We believe that our problem is one not of violation of civil rights but a violation of human rights. Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States, we are denied the right to be a human being.
When people took to the streets of Ferguson to protest the killing of Michael Brown and pervasive police violence in low-income communities of color in the region, they also protested the unlawful practices of St. Louis’s municipal courts. Motivated by a desire to control black lives and maximize revenue, police and courts worked in concert to operate modern-day debtors’ prisons, caging black people and poor people until they bought their freedom. While decried as civil rights violations by ArchCity Defenders and Saint Louis University Legal Clinics, these court and police practices also echo those denounced by the United States Department of State, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International as violations of human rights law.
Statistics regarding racial disparities in traffic stops in Ferguson and the revenue raised through enforcement in courts are well known. However, the same pattern of discriminatory for-profit policing can be seen throughout St. Louis County. To take just one example, in 2013 in the city of Bel-Ridge, 75.7 percent of all traffic stops involved a black motorist, and 100 percent of all searches and arrests originating from traffic stops involved black motorists. Not a single non-black driver was subject to arrest or even had his or her vehicle searched. In its 2014 observations on the United States, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) denounced the racial profiling of the African American population and their disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration.
Bel-Ridge budgeted for $450,000 in fine revenue—an average of $450 per Bel-Ridge household—making municipal court fines its largest single source of revenue. To get there, Bel-Ridge’s municipal court disposed of 4,900 cases and issued 1,723 warrants—almost five cases and two warrants per Bel-Ridge household.
Once black drivers throughout St. Louis County are stopped, they become ensnared in a corrupt system comparable to those operating in countries such as Liberia where, as Human Rights Watch describes, “no money, no justice.” The most egregious human rights violations occur while people are held in jail for their poverty:
They wanted to put me in a cell, but I appealed and begged. They had mercy on me and told me to pay a certain amount. [It was around] 400 to 600 LD [$5.40–$8.10]. . . . I paid the police because they said, “You need to clear this.” . . . I was afraid to go to jail. I gave the money to the boss man [the officer in charge of the depot].
I was arrested leaving a Walgreens for having a headlight out and told I needed to pay $800 to the officer to get out of jail. I didn’t have $800. He told me I would sit there for three days. I was afraid I would lose my job.
[The prisoner] was forced to remain with other inmate debtors in a filthy, overcrowded cell that reeked of excrement. . . . The cells were so overcrowded during his multiple periods of incarceration that men were forced to sleep on the floor next to the open, uncleaned toilet. The walls [in the jail] were caked with old food, dust, blood and mucus.
While the first quote is from a man jailed in Liberia, the subsequent quotes describe conditions faced by Donya Pierce and Herbert Nelson in St. Louis County jails. The unsanitary conditions in which Nelson was jailed caused him to develop two boils the size of eggs on his legs, which the staff of the jail refused to treat with antibiotics, painkillers, or a doctor. Such abuses implicate both the right to an adequate standard of living and to health under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Articles 11(1) and 12(1), respectively. The conditions fall below the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the floor on what the international community regards as acceptable, and may even violate the obligation to treat prisoners with humanity under International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Articles 6(1) and 10.
The unjust actions of these courts create and exacerbate poverty, including limiting the person’s right to work (ICESCR art. 6(1)) and so to pursue fulfillment of their economic and social potential. While locked in a cage due to their inability to make a cash payment, people miss work and lose their jobs. When mounting court debt is combined with the loss of employment, a person can be prevented from accessing the basic necessities of life. People take money from their disability checks or sacrifice money desperately needed by their families for food, diapers, clothing, rent, and utilities to pay ever-increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges at threat of imprisonment. Some are pushed into homelessness, as a result of policies that make it difficult to get a government low-income housing subsidy if a person has outstanding warrants for unpaid fines. Cumulatively, these policies interfere with the rights of a person and his or her family to “adequate food, clothing and housing” (ICESCR art. 11(1)).
Keeping the eyes of the international community on the United States is a vital element of a strategy to hold government bodies accountable for their unjust and harmful practices. The world was watching when Michael Brown’s parents joined a delegation to the United Nations Committee Against Torture to draw attention to the human rights violations perpetrated by police officers. Articulating the systemic abuses in St. Louis County’s municipal courts as violations of human rights will further this campaign. Advocates and activists must continue to demand systems of government that respect the human dignity of all Americans. The words of Malcolm X in 1965, inviting activists to see beyond the limitations of civil rights and seek solidarity in the international community of human rights, remain relevant today.