turn up drugs or other contraband.

The Justice Department report uncovered at least three municipal Ferguson emails containing racist language or images. One email sent by a Ferguson police or municipal court official joked in 2008 Barack Obama would not remain as president for long because, quote, "what black man holds a steady job for four years." Another email suggested more abortions by African-American women would lower crime. It read, quote, "An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, 'Crimestoppers.'?" A third email uncovered in the Ferguson probe included a cartoon depicting African Americans as monkeys. It has not been revealed yet who wrote those emails.

The Justice Department report has renewed calls for police accountability from activists and those close to Michael Brown’s family. This is St. Louis City Alderman Antonio French, followed by Brown family attorney Anthony Gray.

ANTONIO FRENCH: To me, that demands a certain level of accountability, and I think the chief out there has to resign. It’s the only way that this community can move forward.

ANTHONY GRAY: No shock here at all, no surprise, as we have to take now what is publicly known to be a situation, come up with solutions, then execute whatever those solutions are, go back and measure the results, and then see if we made some progress from there.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She’s a law professor at Ohio State University. Her New York Times op-ed in November was titled "Telling My Son About Ferguson."

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I’m happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. I know you’re giving two major addresses here in New York, at Union Theological Seminary tonight and then Friday night at Columbia University. But let’s start with that op-ed. What did you tell your son about Ferguson?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, it’s difficult, you know, as a mother to have to tell your son, my 10-year-old son, that I knew that the officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t be charged. And I knew it before the grand jury came back. I knew it before the Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t be filing charges. I knew it because police officers are almost never charged for killing unarmed black men. And that’s the way it is in this country. And it was incredibly difficult to tell him that. And I found, as I began to talk to him about the realities of race and justice in America, that I was tempted to lie. I was tempted to say, "No, really, nothing like that could ever happen to you, son." And yet, unfortunately, today, in this current era, you know, a time of so-called colorblindness, the age of Obama, parents have to have conversations with their children that are eerily reminiscent of the kinds of conversations parents had to have with their kids decades ago. And so, it’s my hope—really, my prayer—that the uprising we saw in Ferguson is the beginning of a new, bold, radical, courageous movement for justice that will ensure that parents in the future don’t have to tell their children that in the eyes of their law they don’t matter.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you talk about parents having to have these conversations with their children, notably, here in New York City, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, discussed that very issue in the midst of the Ferguson protests about having to have a conversation with his biracial son about watching out for interactions with police, and he took enormous heat and enormous attacks by the local police union over even daring to talk about that. I’m wondering your reaction when you heard about that.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, telling the truth isn’t popular today. That’s the reality. And I think, though, what we’ve seen, you know, in recent months is the necessity of telling the truth. You know, I look at what’s gone down in the last few months, and it seems clear to me that, first and foremost, change comes when people stand up, speak unpopular truths and are willing to take real risks in the name of justice. There is no way that the Justice Department would have investigated what was going on in Ferguson, you know, if the young people there hadn’t stood up and taken to the streets.

And what the Justice Department report demonstrates is that we’re not crazy. You know, the young people in Ferguson, the old people in Ferguson, who said, "We feel like we’re living in occupied territory," were telling the truth. You know, we have some sense now, based on this report, of why Michael Brown might have been so frustrated and so angry when he was being harassed by the police for jaywalking. You get some sense of what’s really going on in these communities. And so, you know, we’re not crazy. There is a system of racial and social control in communities of color across America.

And if we don’t stand up, speak unpopular truths, take to the streets and organize, things aren’t going to change. But, you know, what we see now is that we do have the power to make things change. And the question is: Are we going to transition from protest politics to long-term, strategic movement building?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned jaywalking. I mean, I was struck in this report by the figures that 94 percent of all the people arrested for jaywalking, you’d think the most inconsequential of misdemeanors or violations, were African-American. And as if the—clearly, African Americans don’t jaywalk at a greater percentage than white Americans. It’s just astonishing that even in jaywalking you’d see this enormous disparity.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely, but you see that disparity right here in New York City, as well. You know, I think it’s so important that we don’t think of this as a problem in Ferguson that is somehow unique to that community. You know, thanks to "broken windows" policing here in New York City, you have statistics that rival the ones that we see in Ferguson. You know, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a report showing that here in New York City more than 80 percent of those who are issued summons for things like jaywalking, you know, are people of color. And the revenue streams that fund the criminal courts in New York City, just like those in Ferguson, come from poor people paying tickets for minor offenses that are being enforced against them but aren’t being enforced in other parts of town.

AMY GOODMAN: And we see that it’s lethal. I mean, the jaywalking, which is so minor—what exactly was Michael Brown stopped for by Darren Wilson?


AMY GOODMAN: Because he was walking in the middle of the road. And being there—I mean, this was not a very trafficked road; it was a back road to the main roads. And the fact that these two young men were simply walking on the street. Now, how is it—you’re an attorney, you clerked for Justice Blackmun—how is it that Darren Wilson didn’t get charged with violating civil rights, let alone indicted, but now the Ferguson police, the courts are found to be systematically discriminating against, and those figures are being cited, like stopping an African American for jaywalking?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, well, I mean, I think what we have here is a unwillingness, an unwillingness to hold individual officers accountable for the unjustified lethal force that is being used against, you know, African-American men and others. I mean, we’ve seen, you know, what’s happened with Latinos in other parts of the country. This isn’t just limited to black men. And we see also this kind of force has been used against women, black women. But, you know, I think what we see here is an unwilling to hold individual officers accountable even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the system as a whole is discriminatory.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this report give you any hope, as you talk to your son now? I mean, no, Darren Wilson was not indicted. No, he wasn’t found guilty of violating the civil rights of Michael Brown. But now this report is coming out today that says the Ferguson police and the city courts do violate the rights of African Americans.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: No, the report doesn’t give me hope. What gives me hope is that people across America are finally waking up. That’s what gives me hope. A single report, even a single indictment, isn’t going to make a difference unless people become organized and commit themselves to the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors. And I see that beginning, and that’s what gives me hope.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet these kinds of shootings continue. We had the—in Pasco, Washington, Antonio Zambrano-Montes shot by the police this past Sunday.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Los Angeles, a homeless man in Los Angeles shot—again, caught on video once again—by police. So, we have these continuing incidents occurring.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And they will continue. They absolutely will continue, until we move beyond the sporadic protests that occur to serious movement building. And I think that’s the challenge. And I think it’s also important that we not get too easily satisfied with minor reforms or when, you know, the Justice Department says, "Well, here’s a report," or, "We’re going to file one suit." No, the kind of change that needs to happen in our police departments and our criminal justice system as a whole is of such a scale that it is not going to happen merely by, you know, the good intentions—

AMY GOODMAN: With a consent decree?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: With—right, with a single consent decree or good intentions of some legislators tinkering around the edges. We need transformational change of our criminal justice system, not just, you know, a handful of consent decrees or policy reforms.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re going to talk about what that transformational change would look like. We’re talking to Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She’s a law professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. Stay with us.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What the Scathing Justice Department Report On Why the Organized White Supremacist Assault on African American citizens in Ferguson, Mo. by the Police Reveals about the Government's Responsiblity To Bring these Racist Criminals To Justice

"Ms. Goree said she was skeptical that changes would be made without the city’s being sued. “If the Justice Department doesn’t take it to the full extent of the law,” she said, “it’s not going to be one iota of a change.”


Now we will finally find out if Obama and the Justice Department will have the guts and integrity to actually SUE these white supremacist criminals called the Ferguson, Mo. police department.  Obviously the President and Eric Holder COULD AND SHOULD sue these assholes but unless and until they actually do what is desperately needed and demanded of them on behalf of the human and constitutional rights of African American citizens in this openly egregious situation I for one am not holding my breath in anticipation of the government doing the right thing for once with respect to the endless racist terrorism of the police throughout the country.  In my view the Obama administration has generally been nothing but political cowards up to this point when it comes to the relentless ongoing "crises” of stark racial disparities, profiling, surveillance, rank psychological abuse, and outright physical violence used against black people in the United States since the President entered office in 2009.  So while it appears on the surface of this report that the Justice Department is intent on finally doing something real and necessary in this particular instance I'm personally reserving any and all naive expectations or misplaced optimism about this latest news until I finally see some real, CONCRETE ACTION AND RESULTS that will actually seriously challenge and actively OPPOSE the venal injustices that are not only taking place in Ferguson but in every single city and town in this country where African Americans precariously reside...STAY TUNED...and PASS THE WORD...



Ferguson Police Routinely Violate Rights of Blacks, Justice Dept. Finds
MARCH 3, 2015

Protesters on Tuesday outside the Ferguson Police Department, which is accused of violating the constitutional rights of blacks. Credit Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.

The racial disparity in those statistics was so stark that the Justice Department has concluded in a report scheduled for release on Wednesday that there was only one explanation: The Ferguson Police Department was routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents.

Related Coverage:

Officials: US Report Finds Racial Bias in Ferguson Police
MARCH 3, 2015

After Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., many black residents protested what they called unfair treatment by the police.
Justice Department to Fault Ferguson Police, Seeing Racial Bias in Traffic Stops

MARCH 1, 2015

The report, based on a six-month investigation, provides a glimpse into the roots of the racial tensions that boiled over in Ferguson last summer after a black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a white police officer, making it a worldwide flash point in the debate over race and policing in America. It describes a city where the police used force almost exclusively on blacks and regularly stopped people without probable cause. Racial bias is so ingrained, the report said, that Ferguson officials circulated racist jokes on their government email accounts.

In a November 2008 email, a city official said Barack Obama would not be president long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years?” Another email included a cartoon depicting African-Americans as monkeys. A third described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime.

Patterns of Discrimination in Ferguson:  (Click on link at the beginning of this article above to see the stark statistics of racism in the treatment of the Ferguson, Missouri police department)

According to a preliminary release, an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division into the police department in Ferguson, Mo., found a pattern of racial bias between 2012 and 2014 violating the Constitution and federal law.

“There are serious problems here that cannot be explained away,” said a law enforcement official who has seen the report and spoke on the condition of anonymity because it had not been released yet.

Those findings reinforce what the city’s black residents have been saying publicly since the shooting in August, that the criminal justice system in Ferguson works differently for blacks and whites. A black motorist who is pulled over is twice as likely to be searched as a white motorist, even though searches of white drivers are more likely to turn up drugs or other contraband, the report found.

Minor, largely discretionary offenses such as disturbing the peace and jaywalking were brought almost exclusively against blacks. When whites were charged with these crimes, they were 68 percent more likely to have their cases dismissed, the Justice Department found.

“I’ve known it all my life about living out here,” Angel Goree, 39, who lives in the apartment complex where Mr. Brown was killed, said Tuesday by phone.

Many such statistics surfaced in the aftermath of Mr. Brown’s shooting, but the Justice Department report offers a more complete look at the data than ever before. Federal investigators conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed 35,000 pages of police records and analyzed race data compiled for every police stop.

The report will most likely force Ferguson officials to either negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department or face being sued by it on charges of violating the Constitution. Under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Justice Department has opened more than 20 such investigations into local police departments and issued tough findings against cities including Newark; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Cleveland.

But the Ferguson case has the highest profile of Mr. Holder’s tenure and is among the most closely watched since the Justice Department began such investigations in 1994, spurred by the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the riots that followed.
While much of the attention in Ferguson has been on Mr. Brown’s death, federal officials quickly concluded that the shooting was simply the spark that ignited years of pent-up tension and animosity in the area. The Justice Department is expected to issue a separate report Wednesday clearing the police officer, Darren Wilson, of civil rights violations in the shooting.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has had more than 20 police departments investigated. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
It is not clear what changes Ferguson could make that would head off a lawsuit.

The report calls for city officials to acknowledge that the police department’s tactics have caused widespread mistrust and violated civil rights. Ferguson officials have so far been reluctant to do so, particularly as relations between the city and Washington have grown strained.

Mr. Holder was openly critical of the way local officials handled the protests and the investigation into Mr. Brown’s death, and declared a need for “wholesale change” in the police department. Ferguson officials criticized Mr. Holder for a rush to judgment and saw federal officials  as outsiders who did not understand their city.

Brian P. Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor who is running for City Council in next month’s election, said he believed the report was unfair because the Justice Department relied on incomplete data. For example, he said, the racial disparity could be explained not by bias but by the large number of black people from surrounding towns who visit Ferguson to shop.

“I know to some degree we’re already on the right track because we’ve already modified our courts to make it fairer,” he said.

For Mr. Holder, the case has been deeply personal. He spoke about conversations he had as a boy with his father about what to do when stopped by the police. And he described his own experience as the victim of racial profiling. Such comments drew the ire of police groups who said Mr. Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, was fueling anti-police sentiment in minority neighborhoods. Mr. Holder has stood by his remarks, which have since been echoed by James Comey, the F.B.I. director.

The report is due to be released in Mr. Holder’s final days in office. He announced his retirement last year and plans to leave as soon as the nominee to succeed him, Loretta E. Lynch, is confirmed in the Senate.

In pushing for police reforms, the Justice Department typically does not call for personnel changes, such as the firing of a police chief. Instead, it typically seek institutional changes, such as mandated training, efforts to diversify the police force and more outside oversight. In many cities, the two sides agree on a federal monitor to ensure the police department is complying.

Ms. Goree said she was skeptical that changes would be made without the city’s being sued.

“If the Justice Department doesn’t take it to the full extent of the law,” she said, “it’s not going to be one iota of a change.”

John Eligon contributed reporting from Kansas City, Mo.