I use the term "sparked" advisedly. Regardless of the facts of the shooting, which no one other than Officer Wilson knows for sure, it only brought to a boil black anger that had been long simmering.
For good reasons, it seems.
The Washington Post's Radley Balko filed an extensive story in the Washington Post about how many city governments were, and largely still are, victimizing their citizens.
There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, and more in the surrounding counties. All but a few have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council, and 81 have their own municipal court.
Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts.
Local officials, scholars, and activists say that whatever happened between Brown and Wilson, St. Louis County’s unique political geography, heightened class-consciousness, and the regrettable history that created both have made the St. Louis suburbs especially prone to a Ferguson-like eruption.
Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines, despite the fact that the residents of these towns are the people who are least likely to have the money to pay those fines, the least likely to have an attorney to fight the fines on their behalf, and for whom the consequences of failing to pay the fines can be the most damaging.
Clearly, there are certain things that need government: laws and their enforcement chief among them. Yet St. Louis county seems to be laced with town governments that have gone well beyond the necessary to the parasitic.
How did this come to be?
[Note: what follows is my summary of Balko's writing]
White flight, enforced first by race-restrictive deeds, then segregation, real estate pacts, and finally zoning laws. To keep blacks out, subdivisions incorporate themselves into towns, then these towns zoned themselves as R-1, barring construction of multi-unit public and low income housing.
St Louis county became a hop-scotch of whites building new subdivisions, zoning them into towns, and blacks eventually moving in, and whites out to build new subdivisions.
Consequently, there is a proliferation of town government overhead, each one of which is supported largely, particularly in poorer towns, by property taxes. So, in order to support the metastasis of bureaucracy, the town governments became parasitic: where property and sales taxes weren't sufficient, they turned to, essentially, extortionate legal impositions.
In the towns along the interstate and east-west highways, where blacks have been a majority for a longer period of time, they have much more representation in city government. But these are the same parts of the county where … there are just too many towns, too many municipal governments, too many municipal employees, and not enough revenue to support them. It doesn’t seem to matter whether those employees are black or white, they’re a legacy of segregation and structural racism, so they’re still reliant on extracting fines and fees from their residents in order to function. If anything, they’re more reliant on those fees, since there isn’t enough wealth to generate sufficient revenue from property and sales taxes.
The municipal parasitism, particularly in poorer communities, creates self-reinforcing cycles of fines upon fines; imposition upon imposition.
“There are incidents of police brutality here, like anywhere else,” says Harvey [a lawyer representing poor defendants]. “But the anger in Ferguson was driven by something much more common and pervasive. It’s the day to day harassment and degradation that this system creates.”
Balko's story has, for my tastes, too many emotive personal stories, and rather ignores that some of the things these people were arrested for were, by any measure, crimes: there are reasons for laws prohibiting driving unlicensed, unregistered, and uninsured.
That aside, I was getting pretty angry myself by the end of the article. No doubt, these people made poor decisions. Fine. But when municipalities pile on like they have, concerned far more with their own perpetuation than worried about leeching their citizens, then hostility shouldn't come as a surprise.