Artez Hurston is curled up on a concrete bench in a Missouri jail cell, fast asleep. He snoozes peacefully, despite the fact that just a few hours ago he was staring down the barrel of a gun. His slumber wouldn’t be that noteworthy except that our cramped cell, with its bright lights and white bricks, is filled with about a dozen wired young men still buzzing over their recent arrests in a nationally televised display of explosive civil unrest. At least two of them are bleeding. One man is missing a shirt. Another’s is stained white with the residue of tear gas.
The prisoners make no effort to keep quiet as they replay the night’s events. There’s laughter and shit-talking. The military guys—two veterans, one on reserve—swap stories of their deployments, while another prisoner pulls out a pack of menthols that the guards missed and passes them around. One of the men says he was walking home from work when cops pounced on him. Most of the others, it turns out, were arrested together, as they piled into vehicles in an attempt to escape the mad scene on W. Florissant Ave.
One way or another, everyone in the cell was swept up in a pitched battle for control of a four-lane road that, for the better part of an hour that night, looked and sounded like a suburban war zone. A handful were white, the majority were black, Artez included. Two of us were reporters. Most lived in or around Ferguson, the now famous municipality outside St. Louis where a white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed African-American 18-year-old named Michael Brown on August 9.
The protests that followed captured the world’s attention, forcing the nation to confront a community grieving the loss of young man bound for college and highlighting the legal quicksand that has swallowed so many others like him. As the press descended on Ferguson, residents described a municipal court system that is bleeding vulnerable African-American communities in order to sustain itself, keeping thousands of black people caught in an inescapable cycle of poverty and jail stints. With 90 densely-packed and heavily segregated municipalities crammed into St. Louis County –81 of which have their own court systems and police departments–motorists can easily find themselves passing through a more than a half dozen municipal court systems on a four-mile stretch of road. For people who cannot afford to pay off mounting fines, but also cannot afford not to drive, daily travel becomes a legal and economic crap shoot. Artez, as I later learned, is one such person.
In the cell, speaking in a hoarse whisper, Artez says that he had been rounding up demonstrators in his pick-up truck after police told the media and protesters to disperse from Ferguson’s central protest area. It was then, he says, that heavily armed cops in camouflage seized upon his vehicle with rifles leveled at the passengers and placed everybody—including the men in our cell—under arrest. The officers found two guns and Molotov cocktail in the vehicle. It was a mistake, Artez explains—he was trying to help people and follow the order to disperse. He tells me that he had no idea who he was picking up; that he was just trying to get people out of the area, that nothing was found in his cab. For days, he had been working to help police control crowds and keep things peaceful, Artez says. Ask anyone, he says.
At this point, the basic numbers are well known: Despite a population that is nearly two-thirds African-American, Ferguson’s mayor and five of its six city council members are white. The Ferguson Police Department employs 50 officers and only three are black. Almost 90 percent of the traffic stops made in Ferguson in 2013 were directed at black motorists. Despite being statistically less likely to be found with contraband than whites, blacks were twice as likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested in during traffic stops in 2013 than whites.
But statistics alone fail to capture the raw emotion displayed in Ferguson last month. For many, the protests were a matter of life and death. Scores of African American demonstrators wore black T-shirts with the words “Stop Killing Us” printed across the front in plain white letters.
“I’m out here wanting to just to make sure that our lives are just as valuable as theirs,” Whitney Whitman, a 30-year-old psychology student at Missouri’s Columbia College who printed up the T-shirts, told me one night. A regular presence on Florissant, she frequently urged protesters to remain peaceful, at times at great risk to her own personal safety. On the night Artez and the others were arrested, she was shot by police with a non-lethal bullet. She had been challenging a group of protesters that lit a trash can on fire and removed street signs from the ground. While she disagreed with the protesters’ approach, Whitman acknowledged the anger that many of the demonstrators—particularly the young men—felt. She broke down as she described the situation. “When you have a lot of youth out here lacking love, affection and attention, you get rage,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You get rage.”
John Morgan, a 59-year-old heavy equipment operator from Greenville, Ill., drove an hour after work each night to attend the demonstrations. “This didn’t just start yesterday,” Morgan says, standing on Florissant. “There’s two sets of laws in this country; there’s laws for them and there’s laws for us.” With a police helicopter circling above, he offers an example: “Michael Vick was sent to prison for killing a dog. This white guy can walk up, gun down a child in the street, in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, cars going up and down the street, and we have to go through this to get you to arrest this man.”
“That’s justice in America,” Morgan says. “That’s America without the makeup.”
That a tragically commonplace event—the killing of an unarmed black male by law enforcement—managed to grab the attention of the nation for several weeks this summer is a curious thing. Many attribute the initial focus to the fact that Brown’s bullet-ridden body was left in the summer sun for four hours before being removed from the scene. For much of that time, the corpse was uncovered, allowing cell phone images and videos to be circulated far and wide. Blood pooled on the hot concrete. For the families of Canfield Green, the residential complex where the fatal shooting took place, it was gruesome and traumatizing sight. Children were shooed away. Residents watched as Brown’s relatives attempted to approach the lifeless body. In the minds of some Ferguson residents, the hours that Brown’s corpse lay in the street read like a direct communication from the police.
“They were sending a message,” said 21-year-old Stevon Statom, who moved into Canfield the night before the shooting and awoke to find Brown in the road outside his home. “’We don’t give a fuck about y’all.’”
By the time we speak again, Artez’s voice has fully returned. Like myself and most of our cellmates, he was discharged with a pending application of warrant for refusing to disperse. We drive to the city of Clayton, where protesters and clergy are calling for the removal of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch from the Brown case. Brown family supporters have questioned his impartiality.
The sky has turned dark, and lightning flashes. Artez is smoking cigarettes and talking non-stop as I drive. Our conversation quickly moves from the particulars of his arrest to the reasons he was in the street in the first place.
“I’ve been in debt since I’ve been driving,” he says, describing the intractable web of petty traffic offenses, cascading municipal fines, and metastasizing warrants that have circumscribed his adult life.
As a kid, Artez moved around a lot, a fact he attributes to his mother’s struggles with addiction. Not long ago, he lived for a while in the Canfield Green apartment complex, a short walk from the patch of concrete where Brown was killed. He remembers the complex as an all black community where violent crime was rare, though break-ins were fairly common.
Artez’s tangles with the municipal justice system began in 2002, when he was pulled over for speeding while driving his cousin to South Eastern Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His cousin’s girlfriend, he says, offered to take care of the ticket for him since she lived in the area. According to Artez, it was never paid. “I’m assuming she paid it, but then a year or two later I get pulled over by Berkley Police and they say, ‘Well, your license was suspended,’” he says.
From then on, the tickets, fines, and warrants just kept coming, with each local municipal court system piling on its own liabilities and obligations. “Normandy, St. Louis City, St. Louis County. I mean you name it,” Artez says. “I just kept getting pulled over and adding up court dates, adding up warrants, adding up lawyer fees.”
“It just got so overwhelming that at one point I had like, over 20-something warrants,” he said. “I have basically been in warrant status since I’ve been driving, but I have drive to make money to provide for my family. So it’s a risk that I have to take. And I pay the stuff as I can, but most of the time I just can’t pay it off.”
Last year, Artez says, a Ferguson police officer ran into his vehicle with his squad car. That resulted in another fine; “A thousand dollars for a police running into me because he wasn’t paying attention.” Though he is now eligible for a license, Artez says, “I owe so many fines, including this Ferguson fine, I need almost four grand to get my license back.”
He has tried payment plans, but they have their own set of drawbacks. “You miss the payment plan one time, they tell you they gonna lock you up if you come to court without the money,” he explains. “So people don’t go to court because they don’t have the money. So then you get another warrant and a failure to appear. They can charge you up to $2,000 for failure to appear if they want to.”
Artez is far from alone. His story is familiar to the attorneys at Arch City Defenders, a public-interest law firm founded in St. Louis five years ago. Modeled after New York City’s Bronx Defenders, which was founded in 1997 to provide legal services to homeless and low-income communities, Arch City Defenders seeks to protect underserved and poor defendants from the vagaries of St. Louis County’s municipal courts.
“We wanted to do some work to help out folks in the municipal courts because there’s no representation,” says Thomas Harvey, the organization’s 42-year-old executive director. There are public defenders available to criminal defendants who can’t afford attorneys, but no publicly appointed lawyers for the sort of minor violations that ended up gumming up Artez’s life with a cycle of debt and low-grade warrants.
Harvey and his colleagues quickly found that, without that representation, the municipal court system had spun out of control. “Our clients started telling us all these crazy things that would happen in these courts, and we didn’t believe them because they were so insane,” he recalls. Among the most egregious—and common—violations the Defenders observed: People being hauled before a judge on a minor violation, ordered to pay a fine on the spot without any inquiry into their economic means, and being thrown in jail when they were unable to do so. Canvassing the long lines standing outside St. Louis County municipal courts over the years, the Defenders’ legal team would ask people why they were there. Time and again, Harvey says, they were met with some variation of the same answer: “I’m here because I’m poor and I’m black and it’s about the money.”
According to a white paper report examining 60 of St. Louis County’s 86 municipal courts that the Defenders released last month, the system saddles those who can’t afford lawyers with fines they can’t pay, which frequently result in warrants issued for arrests, which often lead to jail time, which in turn can result in job loss and debt. The process, which hits African-American communities the hardest, tends to repeat itself. In the meantime, municipalities make huge profits off the hardship. “Two municipalities alone, Ferguson and Florissant, earned a combined net profit of $3.5 million off of their municipal courts in 2013,” the report noted.
The Defenders found that in half of the courts they examined, clients experienced one or more of the following: Being “jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as result of the incarceration [and] being refused access to the [c]ourts if they were with their children or other family members.” According to the report, “Three courts, Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson, were chronic offenders and serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and create inefficiencies.”
“The City of Ferguson has more warrants than residents,” the Defenders wrote in a letter sent last week to Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. The group proposed amnesty for the city’s thousands of non-violent warrants as a means to address the anger that has spilled out on the streets of Ferguson. “For many young people, these warrants act as a barrier to employment and housing. Just as importantly, the psychological trauma of spending each day subject to arrest and incarceration is debilitating,” the group wrote.
It’s just a crooked system,” Artez says. “Once you get in that system, the system is set up to keep you in that system. That’s why there’s so many people out here stressed out.”
This grinding sense of struggle, Artez says, is part of the range of grievances that have so many communities frayed. “People are just fed up, not just with only police brutality,” he says. Like many Americans, Artez sat transfixed as he watched the initial reports of the protests in Ferguson. “When I finally started to come to my senses and say, ‘Hey, this is bigger than Mike Brown, this is bigger than Ferguson,’ was when I saw them bombing and tear-gassing people on the news,” he says. Michael Brown, Artez says, “was just the last drop of water in a bucket that made it run over.”
Watching the protests unfold, Artez decided the movement was in need of young leaders. “So I appointed myself to get out there and help my people in all the ways I knew how, which was developing a relationship with the police, developing a relationship with the young brothers and developing a relationship with the older sisters and the older brothers,” he says. The aim, Artez explained, was to “help everybody police ourselves so the police don’t have to police us.”
In the beginning at least, the approach had some success. Night after night, Artez would head down to W. Florissant, where he and a loose collection of locals would serve as buffer between the police and demonstrators. On August 17, two days before he was arrested, Artez was photographed with his arm around Missouri Highway Patrol Cptn. Ron Johnson. Appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon to take over policing of the demonstrations following a national backlash to the tear gas and military equipment that marked the early days of the protests, Johnson earned wide praise early on for his direct engagement with the community and his vow to take a different approach. Johnson ended up overseeing the use of tear gas and militarized police units as well.
Artez faced his share of derision from some demonstrators, including those who questioned his self-appointed authority, but he felt like progress was being made. The police, he believed, were becoming less necessary. His arrest came as a shock. While he was grateful that two guns and a Molotov were seized, he felt burned when officers refused to hear his story or acknowledge his efforts.
Once released from jail, Artez wasted little time in returning to the protests. He couldn’t stay away.
The sun has set, and Artez and I are parked on top of a hill overlooking the lights on W. Florissant. The skies have opened up and the rain is coming down.
“This country, man, is messed up so bad,” he tells me, taking a drag of his cigarette and exhaling out the cracked window. “They go over and help everybody overseas but ain’t no help came through here. Ain’t no help came through here at all.”
“Guys my age, guys like me, they treat us fucked up, period,” he says. “Because they all think we got dope and guns on us.”
“We’re not all criminals,” he says.
In Artez’s view, and certainly in the view of many others who participated in the demonstrations in Ferguson, a community that has been drowning in frustration for years has made a breakthrough. A layer of fear has been shed.
“People are not scared anymore,” he says.
The rain stops. Artez climbs out of my rented car, his first night back in the streets. It becomes obvious that the protests have gripped him completely. The rupture has given him a sense of purpose.
“When I was in jail, I wasn’t even in pain,” he tells me, as he steps out into the muggy Missouri night. “I have panic attacks and anxiety attacks, but when I get down here, none of that effects me at all.”
Why do you think that is? I ask.
“Because I feel free,” Artez says. “I feel liberated. I feel like finally something is getting done.”
Photo: Greg Jeske; David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris; Joe Raedle/Getty Images