citizens as cash cows for local civic authorities and law enforcement

This is a long and thoughtful read, not just about Ferguson, but about poverty, racism, the court system, the financial incentives courts and police have for adding charge after charge, fine after fine, fee upon fee.

I’m not all that sympathetic about the speeding tickets.  I am sympathetic about the way they are handled, about the fees for registering your car, the fines for not registering the car, the cost of being poor, and the complete lack of sympathy or any bureaucratic heart for the situations they create in the first place, and exacerbate in the second.

The Little Boys’ mom went for help to get out of a dangerous, horribly dangerous, situation.  The help included moving her to a nearby state to a town where she knew nobody, had no resources of her own, and no transport. She got a job while still in the battered women’s shelter and walked to that job and to her doctor appointments.   But the state in its mercies, moved her again, this time to a second story apartment in another small town with no public transport.  She could no longer make it to her job, or anywhere else on foot, except a local convenience store and a fast food restaurant.  She did get another job she could walk to and the state in its mercy docked all her wages to pay for a situation entirely of the state’s own making.  She quit, and I cannot blame her.  I hate the situation the state created for her.  It’s unjust, inhumane, and it’s insulting to then force her to pay for it.

She got a car eventually so she could drive to the grocery store, to doctor appointments, to school field trips.  But she cannot always afford the registration.  She says locally, the cops have actually been sympathetic to her circumstances and they don’t ticket her. But there are other areas where she knows she’d be pulled over.

Essentially, a lot of our regulations and fees and fines are basically fines for being poor or powerless.  They may not necessarily be intended that way, but that is how they function.  I have written before about how churches unintentionally burden the poor. The state does this, too, only there’s no escape at all because the force of the state is a FORCE.  The state makes it impossible for people to get a job, to earn money from home working in cottage based industries, and then increases dependency by offering welfare.  The state gives the disease and then forces the sick to trade their independence for treatment of the disease- but the cure is not without dreadful side effects.

I do believe there is institutionalized racism in the system.  I’m fairly certain if the Little Boy’s Mom and I were both pulled over for the same infraction in most of the towns in my state, I’d be more likely to get off with a warning than she would.   But there’s also just an inherent authoritative, ‘because we can’, us-vs- them mentality in the police force itself.

My son just got done paying off a 250 dollar charge for gravel that supposedly scraped a parked police car when he drove by it on his riding lawn mower.  Nobody who has heard of it really thinks that was an entirely fair situation.  Most of us don’t even believe he actually did that much damage to the police car, and since the car was parked on the side of a road with no shoulder, we think that’s a bit of a stretch to blame him.  He also tells us that the officer in the car who came to talk to him was rude and belligerent and unnecessarily bullying in his demeanor.   He was polite enough to me when he came, but I could see he had a chip on his shoulder- there was the swagger, and the mirrored sunglasses that he didn’t take off even though he was standing in the shade with the son behind his back.

We played the game. We all were polite, civil, compliant. We didn’t argue.  My husband took my son to the police station and talked to them about a payment plan.  It makes me angry, and I feel very strongly that by submitting, we only enable further entrenched self-interest on the part of our police force. But the alternative was an expensive and probably futile act of lawyering up, and making a name for ourselves, and worse, for our 16 year old son,  as uncooperative cop-bait in a very small town.

So my son paid.  He refers to it as extortion.  It did not increase his respect for local law enforcement or police in general.

Again, the really interesting thing to me about all this is that *everybody* we have told the story to doubts the cops- even when we don’t tell the story that way.  We say, “The Boy was driving the lawn mower on the gravel road and kicked up some gravel on a parked police car and scratched the paint, so he had to pay 250 dollars.”  That’s all.  And the first response is always something along the lines of , “I bet the damage was already there, and they just found a way to get somebody else to pay for it.”

This is from even our nice, law-abiding, middle class, very middle America, law abiding, white bread and pasta acquaintances.   All of them understand, too, that we really had no viable alternative but to just pay off the charge with smiles on our faces.

How bad must it be that even they are this skeptical of local law enforcement? And what would a family whose son had not been able to find a summer job (because we did not have the surplus cash) have been able to do against the injustice?

And how much worse would it be to live in a town where this sort of thing happened on a regular basis to you and all your neighbors, but you didn’t have the job, the time, the cash to make it go away?

 

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2 Comments

  1. Michele
    Posted September 7, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    That was a very long article but well worth reading. It is very sad how the poor are being taken advantage of in the court systems, etc. Reading this article just is heartbreaking. It seems the legal system cares nothing of these people. Yes these people did make some poor choices but justice does need to be tempered with mercy.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted September 8, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      And when you’re poor, one bad choice just has a much, much higher price tag than when you have a cushion between you and a speeding ticket.

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