Class Action Case Filed Against Ferguson and Jennings by Black Residents
The case is pursuing disproportionate tickets, jail and fines, the plaintiffs believe it is financially motivated, says Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome to this edition of the Glen Ford report.
As you know, Glen Ford is the founder and executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.
Thanks for joining us, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: So, Glen, what’s in your notebook today?
FORD: Well, we’re going to talk about the class-action suit that’s been filed by 15 residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and another small, largely black town nearby, Jennings, Missouri. The plaintiffs are alleging that these two towns disproportionately ticket and jail and fine black people. And they believe that this excessive ticketing and fining and jailing is financially rooted, that these two small towns have become dependent on traffic fines to keep their governments running, to fill up their local budgets.
This suit is not to be confused with the suits that the Justice Department has been threatening to bring against Ferguson for largely the same reasons. Nothing has come of those Justice Department discussions. And, of course, Eric holder, the attorney general, is soon slated to leave the scene.
This black class action suit was filed by two civil rights law centers, one of them in Washington, the other in St. Louis, and by the law school of St. Louis University.
By now, almost everybody knows that Ferguson is about 70 percent black, but that it has a white mayor and an overwhelmingly white police force. Jennings, Missouri, nearby, is even blacker than Ferguson. It’s 85 percent black. However, five of its city council members are black. Ferguson only has one black city council member.
The case against both these cities has already been made statistically by the state of Missouri itself, which has conducted a survey which showed that Ferguson and many of these small towns outside of St. Louis stopped blacks at a rate disproportionately higher than they stopped whites.
Ferguson, however, is, according to the statistics, by far the worst city in the state, at least the worst city, according to its size, in issuing words against its own citizens. It’s issued one and a half warrants for every resident. And that comes to three warrants for every black household in Ferguson, Missouri.
PERIES: Glen, when you say that this was financially rooted, it was actually a strategy, a revenue-creating strategy for the government, what did you mean by that?
FORD: Well, I don’t say that it’s financially rooted. And, in fact, I think that the roots are not financial. But the plaintiffs believe that it is. And, of course, you have to show some kind of monetary or physical harm, some kind of measurable harm when you bring these cases to court, and alleging a financial motive is the best way to get to that kind of result.
I think that we need to look at the history of Ferguson and of Jennings and of all of these little towns that are near predominantly black North St. Louis. These are white flight towns. They were rural and became suburban as whites fled north St. Louis. They have always been hostile to blacks. They didn’t need a financial incentive to have their police behave in a hostile manner to black people. And it’s been of late the gentrification that’s going on in St. Louis, as is happening in almost every other large American city. Gentrification has led to further push-out of blacks from North St. Louis, resulting in places like Ferguson and Jennings having overwhelmingly black populations.
But these are new populations, and politically they behave like transient populations. They have been there such a short period of time that those white populations that remain–and white flight now is a factor in this as well–those white populations that remain vote in much, much higher proportions than these new black populations. And it needs to be said that there is no guarantee that when finally black folks start voting in numbers commensurate with their residency in places like Ferguson and Jennings, there’s no guarantee that these excessive fines and dependence on traffic fines for revenue will just go away.
PERIES: So, obviously, Glen, people are responding because the court system and the establishment in terms of governance of these states and cities are not responding to this call, which is obviously citizens frustrated with the official systems and pulling this lawsuit together to challenge the governments at hand. Now, what do you think of this process? And also, what do you think will come out of it?
FORD: Well, what the plaintiffs are looking for is for a halt to the practice and for compensation to people who have been harmed by the practice. And I suppose it should be fairly easy after making the case–and the case is a plain one to make–fairly easy to get a judge to order cease and desist in terms of excessive fines and ticketing and giving some kind of timetable by which the city’s behavior response could be measured. Getting compensation for those who have been harmed will probably be a lot more difficult, because technically each and every one of these tickets and fines and summonses and warrants probably is technically correct. How do you sort out those that are technically incorrect from those that are technically correct? When a police department has a practice of laying the law thicker on black folks than it does on white folks, it’s difficult to figure out which of the actual victims of this policy should be compensated and who is just part of the regular mix.
What the state legislature in Missouri is considering is putting a cap on the amount of revenue that cities can derive from fines. And they’re talking about 10 percent, which would then, of course, result in drastic shortfalls in revenue for places like Ferguson and Jennings and create a problem for what ever the race of the government there is.
PERIES: Well, Glen, I hope you follow this on our behalf–and, obviously, on behalf of the Black Agenda Report too. And give us another report back when it makes some progress.
FORD: I promise.
PERIES: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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