Javad Khazaeli, JD ’02, contributes to Chapter 2 of the In St. Louis project, which focuses on the fifth anniversary of the conflict in Ferguson, MO. The project is designed to explore — through the experiences, scholarship, work, and voices of St. Louisans — what it means to be in St. Louis today. It was developed by the Academy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in partnership with the Office of Public Affairs. Here is the excerpt:
Law school alum Javad Khazaeli has also seen how low-level offenses are used to justify policing — especially for certain people in certain communities.
As he worked with protestors clearing warrants, he regularly spoke to clients who “were being fined. They were being charged in ways that their neighbors five, six miles away who were doing the exact same things weren’t getting charged for.”
When he investigated those warrants, he says they didn’t make any sense. “These were almost always cases where the person was pulled over and they eventually got a ticket for either not having a registered vehicle or not having insurance,” Khazaeli says. “But when I’d look at the case, I would never find the underlying ticket as to why they were pulled over. There was never a speeding ticket. There was never running a red light ticket. They were pulled over for some reason and then, ‘Oh, we’re going to hit them with the tickets for being poor,’ because in St. Louis and in Missouri you have to have these registration fees and all of that.”
In St. Louis, “being poor” is often a proxy for something else.
“In terms of the people that we see targeted by the abusive local practices, they are poor people and they are Black people,” says Blake Strode, describing his work with nonprofit civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders, for which he is executive director. “And we know from all of the research that’s been done that there is a disturbing overlap between those two things. What you had in Michael Brown’s case was a young man who was initially stopped … for essentially jaywalking, for walking in the street. That’s the kind of low-level enforcement that only really gets carried out in poor Black communities.”
That kind of low-level enforcement also traps people in a cycle. After being cited for minor offenses, Khazaeli explains, people he worked with “would have a court date, get hit with a $300 fine, not be able to pay it, [and then get a] warrant because they couldn’t pay it.” But people still need to work, and “we don’t have a good public transportation system … so they’re going to try and get a job, so they’re going to borrow a car. They’re going to drive it. That car is going to be beat down and look like it’s poor. They’re going to get pulled over for a bullshit reason. They’re going to get another ticket.” And so the cycle perpetuates itself.
Though policing has received increased public scrutiny in the last five years, “In public policy, in the institutions and systems and structures that have been created, Black life has been devalued and diminished in every way,” Strode says. “Policing is often the front end of that, but it plays out in housing, it plays out in basic infrastructure, it plays out in climate justice, it plays out in terms of educational equity. Across the board, the systems that are supposed to serve all of us, that purport to serve all of us, actually too often are not serving Black communities, and particularly poor Black communities.”
Adds Strode, “You can think about policing as being the kind of catch-all for every other systemic failure. We’ve created conditions of poverty and crime and sent police in to contain it, and that’s really an injustice for the communities that are being policed in that way. It’s an injustice for the individual police [officers] that are being asked to do this job that they shouldn’t be asked to do, that could actually be more adequately accomplished by providing adequate supports and education and jobs and infrastructure. But instead what we have is relying on this punitive criminal legal system to just catch everything and keep it at bay so that some people can live the American Dream while others sort of suffer in this police state.”