Voting Rights Act (1965) and Ferguson, Missouri (2013)

Martin Luther King and President Johnson in reality ended the American Civil War with the Voting Rights Act (1965)*. The ‘real’ Civil War ended with the Northern States victorious 100 years previously. However, the embedded conflicts echoing down the next century had many features of a civil war, blazing up intermittently. The moral and political courage of King and Johnson fully had irrevocably enfranchised Black-Americans thereby unleashing democracy on the institutional racism of the South. This fulfilled the soaring rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The democratic deficit existing in 2013 in Ferguson, Missouri negated Lincoln, King and Johnson. Ferguson’s Black-Americans collectively turned their back on democracy. This post is not about the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black- American teenager in August 2014, or the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson: this post is about the consequences of the death of democracy in Ferguson, Missouri.

Enfranchising Black-Americans brought democracy to America. Nothing illustrates this more than the election of Barack Obama. He achieved two multi-ethnic victories. In Ferguson 54% of Black-Americans voted and a substantial majority voted for Obama. But Obama wasn’t a ‘Black-American’ candidate: He was an American candidate. Democracy is colour-blind. The 2012 election had a 54% Black-American turnout in Ferguson compared to the White turnout of 55%. The Municipal Election of 2013 produced very different turnout figures**.

In 2013, Black-American turnout was 6% (for Whites it was 17%). Ferguson’s electorate 11% turnout voting for councillors is shockingly low. Low but not undemocratic. Voting is a civic duty not a legal obligation after all. Ferguson has 67% Black-Americans and the council is overwhelmingly white. So what? Obama is an American president working for the best interests of Americans: all Americans. This does not appear to be the case in Ferguson. Ferguson’s white council seems not to have the best interests of the Black-American majority in their mind. This is demonstrated in the budget for the city. Sales taxes, which are obviously regressive, account for $5.9M of the $17.25M total budget for Ferguson***. Fines and Public Safety are another $2.23M. These two items are 47% of Ferguson’s total budget and therefore crucial to Ferguson’s solvency.

The police force must raise $2.23M in revenue through fines etc., in other words, the police are tasked with raising revenue as a budget item from law enforcement. Brown wasn’t committing a criminal act when he fatally walked on the road, he was a target for city revenue collection. To further underline this point, property taxes raised $1.88M, which is 16% below the revenue from fines and public safety.

The Voting Rights Act was born in bloodshed, imprisonment and martyrdom. Institutional racism ended with the enfranchising of every Black-American. Ferguson trashes that noble legacy. Ferguson’s Black-Americans have in effect recreated the hated Jim Crow era. Regressive taxation together with a revenue-hungry police force are an imposition on the poorest (mainly) Black-American population. Property taxes are kept low to benefit the (mainly) White property owners. Will April 2015 be any different? We wait and hope.

Addendum

“When traffic ticketing is used to promote public safety, that’s appropriate,” Mr. Koster said. “When traffic tickets are used to promote revenue, that’s inappropriate.” Such practices, he said, are “predatory****.”

*Robert A Caro The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol. 4 p569. For a succinct description of Johnson at his finest in political manoeuvring.
**Washington Post 15th August 2014
*** City of Ferguson Annual Operating Budget Fiscal Year 2013- 4
**** Alex Tabarrok Predatory Fining and Mass Surveillance Marginal Revolution (a blog) 19th December 2014

Second Addendum

CNN’s Moni Basu reports (8th April 2015) that the April elections saw a massive increase in turnout and two Black-Americans have been elected to the City Council. The Council is now 50% Black-American. She also reports that Ferguson’s reliance on traffic revenue to run the Council has been ended making a $3 million hole in the finances.

(Chris)

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