What, to the Black American, is Martin Luther King Day?

Philosopher Chris Lebron in the NYT.

During the days of slavery one could identify a person analogous to the swine-drover in the meat market. This person — we might call him a man-drover — rather than ushering pigs to market to be sold as a transferable commodity, did so with blacks. It goes without question that this treatment was inhumane. It made blacks into something less than human, things to be traded as objects to fuel economic necessity.

You may think that these days are long past but consider the case of Ferguson, Mo., — a city of 21,135 people, predominantly black, that served 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013. This remarkable level of surveillance and interdiction incidentally generated for Ferguson more than $2.5 million in revenue from fines and court fees — the city’s second largest source of revenue. I ask you, what is this except the return of the drover in the mask of state legitimacy? In a nation where blacks possess only on average a dime of wealth for every dollar of white wealth, how is this reclamation of scarce resources anything but the continuation of oppression by other means, the reduction of blacks to instruments of economic necessity and exploitation?

If this does not convince you, listen to the audio track of Eric Garner’s last words. In a tragic sense, his plea — “I can’t breathe” — is the soundtrack of black life under conditions of deep unfairness and disregard: When we use the breath we have to ask for the rights and respect that ought to be ours, we have little breath to accomplish much else. Everyday life becomes the double struggle of working not only for what we need but also for securing that to which we are entitled in any case. Dr. King may have seen the promised land, but we appear to be anchored off its coast.

2 thoughts on “What, to the Black American, is Martin Luther King Day?

  1. This remarkable level of surveillance and interdiction incidentally generated for Ferguson more than $2.5 million in revenue from fines and court fees — the city’s second largest source of revenue.

    For the rest who wonder this kind of thing … here are the budget details:

    http://www.fergusoncity.com/DocumentCenter/View/1609

    p 49

    sales tax ~ $3.7mm
    utility gross receipts tax ~ $2.3mm
    fines and public safety ~ $2.2mm

    (2012 numbers)

    No idea how typical this is but picking randomly another place out of the news: http://www.dauphincounty.org/government/About-the-County/Budget%20Info/2012-Dauphin-County-Approved-Budget.pdf

    p 15

    tax assessment ~ $1.7mm

    p 16 & later

    sheriff, probation, and prison operations at least $1mm apiece.

    Back to Ferguson’s “revenue narrative” — p 44 — regarding the fines:

    FINES AND FORFEITURES
    MUNICIPAL COURT
    The Municipal Court levies a variety of fines for violations of local traffic laws and other City Ordinances. All receipts are credited to the General Fund.
    Municipal Court Fines are a product of the penal system. It is not the City’s policy to maximize its government finances through the use of the judicial process. Therefore, Court Fines are not considered a targeted revenue source that the City strives to achieve.
    In FY 2009-2010, retirements in the Police Department had the effect of increasing hiring and training time and reducing time available for traffic enforcement. This situation persisted into early FY 2010-2011, which resulted in decreased fines and revenues. Reversal of this trend began in December 2010. Since that time, the percent of departmental resources allocated to traffic enforcement has increased. As a result, traffic enforcement related collections increased about $338,000 and $188,000 respectively for the two years ended June 30, 2012. This rate of increase is expected to moderate in FY 2013-2014.
    In the first fiscal quarter of FY 2011-2012, using stationary cameras, the City implemented a force multiplier enhancement whose dual objectives were to (1) increase traffic enforcement and (2) decrease traffic accidents at three separate locations. In addition, this action also resulted in net fine receipts of $368,000 and $600,000 in the two years ending June 30, 2012. The City expects receipts to plateau in FY 2013-2014.
    Revenues for the three fiscal years ending June 30, 2013 are anticipated to be about $1,405,213, $2,111,683 and $2,531,600, respectively. Municipal Court revenue is credited to the General Fund.
    POLICE TRAINING AND STAFFING
    Police Training – A $2.00 fee per ticket is charged to those convicted of all City violations. This money is set-aside to help offset the cost of ongoing training for the Police Department. Police Training revenue is also a product of the penal system and it is not the City’s policy to attempt to maximize its government finances through the use of the judicial process. Police Training revenues are credited to the General Fund.

    This is the only mention in the revenue narrative of penalty money.

    So, I’m not saying this is a complete exoneration of Ferguson or any municipality which generates significant revenues from fines — but it certainly sounds from their report like steeper traffic penalties and automatic flagging resulting in more traffic violations being noticed. Which doesn’t seem to me to have anything to do with the violent behaviour that made the world take notice of Ferguson.

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