How St. Louis Police Robbed My Family of $1000 (and How I’m Trying To Get It Back)

Municipalities in the St. Louis region — and across the country — operate as mob-like states, treating poor black residents as cash cows.

Editor’s Note: March 4, 2016
The Intercept has learned that Juan Thompson’s mother did have outstanding warrants when she was arrested and held for two nights. According to court records, Yolanda Thompson had two warrants for driving on a suspended license, one from 2001 and another from 2003.

We were unable to confirm that authorities acknowledged an identity mix-up to the reporter or that the reporter spoke to the other Yolanda Thompson. The problems with this story reflect a pattern of misattributed quotes that The Intercept uncovered in stories written by Juan Thompson, a former staff reporter. We apologize to our readers.

On a late spring evening eight years ago, police pulled over my mother’s 1997 Oldsmobile Aurora, in the suburb of St. Ann, Missouri, as she raced to pick up a relative from St. Louis’s Lambert International Airport. “Do you know why I stopped you?” the officer asked. “No I don’t,” my mother answered. The police charged her with speeding, but she did not receive a mere ticket. Instead, an officer ran my mother’s name and told her that since she had failed to appear in court for driving without a license, there was a six-year-old warrant out for her arrest. “I just started crying. I couldn’t believe it,” my mother said. The police arrested her and hauled her off to St. Louis County Jail, where authorities eventually allowed her one phone call, which she placed to my stepfather. He said, shaking his head, “I was surprised because I knew she didn’t have no warrants.”

St. Ann is one of the more notorious cities in the county when it comes to traffic violations, and in my mother’s case, the city’s finest, quite simply, fucked up. As it was, my mother had no warrant; the police confused her with another woman who shared her name — sans the middle initial.

She would go on to spend two nights in jail, pay $1,000 in fines that she did not owe, and plead guilty to the crimes of the other woman. She paid a devastating price, financially and emotionally, for the racist and classist policing described in last month’s Justice Department report on the tumult in Missouri. The 102-page document details the physical and economic terror inflicted upon the poor and black residents of Ferguson, Missouri. The report echoed the torrent of criticism that residents have long lodged at the city’s overseers. But, as my mother’s experience helps illustrate, the injustices cataloged by the investigation are not confined to one tiny Midwestern suburb. Ferguson is emblematic of how municipalities in the St. Louis region, and across the country, operate as carceral, mob-like states that view and treat poor black people as cash cows.

In Ferguson, at least 16,000 individuals had arrest warrants last year compared with the town’s total population of just 21,000 residents. Those warrants fed what the DOJ called a “code-enforcement system … honed to produce more revenue.” In nearby City of St. Louis, the 75,000 outstanding arrest warrants are equivalent to about one-quarter of the population, part of a county-wide problem of cash-strapped cities incentivized to “squeeze their residents with fines,” as The Washington Post put it. One city, Pine Lawn, Missouri, recently had 23,000 open arrest warrants compared with the city’s population of just 3,275 residents; court fees and traffic tickets make up nearly 30 percent of its municipal revenue. “Getting tickets — and getting them fixed — are two actions that define living in the St. Louis area,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this month.

Statistics alone cannot convey the financial and emotional toll individuals and their families pay as a result of predatory fines and selective policing. Those costs are far reaching — as my own family discovered in the wake of my mother’s arrest. They can also be deadly, as Walter Scott’s brutal murder demonstrated.

The woman with whom my mother was mistaken bore, in her mugshot, a striking resemblance to my mother. They were both about the same height and weight, and also shared a similar caramel complexion. “She even looked like me!” my mother said with laughter that did little to conceal her unremitting anger. But at the time my mother phoned my stepfather, neither of them knew about the blunder, so he set off for Clayton, the tony suburb where the county jail sits, with the intention of bailing his partner out. It’s somewhat remarkable that Clayton is the site of the county jail. It’s as if the powers that be want to rub the wealth of predominately white Clayton in the faces of the poor black people who are disproportionately jailed there.

“I got there,” my stepfather said, and “they said she wasn’t there. They said they couldn’t find her.” My mother, who has 10 children, was lost. Lost because the county jail had not processed her. Lost because the county’s system was too inept to prevent or correct such a slip-up. Lost in just the latest example of how little black lives matter within the country’s criminal justice infrastructure. Late in the evening that first day, authorities shipped her off to the St. Louis city jail where her doppelgänger’s original warrant was issued. “They didn’t believe me when I told them they had the wrong person,” she said. Jail administrators were not much help to my stepfather during his frantic search: “One of them told me she probably ran off,” he said. “It was bad,” my mother said. “I fell asleep and woke up expecting it to be over but he [my stepfather] still hadn’t come yet.”

Meanwhile, the pain my mother sustained was twofold. She grieved at being falsely imprisoned, and later, for the emotional torture my stepfather and siblings experienced.

“When I was locked up I was crying, and this other woman in there told me, ‘Stop being a weak ass bitch,’” my mother remembered. “She told me if I didn’t stop crying for my kids she would snatch my wrist bracelet and walk out as me. So I stopped crying and tried to toughen up.” She found out later that the only man I had known as a father shed his own tears when he failed to locate her, which says a lot considering my stepfather belongs to the daft patriarchal old school that equates male tears with weakness. “That nigga was crying as he drove around looking for me with two BBQ dinners,” she said with a smile. My stepfather picked up two dinner plates for them that evening from one of St. Louis’s most iconic BBQ joints, Smokehouse BBQ. “She wanted BBQ that night and I was trying to surprise her,” he recalled.

After two days, with the help of a relative who worked for the city government, he found her at the city jail. Amazingly, she was still being mistaken for someone else, and so she was forced to pay $1,000 for the fines of the other woman. For my parents, as it is for most low-income people molested by our criminal justice system, $1,000 is a lot of money. “Shit. That was a $1,000 dollars out of my kids’ mouth,” my stepdad said, invoking my nine younger brothers and sisters. “That was grocery money.” The bogus fines my parents paid capture how the current system adversely impacts poor people, which is why, presumably, the woman to whom the fines actually belonged did not pay or show up to court. As fines escalate, jail morphs into a debtors’ prison housing the underprivileged. The woman with whom my mother was confused told me during a very brief conversation, “I feel bad that that happened to her and to y’all.”

Although authorities eventually acknowledged the identity mix-up, my family’s money was never returned. My parents, like most in my old west St. Louis neighborhood of Wells-Goodfellow, are hard-working, tenacious people — he a construction worker who finds jobs sporadically, and she a restaurant server. “The whole thing pissed me off and scared me,” my mother told me. When asked why she didn’t file a complaint with the police, the woman I still call Mommy asked me, in an irritated tone, “What the hell is wrong with you Juan? Who was I gonna complain to?”

As I was reporting this story, I discovered a trove of information that symbolizes how grossly incompetent our criminal justice system is when it swoops up poor people. Missouri court records show that my mother and the other woman were born in the same year. Court documents also indicate that clerks routinely misspelled the names of both women, which perhaps explains the mix-up. But judicial records fail to clarify why my mother was initially denied a phone call, or why the police chose not to process her when she arrived at the city jail. Worse, to my surprise, my mother actually pleaded guilty to the traffic charge. “I just wanted to go home,” she told me.

My mother’s guilty plea, like a scarlet letter, remains with her. Judge Jed Rakoff, writing last year in The New York Review of Books, explained why certain people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit: “The typical person accused of a crime combines a troubled past with limited resources: he thus recognizes that, even if he is innocent, his chances of mounting an effective defense at trial may be modest at best.” In other words, a wealthier woman with resources and an attorney never would have experienced what my mother did. Even more bluntly, the child of a white woman from Clayton would not have had to go to sleep at night, and awake in the morning, wondering just where his mother was.

When Mommy was disappeared by the police, I was away from home, but certainly no less furious. Her defeatist attitude and resignation about it all still stings eight years later. She is, by far, the strongest person I know. And yet that strength, which I grew up admiring, and which I have sought to replicate in adulthood, could not protect her when she encountered the police. Her strength was absent as she sat behind bars for two days, and it did not prevent St. Louis’s authorities from stealing her $1,000.

My mother’s gratuitous detention scarred her, and today she no longer drives in certain surrounding areas out of fear she will be stopped once more. And when I am her passenger, the anxiousness emanating from the driver’s seat is palpable and affecting. The arrest also impacted my four little sisters who, at that time, were all under the age of 10. The youngest, my baby sister, who we call Babe, was only a few months old. My stepfather couldn’t tell them where their mother was because he did not know. “When is Mommy coming home?” one of my sisters asked my stepfather.  He told me, “Man, I just broke down inside. I didn’t know what to say.”

Recently I contacted the St. Louis Police and Circuit Attorney’s Office about the stolen money, and instead of answers, was given the inevitable runaround. They refused comment on this specific case because it goes against department policy, a spokesperson claimed. But I now have this platform — thanks in large part to my mother’s resilient parenting — and I assured the police spokesperson there would be no rest on my end until my family receives an apology and reimbursement. If I have to write about l’affaire Thompson repeatedly, and badger city officials with my voice frequently, then so be it. I’ve reached out to civil liberties lawyers about the next step.

Unless one actually lives through such turmoil, he or she cannot fully comprehend the horrible feeling of not knowing where his or her mother is. No child should have to endure that sort of painful uncertainty, but, of course, America has an extensive track record of ripping black parents from their children. The institution of slavery attempted to erode the black family, while apartheid Jim Crow murdered black parents and left their offspring parentless. And today, as America’s sordid history forecast, approximately 1.3 million black children are partially abandoned, as their parents sit behind bars.

The distinction between the vicious slave state then and the grisly police state tormenting black folk now is minimal. In fact, today’s police departments can trace their origins back to America’s first slave patrol squads. Like their predecessors, contemporary police are surveilling black bodies, while protecting an economic order that exploits black people. To fill their coffers, governments like the one in Ferguson dispatch police to prey on low-income people who, in the St. Louis region, are inordinately black; conversely, the 19th-century American economy was a violent enterprise built on the black backs of enslaved humans. The profitable cotton industry, boosted by black slave labor, “powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization,” according to Edward Baptist’s 2014 book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Further, during the slave era tortured black people had no legitimate legal recourse to seek their liberation. Fast forward to now: my parents and others do not have lawyers on retainers, available at a moment’s notice to do battle with imperious police officers and powerful prosecutors.

This sinister cycle of oppression, which affords poor people so little latitude, is actively destroying the lives of black people who are living in a perilous state of purgatory, unsure of when and where to drive, always on the lookout for a gang who will steal their money, along with their freedom, and lock them up before shuttling them off to various counties for additional abuse. Such transgenerational trauma shows no signs of subsiding.

Countless black St. Louisians have stories that are similar to the ordeal my mother suffered. To give you further proof of how deep the rot goes, consider the following, just from my family alone. Once, while I was riding with my grandmother, she was pulled over by police and arrested. She had outstanding warrants for failing to pay traffic tickets, but in what humane world would the state arrest a grandmother, in front of her grandchild no less, and leave him on the side of the road waiting for a ride? Six years ago, an aunt could not afford to pay some traffic ticket or another, so instead of taking the risk of driving with a suspended license through the hellish surrounding counties to get to her job, she just quit.

To this day, she has yet to find steady employment. And she has never paid the initial ticket because she lost her means of transportation to her job after the revocation of her driver’s license. I only recently discovered that another relative, an uncle, is in jail right now for a traffic-related offense, even though he has already spent time in jail for the same violation. Strangely, however, the county is billing him for the time he spent in jail the first go-round. Naturally, said uncle, who struggles to pay his rent, is similarly unable to pay for his penal accommodations, thus back to jail he goes. And he too lost his job.

My family’s horror stories are far from unique. Cities with poor populations, and low tax revenue, make up the difference with fines. The Washington Post last September called such schemes “perverse”:

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.

In certain more sensible countries — e.g. Denmark, Finland and Sweden — authorities employ a sliding-scale system that allows citizens to pay fines based on their overall income. A similar practice would mitigate the unfairness of America’s present arrangement. Joe Pinsker, writing in The Atlantic, said, “Income-based fines could introduce fairness to a legal system that many have shown to be biased against the poor.” But until such reforms are implemented here, corrupt, financially strapped municipalities will continue to extort poor black people with what are essentially poverty violations — punishments for being poor. As such, Ferguson’s political economy is dependent upon police harassment, theft, and general mistreatment of the town’s poor black citizens. According to the DOJ report:

In a February 2011 report requested by the City Council at a Financial Planning Session and drafted by Ferguson’s Finance Director with contributions from Chief Jackson, the Finance Director reported on “efforts to increase efficiencies and maximize collection” by the municipal court. The report included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are “at or near the top of the list….” While the report stated that this recommendation was because of a “large volume of non-compliance,” the recommendation was in fact emphasized as one of several ways that the code enforcement system had been honed to produce more revenue.

Moreover, the officials who run some of these towns and cities are not just mephitic racists exchanging lame emails about black people like the gang in Ferguson. Some St. Louis County communities — like the aforementioned Pine Lawn — are controlled by black political actors. Yet this fact does little to assuage the understandable concerns of many poor black folk that not only are civic institutions not on their side, but the same entities are actively targeting and robbing them. It should be noted that historically, the impoverished towns and cities where black people live are the direct consequences of centuries of socioeconomic abuse directed toward (and the state’s neglect of) America’s most marginalized and long-suffering demographic. “It’s a crime and a scandal,” my mother said of the whole thing.

Against this scandalous background, one can only conclude that the regimes of the St. Louis metropolitan region, and their enforcers represented by the police, are rackets, deliberately and explicitly robbing poor black families of their limited financial resources. Libertarian and conservative activists should rally to the side of local demonstrators because the idea of armed agents of the state acting as revenue collectors ought to frighten any American — black, brown or white. Ultimately, though, I fear W.E.B. Du Bois was correct when he wrote, “A system can never fail those it was never meant to protect.”

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