Black Lives Matter: Advocating for Racial Justice in St. Louis County

A class action law suit has been filed to challenge a racially charged and discriminatory money-making scheme established and enforced within St. Louis County.

A class action law suit has been filed to challenge a racially charged and discriminatory money-making scheme established and enforced within St. Louis County.

Thomas B. Harvey - Executive Director and Co-Founder, ArchCity Defenders

Thomas B. Harvey - Executive Director and Co-Founder, ArchCity Defenders

Holistic Legal Advocacy by ArchCity Defenders Shines Spotlight on Over-Policing and Racial Discrimination, Combatting the Criminalization of Poverty

In May of 2016, Quinton Thomas, a native St Louisan was pulled over in Beverly Hills, a Missouri town of 574 people that is 93% black and receives 26% of its general revenue from court fines and fees. Mr. Thomas was driving his friend to a barber shop to get his haircut when he was stopped by police for having a “busted front bumper.” In the past three years, Mr. Thomas has been pulled over, arrested and jailed for unpaid traffic tickets, and as a result he has lost two jobs and one vehicle, not to mention days of his life, and a sense of safety when he gets behind the wheel.

Mr. Thomas is not alone, and is the lead plaintiff in a class action filed simultaneously against thirteen towns by ArchCity Defenders in partnership with Arnold & Porter, a D.C. law firm. The lawsuit also alleges that thirteen towns in St Louis have conspired to run a debtors’ prison scheme by using one central town’s jail.

Systemic policies of racial profiling, over-policing, over-ticketing, arresting and jailing provide the blueprint to understand how people and communities of color are exploited and extorted for money in St Louis and across the country.  The constellation of consequences from this predatory localized legal system include but are not limited to the loss of liberty, jobs, housing, vehicles and custody rights.

ArchCity Defenders is committed to providing holistic legal advocacy and combating the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color. ArchCity Defenders represents a unique approach through integrating direct services, impact litigation, and policy and media advocacy as its primary tools to promote justice, protect civil and human rights, and bring about systemic change on behalf of the poor and communities of color directly impacted by the abuses of the legal system.

Before the murder of Mike Brown in August 2014, ArchCity Defenders conducted a court watching program, interviewed community members and documented the systemic racially discriminatory and unconstitutional practices employed by said police departments and municipal courts to generate excessive revenue.  ArchCity Defenders published that report highlighting the systemic failure of the legal system through studies of Ferguson and two neighboring St. Louis towns, Florissant and Bel-Ridge, shortly after the uprising in Ferguson began.

Crisis gives people license to look at and write about things in a way that they already should be. Over the past two years, ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm based in St Louis has represented clients, brought impact litigation and national censure of the underlying issues that rest at the heart of community protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and numerous cities across the country.

Logic would lead most people to believe that after ArchCity Defenders' court watching program and subsequent reports, that after Mike Brown, the Ferguson uprising, and successful impact litigation, municipalities in St Louis would establish meaningful and permanent court reform and thoroughly eliminate systemic, predatory practices.

Quinton Thomas was pulled over, arrested and jailed in May 2016 for his inability to pay traffic tickets and court fees.

Quinton Thomas was pulled over, arrested and jailed in May 2016 for his inability to pay traffic tickets and court fees.

In the past two years, police departments, municipal court systems, city prosecuting attorneys’ offices, and jails in St Louis County have continued to terrorize thousands of people, primarily low-income people of color, deliberately to extort money. In February 2015, ArchCity Defenders sued the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, for running modern day debtors’ prisons, for arresting and jailing people for not being able to pay on minor traffic tickets they’d received as a result of over-policing.  In September of 2015, ArchCity Defenders entered into a landmark settlement proposal with the City of Jennings, which entails a $4.7 million settlement and commitment to re-establishing constitutional practices, a few examples include: elimination of cash bail, establishment of a meaningful inquiry into a person’s ability to pay and not issuing warrants or jailings for the failure to pay.

While ArchCity Defenders celebrates legal victories, like the historic settlement with Jennings, it’s important to reiterate that over-policing and racial discrimination keep the fabric of St Louis County’s municipalities stitched together to some extent. Quinton Thomas was still pulled over, arrested and jailed in May 2016 for his inability to pay traffic tickets and court fees. He spent time in jail because of unpaid traffic tickets, a civil rights violation that ultimately exacerbated his financial situation by forcing him to miss work and lose his vehicle.

ArchCity Defenders’ clients, who are overwhelmingly poor and black, have been saying it for years: this isn’t about public safety; it’s about racism and money, and it’s not just happening in Ferguson.  This most recent lawsuit, Thomas v St Ann (Case No. 4:16-cv-1302), brings further attention to the racially charged and discriminatory money-making scheme established and enforced within St. Louis County.  Before Mike Brown’s murder and after it, municipalities have exploited low-income communities of color to make payroll. ArchCity Defenders is committed to ending debtors’ prisons in St. Louis and to setting a regional precedent that ends Constitutional violations and systemic racism.


Compton Schools Can Do Better For Trauma-Sensitive Children

There’s a saying in Spanish that goes, caras vemos, sentimientos no sabemos. In English it means, “We see faces, but we don’t know feelings.” I like to make people smile and help them, and I’m told that I seem like a really happy and positive person, but I’ve been through a lot.

When I was little, my mom struggled with drug abuse and often got into relationships with men who were abusive or drug addicts as well. When I was two or three, the man she was dating sexually abused me. This is one of my earliest memories.

Poisoned by Uranium, Navajo Nation Seeks Justice

Flint, Baltimore, Philadelphia ... Churchrock?  The list of communities facing drinking water crises is ever growing, but some communities don’t get mentioned in the media or the halls of power.  When the Flint water crisis made national headlines, Americans were shocked that any community's drinking water could be sacrificed just to save a few bucks.  But contaminated water is a fact of life for many communities impacted by this nation's fetishistic fascination with atomic power. 

The Navajo (or "Diné" in their native language) village of Churchrock straddles a dusty arroyo called the Puerco River in the northwestern corner of New Mexico.  This inauspicious village is ground zero in the fight to prevent uranium mining from doing further damage to the land and its people.  To fully understand the current fight, one must look to history first. 

Isabel's Story: Justice In The Face of Wage Theft

After a few weeks, all of us working on the night cleaning shift realized there were problems. The man who hired us stopped coming to work and did not pay us on time. When we tried to contact him, he refused to answer our calls. A supervisor from another company came and told us to keep working, promising that we would be paid. We were all eager to keep working and earning money, but the pay checks weren’t coming...

Just Doing Their Job? The Structural Roots of Police Abuse

I recall my first contact with police as a middle schooler.  Two of my friends and I, all Black youths, were walking in our neighborhood.  San Francisco’s Richmond district was diverse but mostly White then.  It was a dark early evening.  As the three of us were walking, a police car pulled up.  The officers ordered us to empty our pockets.  They searched us without asking for permission or explaining why they had stopped us.  Finding nothing illegal, they departed without explanation or apology.  We knew they had stopped us because we were Black.  To them Black kids in a “White neighborhood” was synonymous with suspicious.  They didn’t beat us or kill us.  So the physical toll was light, but the psychological effects were deep.  Afterward we had to question if the police would protect and serve us. 

Reproductive Justice for Foster Youth

When S.H. entered the foster care system at age twelve, she had already suffered years of sexual abuse by her stepfather. She was around seventeen and a young mother, when her county welfare agency placed her in a Promesa Behavioral Health group home. Upon arrival, the group home made S.H. sign a document promising that she wouldn’t engage in sexual activity while she lived there. 


Have you been infuriated by your State’s failure to limit toxic pollution from mines and other industries? If so, here’s how you can have your say and stand up for environmental justice.

Current federal regulations have a huge loophole right in the middle of the Clean Water Act permitting program. 

Border Patrol "Ice-Boxes" Are Inhumane

Landmark Settlement for Asylum Seeker Detained by Customs and Border Protection paves way for changes to system

“I was forced to leave my home country after receiving threats from a man who had held me hostage and assaulted me. I was sure he would kill me. I had a stable career but knew the only place I could be safe was the US. I walked through the desert for two days. I was desperate to get to a hospital because I am diabetic and have heart problems.

Immigrant Injustice: It Started as a Normal Day at Work...

Immigrant Injustice: It Started as a Normal Day at Work...

It started as a normal day at work. I was a cashier at Lam’s Supermarket. One minute, I was ringing up someone’s purchases; the next I looked up and there were Sheriff’s deputies everywhere. I didn’t know what was going on but I could tell something was wrong and texted my mom to tell her that the police were there. The deputies came over to handcuff me, take my phone and my purse away. I couldn’t stop crying and no one would explain to me what was happening. 

Fighting For Environmental Justice In The Flint of California

Matheny Tract residents first received notice in 2006 that their drinking water, provided to them by Pratt Mutual Water Company, was contaminated with an excessive amount of arsenic. Pratt Mutual’s distribution system was deteriorating, and residents were clearly paying the price. Matheny Tract is a small, unincorporated community made up of 1,200 residents. The majority of the population is Latino, and almost a third of the residents live below the federal poverty line. Since the community is unincorporated, residents can’t vote in city elections and don’t have access to municipal services.


Native Voters Turned Away at Polls Sue North Dakota

Tribal elder, Dorothy Herman, voted in North Dakota for more than 40 years - until 2014, that is, when a new state law meant she couldn’t obtain acceptable identification for that election, no matter how hard she tried.

So, earlier this year, she and six more Native voters who were disenfranchised in 2014 filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s recently enacted limitations on the types of documents that can be used to obtain a ballot.

Judge Rules Texas Foster Care System Unconstitutional

In her Dec. 17 ruling against Texas' foster care system, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack was scathing. For more than two decades, she wrote, the state has created a situation where "children have been shuttled throughout a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm."

I was one of those children. I was born in Dumas, deep in the heart of West Texas. I entered the foster care system shortly before my 10th birthday. My mother was an addict — meth being her drug of choice — and would routinely beat me when she was high.

Fighting for a Lifeline

“The last time I was shut off, I panicked,” says Penny Medeiros, who has a condition that requires 24-hour electric powered oxygen. “I tried to pay what I could and got help from charities to pay National Grid, but they wanted more and then they shut me off. I had to use my emergency supply of battery-powered oxygen and was getting ready for the ambulance. Then Senator Reed’s office called them and I got my service back on.”

Arrested Just For Being Homeless

Janet Bell, a resident of Boise, ID, became homeless more than ten years ago, but it was only after she was arrested for sitting outside that she took the city to court.

Janet, who lost part of her left arm, and nearly her life, from an infection that she caught living outside received her first of multiple citations simply for sitting on a riverbank with another individual. Janet, like most homeless people, couldn’t afford to pay the tickets and eventually she was arrested. The city targeted many other homeless individuals in this manner.

Their Day in Court: Obtaining Justice for New Mexico’s Poorest Workers

Robert was attacked by a bull while working at the dairy where he had been employed for seven years. His injuries left him permanently disabled. He had no health insurance and no workers’ compensation. In almost constant pain, he could not work. Although his wife began working three jobs, they still lost their home. Two years later, the strain broke up their family. Robert became homeless and estranged from his children.

Gun Violence – We’ve Had #Enough!

Bullets and Basketball – Taking the Profit Out of Supplying Gun Criminals

It was an August night, and Danny Williams, a rising high school junior, was playing basketball near his home in Buffalo, New York. Danny’s coach said he “could have been one of the best point guards in Western New York.” That was before the ball bounced into a neighbor’s yard, before Danny went to pick it up, and before, out of nowhere, a car drove up, a gun emerged from the driver’s window, and fired a bullet into Danny’s abdomen.

Danny was a good kid. It was just a case of mistaken identity: wrong place, wrong time. Danny survived, but his dreams of playing basketball at a NCAA Division I college and beyond, died that August night.

Danny’s shooter, it turned out, was a known gang member who mistakenly believed Danny was a member of a rival gang. Police found the shooter’s 9mm Hi-Point handgun on the floor of his car when they arrested him.

The story of how this Buffalo gang member got his gun tells us a lot about how criminals are armed in America—and how we can stop it.

When Is A Park Not A Park? - Saving Coney Island Boardwalk Garden

One if the issues in the Coney Island Boardwalk Garden case that I discussed in my previous post boils down to a simple yet vexing question:

What is a park?

To most of us, a park is the playground down the block; the soccer fields where our kids play; the riverfront where we picnic and walk our dogs. But what about those lands that are open to the public but lack the grass or trees that we generally associate with parkland? What about beaches, or lakes, or sandlots? And what about land that is used like a park but actually sits on private property—like gardens outside of commercial buildings, or college campuses, or outdoor malls?

Here, in the Coney Island case, we have a plot of land was owned by the City, managed by the community as a park and garden, used for distinct park-related purposes, and labeled as a park on nearly every city map (though not, it must be noted, on the official hand-drawn borough map, which can be viewed only by visiting the Brooklyn Borough President’s office).

In other words, we have land that bears all the hallmarks of a park, yet lacks an official “park” designation. This then lead to the next question: Why at all does this matter?

A Fresh Start For Asylum Seekers

A Fresh Start For Asylum Seekers

ABT Class Action Settlement agreement enables asylum seekers to live out of the shadows

Ms. M- is a young, indigenous Guatemalan woman who fled severe domestic violence and discrimination in Guatemala to seek asylum in the United States. She arrived at the U.S. border in December of 2014, was detained by immigration, and transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. With the help local advocates and community members, who raised a bond for her, she was released from detention. However, her first immigration court hearing was not scheduled until over a year later, in April of 2016.

Under the old system, before the ABT settlement agreement, this would have created untold hardship for her as she would not have been eligible to even look for work to support herself. First, by law she would be required to wait until the next hearing, in April of 2016, to submit her asylum application. Then, she would not be eligible to even apply for employment authorization until six more months had passed.

A parent’s perspective on inclusion of children with disabilities

A parent’s perspective on inclusion of children with disabilities

I have discovered the key to inclusion of people with autism in school and the community. You see, it is all a matter of perception. Instead of trying to explain my son through the confines of autism, I have discovered a much more enlightening explanation. I now tell people that he’s French. After all, the signs are there: He speaks an incomprehensible language; has a unique style of personal grooming, demonstrates a disdain verging on revulsion of American cuisine, and is maddeningly aloof.

Justice for People with Disabilities – Huronia Class Action

Justice for People with Disabilities – Huronia Class Action

Imagine living in a cramped and segregated hospital-style ward, with no privacy, no personal control over your daily life, no chance to form intimate relationships, and no ability to leave. Overcrowding, under-funding, a lack of qualified supervision, as well as a lack of residents’ abilities to advocate for themselves, led to these toxic environments being a daily reality for widespread alleged abuse for thousands labeled with cognitive and developmental disabilities in Canada as recently as 2009.