“How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty”


“[T]he uprising in Ferguson was an inevitable reaction to the institutional racism coursing through the area for decades.” — Jack Kirkland

I’m homeless.  At this writing, I’ve been homeless for exactly 3½ years.

When you meet a homeless man for the first time, you won’t notice his skin color.  Not first.  You’ll notice the condition he’s in.  You’ll notice his clothes, his grooming, his conduct.  Skin color is so far down the list, it might as well be left off completely.

Some disagree. They seem to think race is the only factor in poverty.

Radley Balko’s September 3 “How municipalities in St. Louis Co., Mo., profit from poverty” is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a filibuster in print.  At 13,875 words, it’s more than 18 times my target length for a blog post.  My Word copy comes to 41 pages, which would exhaust my printing privileges at the library for eight days.  I can’t take enough time away from job search to read the whole thing.  But I can respond to the portion I did read, and to the article’s title.

On March 20 …, someone made an illegal U-turn in front of Nicole Bolden. The 32-year-old black single mother hit her brakes but couldn’t avoid a collision. Bolden wasn’t at fault for the accident and wanted to continue on her way. The other motorist insisted on calling the police.

The officer found that Bolden had four arrest warrants in three separate jurisdictions: …. All of the warrants were for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Bolden hadn’t appeared in court because she didn’t have the money. A couple of those fines were for speeding, one was for failure to wear her seatbelt and most of the rest were for what defense attorneys in the St. Louis area have come to call “poverty violations” — driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration and a failure to provide proof of insurance.

The next two months were a nightmare of pre-trial detentions (i.e., jail without a conviction), bail bonds she could ill afford, time lost from her college courses, and scrambling to find care for her four children.  It’s a miracle she didn’t lose her job — or home.

I nearly lost mine.

I got locked up for a “poverty violation,” though I never thought of it that way until I began writing this post.

I committed the act because I had no cash — not a cent — and would have none for two weeks.  If I’d known it was criminal, I probably would not have done it.  My bail was set at $15,000 — the same as Adrian Peterson’s — but my people could not afford bond.  I was jailed for 40 days.  At trial, I was convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to time served and one year’s probation.

I will argue that most of Bolden’s difficulties were, in fact, self-created; albeit she comes from a context of such chaos as makes it difficult to grasp a relation of cause and effect, and thus own the results of one’s actions; IOW, a context where it’s hard to learn to be responsible.

From the 1960’s to the present, the politically correct have been telling us that poor people have no accountability to anyone.

Most of the men I was locked up with believed the same of themselves.  That’s how they got there.

To many residents, the cops and court officers are just outsiders who are paid to come to their towns and make their lives miserable.

I observe this sentiment among all self-disadvantaging people everywhere.  Skin color is immaterial.  The police symbolize order in a world devoted to chaos.

Chaos prevails where people recognize no accountability to one another.

Difficulties prevail when one has no accountability to oneself.

Accountability to oneself is the beginning of power.

ACCOUNTABILITY TO SELF

I hold myself accountable to no system.  Accountability to myself, however, requires accepting the fact that a system exists and resists change.  For example, the electorate will not soon be persuaded that speed limits should not apply to poor people.

In this context, certain behaviors bring certain results.

Bolden says, “I know I have a heavy foot. I have kids. I have to work to support them. I’ve also been taking classes. So I’m late a lot. And when I’m late, I speed.”

Bolden does not have a firm grasp of cause and effect, that events result from her actions.

If you don’t have a valid license, don’t drive.  Does that sound harsh?  Guess what: poverty sucks.  Welcome to my world.

Rain happens.  Snow happens.  A suspended driver’s license doesn’t just happen; the driver must do something to cause that effect.  Don’t do that.

Bolden’s most serious difficulties — her jail time and bail bonds — resulted from her failure to appear (FTA) for trial on the other violations.  To me, this is most inexplicable.  In my world, it’s common knowledge: your skin color doesn’t matter; if you fail to appear for trial, an arrest warrant will issue, and you will be jailed until trial — normally without bail.  After all, you’ve already failed to appear once.

If the charges are baseless or you can’t pay a fine, you still must appear.

It’s a responsibility.

To oneself, in the end.

If speeding were the first problem, Bolden has the power and responsibility — to herself — so to order her affairs, that she won’t speed.

THE PROFIT MOTIVE

The assertion of Balko’s headline, “Municipalities profit from poverty,” suggests, at least, a degree of intentionality on the part of the system.

You might as well ascribe intentionality to a rock.

And a very dumb rock, at that.

By analogy to my own jail time, the most widely-held conspiracy theory in my world today states that the system seeks (intentionally) to incarcerate as many black men as possible, as long as possible; and that from this, white people profit.

In fact, from what I saw in jail, nobody profits.  There is no transfer of wealth here from blacks to whites; there is instead an absolute drain of resources that could be much better spent.

Hundreds of thousands of American men now languish in compulsory idleness, with nothing to do all day but play cards, talk trash and watch TV.  Certainly most of them would prefer to be — and it would be more in the system’s actual financial interest if they were — supporting themselves and their families, and paying income and property taxes.

Moreover, incarceration is extremely expensive.  I don’t know exact figures, but it’s not beyond imagination that my 40 days in jail cost the taxpayers $10,000 — in return for which no one got a dime.

That’s why I now oppose incarceration except for those so prone to violence — in terms of inflicting bodily harm — that their confinement is literally a public health issue.  I estimate that this may apply to 30% of those in prison now.  The remaining 70% have no reason to be there.  Make no mistake: these aren’t nice guys.  But they don’t need to be locked up.

In the freezing “bullpens” (holding cells) where I was held for three days with an ever-changing group of other men, before being assigned to a bunk in a dorm, I learned real fast to keep my mouth shut about my charges.  Most of the other men spoke quite openly about theirs.  In every case, whether or not the charges corresponded to fact was never in consideration.  They spoke of defects in the police investigation, of technicalities on the basis of which they’d get off, of witnesses who said the wrong (i.e., factual) things to police.  Here again, there was no grasp of cause and effect, of the possibility that one’s own actions might have played a role in the results that one faced now.

Jail time is not their most serious obstacle to employment.  Although consistent with what the politically correct have taught them all their lives, “You can’t tell me what to do” won’t go over well in the workplace.

OBSTACLES TO PROSPERITY

If anyone profited from Bolden’s difficulties, who profits from mine?

No system extorts from me.

A homeless man, like any poor person in general, is constantly set upon by people who demand “help” — time and attention, aside from money and possessions — that one cannot afford to give.  Depleted of resources, at day’s end one is left scratching one’s head as to how it is one cannot manage one’s affairs.

I became homeless principally through neglect of my own most basic needs while seeking futilely to solve the self-created problems of people who own no accountability even to themselves.

To learn accountability to oneself: my counsel to Bolden is the same as I am seeking to do in my own life.

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