The ongoing protest

I’m a white guy who turned the news off last night at about 11:00 p.m. — because I could — and went to sleep in my house in my peaceful suburban neighborhood. So I understand that my opinion on anything related to Ferguson means absolutely diddly-squat. Which does not prevent me from having said opinion, or expressing it here.

I spent a lot of time recently keeping an eye on the protests in Hong Kong. The protests, which seem to be winding down (or are in any event generating fewer headlines) were driven mainly by college students. They were an effort to shore up and expand democracy in the region, despite the fact that China itself is, of course, Communist. China promised when it regained control of the former British colony that they would continue to allow democracy there for fifty years. An upcoming election shows how they plan to subvert this: There will be a vote, but the only candidates on the ballot will be those approved by the Chinese government. The students in Hong Kong took to the streets to show their resistance to this.

The protest was peaceful and thoughtful and reasonably well organized. But ultimately it had a greater effect on the residents of Hong Kong (who were increasingly inconvenienced by it) rather than the authorities. It was an honorable protest, and it was an important protest, but it was not an effective protest.

The protestors in Hong Kong were unwilling or unable to raise the stakes, to take their protest to a level beyond standing in the street with their umbrellas.

What might that next level have been? It’s hard to know. They didn’t seem to have that many options. Could they have taken over a government building? I suspect that would have been short-lived and ineffective. I don’t have the slightest idea how the Hong Kong students could have built up their protest to achieve any sort of victory.

I don’t know for sure what the protestors in Ferguson should do next, either, but in this case I do have an idea, stemming from this excellent article by Radley Balko on how St. Louis county preys on its poorest (mostly black) residents with a steady water-drip torture of fees and fines, the non-payment of which can mean jail time.

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations. In a white paper released last month, the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash.

“These aren’t violent criminals,” says Thomas Harvey, another of the three co-founders of ArchCity Defenders. “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”

There will be protests in Ferguson. There will be marches and speeches. But to all this I suggest the following:

St. Louis County gets as much as 40% of its budget via fees and fines from its court system? Starve the local government of these funds. Refuse to pay. The system is rigged to extract the maximum amount of money from the very poorest and most vulnerable citizens, and to threaten with jail time those who cannot navigate the county’s ever-increasing number of hoops and hurdles. No more. Let the courtrooms be empty until the law is fair.

This is, of course, easy for me to say. I am a thousand miles away from Ferguson, MO. It is unlikely that I will ever fall into one of the county’s many speed traps, or receive one of a million different ordinance violations. I can assert, “What are they going to do? Arrest everybody?”, knowing full well that a) they might very well try and b) I won’t be among those arrested.

My point is only this: Standing in the street, expressing your rage and sadness, makes for effective, emotional theater. I was moved by the pictures out of Hong Kong, and by the pictures out of Ferguson. But we know by now what the authorities’ response to this will be: Contain the protest and then wait it out. And then to continue the status quo. It needn’t be that way in Ferguson and in the other 89 municipalities of St. Louis County. They have built a corrupt and racist system on the backs of its citizens. What happens if those citizens stand up?

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