It’s more than just the killings and the racism, it’s the extortion too

It’s more than just the killings and the racism, it’s the extortion too

The media is full of stories regarding the tragic murder of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, missing from the discourse is a discussion of how resentment of the police stems not only from police killings and racism, but also from their role as enforcers of the government's extortionist practices.

The police murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling have sparked renewed outrage and protests across the country. And while the murders have put a level of public scrutiny on how and when police use violence, the discourse almost totally lacks any serious discussion of what role the police play in 21st century America. While the mainstream media focuses solely on whether or not the killings were justifiable by bourgeois conceptions of morality, the left discusses how the police are currently used to maintain the structural racism that has always defined American society. The latter point is undoubtedly the case, and I don’t think anyone can seriously dispute this, but what goes under the radar of many is how the police are currently tasked with helping cities, states, and the federal government to meet their revenue requirements in the neoliberal era.

Some months after the #blacklivesmatter hashtag began to spread on social media, the topic of racist violence was yet again thrust into the spotlight following the police murder of Ferguson, Missouri resident, Michael Brown. Brown’s murder touched off days of rioting, and prompted the Obama administration to launch a federal investigation into the murder. And while the investigation would later reasonably argue that the murder of Brown was wholly justifiable by bourgeois conceptions of self-defense, what became apparent was that the rioting was above all caused by the city government’s draconian extortionist practices via tickets and fines for minor traffic offenses. A common story of Ferguson residents targeted by the police was Markese Mull, a 39-year-old father of three. Mull was fined $600 for driving without a license. After the city refused his request to pay the fines in $50 installments, the fine shot up to $2,000 and Mull, unable to pay, was sent to prison twice. In 2013, the city of Ferguson had collected $287,000 for fines issued to 21,000 people for driving without insurance. The New York Times found that the city of Ferguson had issued 1,500 arrest warrants for every 1,000 citizens in 2013. A report issued by the Arch City Defenders organization found that Ferguson and the nearby municipality of Florissant earned a combined net profit of $3.5 million off of their municipal courts in 2013.

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As Ray Downs from the RiverFront Times reported, the amount collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely proportional to the wealth of the municipality. For example, the City of Pine Lawn is 96 percent black, and “its per capita income a measly $13,000. In 2013 the city collected more than $1.7 million in fines and court fees.” Conversely, “the affluent west-county suburb of Chesterfield, with a population of 47,000 (about fifteen times bigger than Pine Lawn) and a per capita income of $50,000, collected just $1.2 million from municipal fines, according to statistics compiled by the state.”

This is regressive taxation pure and simple. Missouri government authorities extort the poor while being relatively lenient towards more wealthy citizens. This plays out to even more dramatic degree on a federal level as well. As Matt Taibbi notes, “A Government Accountability Office report, in fact, found that between 1998 and 2005, two-thirds of all corporations operating in the United States paid no taxes at all.1” Furthermore, as Michael Hudson notes, “A recent Harvard Business Review article calculated that for the decade 2003-2012, the 449 companies publicly listed on the S&P 500 index ‘used 54% of their earnings – a total of $2.4 trillion – to buy back their own stock.’” 2 By buying back stocks, shareholders can avoid taxes by at most paying a capital gains tax, typically 12.5%, on their earnings. Additionally, as anyone who’s ever read the instructions on their 1040 knows, any income above $118,000 is exempted from social security taxes. So John and Jane Doe who pull in $118,000 a year working mid-level office jobs pay the same amount in social security taxes each year as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. No wonder why there are problems funding social security!

And while governments continue to lose revenue, costs keep going up. As Dean Baker notes, while our paychecks are taxed to fund Medicare and Medicaid

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We also continually make patent and copyright protections longer and stronger redistributing a massive amount of income upward. We will spend close to $430 billion in 2016 on prescription drugs that would likely cost around one-tenth of this amount in a free market. (Drug patents are equivalent in their distortionary effects as tariffs in the range of 1,000 to 10,000 percent.)

There’s a reason that the $2 tollbooth fare you forgot to pay now costs $300 (THANK YOU MARYLAND!), the government needs your money and it wants to take it from people who have little to no political power.

Today the country will discuss whether or not Philando Castile and Alton Sterling should have been killed by the police, however few in the media will discuss how resentment of the police is created by the government’s daily practices of extortion.

  • 1. Taibbi, Matt. Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.
  • 2. Hudson, Michael. Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy.

Comments

jesuithitsquad
Jul 8 2016 20:07

Thanks for taking the time to write about this Soapy. Here's a Mother Jones story with more background for those looking for further sources on this under-reported issue.

http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2015/07/police-shootings-traffic-stops-excessive-fines

Another huge factor that gets overlooked when it comes to outstanding warrants and so-called recidivism is the role of the privatization of county jails. For instance, CCA (literally Corrections Corporation of America) encourages work-release programs for those sentenced to jail time. However, most on a work-release program will end up with very little, if any, in "take home" income as the private jail requires payroll checks signed over to them to 'recoup' living expenses. This, despite the fact that the private jails continue to bill the city/state a daily rate for inmate housing and expenses. In the end, the fact that individuals have been sentenced to jail-time typically indicates low-level, non-violent offenses.

Subsequently, many with misdemeanor or low level felonies end up unable to care for their families and, feeling hopeless, violate the conditions of their work release and live on the run. Constantly afraid of being cop-stopped, this ultimately creates another frequent environment in which people flee the police, which especially in conjunction with being a Person of Color in America, is apparently punishable by death.

tastybrain
Jul 9 2016 07:54

"the investigation would later reasonably argue that the murder of Brown was wholly justifiable by bourgeois conceptions of self-defense, "

Are you fucking serious? They claimed Michael Brown punched him in the face multiple times so hard he feared for his life and in the pictures he doesn't have so much as a black eye. You are perpetuating racist propaganda.

Khawaga
Jul 9 2016 13:27

I read that quote as sarcasm.

Sike
Jul 12 2016 16:05

I like this.

The underlying cause of racism against African-Americans in America has always been rooted in the pragmatic economic policies of American capitalism and this article helps to demonstrate that this is still very much the case today.

It's so easy to fall into the trap of reducing racism to mere individualized social relations, or "race relations", and Insightful articles like this help to dispel such simplistic ideas.