Ferguson

[Sent March 9, 2015]

Hey everybody,

Welcome to the most exclusive club in the world! We’ve made it to issue number two, which I think is a good thing. Thanks to everybody on this list for your kind words. It’s a bit stressful to send something like this out into the world. A couple administrative things. First, I’m gonna send these out on Mondays from now on, so you can all start your week off on an (I’m assuming) extremely depressing note. Also, a couple people mentioned that a space for discussion would be a good way to parse some of the articles and ideas I’m sending around. That sounds like a great suggestion to me, but I also have no really solid ideas about how to go about doing it. If anyone does, definitely let me know and maybe we can get something going. Anyway, without further ado . . .

News

Last week the Justice Department concluded its investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown, issuing a statement that the accused officer, Darren Wilson, would not be prosecuted, along with a 103-page report that illustrates the context behind the shooting. What the report makes clear is that the Ferguson Police Department (94% white in a town that is 67% black) is a revenue-generating machine that preys upon its own African-American citizens to fill its coffers. Law enforcement personnel, from beat cops to judges to the chief of police, have their job performances evaluated based on how much cash they can squeeze out of people. I encourage you to read it in full but here a taste of what we’re talking about:

“We spoke… with an African-American woman who has a still-pending case stemming from 2007, when, on a single occasion, she parked her car illegally… From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking… As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.”

In these pages we read about 90-year old men arrested for not paying their tickets on time, officers admitting to (illegally) arresting everyone in a car if they refuse to produce identification, and a woman who reported a domestic disturbance jailed because her abusive boyfriend was not listed on her house’s occupancy permit. Ferguson police are told to generate revenue, they are trained to generate revenue, and their careers depend on generating revenue: in 2015 almost a quarter of the city’s $13.26 million revenue projections are anticipated to come from police fines. And these are almost exclusively against black people. African-Americans make up 95% of jaywalking tickets, 94% of failure to comply tickets, 93% of arrests, and 85% of traffic stops, despite being 26% less likely than whites to carry contraband. But why? Most of the liberal crowd has focused (understandably) on racism, which is certainly a factor (the DoJ report says “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” but as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “the ‘focus on revenue’ was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue”), but why the push for revenue at all?

Ferguson’s budget itself, linked here, paints a picture of a city in crisis. Since the 2007 crash, taxes and fees have declined or plateaued, and aid from the state is falling. With growing capital expenditures and pension and health obligations, Ferguson finds itself falling deeper and deeper into the red. A $2.2 million deficit in 2012 became a $5.7 million deficit in 2013 became a $7.3 million deficit last year. So they try to fill the gap in other ways. Bond issues are up every year, the city is frantically seeking short-term grant money, and it is cynically, brutally mining its own (black) constituents for cash. However gleefully the policemen of Ferguson took to their tasks, the fact is that those tasks were borne of desperation. And Ferguson is far from alone. Cities across the country are drowning in unfunded debt obligations from pension and health schemes. Ferguson’s approach to raising revenue is obviously unsustainable: the public pressure to reform their law enforcement system is now (thank God) immense. But the great majority of state and local politicians doesn’t have the guts, or is too beholden to conservative ideology, to raise taxes. So, at the end of the day, these racist tactics are just a desperate, detestable effort to delay the inevitable destruction of public pensions. Woo hoo!

In other news, Senate Republicans commit treason, I continue to celebrate my decision not to attend the University of Oklahoma, Hillary Clinton demands that us peasants just give her the presidency already, Vladimir Putin is back from his secret stint on Sesame Street, and, on a rare positive note, Barack Obama delivers an absolutely wonderful speech that made this reporter tear up a little bit.

Interesting Stuff

1. Graeme Wood, “What Isis Really Wants”

If you read one article here this week, read this one. ISIS’s ideology explained. A month or so old now but fascinating.

2. Libby Nelson, “25 maps that explain the English language”

Self-explanatory. I like maps.

3. John Crutchfield, “Go West”

Interesting, surprisingly unpretentious article on how Westerns comment on American culture.

4. Mark Lilla, “France on Fire”

Great read on how France, and by rough extension Europe, is dealing (and not dealing) with its growing Muslim minorities post-Charlie Hebdo.

5, Gay Talese, “Assignment America: Selma”

A reporter who covered Bloody Sunday fifty years ago returns for the anniversary. Just so well-written. Read this and then watch the Obama speech.

Music

1. Shovels and Rope, “Coping Mechanism” on Letterman.

2. Scott H. Biram, “Gotta Get to Heaven” on Seattle’s (awesome) KEXP.

3. Jason Isbell, “Goddamn Lonely Love” in The Living Room, NY, NY.

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