Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
It’s time to put a new lens on looting. This type of ransacking is about redefining property rights in a world where people feel like their own limited wealth gets slid out of their pockets by the institutions that are designed to protect them.
A connection between looting and oppressive fines and fees, legal modern-day plunder, became explicit six years ago, after looting and violence erupted to protest the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
A week after Brown’s death, ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-area public defender group, released a report about how towns and cities in St. Louis County were fining their residents unrelentingly. Police in Ferguson, a city of only 21,135 people, issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations, in 2013. Ninety percent of the fined persons were black.
While it wasn’t planned that way, the ArchCity Defenders provided an explanation of what was fueling the rage after Brown’s demise: People were tired of the criminal justice system’s presence in their lives, that included not only outright violence but siphoning their earnings away from them. In fact, one account of the unrest in Ferguson called it “looting back.”
Eventually, after two investigations, the Department of Justice decided that the officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t be federally charged but that Ferguson law enforcement had focused more on accounts receivable than public safety, and that needed to change. The police department had become a collection agency.
From then on, the public began to understand excessive fines and fees as a form of sanctioned government brutality.
More research by Governing.com, a site for elected and professional government leaders, found that the Ferguson fine scheme was hardly an isolated exception. In 600 jurisdictions across the country, fines and forfeitures account for more than 10% of revenue. In almost half of those, the share exceeds 20%, a threshold established post-Ferguson by the Department of Justice. According to The Atlantic, 80 towns and cities collect more than half their general revenue through fines and forfeitures from the public, monies paid on top of taxes.
Local governments that rely on fines end up cannibalizing themselves. The places that Governing found to fund themselves the most with financial penalties and forfeitures have a median income of only $39,594, $20K short of the United States median income.
People on probation are likely to be fined but they’re the least equipped to handle fines and fees; two-thirds of people on probation make less than $20,000 a year and nearly 2 in 5 make less than $10,000 a year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
To prevent the next riot, it might help to understand looting as a natural result of financial oppression by the criminal justice system and do what we can to dismantle that part of the system. The goal to #DefundPolice is both achievable and reasonable if we stop collecting fines, fees and court debt. That’s why the states of New York and California are in the process of erasing outstanding criminal justice tabs.
If this new lens - connecting looting and oppression - is too much of a stretch for you, or it seems like liberal apologia, consider that one of the first people to articulate this justification of looting publicly was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when talking about the sprees in Iraq. “... One can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression … for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime” is exactly what Rumsfeld said in 2003. At least one old conservative has already used this “new lens” on looting.
There’s no question that looting is larceny. It’s a plain violation of every penal code in the country for someone to take property that doesn’t belong to them. Because it exploits a societal weakness for personal gain, it’s morally problematic as well.
But the same is true for a regime of excessive fines and fees. State and local governments are taking property that they’re not really owed outside of their insistence on it. They exploit the societal weaknesses of wealth gaps and disenfranchisement for governmental gain. The way people are fined is a form of looting; it’s just been legalized by the perpetrators.
Presumably it would make more sense to loot offices that assess these fines but government buildings are generally left alone during civil disobedience. Besides, their asset is power, not something that can be stashed in a backpack.
Historically, looting during unrest targets material goods that are symbols of societal values. Looters aren’t seeking frivolous luxury items like Chanel sunglasses and Dior purses because they necessarily covet those items. They’re taking those things because the rest of us do.
Let’s not pretend that local governments can’t commit violence against communities without guns or boots on necks. Fining residents into poverty is just as destructive as bullets and chokeholds. No one should be surprised when they strike back.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.