Oppression and the Power of Elections


R.L. Nave

A few years ago, when I visited home for the holidays, I called a good friend so that we could hang out, see his family and catch up. When I couldn't reach him over the course of the few days I was in St. Louis, I just assumed he was too busy doing the holidays with the wife and kids and hadn't gotten a chance to hit me back.

A few weeks later, he called me. A day or two before Thanksgiving, he'd been pulled over by the police and an old warrant popped up. It was for a relatively minor traffic offense, but with the fines and fees that built up over the years, the violation was then worth a few thousand dollars.

It would be cheaper and ultimately more efficient, he reasoned, to just spend a couple weeks in the county jail to wipe out the "debt" and have peace of mind.

I've recounted this story several times, and a lot of people wince at the idea that someone would choose jail over scraping up the cash. And I get the feeling that their bewilderment has less to do with what people know about the conditions of most American jails than the stigma of having gone to jail.

So last year, when the U.S. Department of Justice issued its investigative findings that the City of Ferguson, where my grandmother lives and a white cop killed Mike Brown, was using black motorists as its municipal piggy bank, people around the country asked how African Americans in St. Louis could tolerate such oppression.

Easy—we didn't know we were being oppressed. On some level, there's a sense that the system (i.e. police harassment of young black people and its progeny: tickets, court dates, bench warrants and jail time) is unfair, racist, oppressive. But as far as I was concerned, that's just how our world works, and all we can do is to figure out how to survive.

Survival goes something like this: Let's say I get a $300 traffic ticket in a city—let's call it Oppressionville—that has suggested to its police officers to target motorists who look like me. I don't have the money to pay or can't make it to Oppressionville Municipal Court because I can't get out of work or don't have access to childcare.

In the back of my mind, I think that I'll scrape up the cash somehow, some day, but in the meantime, I figure out alternate driving routes so that I never have to pass through Oppressionville. I decide not visit friends or apply for jobs there because I know the fines are increasing, and there's probably a warrant out for my arrest. Then one day, while driving through a nearby town that has an inter-local agreement with Oppressionville, I'm stopped, they find my warrant and hold me for the Oppressionville Police Department.

I go to jail. Maybe I spend a few weeks in jail and get the fines wiped from my record, but for missing those few weeks, I might also lose my job and face eviction. A taillight goes out on my car, but I don't have an extra $7 to replace it right away.

You can see where this is going—right back to Oppressionville. Granted, I broke the law, but the only reason I got caught breaking the law is because cops ignored other scofflaws to target people who look like me.

This is just one of many cycles that poor people in America spend their whole lives maneuvering. It is also one of the many cycles that oppressors exploit to keep people in poverty for a tangible, economic benefit. Long before there was an America, feudal lords would imprison peasants for stealing chickens or poaching deer. When Europeans sailed to North America and invented the United States of America, the practice fell out of favor and debtors' jails were ostensibly outlawed, at least for white people.

A new opportunity emerged after the Civil War. Mississippi and other states in the former Confederacy needed ways to rebuild its economy and keep black folks subjugated, and started using vagrancy laws to compel African Americans to either work for white landowners or be thrown in jail. Black people were often then leased out from jail to white landowners who invented systems like sharecropping that kept tenant farmers in perpetual debt to white landowners.

At some point, white supremacy no longer required fat cats in smoke-filled rooms throwing around the N-word to be self-sustaining. It became drug policy and disparate sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. It's a vital part of the Southern Strategy.

When the hard problems that come with poverty (e.g. crime, failing schools) in a city like Jackson sends people fleeing, it's keeping Jackson Public Schools underfunded to benefit suburban schools. It's the Legislature ignoring the City of Jackson's budgetary requests. It's Jackson having to shore up fiscal deficits with traffic and municipal court fines.

It's quality-of-life policing that presumes a person with a broken taillight might also not be able to show proof of insurance and, thus, more revenue. It's the school-to-prison pipeline. It's unequal pay for equal work. It's denying poor women access to abortion and forcing them to have children they and their communities cannot afford. It's using poor people as a piggy bank—and Mississippi, the nation's most impoverished state, has been profiting off poor folks for too long.

You might be asking yourself what all of this has to do with the Nov. 3 statewide election, which is the focus of this issue. Well, oppression is on the ballot, y'all. I don't beat the drum of "If you don't vote, you can't complain" or think my ancestors would roll over in their graves if I sat out on an election.

However, I do think elections present an opportunity. First, I'll make a general appeal for eligible voters in the next week to find something that makes it worth to go to the polls Nov. 3. If you like your local elected leaders and think they've done a good job representing the people, re-elect them. If you think it's time for a change, vote them out.

Secondly, for what it's worth, I plan to vote for Initiative 42. Having covered state government for a few years now, I'm not naive enough to think that public schools will be transformed into palaces after Nov. 4. Whatever happens will be tied up in legislative and legal posturing for a long time, and will likely color other elections in the future.

In the near term, the passage of Initiative 42 will be mostly symbolic. Yet, as we are witnessing in this historic debate over Mississippi's troublesome state flag with the Confederate emblem and the University of Mississippi's decision to lower the flag, there is power in symbols and a tremendous amount of power in people coming together to demand that symbols change.

In Mississippi, that change can't come under the banner of racist oppression. But it also can't happen until Mississippi decides that public education is critical to our state's future. We can achieve this by passing Initiative 42 and by electing leaders who are sick and tired of the belligerent maintenance of Mississippi's suffocating status quo.

On Nov. 3, I'll be voting and hoping the election results in change.

I hope you do, too.

Email news tips to R.L. Nave at [email protected]


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