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It is Time to Talk Reparations for Ferguson…and Beyond

Sandra Susan Smith, associate professor of sociology | March 25, 2015

Even before its March 4th release, the key findings of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation into the Ferguson Police Department’s (FPD) practices were fairly well known, having been reported on and discussed extensively in the media. With compelling evidence drawn from multiple sources and backed by statistical analysis, the DOJ report makes three points clear.

First, FPD’s policing practices were far less concerned with public safety than with revenue generation for the City’s budget, withering from shortfalls in sales tax revenue. Second, FPD’s unconstitutional practices were implemented in racially disparate ways. And third, Ferguson’s Municipal Court magnified the effects of FPD’s efforts with their own racially disparate and constitutionally deficient set of practices.


Ferguson protests, Aug. 2014 (Loaves of Bread via Wikimedia Commons)

How could this happen? Based on statistical analysis of Ferguson’s own policing and court data, racial disparities could not be attributed to differences in the rate at which blacks and whites violated the law. The report highlights instead the Ferguson Police and the Court’s unlawful bias and negative black stereotypes. Thus, disparate treatment was intentional and likely violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well. So much for implicit bias. Here very real and identifiable racists were behind these discriminatory acts.

Nickel and diming the poor

But anti-black animus alone would not likely fully explain the patterns of abuses the DOJ report outlines. Missouri’s regressive tax policies are also to blame. Missouri has one of the lowest median property, income, and corporate tax rates in the United States, but it has one of the highest combined state and average local sales tax rates. Thus, when consumption declines, as one would expect to happen during periods of economic decline, coffers run dry and City officials must look elsewhere to fund government.

Ferguson is what happens when racial animus collides with neoliberal economic policies that nickel and dime poor people to death.

Unsurprisingly, Ferguson’s punitive and exploitative practices have contributed to the black community’s deep distrust in and resentment toward law enforcement. To (re)gain public trust, the DOJ report recommended a healthy list of changes to law enforcement and court practices and procedures, which, if implemented, should address many concerns about the violation of residents’ constitutional rights and, with time, help to (re)build trust between those in targeted communities and law enforcement.

State-sanctioned theft

But DOJ’s recommendations do not go far enough. What the DOJ report fails to address is how Ferguson Police and Court practices, which amount to state-sanctioned theft of its most vulnerable population, resulted in social and economic harm to its black community, harm that will have detrimental effects beyond the current generation unless further action is taken to compensate the black community for what has been taken from them. Offenders are routinely assessed fines to pay restitution to their victims for the harm that they have done.

Justice requires that restitution be considered for Ferguson as well. Ta-Nehisi Coates made the case for reparations in the June 2014 volume of The Atlantic, arguing in compelling fashion that the country would never be whole until long-standing debts to black Americans were paid. I make the case for reparations in the specific case of Ferguson and similarly well documented patterns of disparate and unlawful treatment elsewhere.

Doing the math

First consider the effect of police and court practices on the ability to make ends meet as well as on opportunities for upward mobility. Many who have been detained and arrested because of police misconduct should never have been. Now, however, they have arrest records that will almost certainly limit their access, especially if they are black, to jobs, apartment rentals, loans, and a whole host of other valuable resources that help in efforts to achieve upwardly mobility.

And what of the jobs lost due to unlawful actions by the police and the court? How many such men and women have there been in Ferguson over the years? Don’t they deserve compensation for the harm done to them?

Let us also consider the vast sums of money that have been pilfered from this small, black community over time from 1) fines and fees related to false or trumped-up charges, 2) escalating fees and fines levied against those who, because of poverty, were not able to pay their initial assessments, and 3) from the black tax—the difference between the fees that the court assesses blacks and those that they assess whites for the same violations. Now add interest.

protest sign

From an NYC demo supporting Ferguson protests (All-Nite Images via Wikimedia Commons)

This, at the very least, is what Ferguson’s black community is owed in restitution. All of them. All were potential targets of abuse, and patterns of abuse by the law have undoubtedly had long term negative effects on the whole community.

But by focusing solely on the community’s growing distrust and resentment, the Justice Department neglected in its otherwise thorough and thoughtful report the long-term social and economic consequences of the Police Department’s and Court’s intentional and unlawful practices. After all that law enforcement has done over the years, it is not enough to just stop these unlawful practices. We must also imagine where Ferguson’s black population would be if they had NOT been the primary victims of this legal system’s exploitative and bigoted practices, and we must compensate them. Nothing short of this will make Ferguson whole.

Comments to “It is Time to Talk Reparations for Ferguson…and Beyond

  1. The record on upholding promises of “40 acres and a mule” (or other reparations) was/are about as dependable as the treaties made with the Native American peoples …not worth the paper they were printed on.

  2. I agree. Reparations need to be made to all those unfortunate people who lost their business, autos, etc. Further, those responsible for the destruction should be punished.

  3. First, the policing practices of the Ferguson Police Department were far less concerned with public safety than with revenue generation for the City’s budget, withering from shortfalls in sales tax revenue. Second, FPD’s unconstitutional practices were implemented in racially disparate ways. And third, Ferguson’s Municipal Court magnified the effects of FPD’s efforts with their own racially disparate and constitutionally deficient set of practices.

  4. Firstly, the major dilemma which plagues the african-american(s) is that they continue to cling to names and principles that harm them because these names and principles delude to slavery. Specifically, using the term “black” to identify themselves. Everyone knows “black” according to science means death.

    Secondly, seeking reparations is ineffective as such notions are not aligned with the four Emancipation Proclamations and Article XIII and its 20 Sections which are the law of the land. Europeans were granted 37 years until the year 1900 to carry out the law. Read them all and become familiar with the protocol. States are to apply for pecuniary aid and so forth and so on …

  5. Reparations are indeed called for! Anyone that was wrongly violated or suffered direct loss, is due to be “made whole” on their losses. It’s only right.

    The big (unmentioned) issue is… the Federal Report found one thing that eclipses all other facts: There was no wrongdoing by the police in the case of Mr. Brown.

    This means that every destroyed business… every damaged car… every hostility suffered by the neighbors of rioters… and now the shootings of two policemen… deserve compensation by the rioters, and those that tried to incite rioting.

    As for the comparatively thin complaints about the police raising money… welcome to America. That is how it is in every town with a police force. That would be like blaming the town of Ferguson for global warming.

    Next, the report identifies no racists, and the word never appears anywhere in the report. This blog is simply wrong with respect to any claim that racists were found. It, like the claims of Brown being murdered, are false, and incite anger. We’ve seen false incitement often enough.

    That there would be racial bias (anywhere in the world, including Ferguson), is no surprise. All races have biases against (or for) other races. The problem is that we didn’t compare Ferguson with, say, the agency that investigated them.

    For all anyone knows, the Federal government itself would be found to have worse bias than Ferguson. For example, did Eric Holder personally oversee any investigations of individual wrongdoing anywhere else in the nation, where the potential victim was not a member of his race?

    Those that took to the streets and destroyed their neighbors property and livelihood, need to show that they believe in compensating injustice, by paying for the damage they have done for without that, any claims that they believe in compensation for wrongs done cannot be believed.

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