Ferguson mayor James Knowles is not happy with the Department of Justice’s report about his city. Responding yesterday to the DOJ’s claims of widespread abuses of power and process by Ferguson’s police and courts, Mayor Knowles railed to the St Louis Dispatch:
“Their assertion is it happens regularly. Based on what? I’m not sure yet.
“Do they have a statistic that tells me that they’ve examined every arrest that we’ve made for the past four years and that half, or all, or 10 percent, or 5 percent are unconstitutional or without cause? They do not have that. They have not examined at that level that I know of at this point.”
Certainly if the DOJ’s findings accurately reflect a serious problem in Ferguson then Knowles should have known about it. This, after all, is a man who has long boasted of his obsession in “disrupting” how his city is run to ensure maximum efficiency. Which is to say, maximum profitability.
In early 2014, just a few months before the city of Ferguson exploded in street protests after the shooting of Michael Brown, Mayor Knowles, gave an interview to Missouri’s leading libertarian think-tank, the Show-Me Institute. In that interview, embedded below, Mayor Knowles explained the many wonderful benefits of privatization. When asked if there was anything he would not consider privatizing in Ferguson, Mayor Knowles answered:
“Really there isn’t much that we haven’t explored that we didn’t see was a good idea.”
And while Knowles did tell the Show-Me Institute interviewer that he wasn’t in favor of privatizing the police force itself, he explained that he was actively working to privatize law enforcement services:
“Even though I say law enforcement shouldn’t be privatized, there are many aspects of law enforcement that can be privatized, and again can offer assistance to law enforcement. We have red light cameras in the city of Ferguson. We have a speed camera which they’re installing currently. It’s been widely criticized that we have a situation where private industry will make a portion off the tickets that are issued.”
Indeed, as the DOJ report and others have discovered, much of Ferguson’s “offender-funded” criminal justice system and municipal budget begins with exorbitant moving and parking violations that then spiral into a ruinous cycle of debts, fines, and fees.
Ferguson’s privatized red-light and speeding cameras, which were challenged and criticized by Ferguson residents, were installed under dubious legal and constitutional means, as even Mayor Knowles acknowledges in his interview. For one thing, they ticket the owner of the car, rather than the driver of the car. There is also evidence all over the country of how the private companies that operate traffic violation cameras bribe officials, subvert democracy by suing to stop local anti-camera voter initiatives, tweak stop lights in order to increase ticketing (and private profits), and target low-income communities.
The company that contracts out Ferguson’s red light cameras, American Traffic Solutions, settled a class action lawsuit in Missouri forcing it to refund 20 percent of all 900,000 tickets the company issued in the state since 2005. Missouri’s state Supreme Court is expected to rule this year on the constitutionality of the privatized red-light and speeding cameras.
And yet, in his interview with the Show-Me Institute, Mayor Knowles held up privatized red light and speeding cameras as one of the best examples of privatized law enforcement services.
As I wrote last year, the blueprint for Ferguson’s “offender-funded” criminal justice system was first proposed by one of the men most responsible for creating the modern libertarian movement and taking it to local granular municipal politics: Reason magazine’s Robert Poole. Poole ran Reason magazine in the 1970s—a time when Reason ran overtly racist articles defending South Africa’s white-supremacist apartheid rule, and ran a special issue in 1976 promoting “the who’s who of early American Holocaust deniers” in the words of Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt.
At the same time, Poole worked for a DARPA spinoff in Santa Barbara tasked with studying privatizing local government. Why the Pentagon would pay Americans to study privatizing American cities is something that has yet to be answered, but in any event, in 1978, Poole used whatever knowledge he gained working for DARPA to set up (with Koch money) the Reason Foundation: The first American organization dedicated solely to privatizing local government.
Many people including Poole’s supporters say that Robert Poole either invented “privatization” politics, or at the very least, is responsible for popularizing an idea that was as obscure as it was frowned upon and marginalized.
Even before Reagan moved into the White House, Poole published “Cutting Back City Hall”—a how-to neoliberal primer on privatizing local government that some of Thatcher’s top advisers credited with influencing the Thatcher Revolution. In 1983, the Anglo-American world was going so fast in Poole’s direction that he could rightly boast:
“Four years ago when I was writing Cutting Back City Hall, the editor winced at my use of the term ‘privatization.’ Today, the term appears in the title of a book endorsed by people such as David Stockman, and nobody bats an eye.”
Under Poole’s editorship in the early 80s, Reason magazine published a big feature article headlined “The St. Louis Solution” calling for privatizing city streets, sidewalks and services, just as some of St. Louis’ richest and most segregated townships have done since the post-Civil War era.
Some 35 years later, it’s remarkable to consider the state of Ferguson today and how closely it resembles Robert Poole’s libertarian blueprint in 1979.
For example, Poole’s policy proposal for privatizing the criminal justice system called for exactly the sort of revenue-generating system that Ferguson uses today. Some choice quotes from Poole’s privatization primer nearly four decades ago:
“Make the users (i.e., the criminals) pay the costs, wherever possible.”
“[L]aw enforcement, like any other service, is essentially a business activity.”
In his interview with the Show-Me Institute, Ferguson’s mayor Knowles boasted of a variety of privatized services. That list tracks, almost chapter by chapter, with ideas first proposed in Poole’s book:
-Mayor Knowles: “We have an excellent trash company who handles all of our solid waste [in Ferguson].”
(Poole: “Chapter 7: Garbage and Solid Waste”)
-Mayor Knowles: “There have been partnerships, that are pseudo-private I should say, in Parks and Recreations.”
(Poole: “Chapter 8: Leisure and Recreational Services”)
-Mayor Knowles: “I know a lot of communities raise money [i.e., taxes] to have an ambulance service, but we do excellent with a private ambulance service.”
(Poole: “Chapter 6: Emergency Ambulance Service”)
Even the assumptions sound oddly similar, such as Mayor Knowles assumptions on privatizing law enforcement compared to what Poole warned his privatization-profiteer readers to expect.
Compare Mayor Knowles in 2014:
“Even though I say law enforcement shouldn’t be privatized, there are many aspects of law enforcement that can be privatized, and again can offer assistance to law enforcement.”
To Robert Poole in 1979:
“In many cases it may not be politically feasible, at this time, to shift large portions of police activity to a user-pays basis. But the cost of policing may still be reduced, by having the city purchased the service from the private sector.
“…There are many firms able and willing to provide some form of police service.”
Listening to Mayor Knowles explaining, not long before the shooting of Michael Brown, how privatization is the key to Ferguson’s success, one thing stands out: Knowles does not come across as some kind of unhinged anarcho-capitalist. The once-extreme ideas, first laid out in the late 70s by Robert Poole and his supporters and now promoted by people like James Knowles, have coursed their way through the system so thoroughly over the decades since—absorbed by both major parties, by liberals and by conservatives—that they’re now essentially motor functions in mainstream American politics.
And forget any hope that the awful events in Ferguson might cause a major rethink by Mayor Knowles and those who share his view of privatization-as-panacea. Two months after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, Silicon Valley’s libertarian hero Rand Paul flew into Missouri for a $ 5000-a-seat round table event to raise money for the Show-Me Institute’s “Privatize Missouri” campaign.