A few days ago, a national poll found that Alabama was one of the least politically engaged states in the country. Our recent voter turnout numbers of less than 40 percent – for a much-hyped midterm, no less – backed up that polling.
There are many reasons for the state’s lack of interest in basic political issues – everything from gerrymandering removing all mystery to a concerted effort to make the political process as mysterious and uninviting as possible by our state leaders.
But no matter the cause, the result is the same: the little guy gets screwed.
Over and over and over again.
While most Alabama voters couldn’t name their state rep or half of their city council, they continue to pay a hefty price for that lack of engagement. Just ask the poor folks in Valley. Or the poor folks in Brookside. Or the poor folks in Montgomery a few years ago.
You know what … just pick a town in Alabama and you can bet your last dollar that the poor folks in it are getting absolutely hosed.
Because while the small percentage of people in this state who are paying attention to political issues are being pushed towards national discussions about border walls and gas prices and defense funding, over at your town’s city hall, the actual issues that affect your life – that cost you real money – are being decided by a group of people who you largely don’t know.
A group of people who you’ve likely spent zero time arguing about on Facebook. A group of people whose names have never been on a flag flying on your boat. A group of people who you take pride in not knowing.
Because those local folks, they’re not important. Right?
The people in Valley might disagree.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of how Valley cops arrested an 82-year-old impoverished woman because she didn’t pay her trash bill. Maybe you were even outraged at the story of an elderly lady being handcuffed on a Sunday afternoon while standing on her front porch all because she let her trash bill lapse.
Maybe you thought that’s just crazy. Or that shouldn’t be. Or that can’t be right.
But here’s the thing: The town leaders in Valley didn’t hide what they were doing. And they’ve been doing it for quite some time.
Thanks to excellent reporting from CBS 42’s Lee Hedgepeth and more reporting from Alabama Appleseed, we know that Valley cops have locked up dozens of people for unpaid trash fines. And we know from Appleseed’s reporting that it passed a municipal ordinance in 2012 at a city council meeting making it a misdemeanor to not pay for trash services.
Now, a sane person – particularly someone who might run up against an economic hardship in the future and be in danger of running afoul of such a new law – might argue that the city has no business serving as a debt collector for a private company and certainly has no business turning what should be a civil matter into a criminal matter.
But see, here’s where that not paying attention thing comes into play.
The Valley town leaders, they passed this ordinance right out in front of everyone. They talked about it at other meetings. Discussed arrests for unpaid fines. They never hid what they were doing.
It’s just that the people who would be most affected by it weren’t there to hear it. Neither were the good people who would have heard such a hairbrained idea and pitched an absolute fit.
Now, before it seems as if I’m somehow giving the Valley leaders a pass here and instead blaming the victims, I am not. This is a despicable ordinance meant to prey upon the least of us and it’s hard to imagine a group of adults passing it and watching its effects without understanding the pain and suffering being caused. Anyone who had a hand in passing it should, themselves, be forced to spend a day or two in the county jail just on general principle.
All of that said, however, it’s up to all of us to protect ourselves. Our representative government relies upon us electing people who represent us and us engaging with those people to ensure they know what representing us actually means.
As our engagement numbers show, we’re not doing that.
And if we don’t start, we’ll continue to get the short end of the stick while the powerful and wealthy take advantage of a system that was built to give the little guy the loudest voice. If they’d only shout every now and then.