Organized Plunder

In the absence of the tax dollars city governments rely on, American are now funding themselves by fining the poor instead of taxing the rich.

Background painting: Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940

At the turn of the twentieth century, Brookside, Alabama was a mining town in the orbit of the industrial center of the New South, a region transitioning away from an agrarian economy and into an industrial one. From 1887 until its closing, the Brookside coal mine run by the Sloss Iron and Steel Company produced the coke that fueled blast furnaces in Birmingham. During this period, miners were both native born and immigrant white, the latter being especially constituted by Eastern European workers. They were also Black, a number of whom, we can presume, had been enslaved a mere twenty-three years prior. And some of them were convicts leased out for labor. But all populations took part in the wave of interracial union organizing in the Alabama coal fields led by the United Mine Workers. Despite the ongoing wedge being driven between Black and white workers to end the heydey of populism and to bring about Jim Crow, this group of miners still saw fit to reach across the color line and to organize together in a moment when the region--and the country–-depended on the fruits of their labor.

Though their interracial union fought against the overlapping and combined horrors of racism and labor exploitaiton, the moment should be neither romanticized nor condemned. As historian Daniel Letwin reminds us in The Challenge of Interracial Unionism, many of the same white miners who expressed white supremacist attitudes also took part in a union that provided a space where racial divisions were less stark than almost anywhere in their lives. In so doing, the Alabamians of the United Mine Workers developed a class solidarity that undercut the mine owners’ attempts to sow workplace divisions along the color line. Though they succeeded for a time, their efforts did eventually come to an end. When a strike shut down the Brookside mine in 1920, Sloss never reopened it. When the mines left and all that remained was the Russian Orthodox church of the Eastern European miners, Brookside seemed to be consigned to the past. No major industry took their place. According to the U.S. census, its population in 1920 was 666; today the town’s population is 1253, which means that the population barely doubled in the period when the U.S. population tripled. One could be forgiven for never having heard of Brookside.

The town’s loss of industry a century ago paved the way for Brookside’s recent return to news headlines. Without mining, the town’s people and government struggled to fill their purses. With civilians left to their own devices, forced to find wages on their own, the government recently adopted a new approach: overticketing and civil forfeiture (the police’s taking of any property that they allege is involved in a crime). In a recent bombshell exposé for, John Archibald found that “between 2018 and 2020, Brookside revenues from fines and forfeitures soared more than 640 percent, and now make up half the city’s total income.” Unsurprisingly, many of the tickets have been contested in court, and the police department has been accused of both racist practices and of fabricating charges altogether. Without industry, and hence without much ability to tax industrial profits, the local government has turned to ticketing and forfeiture as their primary means of filling their budget. Rather than mine for raw materials, the government mined its people’s wallets without helping them earn a living.

In some ways, this is not only the byproduct of lost industry; it’s also the byproduct of years of Alabama governance. In the same state where Dixiecrats distributed federal relief during the Depression in ways that excluded Black sharecroppers, state officials after Civil Rights equated big government intervention with integration, convincing their constituents to want smaller government and therefore lower taxes. This position was taken up by Republicans, who continued to decrease taxes, such that the state ranked 44th in amount of taxes collected per capita in 2014. For Brookside—a town of only six miles of roads, a one-and-a-half mile jurisdiction of interstate, and a Dollar General—this meant that there was no state support for filling the governmental budget. Without much tax revenue, Brookside took the path that one imagines many municipalities will begin to take. No longer will property or income or inheritance be the primary tax base, and no longer will there be a pretense that industry-fueled prosperity will trickle down into governmental budgets; instead, civilians will now be taxed indirectly by the police.

In this, Brookside took after another notorious town of the South: Ferguson, Missouri. Among the least expected aftermaths of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown and the rebellion in Ferguson was the Department of Justice investigation. The federal government had long pretended that police killings were justified or had refused to comment altogether. Strange as it was that the government would intervene, the results of their inquiry, published in March of 2015, were even stranger. It was predictable that the report would document a great deal of racist physical violence; in every noted instance of a police dog biting a civilian or of a person being detained for “resisting arrest,” the person was Black. But the report also brought to light another state assault that the federal government had long ignored: overticketing.

For the Ferguson police department in the 2000s and 2010s, ticketing functioned as a form of organized plunder. As the Department of Justice reported, one woman received a $151 fine for parking her car illegally in 2007. Over the next seven years, when she missed payments or court dates resulting from those missed payments, she received seven failures to appear, each of which produced new arrest warrants and more fines and fees. On two occasions, she tried to put money down on her debt, but the court refused anything other than full payment. By December of 2014, she had been arrested twice, held in jail for six days, and still owed $541, even though she had already paid more than four times the sum of the initial ticket. This was unjustifiable, in the eyes of the Department of Justice. This was a police department that willingly and regularly brandished not only the billy club but also the pen.

And when the Ferguson police did wield its physical weapons, it often did so in the way a stickup kid holds the gun but grabs the jewels, using the threat of violence to coerce civilians into paying up. “[A]rrest warrants,” the report concludes, “are used almost exclusively for the purpose of compelling payment through the threat of incarceration.” Elsewhere, the DOJ writes, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue.” This was a department of organized, armed robbers, but with one key difference: the badge. With this shield, they expected and often received impunity. This made the Ferguson PD more terrifying than a civilian robber. At least that person only has the arms they carry; the Ferguson PD had an arsenal and backup, to say nothing of the weapon that is the prison. And the Ferguson police reigned without fear of repercussion and without any means for accountability. Unsurprisingly, they turned tyrannical, transforming people into walking ATMs for the city’s budget. Those whom they robbed, it goes without saying, were most often Black.

On the political left, the DOJ’s extensive reporting on the department’s financial plunder met with outcry. But it also signaled a moment of realization. Jackie Wang, writing in Carceral Capitalism, describes the epiphany best:

After reading the report and researching this topic, I began to pay closer attention to news stories related to municipal and state finance. I realized that across the country, municipalities and states were increasingly dependent on the use of coercive extractive mechanisms that squeezed the people on the bottom for cash. What the fuck was going on?

The report revealed a disturbing development: Fines, overticketing, and more had become institutionalized and structural. Rather than tax the rich, local governments across the country preyed on the poor to fill budgets.

This pattern emerged from a long history of dispossession. As Walter Johnson chronicles in his history of Saint Louis, The Broken Heart of America, Missouri’s politics had long been directed by both the genocide of Indian removal, in which the state played a key part, and the violent labor regime of slavery. In the twentieth century, those compasses led Missouri writ large to extract white wealth from Black populations. And in the twenty-first century, as Johnson writes, the “historical amalgam of white privilege, corporate welfare, fiscal conservatism,” and more encouraged taxation through policing. This is not a simple metaphor. As the DOJ report found,

The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved. City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement.

The literal collusion between the purse and the billy club may have been denounced by the federal government and by critics of police violence, but it also broadcast a new strategy for both racial control and revenue raising. This technique was especially useful to regions across the South, which had long lowered taxes on the wealthy and thereby diminished municipalities’ ability to remain fiscally solvent. It offered the promise of balancing the budget without capitulating to increasing taxes or to funding the dreaded welfare that constituents so hate. Even better, it promised to write paychecks to the friendly neighborhood cop.

If Ferguson was a harbinger of what was to come, it was also a tragedy; Brookside was its recurrence as farce. The two are, in some ways, similar cities; Ferguson and Brookside are both an eighteen-minute drive from Saint Louis and Birmingham respectively, and both are peripherally attached to their local city’s economic corridor. But Brookside escalated Ferguson’s practices to absurd levels at an extreme pace in a significantly smaller locale. In 2018, Brookside had one full-time police officer. Earlier this year, it had thirteen. In absolute numbers, Brookside was a tiny town with a small police department. But in relative terms, the jump from one officer to thirteen was huge. Such extreme growth set the stage for the farce that engulfed the town. But the results were anything but funny.

To spur rapid growth, Brookside police plundered the town’s small population. The town’s median household income of roughly $38,000 was significantly less than the state’s median income of roughly $50,000. As a result, the cops targeted the same people over and over. In 2020, Brookside “made more misdemeanor arrests than it has residents.” That same year, the police averaged 1.7 tows and 4.4 arrests for every household in town. Rather than search for a large windfall in the form of taxing extreme wealth (a mainstay of Leftist policies) and rather than produce large amounts of wealth via prison construction (as California had), the police levied small charges on the poor, which was not unlike regressive cigarette or soda taxes. With enough tickets, they accumulated enough to fund a small branch of local government in a tiny municipality. Given the town’s relatively low income, the cops were skimming not off the top but off the bottom.

Directed mostly by profit and engaging with a relatively ordinary population, police justifications for ticketing quickly became absurd. Tickets ranged from charges for driving too close to another vehicle to driving in the left lane and to flickering car lights, all in a six road town. In one case, the police even charged someone found with a joint for possession and then tacked on a paraphernalia charge for the paper it was rolled in. Only in the eyes of money hungry cops could one object smoked in one sitting become two things, two charges, and two payments. As Archibald writes, “Brookside officers have been accused in lawsuits of fabricating charges…and ‘making up laws’ to stack counts on passersby.” This was not simply overticketing; it was gluttonous.

Brookside’s over-policing effectively privatized public space, making it a risk simply to leave one’s home. It also ballooned the city budget. In 2020, the police accumulated $610,000 from fines and asset forfeitures, which constituted nearly half of the total city revenue. As a result, the city’s revenue grew from roughly $580,000 to $1.2 million in 2020. What looked like a windfall for the town, however, was a problem for individuals.

In one case, Anyl Pascal was held in jail after a traffic stop. After five days, the town officials told Pascal that his bond was either $7200 or $8200 cash, a fee they claimed was necessary to fix the door that he had supposedly broken. In court, he pled guilty in the hopes of later appealing to the Jefferson County Circuit Court, and the judge ordered Pascal to pay “$7210 in fines and court costs.” When he and his attorney left, the judge then found Pascal guilty of nine more charges, which more than doubled his fines. This lacked even the appearance of a trial; this was a stick-up. Rather than tax to pave streets and rather than building toll roads, the police transformed roadways into a casino, wherein drivers are lucky to break even on one night but, over time, enough people would lose that the house would always make a profit.

This funding glut spurred rapid growth in the city’s police department. Over this period, the budgetary allotment for the police increased from $79,000 to $524,000 (a roughly 560% increase). Beyond the increase in twelve officers, paid between $12 to $16 an hour (not counting overtime), the department acquired a “riot control vehicle” that residents called a tank. (Given the low hourly wages, one imagines they took a pay cut to joyride in this so-called tank.) The chief had not only enacted his own jobs creation program but also formed a slush fund for such supposedly necessary devices for use as military vehicles. And he did so by draining the bank accounts of residents or those just passing through a small, impoverished town to employ a small coterie of bandits. At least in the protection racket dramatized in mafia flicks, paying off the mob actually did prevent them from breaking someone’s legs. Paying one ticket in Brookside offered no such guarantee of immunity.

Unsurprisingly, the local police turned tyrannical. In 2019, the second-in-command, James Savelle III, got drunk at a Dave and Buster’s and sexually harassed another customer. Though the police were called, Savelle pulled out his badge and said, “The police won’t do anything [b]ecause I am a police officer.” He was so disruptive that his peers arrested him. His bail? A mere $500, some sixteen times less than the amount demanded of Pascal. And yet he was only suspended a month before he returned to the job as second-in-command. As the police dispatcher at the time of Savelle’s arrest said, the mayor and the city council “saw dollar signs…They had blinders on.” He was one of the city’s cash cows. He could do no wrong. The point here is not simply that the Brookside police wrote too many tickets—though the point is not not that—so much as that the Brookside police used their position as violent fundraisers to act without accountability. The result was that the small impoverished town found itself the unwilling funders of a city government that increasingly financed the very police who robbed them.

One might hope that change is on the way. After Archibald’s exposé, Savelle, the police chief, and five other officers have stepped down (though it does not seem that the money has been returned from the city budget). Perhaps things will soon be different in Brookside. But when we think back to Ferguson, an uneasy suspicion unsettles our stomachs. Perhaps things did change there, but didn’t that city’s practices lay the foundations for Brookside? Is it possible that the Brookside police chief heard of the scandal in that Missouri town and thought not that it was reprehensible but that it could be reproduced in Alabama? After all, Brookside is not unique in its position as a town without an industry struggling to raise a budget after decades of the state lowering taxes. The same racket could be reproduced in central Pennsylvania, in north Florida, or in any of a number of places. Brookside’s transformation of people into assets may have been uniquely farcical, but the causes and the means of doing so are easily reproducible. Who knows where the next overticketer will arise?

For decades, Republicans and Democrats alike have made a litany of promises to return jobs to economically depressed communities across America that have seen their wages and benefits all but disappear over the course of deindustrialization. And it appears that a century after the closure of the Sloss coal mine, mining has once again briefly returned to Brookside. But rather than the extraction of wealth from raw resources, the local economy flourishing in Brookside today mines the people themselves. Every person the cops encountered was a new seam to open up and bleed dry. Daily life became financialized—existence was assetized—as a mechanism for revenue generation wherein every single act of navigating the world could be made illegal and subject to penalty.

Under conditions of little work and low taxes, public space became an increasingly lucrative holding for the state. Brookside, after all, effectively placed a transaction fee on moving through space. Whether commuting to work or parking at a friend’s house, every time someone used an automobile in a region where access to a car is a necessity to movement, an opportunity arose to be waylaid by a highwayman. If someone was unlucky enough, civil asset forfeiture could come into play. In this instance, someone did not even need to be charged with a crime; the police could merely take whatever cash they found or the entire vehicle and require a demonstration of proof that their newly acquired plunder was not in fact illegally obtained (a costly and time consuming procedure in and of itself). In all cases, the police took money out of the wallets of individuals who could only fill their wallets with wages. In a country evermore dominated by the experience of being nickel and dimed, the police have increasingly come to stand in for the mine operator, exhausting the value until there is nothing left to take, and the mine has become what money individuals can cobble together through the increasingly low-wage work available.

Policing has long intertwined punishment and work. As Mark Neocleous demonstrates in The Fabrication of Social Order, the state’s police power has historically enforced the discipline necessary for capitalism. In eighteenth-century England, for instance, the police ensured that people working on farms did not take home any of the literal fruits of their labor and instead only took home wages. Today, the ability to penalize monetarily, whether through the levying of the fine, the setting of bail, or civil asset forfeiture is part and parcel of the state’s enforcing the necessity of wage labor on a populace. After all, when the state provides no livelihood itself, one can only look to work to raise one’s bail.

Yet Brookside and Ferguson’s policing practices signal something beyond a mere extension of the police’s longer history. This is not only because there is little work to be found in many places where cops overticket. In Ferguson and Brookside, the police ticketing to fund themselves makes them a distinct class, accumulating for themselves. This is what makes them so dangerous. Think back on James Savelle III; he retained his job after obviously abusing the badge and a civilian in part because he did not rely on anyone else to fund his position. He could fund himself. In this, Savelle typifies the overticketing cop, focused directly upon their own expansion and proliferation, which is to say upon their own tyranny.

That the police are so successful at establishing their own power is due in part to the loss of work for so many others. In Brookside, for instance, the town may not have looked the other way on overticketing had the government already filled its budget via taxing a population that made livable incomes. And in Ferguson, city officials colluded with the police chief to raise a budget during and after the 2008 recession, when what little wealth could have been taxed in the region moved to other areas. Perhaps most worrisome, the economic problems that contribute to this kind of state plunder plague myriad regions in the United States. For all the right’s fears about defunding the police, cops are fully capable of funding themselves by robbing the rest of us. In a country so uninvested in the livelihood of its residents and so full of overly empowered cops, the growing financialization of daily life may entail not only the loss of work for ordinary people but also the police’s mining of more and more civilian bank accounts to fund the state, as it did in Brookside. Brookside’s recent history could very well become the future of many U.S. towns.

But even Brookside’s past is not past. Less than an hour away from the town’s abandoned mines, and more than a hundred years after the interracial union went on strike, over 1100 miners organized with the United Mine Workers of America have been on strike since April 1st, 2021 against Warrior Met Coal. In a Senate Committee on the Budget hearing organized by Bernie Sanders, “Warrior Met and Wall Street Greed: What Corporate Raiders are Doing to Workers and Consumers,” mine employee and UMWA member Braxton Wright testified that private equity firms taking over the mining operation has worsened deprivations for laborers. When asked by Senator Sanders how it felt to see private equity firms make extensive profits while the union members have been out on strike without a paycheck for almost a year, Mr. Wright responded: “It’s not fair. They exploit our work.” In this, Warrior Met is like the bandits of Brookside and the cops of Ferguson. And they remain vulnerable to those who, recognizing that they have nothing to lose because they are being robbed, hold the line.