The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department has scandalized the nation, and justly so. But the department’s institutional racism, while shocking, isn’t the report’s most striking revelation. More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants. Many will try to write off this pattern of economic exploitation as some kind of strange anomaly. In fact, it’s anything but. What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life; something which is beginning to transform our most basic sense of who we are, and how we—or most of us, anyway—relate to the central institutions of our society, in ways that are genuinely disastrous. The DOJ’s report has made us all familiar with the details: the constant pressure on police to issue as many citations as possible for minor infractions (such as parking or seat-belt violations) and the equal pressure on the courts to make the fines as high as possible; the arcane court rules apparently designed to be almost impossible to follow (the court’s own web page contained incorrect information); the way citizens who had never been found guilty—indeed, never even been accused—of an actual crime were rounded up, jailed, threatened with “indefinite” incarceration in fetid cells, risking disease and serious injury, until their destitute families could assemble hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and penalties to pay their jailers. As a result of such practices, over three quarters of the population had warrants out for the arrest at any given time. The entire population was criminalized. It’s important to remember though that these were not criminal warrants. The inhabitants were not even being accused of actual crimes (that is, felonies or misdemeanors.) Parking tickets, or tickets for unmoved lawns or improperly placed trash receptacles, are not criminal matters, they are violations of administrative codes having the same legal standing as, say, a supermarket’s failure to take a loaf of bread past the due date off their shelves. They were simply being treated as if they were criminals.
David Graeber in Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life (Gawker)