Deeper Lessons from Ferguson: Poverty and Justice (Part 2)

In the previous column, America’s love affair with violence was discussed as a core cause of the police homicide in Ferguson, Missouri. This part will examine the incident as a product of poverty and injustice. Sure some cops have racist tendencies, but there are even more systemic problems.

There are multiple drivers for crime, just look at Wall Street and Washington D.C., but a significant proportion of crime has roots in poverty. If you are poor, you are more likely to engage in burglary, robbery or selling drugs. Since millions of manufacturing jobs were sent to dictatorships in recent years, career opportunities are often limited to minimum McWage, and rarely bring significant financial security. You work your whole life and are still struggling to pay bills, and forget about luxuries like healthcare.

Poor people of all colors face these issues together, and suffer police brutality and other societal challenges as well. Overwhelmingly, when young poor people attempt to transcend poverty by relatively petty crimes like stealing or selling a little drugs and are arrested, they become further entrenched in the poverty they thought they could escape. Once arrested, it is much harder to go to college or get social services, but more importantly it is far harder to get a job, especially a good one.

This is painfully simple. Can you not see how making it harder for people to go to school or get a job vastly increases the chance that a “criminal” will engage in more crime, when facing extremely diminished opportunity? Also, once a petty criminal goes to prison, it is like going to college for a graduate degree in a more advanced crime.

There are inmate professors in meth manufacturing and organized crime, with extensive connections to far bigger drug suppliers than most petty dealers ever imagined. When I attended prison for selling small amounts of mushrooms and marijuana, people offered to teach me to cook meth and to provide me with kilos of cocaine upon release.

Our severe drug laws and entire criminal punishment system are extremely counterproductive at reducing crime. Please refrain from making me howl with laughter by calling it a criminal justice system. As mentioned, many petty criminals are motivated by poverty and lack of opportunity, and once imprisoned many become more serious criminals, and more violent. Excessively punitive laws and subsequent societal punishment after release from prison just cause more crime.

According to the New York Times article, “Prison is the Poverty Trap,” one in four blacks had a parent imprisoned during childhood. Some parents spend decades imprisoned, leaving children parentless and families economically crippled. When released from incarceration, earnings are reduced 40 percent for the average male.

So, we have vast numbers of poor people drowning poverty and crime with a feeling that it is impossible to escape this societal prison. There are far more bars and chains in the “land of the free” than most imagine.

A 2013 report by the International Centre for Prison Studies found that we have the highest prison population rate in the world at 716 per 100,000 population. This is far more than other advanced democracies where the median rate is 98 per 100,000.

This crushing oppression leads to unpleasant consequences, not just more crime, but widespread anger, despair, and violence. Furthermore, despair is also a root cause of drug addiction, which exacerbates the predicament.

Systematic repression of poor people helps cause murders like that of Michael Brown. It is not just police being racist, but also a body of corrupt, unjust laws that keeps people chained in a cyclical culture of prison, drugs, poverty and crime.

A Brookings report found that the unemployment rate nearly doubled from 2000 to 2012 in Ferguson, and the poor, mostly black, population doubled . Because so many black people are poor and desperate, many police automatically assume that most young black men are guilty of theft or drug dealing. However, the same goes for poor people of all colors. Then, add to the mix a cop raised in a militaristic culture of murder media where guns are sexy and killing is fun, and what do you get? Dead poor people.

If we want to be productive, we must not simply blame individuals for these problems. Blaming specific cops that are a product of a violence loving culture is just as useless as blaming individual criminals that are a product of a body of laws that perpetuate poverty and hopelessness. Instead, we must target institutions that are causing our sickness. These include unjustly punitive and unforgiving political, academic and economic policies, and various other policies that cause impoverishment and misery. As for overcoming all this, it all starts with raising cultural consciousness and campaign finance reform, but that is another story.

Categories: Legacy Archive