HBO’s The Wire was not just a television show; it was The Godfather of our generation—part playbook, part parable and all scripture.
Every bit of truth and information ever gained by man is folded into the thick-tongued Baltimore accents and convoluted motivations of its five seasons. Perhaps the largest and most looming lesson of life, politics, and sociology gleaned from the show is the familiar refrain of Detective Lester Freeman: If you want to know anything, follow the money.
A few days ago, a video of a police officer yanking and jostling a terrified Earledreka White during a traffic stop while she was on the phone with 911 begging authorities to send another officer to the scene went viral. The video of the policeman escalating a traffic stop into a violent tussle surfaced shortly after 23-year-old Korryn Gaines was fatally shot, and her five-year-old son was injured, after a confrontation with police who were attempting to serve a warrant for her arrest. These incidents, when combined with the video of the Philando Castile shooting and the infinite number of other episodes of police brutality, raise questions about how police treat and value the lives of Black women and young children.
But there is a bigger problem looming over the carcasses of dead Black men, women and children. It is the methodology woven into the racial biases of policing in America. It is the burden borne on the backs of poor neighborhoods and people of color across the country. It is the conduit that funded the City of Ferguson, but no one is even asking the question.
The question is this: Why have the police become a revenue collection agency that targets Black people?
For a second—and I know it will be hard—let us accept the alt-right, All Lives Matter, Neo-Nazi argument that the disparity in how many Black people cops kill is because people of color are somehow more dangerous, more belligerent or more violent than the rest of the general population, of docile, peace-loving White people. Let us suppose that there are no bad cops, no racist police officers, and everyone wearing a badge is here to simply protect and serve.
Then, why are police departments and municipalities all over America lining their pockets by targeting Black people for profit?
To be fair, all Americans should be concerned that law enforcement agencies across the country have changed their missions from public safety and service and have unabashedly become uniformed debt collectors. Under the guise of keeping the population safe, they have transformed themselves into the finance departments for city governments. We now accept the fact that police officers will literally hide in the bends of curves and at the bottoms of hills to hand out tickets to people who pose no threat to public safety. They chase down turnstile jumpers. They ticket marijuana smokers and jaywalkers. They want your money. And if you’re Black, they’re going to take it. And they have guns.
Before the standoff between police and Korryn Gaines, they had come to her house with a key to her door, semiautomatic rifles, dressed in SWAT uniforms to arrest her for resisting arrest during a traffic stop because of her license plate. Sam Dubose also died after being shot by police after they stopped him for having no front license plate. Remember Sandra Bland, the woman who officials said hung herself in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas? The way she was thrown to the ground angers some people. The fact that no one in the history of that jail can remember having access to a trash bag bothers a few people. How the situation with the arresting officer quickly escalated to an impromptu wrestling match disturbs many. I’m sure the citizens of these small enclaves sleep soundly at night knowing that the license plates of all its citizens are viewable, and that people aren’t out in the streets changing lanes all willy-nilly without signaling, but no one seems to question why a police officers felt the need to stop a woman who posed no threat to public safety in the first place.
The answer is simple: Money.
There will be “slippery slope” arguments about enforcing laws, and others wonder what would happen “if we allowed everyone to subvert the law.” But the truth is, law enforcement officers are forced to do this by municipalities who want more money and are willing to sacrifice duty for dollars. There are officers waiting in crevices for people to miss a traffic light while murders, burglaries, and various other crimes go unanswered.
And like always, it is people of color who pay. In Waller County—where Sandra Bland was arrested, Whites make up 70% of the population, but only 44% of traffic stops, while Blacks and Latinos pay 54% of the traffic tickets, according to Mother Jones magazine.
In San Diego, Blacks and Latinos are less than a third of the city’s population, but 64% of their traffic fines, a report to the city council says. And when you look at the 50 cities who get most of their revenue from police fines, you realize their Black population is, on average, five times the national median, says a study conducted by Priceonomics.com.
There has been no more closely examined and dissected instance of this than the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, Missouri. Most people focused on the revelations of racist emails, and overlooked the fact that Ferguson systematically sucked its Black population dry with fines, court costs and tickets.
According to the DOJ’s findings:
“In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees. Under state law, a failure to appear in municipal court on a traffic charge involving a moving violation results in a license suspension. Ferguson has made this penalty more onerous by only allowing the suspension to be lifted after payment of an owed fine is made in full. “
In fact, the Ferguson court levied so many fines, and piled so many penalties on top of them that—like many cities around the country—municipal and State fines are one of the major sources of debt for people of color.
This issue might not seem like an important thing, but it raises two important points:
1. Police brutality and harassment by law enforcement officers is simply a question of access and opportunity. It is entirely possible that police aren’t chomping at the bit to shoot Black men and women in the face. Research shows that police disproportionately kill more Black people because they stop more Black people.
2. Isn’t it ironic that the people who finance the cities and counties that disproportionately abuse, shoot and kill them also bear the burden of financing them too?
Well, maybe irony is not the right word.
Regardless of the emotion that comes with viewing the violent videos of Black-bodied shooting galleries, we should address the fact that we have been made to finance our own deaths. If it were not so, maybe Philando Castile wouldn’t have leaked blood until he died from his bullet wounds after being stopped, supposedly, for a busted taillight. Maybe Walter Scott’s broken turn signal wouldn’t have gotten him shot in the back. If they didn’t have to enforce the state losing tax revenue from loose cigarettes, maybe cops wouldn’t have had to choke Eric Garner to death.
While the evils of racism may seem like hate, cunning or apathy toward Black lives, the real question is why police officers have become militarized shakedown units. You know the answer—just follow the money. While it might seem tragic and tear-inducing, it has always been part of the modus operandi.
At least they could make us stop paying for the bullets.
Or like the greatest shakedown artist of all time once said:
“It’s all in the game, yo. All In the game.”
-Omar Little, The Wire