In August 2014, the municipality of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted onto the national scene. In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, we learned much about economic and political life in Ferguson and greater St. Louis County.
To many, it was no surprise to learn that, for years, African-American residents of municipalities throughout St. Louis County have been disproportionately and illegally stopped for minor offenses. Blacks are far more likely to be stopped, searched, ticketed, fined, and arrested. Many wind up jailed, leading to a cycle of lost jobs, drivers’ licenses, homes, or child custody. Some are beaten, terrorized, or—like Michael Brown—even killed.
It was more surprising to learn that in Ferguson, “Driving While Black” isn’t only about racial profiling: it’s also about municipal revenue. Fines and court fees have become the city’s second-largest revenue source, and the over-criminalization of black people has become a strategy for collecting taxes.
It is important to understand and address the revenue crisis facing US municipalities. As cities have become unable to pay their bills, they often turn to regressive strategies that disproportionately harm people of color and low-income residents.
Ithaca, New York, is like Ferguson. Up until January 2014, residents had to pay for installations and repairs of public sidewalks adjoining their properties—with one notable case in which 28 homeowners were forced to pay a combined $100,000 out of their personal pockets to the city for repairs. Detroit, Michigan, is like Ferguson. After the city filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, the city’s water department responded to pressures to lower its $90 million portion of the overall $20 billion debt by shutting off crucial water services to mostly black low-income residents who owed over a mere $150 on their water bills. This April, Baltimore followed Detroit’s lead.