Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

It is Time to Talk Reparations for Ferguson…and Beyond

By Sandra Susan Smith


Even before its March 4th release, the key findings of the Department of Justices (DOJ) investigation into the Ferguson Police Departments (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, FPDs policing practices were far less concerned with public safety than with revenue generation for the Citys budget, withering from shortfalls in sales tax revenue. Second, FPD's unconstitutional practices were implemented in racially disparate ways. And third, Fergusons Municipal Court magnified the effects of FPDs efforts with their own racially disparate and constitutionally deficient set of practices.


How could this happen? Based on statistical analysis of Fergusons 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 Courts 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. Missouris 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, Fergusons punitive and exploitative practices have contributed to the black communitys 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 DOJs 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? Dont 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 taxthe difference between the fees that the court assesses blacks and those that they assess whites for the same violations. Now add interest.

protest sign

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 Fergusons black population would be if they had NOT been the primary victims of this legal systems exploitative and bigoted practices, and we must compensate them. Nothing short of this will make Ferguson whole.