On a late spring evening eight years ago, police pulled over my mother’s 1997 Oldsmobile Aurora, in the suburb of St. Ann, Missouri, as she raced to pick up a relative from St. Louis’s Lambert International Airport. “Do you know why I stopped you?” the officer asked. “No I don’t,” my mother answered. The police charged her with speeding, but she did not receive a mere ticket. Instead, an officer ran my mother’s name and told her that since she had failed to appear in court for driving without a license, there was a six-year-old warrant out for her arrest. “I just started crying. I couldn’t believe it,” my mother said. The police arrested her and hauled her off to St. Louis County Jail, where authorities eventually allowed her one phone call, which she placed to my stepfather. He said, shaking his head, “I was surprised because I knew she didn’t have no warrants.”
St. Ann is one of the more notorious cities in the county when it comes to traffic violations, and in my mother’s case, the city’s finest, quite simply, fucked up. As it was, my mother had no warrant; the police confused her with another woman who shared her name — sans the middle initial.
She would go on to spend two nights in jail, pay $1,000 in fines that she did not owe, and plead guilty to the crimes of the other woman. She paid a devastating price, financially and emotionally, for the racist and classist policing described in last month’s Justice Department report on the tumult in Missouri. The 102-page document details the physical and economic terror inflicted upon the poor and black residents of Ferguson, Missouri. The report echoed the torrent of criticism that residents have long lodged at the city’s overseers. But, as my mother’s experience helps illustrate, the injustices cataloged by the investigation are not confined to one tiny Midwestern suburb. Ferguson is emblematic of how municipalities in the St. Louis region, and across the country, operate as carceral, mob-like states that view and treat poor black people as cash cows.
In Ferguson, at least 16,000 individuals had arrest warrants last year compared with the town’s total population of just 21,000 residents. Those warrants fed what the DOJ called a “code-enforcement system … honed to produce more revenue.” In nearby City of St. Louis, the 75,000 outstanding arrest warrants are equivalent to about one-quarter of the population, part of a county-wide problem of cash-strapped cities incentivized to “squeeze their residents with fines,” as The Washington Post put it. One city, Pine Lawn, Missouri, recently had 23,000 open arrest warrants compared with the city’s population of just 3,275 residents; court fees and traffic tickets make up nearly 30 percent of its municipal revenue. “Getting tickets — and getting them fixed — are two actions that define living in the St. Louis area,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this month.