Five years after the killing of Michael Brown, in the Trump era, it is tempting to write off the protests within and beyond Ferguson as a failure. Incidents of police brutality have increased, while media coverage of these deaths has gone down. But dismissing the direct actions taken against police violence in recent years would ignore the many conversations this activism has inspired across the country. One of the most important is about how cities and municipalities have become financially dependent on policing black bodies.
At the time of Michael Brown’s death, nearly a quarter of Ferguson’s annual revenue was generated through the imposition of municipal fees. The city issued over 90,000 citations between 2010 and 2014 alone, in a municipality with just over 20,000 residents. Put another way, Ferguson’s continued solvency was a direct consequence of discriminatory practices enacted by the local government. This shaped every single interaction that residents, African Americans in particular, had with what scholars Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver call “the second face of power,” or the local bureaucrats and police officers who hold the discretionary authority to turn a parking citation into a court date. The Ferguson Uprising sparked renewed interest in understanding the link between municipal fines and racial surveillance—a relationship that made tragedies like the deaths of Michael Brown and so many others less moments of rupture than logical endpoints.
As the protests escalated (in no small part due to the outsized, militaristic response of the local police) within the first week of Brown’s death, the Obama administration sent in Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate if and how racial bias shaped the practices of the Ferguson Police Department. They found not only a racist department but a department for which terrorizing Black people had become a necessity.
According to the Department of Justice investigation, officers were evaluated based on how much revenue they produced rather than any metric having to do with public safety. And revenue was produced primarily through municipal fines. While Ferguson’s population was 67 percent Black, 93 percent of arrests related to these fines happened to Black people. The report also found that Ferguson was aggressive in converting many of those fines into encounters with the carceral state. Arrest warrants were “almost exclusively” used to coerce defendants into paying legal debt. In other words, the incentive structures for police in Ferguson were such that their anti-Black racism was aided and abetted by their professional lives. The same logic that would allow a court to hold people in jail because they couldn’t pay a $200 speeding ticket was reinforced by Darren Wilson’s view of Michael Brown as “a demon.”
The DOJ report focused on Ferguson, but the pattern of municipal fine systems reinforcing racially disparate treatment in the criminal-legal system holds across the United States. As Brentin Mock wrote in 2017, subsequent research by data scientist Dan Kopf showed that “municipalities with larger Black and Latino populations were the ones that relied most heavily on court fines and fees for revenue.” Race was the only statistically significant factor determining a municipality’s decision to rely so heavily on these fines. Today, because of haphazard and inconsistent data collection by states and localities on these fee structures, we still don’t have a full accounting of how many people are sitting in jail because of their inability to pay fines.
But every death is also a citation, indicting not just the killer (whether that person is or is not a police officer) but also practices that reflect not only antipathy toward Black people but also financial reliance on racial violence to balance budgets. Around the time of Michael Brown’s death, the Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm based in St. Louis that provides what it calls holistic legal representation for those who can’t access a public defender, published a white paper calling for the abolition of municipal courts given their racially destructive impact, a demand that many activists picked up on. The paper articulated the reality that the variation in speed limits throughout St. Louis County meant that if you got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, going a speed that was legal just miles earlier, you could end up with an arrest warrant. In addition, mothers might be turned away from court in a municipality that did not allow children in the courtroom. The Arch City Defenders described the way that inconsistent and slapdash municipal laws produced racial discrimination. The demands that activists made on municipalities and the DOJ showed how racial capitalism made every interaction with the state potentially financially ruinous.
The protests that kicked the Black Lives Matter movement into a higher gear were about police brutality, but they also insisted that police brutality is but one part of an ongoing project of racial hierarchy. From the beginning, critics asked what the desired result of the seemingly perpetual protesting was. While the oppressive structures that surveil and impoverish black communities create challenges that are difficult to overcome, organizers recognized that there are ways that public policy can be leveraged to at least partially ameliorate these issues. And Black Lives Matter organizers established agendas and organizations that had an explicit focus on remedies. The Black Youth Project’s Fund Black Futures initiative published a comprehensive policy agenda that was laser-focused on economic restoration and freedom from state-sanctioned violence. In addition, the organization Data for Black Lives brought together scientists to focus on the racially disparate impact of new technologies, specifically but not limited to those around facial recognition and the surveillance state more broadly.
Proof of how these approaches have gained traction can be found in the way that many Democratic presidential candidates have front-loaded specific, racially targeted policies as part of their campaign platforms on childcare, housing, prison privatization, and education, among other policy areas. Julián Castro announced a plan aimed at reining in police brutality, setting national standards related to “over-aggressive policing” for departments that receive federal funding. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren recently stated that her student loan debt cancellation was designed explicitly to attempt to close the racial wealth gap.
That racial justice is a focus of many of the candidates is not a result of benevolence, but rather evidence of the painstaking work that has taken place since Ferguson. Organizers have made clear the painful but instructive truth that the tragedy of police brutality goes beyond the lives lost and extends to the broader social constraints on victims and the communities where they lived. Ferguson, like Tulsa and Prairie View and Falcon Heights, forcefully reminds us that to honor those that we have lost, we have to commit to making Black lives better in the here and now.
Christian Hosam is a PhD student in political science at the University of California—Berkeley.