The People Still Left Behind

Inthis week, Tom Zeller puts the spotlight on what he rightly calls a "national disgrace": the grinding poverty that plagues rural communities throughout America, especially among minorities. And Radley Balko puts a seemingly routine traffic stop under the microscope, raising questions about profiling, civil rights violations, and bad cops.
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In this week's Huffington, Tom Zeller puts the spotlight on what he rightly calls a "national disgrace": the grinding poverty that plagues rural communities throughout America, especially among minorities. The numbers are staggering: 46 million Americans now live below the poverty line, nearly 60 percent of them minorities; the poverty rate among children in rural areas is about 27 percent (up 6 percent since 2000) -- their struggles and suffering not touching our country's moral consciousness.

In a desolate trailer park outside Laredo, Texas, Zeller meets Elia De La O and her husband, Rogelio -- legal immigrants who came from Mexico more than a dozen years ago. Their trailer has electricity but lacks running water; for this they must travel miles to a county-run spigot that dispenses barely-drinkable water, or else a water vendor in Laredo. As Elia puts it, the conditions are far from her vision of the American Dream when she was living in Mexico: "We didn't think when we came here that we would live like kings, but we didn't imagine there would be places like this."

Elsewhere in the issue, Radley Balko puts the spotlight on a routine traffic stop last December in Collinsville, Illinois. On their way back to Ohio after attending a Star Trek convention, filmmaker Terrance Huff and his friend Jon Seaton were pulled over by a police officer, supposedly for an unsafe lane change. However, just as they are about to drive away, the officer asks whether the men are transporting drugs, weapons or cash. Before long, a police dog is sniffing for drugs. The cop rummages through the mens' luggage. Finding nothing, he sends them on their way.

Balko uses the incident to put the mechanics of routine traffic stops under the microscope: the ways police interact with the people they've stopped; the ways drivers will consent to dubious police demands in order to avoid trouble; and new research showing that police dogs, so often used in traffic stops, are not nearly as effective as police claim. As Balko puts it, Huff's story -- and the stories of countless traffic stops no one will ever hear about -- raise "important questions about law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including whether improper financial incentives are inducing police departments to commit civil rights violations, the drug war, profiling, and why it's so difficult to strip problematic cops of their badges."

After the encounter, Huff made an open records request to obtain video of the traffic stop taken from the cop's dashboard camera -- a video which has since gone viral. In May, Huff filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Illinois town and the officer (who himself has a record including six speeding tickets and a conviction for selling fake designer sunglasses). It's material worthy of prime time TV -- and indeed, earlier this month, the ABC drama The Good Wife included a plotline directly inspired by Huff's case.

This piece first appeared in our FREE weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available in the iTunes App store.

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