Race, class, and the burden of proof
Thomas Harvey is known around St. Louis as one of the fiercest champions of municipal court reform.
But he wasn’t always this way.
Years before his law firm, Arch City Defenders, was put on the map for blowing the whistle on problems in the region’s municipal courts in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, Harvey was a law student out to save the world.
But before he could do that, he had a big hurdle to overcome: believing the stories he was being told by those he set out to help.
“People don’t listen to poor people. They don’t listen to black people in America,” Harvey told us in this week’s We Live Here episode. “And if you’re poor and black, almost no one listens to you.”
Of course, Harvey did start listening — and believing — poor people and black people. But it took time.
And this change in his worldview — about race, class and believability — had a domino effect.
Ultimately led to one of the biggest public policy changes post-Ferguson.
Harvey didn’t always know he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up.
For a long time, he thought he was going to be a French professor. Then, while pursuing his doctorate, an early-life crisis hit.
Spending the rest of his career teaching basic French to beginners didn’t sound appealing.
“I started thinking, I want do something else,” Harvey said, “ … to have some connections to what’s going on in people’s lives.”
Harvey packed up and headed to law school at Saint Louis University.
When he got there he became friends with John McAnnar and Michael-John Voss.
By their third year of law school, Harvey and his two buddies were helping poor people work through legal issues.
Much of the time, those people were black.
“Looking back I’d say I didn’t know anything (about black people),” Harvey said.
Nevertheless, Harvey and his friends were committed to the work. The people they tried to help all had the same combination of needs.
“Those folks needed a job. They needed treatment. They need housing. They need the things we all need,” Harvey said.
So, the three guys decided to try to meet those needs by creating their own law firm. At this point, it was just fantasy.
Until one night, over beers, the trio made up their minds to go for it.
They started Googling around and found a law firm called the Bronx Defenders which was already doing all the stuff Harvey and his friends wanted to do.
Harvey made a cold-call to the firm’s CEO, Robin Steinberg.
“At first, I was amused that a third year law student would just call up out of the blue and say, ‘Hi. I want to create this office that’s taken you guys 15 years to create,’” Steinberg said.
Steinberg told Harvey he should focus on what she calls “mission creep.”
“My advice to him was to basically pick something you do really well, defend someone with everything you can and think deeply about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and from there you can build everything else,” she said.
That made sense to Harvey.
So he and his friends took Robin’s advice and created the nonprofit firm, the Arch City Defenders, as soon as they passed the bar exam in 2009.
They started small, taking clients here and there while they worked at other law offices.
Often, they found their clients at the St. Patrick Center, a homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis.
“What we very quickly figured out was that the primary legal problem these folks had was with the municipal courts. That was overwhelmingly the case,” Harvey said. “And they would say repeatedly, from the first day, ‘This is not about public safety. They stopped me because I’m black and they’re exploiting me because I’m poor.’”
Harvey didn’t believe them.
“Everything they told me was at odds with what I learned in law school, in spite of the fact I’ve seen those things when I was in the city courts,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”
It should have.
It’s no secret black people have disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.
For more than a decade, the Missouri’s Attorney General’s office has consistently found that black drivers are far more likely to be pulled over in St. Louis County.
That’s true in many places across the U.S.
But even for self-proclaimed enlightened whites, they haven't always believed what black people have been saying, despite the facts. This breakdown in believability between white people and people of color is one of the most frustrating things about the black experience in America. It's what is known as the burden of proof.
“Nobody wants to make these things up. You don’t get credit for being discriminated against. That doesn’t make you feel better,” said Stefan Bradley, who runs the African American studies program at Saint Louis University. “So this burden of proof … it only works in terms of black people and race.”
Why is this?
Matthew Taylor, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said it comes down to human nature.
Humans need order, consistency and safety, he said.
“One of the ways we do this in the face of a world that has all sorts of threats, we form these world views,” he said. “So, I know, at the end of the day, the world operates this way.”
This world view becomes a road map of sorts for how people understand the world.
When race is plugged into this system, it just intensifies in-group, out-group thinking, Taylor said.
The good news?
Taylor said humans can re-map their world view — if they take the time to expose themselves to and understand others.
But, he said, many people find it easier to just avoid that.
“What that’s essentially doing is forcing us to suspend how we look at the world, how we know the world, how we structure it, and say there’s other ways to do that,” he said. “And at the core of humanity, that’s very threatening.”
And, it takes time.
Harvey said it took him more than a year to take seriously what his black clients were telling him about the problems in the court system.
Soon after this personal awakening, though, something else started to bug him.
Harvey came to realize that the web of 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County worked like one giant machine that fuels generational poverty.
Particularly troubling, Harvey said, were the court fees and warrants that make it almost impossible for some people to resolve their legal issues.
It has become, Harvey said, a matter of life and death.
He said people caught up in the system, those jailed for things like warrants and speeding tickets, were so distraught by the situation that they often mentioned suicide.
“They will casually mention they thought about killing themselves,” Harvey said. “Because they didn’t know when they were going to see their children. They didn’t know when they were going to get out. They thought they’d never get out of jail.”
All this prompted Harvey and his partners at Arch City Defenders to come up with a procedure to keep poor people who couldn’t pay their fines from going to jail.
They wrote a template for a motion that requested warrants be dismissed for people who couldn’t pay.
They did this in municipal courts all over St. Louis County.
“We were learning we could have a hundred lawyers going out to these courts and there would still be a need,” Harvey said. “That’s when we began to think we need to do something about this on a systemic basis.”
So, Harvey started talking to other lawyers and judges in the municipal courts, trying to convince them that the system needed fixing.
Many, he said, brushed off his concerns.
Suddenly, Harvey was up against his own burden of proof.
In search of advice, Harvey and his partners headed south.
They took a road trip to places like the Southern Poverty Law Center, and started picking the brains of other poverty law experts.
After a week, they came back to St. Louis with a plan.
They decided to write a white paper that would document all the problems they see in municipal courts.
To collect information for the report they started a court-watching program that put volunteers in courtrooms to observe operations and collect written testimonials from the people using the courts.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that they finally had enough money to expand the project.
Coincidentally, the city of Ferguson was one of three places they chose to focus on.
Then, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson.
Harvey admitted it didn’t immediately click for him that the shooting and municipal courts issues were linked.
He said protesters helped him connect those dots because in their outrage they pointed to the injustices African Americans faced in the courts and in dealings with police.
So even though it wasn’t quite ready, Harvey decided to release the results of Arch City Defenders’ investigative white paper. It was just a few weeks after Brown's death. Harvey posted the white paper on the law firm’s website and start tweeting about it.
Journalists from all over the world pounced.
The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Ferguson’s police department and courts.
Politicians vowed to fix things and lawmakers approved a law that limits how much money cities in Missouri can raise from traffic fines. In March, a judge said that law — the only significant public policy change to come after Brown’s death — was unconstitutional.
The local legal community has made some changes though.
Judge Frank Vatterott is in charge of the Municipal Courts Improvement Committee.
“I think most of those judges and prosecutors and court clerks are not biased overtly, but they didn’t realize that the systems and techniques resulted in racism,” he said.
In the past year, Vatterott’s committee helped usher in reforms that included recalling thousands of warrants. Municipal courts in St. Louis County also promised to charge the same fines for infractions like speeding.
Vatterott said he’s seen a shift in thinking.
“Even some of the worst offenders have come around,” he said.
Not everyone is buying it.
Harvey and other critics say the public should be wary of trusting the people in charge of a system that they say mistreated so many for so long.
Others argue those reforms have been taken over by people who just want courts to consolidate.
Vatterott acknowledged it probably wouldn’t have taken so long for the issues in municipal courts to come to the surface if the people raising the alarm were white.
Harvey said this is a point that can’t be lost in the debate over municipal court reforms.
Everybody in the community ignored what was happening, Harvey said.
“It wasn’t the DOJ that figured it out,” Harvey said. “The people already had it figured out. And nobody was listening to them. Because they don’t listen to poor people and black people in America. St. Louis is not alone in that.”