Country Club Hills. The name conjures up images of gated communities chockablock with gaudy McMansions and Maseratis that sit at the end of enormous gravel driveways; places with front lawns the size of football fields and guesthouses that are bigger than most regular houses. At least, that’s what came to my mind when I was asked if I wanted to go to Country Club Hills, Missouri and observe the goings on at their Municipal Court. When I actually got there, I discovered that none of the pretension, wealth or whiteness from the nearby Norwood Hills Country Club had made its way to the other side of Lucas-Hunt Road and it’s supposed namesake town. That’s not to say that Country Club Hills was some sort of sketchy neighborhood filled with ramshackle housing, but rather that it was much more working class than upper class. All in all, Country Club Hills gave off a bit of a Levittown-esque vibe, with the majority of homes looking like those minimal traditional kit houses that started cropping up everywhere after the Second World War. It was cozy, but it was not country club.
As we made our way through the .18 square mile city, I started straining to see where the Municipal Courthouse could be. With nothing but small houses around us, I thought a building as imposing as a courthouse wouldn’t be terribly hard to find, but in Country Club Hills it was because their courthouse was just…a house. And it was a ranch house at that. The only thing that set it apart from the other houses was a small sign in the front yard and a particularly large parking lot with a couple of police cruisers in it (this building was also their police station). It was already dark when we got there, but I could clearly see at least two dozen people standing out in the cold, presumably waiting their turn to go before the judge. I could also see that everyone standing outside was black.
At first glance it looked like everyone waiting outside was overflow from what was presumably a packed courthouse, but as I got out of the car and started talking with some of the folks in line, it became clear that the only people inside were the judge and a smattering of police officers and city employees. Many of the people there had been waiting in the cold for well over an hour for the doors to open, having gotten there early to beat the rush of ticketed residents that would have shown up on a less frigid evening. And, in a move that was equal parts cruel and baffling, the officials at the courthouse had placed a small space heater down in front of 10 empty folding chairs in the building’s garage, which sported a red “authorized personnel only” sign over it.
On a normal night when the temperature isn’t below freezing, the line would have stretched down the street with hundreds of people—almost all of them black—looking to pay off exorbitant fines on ticky-tack traffic violations that most Americans commit on a regular basis without thinking twice about it. Like the neighboring city of Ferguson, where nearly 33,000 arrest warrants for non-violent offenses were issued for a populous of 21,135 people, Country Club Hills has shown an unnerving proclivity for ticketing its predominantly black citizens and then hounding them for their money. As the courthouse doors finally opened and the courtroom that was probably designed to be a living room started filling up with frostbitten bodies, I spoke with a few people about the circumstances that had brought them there.
One person who shared her story with me was a young woman named Aschlynd, who had come all the way up from the South Side of St. Louis to pay off the small chunk of her fine that she could afford. Aschlynd had received her ticket in Country Club Hills when she was driving her friend’s truck to the store to help her run a few errands. When Aschlynd agreed to drive the truck, she had no idea that her friend had let her tags and registration lapse, but when an officer pulled her over for a broken headlight in broad daylight, she was informed that she was the one responsible for everything since she was driving at the time. It didn’t matter that on everything on Aschlynd’s own car was up to date and insured—she was suddenly liable for $800 in fines that she simply didn’t have the money to pay. Aschlynd, who is 23, had been planning on joining the Navy before she was ticketed, but was informed that she wouldn’t be able to enlist until she had paid off her fines, a process that could take months or even years with her limited income.
Aschlynd’s story was fairly typical of those I met with outside the courthouse and I had variations of it told to me all night. With one exception, every single person who showed up for court that night was black and, without exception, every black man and woman I talked to shared the smoldering resentment of the perpetually harassed. This was my first intimate encounter with such baldfaced institutional discrimination, but it was clear from the disgust and exasperation on the faces of those I talked to that, for them, this is a daily occurrence. It is easy to focus on high profile events like the murders of Mike Brown or John Crawford by law enforcement as the sources of the unrest and anger in places like Ferguson, but the incessant profiling and exploitation that occurs day in and day out in tiny courthouses like this one can cause just as much damage. Whether it’s a lunch counter in North Carolina or a bus in Montgomery, history has shown us that the little injustices in this world can mean just as much as the big ones. Ferguson isn’t just about justice for Mike Brown. It’s about justice for Mike Brown and all of the black men, women and children that live in his absence.
* A special thanks goes out to Mariah Randi Stewart, who is currently Huffington Post’s Ferguson Fellow and who was kind enough to drive me around the city and introduce me to the Country Club Hills Municipal Court, which I probably would not have come across otherwise. Follow her on Twitter at @MzzzMariah .