Here in St. Louis one often hears the expression, “Ours is the biggest small town in America.” What this means is that St. Louis is a provincial place composed of rigid strata of power divided by race and place. These starkly contrasting spheres are known to all. Staying in one’s sphere is essential to one’s well-being. But this, of course, is impractical when one must traverse many boundaries just to work, eat, live, play, and shop. There are hundreds of neighborhoods and municipalities in the region, and each has its own infrastructure of bylaws and expectations. North and West St. Louis County alone are mazes of tiny villages. Most of these villages have as their main sources of revenue fines paid by citizens, mostly non-resident minorities, for minor offenses like traffic offenses and such. Thus, police forces in these small pockets are always on the lookout for misdemeanor offenses by which they harass people, largely otherwise law-abiding African-Americans, to raise the money which provides for their own salaries. This leads to unnecessarily draconian and racist implementation of the law; just ask Nicole Bolden, St. Louis County resident and single black female. Her story is recounted in yesterday’s Washington Post by investigative reporter Radley Balko. I have reprinted excerpts of it here. It is not insignificant that it took an outsider to lay bare what all St. Louisans already know. The passive, conservative local media would not dare to expose the truth.
How St. Louis County, Missouri profits from poverty
By Radley Balko
September 3 at 1:30 PM
On March 20th in the St. Louis County town of Florissant, someone made an illegal U-turn in front of Nicole Bolden. The 32-year-old black single mother hit her brakes, but couldn’t avoid a collision. Bolden wasn’t at fault for the accident, and wanted to continue on her way. The other motorist insisted on calling the police, as per the law. When the officer showed up, Bolden filled with dread.
“He was really nice and polite at first,” Bolden says. “But once he ran my name, he got real mean with me. He told me I was going to jail. I had my 3-year-old and my one-and-a-half year old with me. I asked him about my kids. He said I had better find someone to come and get them, because he was taking me in.” The Florissant officer arrested and cuffed Bolden in front of her children. Her kids remained with another officer until Bolden’s mother and sister could come pick them up.
The officer found that Bolden had four arrest warrants in three separate jurisdictions: the towns of Florissant and Hazelwood in St. Louis County, and the town of Foristell in St. Charles County. All of the warrants were for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Bolden hadn’t appeared in court because she didn’t have the money. A couple of those fines were for speeding, one was for failure to wear her seatbelt, and most of the rest were for what defense attorneys in the St. Louis area have come to call “poverty violations” — driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration, and a failure to provide proof of insurance…
The Florissant officer first took Bolden to the jail in that town, where Bolden posted a couple hundred dollars bond and was released at around midnight. She was next taken to Hazelwood and held at the jail there until she could post a second bond. That was another couple hundred dollars. She wasn’t released from her cell there until around 5 pm the next day. Exhausted, stressed, and still worried about what her kids had seen, she was finally taken to the St. Charles County jail for the outstanding warrant in Foristell…
…By the time Bolden got to St. Charles County, it had been well over 36 hours since the accident. “I hadn’t slept,” she says. “I was still in my same clothes. I was starting to lose my mind.” That’s when she says a police officer told her that if she couldn’t post bond, they’d keep her in jail until May. “I just freaked out,” she says. “I said, ‘What about my babies? Who is going to take care of my babies?” She says the officer just shrugged.
“It’s different inside those walls,” Bolden says. “They treat you like you don’t have any emotions. I know I have a heavy foot. I have kids. I have to work to support them. I’ve also been taking classes. So I’m late a lot. And when I’m late, I speed. But I’m still a human being…”
…this was Bolden’s second arrest, and since Foristell’s municipal court was in session only once every two weeks, she would remain in jail.
The Foristell warrant stemmed from a speeding ticket in 2011. As mentioned before, Bolden didn’t show up in court because she didn’t have the money to pay it, and feared they’d put her jail. It’s a common and unfortunate misconception among St. Louis County residents, especially those who don’t have an attorney to tell them otherwise. A town can’t put you in jail for lacking the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed not appearing in court to tell the judge you can’t pay — and fined again for not showing up. After twice failing to appear for the Foristell ticket, Bolden showed up, was able to get the warrant removed, and set up a payment plan with the court. But she says that a few months later, she was a couple days late with her payment. She say she called to notify the clerk, who told her not to worry. Instead, the town hit her with another warrant — the same warrant for which she was jailed in March…
…Bolden’s bond was set at $1,700. No one she knew had that kind of money. Bolden broke down; she cried, she screamed, and she swore. She was given a psychological evaluation, and then put on suicide watch. She finds that memory particularly humiliating. Bolden would remain in jail for two weeks, until Foristell’s next municipal court session. She wouldn’t let her children come visit her. “I didn’t want them to see me like that,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think it was normal, that it was okay for one of us to be in jail. I missed them so much. But I wasn’t going to let them see me like that.”
We’re told that while Bolden was in jail “…she missed a job interview. She fell behind in her paralegal studies. When she finally got her day in court… ‘…I was sad, and I was mad,’ she says. ‘I smelled bad. I was handcuffed. I missed my kids. I didn’t feel like a person anymore.'”
Bolden’s story is not untypical of the African-American experience of living in St. Louis County, where justice and punishment are meted out unevenly. If you are in the upper strata, and white, you are unlikely to experience what Bolden did.