Are We Ferguson?


John Inazu, JD, PhD, associate professor of law

We all know the slogans meant to express empathy and solidarity: “We are Columbine.” “We are all New Yorkers.” “I am Trayvon Martin.” The “We are Ferguson” messages have already begun, and we will likely see more.

The well-intended connections seldom work. Most of us are not Columbine because most of us did not lose children in our community in a high school mass shooting. We are not all New Yorkers because only some of us experienced the aftermath of 9/11 at Ground Zero. I am not Trayvon Martin because I am not a black male.

Are we Ferguson? That’s a harder question.

Ferguson has a median household income of $36,645 and an unemployment rate topping 13%. And as the world now knows, Ferguson’s overwhelmingly white police force arrests blacks at a pace nearly four times higher than whites. On the other hand, although you wouldn’t know it from most of the news coverage, Ferguson is also one of the most racially integrated municipalities in Missouri. It includes not only working-class blacks and white professionals, but also black professionals and working-class whites. And many of Ferguson’s residents bridge racial and socioeconomic lines in their neighborhoods.

With all of its complexities, Ferguson does not sound like my world.

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  1. It would be my pleasure to share my research experience and knowledge with interested parties at Wash U Law School. I believe the school is best positioned to serve the community By using its great legal capacity and independence Washington University Law School is uniquely
    qualified to identify and address the problem and demand a solution.

    In answer to the question, if you received a citation from a red light camera or a speed trap in St Louis. You are half Ferguson. The city and its employees, not you, violated numerous laws.

    If you had to pay $200, a weeks wages, after waiting 2-3 hours in court and got two points on your record for this driving tax, you are Ferguson. If you went to jail and lost your license because you are part of the 40% unemployed thus cannot pay the driving tax and the courts refuse to allow community service as it cuts into the profit margin. You are Ferguson.

    If you are like thousands of white St Louis residents who asked for and received an indulgence: reduction to a parking ticket, no points, gave them half the $200 original fine, the $100 you spend on a Friday night dinner or show for the same “violation”. You are not Ferguson.

    The problem was published in Missouri Law Review by a Wash U professor in 1965, that is half a century ago. The laws were put in place to fix the problem, but due to the legal “culture” of St Louis, the changes were not implemented the St Louis courts wholesale defy the law of the land.

    Being a white professional north county resident, often shopping in North Ferguson. I find myself being part of Ferguson. The problem in Ferguson is not unique to Ferguson, it is across the North County area. There is little racism in North County. Few of the police are “evil”, but rather they were hired to primarily write citations to collect revenue. Which creates great animosity from the poor who cannot afford these revenue tickets.

    The people are angry because they are victimized by a court system without oversight who refuses to follow the “rules”. A court system that regularly illegally and improperly take people into custody and throw them into cages. Cages that would offend a polite society. A court system that is truly a tax collection system with teeth in widespread violation of the law, particularly Rule 2 Judicial Ethics Rule 37 and the Hancock amendment. The rules being violated are Missouri Supreme Court Rules, Missouri Law, and Missouri Constitution.

    As I said this problem was identified 50 years ago at Wash U, and was fixed in legislation but not in practice. I have witnessed three different municipal courts boldly state that Missouri Law, Missouri Constitution, and Missouri Rules are NOT valid in the municipal court. The attorneys call it “North County Justice” the black community calls it “just us” because there is no justice in St Louis. In one evening at any of the municipal courts surrounding I70, we can identify hundreds or thousands of violations of Missouri Supreme Court Rule 2 Judicial Ethics and Rule 37 regarding procedure for municipal violations. In one night in 2014 at Normandy Court right next door to Ferguson, I was an observer and I witnessed possibly 2000 constitutional violations and other serious defects with upwards of 500 defendants in one night. In nearby tiny Breckenridge Hills, I witnessed widespread gross judicial misconduct.

    Part of the problem is that there are over 90 municipalities with many around 1-3 square miles and between 700 and 1500 residents with their own police department and court, where the judge is a city employee (the judge is hired by the city). Where there is no oversight, so there are widespread abuses and widespread unprofessional conduct from the bench. The traffic court was supposed to be moved to the county 50 years ago, but this went against the culture, so it never occurred.

    In June of 2014, Judge McShane presiding Judge of the 21st associate circuit (the municipal courts) suggested that the judges were going to get in trouble for violating the constitutional rights of defendants. The violation she alluded to was all municipal proceedings denying public access thus holding secret trials in violation of the 6th, 14th amendment, and article 1 section 14 and 18 of Missouri Constitution.

    The St Louis circuit court was identified in the post dispatch as violating the 13th amendment by abusing contempt of court to institute a debtors prison. Coming up with frivolous reasons for contempt of court in civil cases. Then setting bond equal to the judgement, so that the person stays in jail unless money to settle the judgement is posted.

    In Q4 2013 there were yet two more appeals cases in this circuit identifying the problem, Municipal courts who are not obeying the law, municipalities who are using traffic enforcement to fund their cities in violation of several laws.

    As I am a white businessman, I have heard numerous comments from city officials in North County which can only be described as institutionalized racism in North St Louis County government.

    The Solution:
    For past violations, Law students review cases and identify gross violations of Missouri Supreme Court Rules, Missouri Revised Statute, and Missouri Constitution from the record and testimony from the aggrieved.

    To prevent future violations:

    The simple solution is to have an independent full time judiciary for municipal/traffic cases. To compel the court to certify in each case they recognize Missouri law as superior law, and they are in compliance with Missouri Supreme Court rules. Recordings of proceedings available to defendants free of charge.

    A more likely solution is have observers attend court and review case files and identify violations of Missouri Supreme Court Rules 2 and 37 and other Missouri and US rules and laws. Compel the Municipal Courts to implement a audio/video system which provides recordings of proceedings to the defendants and parties confirming court compliance. Compel courts and police to file a report on any defendant taken into custody, or threatened to be taken into custody, and provide a copy to the detainee immediately. Compel the courts to provide a time stamped document of when defendants arrived at court and when their case is heard, with a certified copy of the section and wording of the charges and penalty.

    Respectfully Submitted

    Dan Hyatt

  2. I appreciate this article for its honesty and perspective. Perhaps many of the necessary conversations you reference may begin from this little township in the middle of the metropolitan area in the middle of country.

    Something good has to come from this young man’s death.

    I was raised in North St. Louis – eight miles from Ferguson – but have lived in Atlanta for 25 years – so my “reference data” is old. But in a sense, I am Ferguson.

    Growing up, we rode our bikes like all other American kids in the 70s. All over North St. Louis, all day and often into the evenings. Sometimes, against our parent’s coaching, we would dare as far as Forest Park to try the new bike path… Sometimes dare our way into Normandy, God
    forbid! … But you were educated that you DID NOT go into Jennings, Bel-Nor, or Northwoods (Ferguson and Florissant were truly TOO far). You DID NOT want to encounter those police –
    it was taught to me by my parents, the community and many teachers. You overheard it in the barbershops, corner store, etc.

    In that general sense, I am Ferguson.

    Later, while working for Laclede Gas in the eighties as a Meter Reader, I was more directly educated, learning that from Riverview to Frontenac, Florissant to Kirkwood, Clayton to Ferguson, or Ladue to Bridgetown – my hometown’s little cities are remarkably unique. And
    remarkably the same.

    Meter Reading is a vocation lost to technology, but what an education it was for me to walk through the backyards of University City, Clayton, Crestwood and Creve Coeur knocking on customer’s front and back doors seeking access to their gas meters … Though fully
    uniformed and copiously prepared with my Wash U and Laclede Gas IDs – and Missouri
    Driver’s License – I “encountered” ALL the police departments of ALL of these

    I now live in an Atlanta suburb with an absurdly low crime rate, fantastic schools and too expensive homes (these variables typically coexist all over America). True to form, I have “encountered” my local police – I expected it eventually. I was in the car with my two sons. I am glad I was there for their first encounter – they have many more to come.

    But I am Newtown and I am Columbine because I have dropped my kids off at elementary school expecting to see them that evening. Attending Sumner High School isn’t any different from attending Columbine High.

    We have to find that little (or big) piece of our present or past that connects… Surely, like Trevon Martin, I walked home from the store in the night heading home. Who didn’t do that as a teenager (be ye suburban, urban, or rural)?

    Although I have never worked in New York, I have worked in an office building before and left home expecting to work and return home with no tragedy.

    I contend the first step in working to a better future is finding our connection – it is there somewhere in our past and present.

  3. Ferguson IS my world, because I live in Ferguson. Arrests here, particularly traffic citations, are not racist in origin. Feruson, unlike many of the other smaller STL municipalities, does not set up speed traps on the interstates. Their arrests are made only on city streets. As an experiment, I ‘counted drivers’ a few weeks ago, at the intersection of Airport and N. Florissant…in the heart of Ferguson. Other than myself, in 15 minutes, I saw only two other white drivers. Maybe this experiment could be repeated, but I suspect it would come to the same conclusion…not a lot of white drivers cutting through the city. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the reason more blacks are arrested is just because there are many many more of them traversing the streets where tickets are issued.

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