Posts Tagged ‘Ferguson’

The passing scene – links & comments 10/21/2015

October 21, 2015

The Secret to Winning the Nobel Peace Prize: Keep the U.S. military out by Rebecca Gordon for TomDispatch.

Tunisia was the one country where the Arab Spring movement succeeded.  Four Tunisian organizations devoted to human rights deservedly won the latest Nobel Peace Prize.

Tunisia was the one country in which the U.S. government did not interfere, either militarily or politically, and it is the one country where the Arab Spring movement resulted in a stable, democratic government.

Rebecca Gordon, after reviewing U.S. policy in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, concludes that this is not a coincidence.  There’s a lesson to be learned here.

Obama Just Signed a Blank Check for Endless War in Afghanistan by John Nichols for The Nation.

Rep. Barbara Lee

Rep. Barbara Lee

Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, says it’s time to repeal the open-ended 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and have Congress decide whether to continue military intervention in Afghanistan and other countries.

How Credit Scores Treat People Like Numbers by Frank Pasquale for The Atlantic.

I commented on how Chinese credit card companies and maybe the Chinese government are linking all kinds of human behaviors to credit scores, and how this can be a subtle means of suppressing nonconformity.  Well, it seems the same thing is going on in the United States—maybe not with that conscious intent, but with the same result.


Wilson exonerated in Michael Brown killing

March 6, 2015

The U.S. Department of Justice exonerated Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Darren Wilson

Darren Wilson

The investigation determined that there was physical evidence that Brown reached into Wilson’s police car and grabbed Wilson.  It found no credible testimony that Brown was shot while surrendering.  He was not shot in the back.

The available evidence indicates that he was defending himself based on reasonable fears for his life.

Inasmuch as Darren Wilson is not a Wall Street financier, I don’t think Eric Holder’s Justice Department would cover up for him.

I initially thought that Wilson was guilty as hell.   As I learned more about the case, my concern shifted to whether there was a proper investigation, which the Ferguson authorities did not carry out.  Now there has been a proper investigation, and it vindicates Wilson.  Good!

What this shows is the danger of basing a protest against a widespread injustice on a single incident without knowing the facts of the incident.

I think the Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! movement is right about how common it is for police to use deadly force for trivial reasons or for no reason, especially but not exclusively against black people.

The spotlight on Ferguson, Missouri, shows how messed-up law enforcement is there, but, sadly, Ferguson is not unique and maybe not unusual.  Scapegoating Darren Wilson won’t change that.


DOJ on Michael Brown Shooting: Justified by Peter Moskos for Cop in the Hood.

The Gangsters of Ferguson by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.

The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-ridden ‘black site’ by Spencer Ackerman for The Guardian.

Reflections on the meaning of Ferguson

December 5, 2014


The killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., was no different from a lot of other cases in which armed white men have shot and killed unarmed black men, or armed police officers have killed unarmed civilians.  If you’re looking for reasons why this incident rather than another was the trigger, the answer probably doesn’t like in a detailed study of the incident itself.

There’s a proverb about how one final straw, added to a load, will break a camel’s back.  The answer as to why the camel’s back was broken probably doesn’t lie in a microscopic examination of that one particular straw.

The significance of Ferguson is less in the facts about Ferguson itself as in the pattern which Ferguson represents.  If you want to know what I mean by the pattern, click on this and this and this and this and this.

If I were black, I think I would see these events in the light of Goldfinger’s Rule – Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

The linked articles described incidents that differ in circumstances and mitigating factors, but there are a few common themes:

  • The fear that many white people (not just police officers) have of black people.
  • The insistence of many police officers on instant compliance with orders (not just by black people) and their quickness to use force against perceived disobedience and disrespect.
  • Lack of training both in fire discipline and in non-violent means of defusing situations.


If Michael Brown had been accused of murder

November 26, 2014

If Michael Brown had been charged with the killing of Darren Wilson, the grand jury proceedings in Ferguson, Mo., would have been very different from what they were.

Darren Wilson and Michael Brown

Darren Wilson and Michael Brown

The function of a grand jury is not to determine whether a crime has been proved or not proved, but whether the prosecution has enough of a case to justify going to trial.   That is why grand juries hear only the case for the prosecution and not for the defense.  It is up to the judge or trial jury to hear the defense and decide whether there is reasonable doubt of guilt.

If Michael Brown had been accused of murder or manslaughter of Darren Wilson, there would have been no question of hearing witnesses giving conflicting testimony.  The grand jury would only have heard the witnesses supporting the case for the prosecution.

If Michael Brown has been the accused, he almost certainly would not have been invited to testify before the grand jury.  He would have had to wait for the case to go to trial before telling his version of what happened.

I feel certain that if Michael Brown had been the defendant, the prosecution would not have taken this unusual method of presenting the case to the grand jury.

I don’t claim to know what the verdict in the Darren Wilson case would have been if all the facts were known and he had received a fair trial.   What I do claim is that the investigation was aimed at justifying the accused and discrediting the victim—which is a familiar pattern.


A prominent legal expert eviscerates the Darren Wilson prosecution, in 8 tweets, from Vox news.

The Independent Grand Jury That Wasn’t by David Feige for Slate.

Funding government by fines and penalties

August 28, 2014

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, I used to talk about rural justices of the peace whose incomes were drawn from the fines they levied.  You can’t have impartial justice when your judge as a financial incentive to find you guilty.  But I thought of this as an anachronism that soon would fade away.

I was wrong.  Fines, fees and confiscations have become an important source of governmental revenue.  Alex Tabarrok, an economist and blogger, came across a report by Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal defense organization in the St. Louis area, that cites Ferguson as a prime example.  (Arch City’s words are in italics and Tabarrok’s in bold.)

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority 67% of residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

Fergusoncourthouse…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of.

For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100, the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor the defendant must appear in court.

However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford….If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.

People who are arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court to pay the fines frequently sit in jail for an extended period.  None of the municipalities has court on a daily basis and some courts meet only once per month.  If you are arrested on a warrant in one of these jurisdictions and are unable to pay the bond, you may spend as much as three weeks in jail waiting to see a judge.

Of course, if you are arrested and jailed you will probably lose your job and perhaps also your apartment–all because of a speeding ticket.

Arch City Defenders said motorists who drive through Ferguson are subject to the usual “driving while black” stops.  White people are 29 percent of Ferguson’s population (the percentage driving through would presumably be higher), but account for only 12.7 percent of stops by police.   Black drivers are twice as likely as white to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested, but fraction of white drivers with contraband, such as illegal drugs, is 50 percent higher than the fraction of blacks.

There are little quirks in the court system that mutiply the fines and penalties.  Courthouse doors are locked five minutes after the courts are scheduled to begin their sessions, so if a defendant is a little bit late, he or she will be locked out and fined for failing to appear for trial.   The public is excluded from trial proceedings, so somebody without child care available can be fined for child neglect if they leave their children outside.

In fairness to the good people of St. Louis County, Arch City Defenders found fault with only about 30 or so of the 60 court systems it observed, and only two others were as bad as Ferguson’s.  Even so, I don’t think Ferguson is unique.   Use of fines, penalties and confiscations to finance government, especially police, is increasing across the USA.   Increasingly state governments increasingly get big chunks of revenue from corporate settlements.


Ferguson and the loss of social trust

August 26, 2014

Brian Kaller is an American who grew up near Ferguson, MO, and now lives in rural Ireland.  This is from a good article he wrote for The American Conservative.

When my acquaintances here in Ireland see images of Ferguson, they marvel at the ordnance—here most police don’t even carry guns—but they also tell me Ferguson doesn’t look poor.  They grew up here when this country had a fraction of America’s wealth—again, GDP-per-capita—but also a fraction of its crime rate.  Like people in many countries or historical eras, they were poorer than Americans today, but also less fearful.

Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few.  Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world.  They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police.  Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief.  Guns were unknown except for hunting in season.

Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life or themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers.  People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.

I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago.  Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.

Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors.  Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs.  Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.

via Ferguson Falls Apart.

What he wrote is true of me.  I grew up in the 1940s in a small town on the Potomac River in which nobody locked their doors, and, if you left something valuable on your front porch overnight, it would still be there in the morning.  Very few people were actually poor, but most of us had few material possessions by the standards of today.  My parents raised my brother and me in a house that is smaller than the one I now live in by myself.

While my memories of that era are happy memories, I don’t think African-Americans my age would feel the same.   Schools and many other public institutions in Maryland were segregated, and lynchings in the South went unpunished.   White police treated black people no better than they do now, if that.  Maybe family and community ties were stronger; I wouldn’t know.

Anyhow, that’s not what Kaller is writing about.  He is writing about why we white people feel the way we do.

This weak social infrastructure makes most Americans highly vulnerable to crime, and they know it. In working-class neighborhoods like Ferguson, neighbors look with dread at the violence and social breakdown of places like East St. Louis, and fear it coming to where they live.  [snip]

Fearful and mistrusting people respond in all kinds of counter-productive ways.  They move further and further away from urban centers, to places where they are even more isolated.  They absorb themselves in specialized media that appeals to their fears, and their preparations for emergencies tend to involve guns. They demand more and more from governments they trust less and less, and surrender legal rights to police that are (a) heavily armed, (b) frequently attacked, and (c) human. All of which could work out just fine, as long as nothing ever goes wrong.

via Ferugson Falls Apart.

I think that’s true.  Hat tip for the link to Rod Dreher.