In Tampa, cycling while black no better than driving while black.
In Tampa, cycling while black is no better than driving while black. Andrey Bayda/Shutterstock

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Paid for by Committee to Reelect Judge North, P.O. Box 27113, Seattle, WA 98165

It's now common knowledge that the police department and courts in Ferguson, Missouri, were not about maintaining law and order in the black community but farming it for budget-filling fees from minor traffic violations and municipal court fines. This is no exaggeration; this is exactly what the Department of Justice stated in its report on the matter: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs” (PDF).

With good reason, one might suspect that the lack of transportation alternatives that characterizes most suburbs played an important role in this form of systematic predation. The poor and working-class blacks of Ferguson were and still are dependent on a mode of transportation whose maintenance is not only expensive (insurance, fuel, repairs) but exposes them to a battery of traffic and vehicular rules and regulations that are easy to break and costly to settle. But a study recently conducted in another city (Tampa, Florida) by the Tampa Bay Times provided evidence that blacks on bikes can be as vulnerable to excessive fees (or fleecing) for minor infractions as blacks in cars.

The Tampa Bay Times found that the Tampa police had "written 2,504 bike tickets" over a period of three years, and 80 percent of those tickets were handed to black people (blacks make up 25 percent of the city's population). It is against the law to ride with no hands, or to ride with a person on the handlebars, or to ride with no lights. A ticket was even handed to a black woman who was pushing her bike with one hand and carrying a plate of fish and grits in the other, reportedly because her bike had no light. The police department's explanation for this uneven enforcement? Criminals are using bikes these days, and blacks are criminals (I kid you not). But in truth, the predatory system appears to have the same function as the one in Ferguson: filling budget holes.

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But why are blacks susceptible to this kind of austerity-era policing? Not too long ago, while waiting for an order to be filled in the Ezell's Famous Chicken near Columbia City, I met a local black comedian, the Big Funny, who told me a few of his jokes, one of which seemed a bit too serious. He asked: "Why did white police officers in Ferguson only hand traffic tickets to blacks?"

He answered: "Because they are scared of white people."

That was the whole joke. The eyes I looked at him with were utterly blank, and no laughter came out of me. The police truly do not fear poor and working-class blacks. But they do fear middle- upper-class whites. And they have to generate revenue somehow. And they can't tax or fleece with fees middle- and upper-class whites without real consequences. It appears we have a long way to go before this society really fears a black planet.

Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival returns October 16 through November 8
The all-digital festival features one-of-a-kind performances and panels streamed straight to you.