A Fearless Vermont Foursome
State's Attorney Bobby Sand
Not a whole lot of optimism out there these days, eh? The Arctic ice cap, as we’ve learned in the last week, is melting much faster than any of the “experts” had previously thought. The superpowers are already laying claim to the territory and the oil deposits beneath the once ice-covered expanse.
Great. More oil to produce more greenhouse gases to produce more global warming. The profit motive is truly a wondrous thing.
Here in the United States, the worst president in American history, George “WMD” Bush, continues to occupy the White House (15 months left) and recklessly direct his endless, escalating bloodbath in the Middle East.
Most folks we talk to are just holding their breath and praying that January 2009 and a new president come quickly.
Meanwhile, prisons overflow and the criminal justice system sags under the weight of a failed “War on Drugs.”
And the richest nation on Earth has the most expensive, profitable and ineffective health-care system of any major industrialized nation.
Yes, indeed, it does seem like a bad movie.
But in the face of it all, brave people refuse to surrender. In the last few days, yours truly caught four whose courage and determination to speak truth to power keep hope alive.
The Prosecutor — Veteran Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand is known for his dedication to truth, justice and the rule of law. He’s also been a voice of sanity on the crime front, but, unfortunately, a voice few in power have echoed.
However, a recent study released by The Sentencing Project, “A 25-year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society” (http://www.sentencingproject.org), reaffirms what State’s Attorney Sand has been bravely saying for years: that the War on Drugs is bad public policy. It’s a disaster with dangerous and damaging side effects.
The facts are that drug arrests have tripled since 1980 to 1.8 million. Four out of five drug arrests in America in 2005 were for mere possession. And — are you sitting down, American taxpayers? — out of all those possession busts, 43 percent were for marijuana!
Murders and robberies are on the rise. America and Vermont’s courts and prisons are bursting at the seams, with cop time and court time sapped by victimless crimes, while more dangerous ones are being overlooked.
Closer to home, the Vermont Crime Information Center recently released its report for 2006 — see http://www.dps.state.vt.us/cjs/crimestats.htm.
The VCIC statistics make it clear, said Sand, “that marijuana arrests exceeded all other drug arrests combined.” Of the 2678 drug arrests in the Green Mountain State, two-thirds — 1758 — were for grass.
Yes, indeed. But only 290 cocaine busts, 102 arrests for crack cocaine and 57 for heroin.
Thank God for pot, eh, to keep the cops and courts busy?
“One of the significant harms,” Sand told yours truly, “is that when police divert their attention to marijuana, they’re necessarily not involved in investigating other crimes. We had something like 1700 marijuana arrests last year,” he noted. “Every one of those encounters is probably two to three hours of police involvement with the citizen, a couple more hours of paperwork, prosecutor time, judge time and then either court-diversion time, public-defender time, possibly probation time.”
And the world is a better place, right?
“What we really need is someone like our state auditor [Tom Salmon] to look at the overall expenditures in time and money,” said the prosecutor. “I think everyone would say — regardless of whether people think we should change our marijuana laws — they’d say there are greater evils out there that the police ought to be focusing their attention on.”
The recent local burst of armed robberies is evidence of the demand.
Prosecutor Sand also told “Inside Track” that, while he has no interest in a gubernatorial run at this point, Progressive Anthony Pollina would make a good candidate.
“I think if [Pollina] did run,” said the Democratic State’s Attorney from Windsor County, Tony the Prog “would bring some of these issues to the forefront and that would be a good thing to have happen because, unfortunately, Gov. Douglas doesn’t seem interested in talking about it.”
It’s high time, said Sand, “to try something different, to change the marijuana laws.”
He suggested the legislature make pot possession merely a ticket. Pay a fine. It would reduce cop time, court time and jail time. It would mean “a huge savings in criminal justice time and expenditures.” And such a law, he said, could have a “sunset provision” built in.
“And if the world comes to a crashing halt because we’ve reformed our marijuana laws,” said Sand, “the sunset provision will save us.”
The Vermont Legislature, said the courageous state’s attorney, “just has to have the courage to take the first step.”
The fact is, he concluded, “drug-policy reform and prison reform are inextricably linked. I don’t think you can have meaningful correctional reform until you start doing something about drugs.”
The Soldier — Matt Howard, 26, of Burlington served four years in the Marine Corps. Two tours in Iraq with the First Tank Battalion, First Marine Division. He was there for the initial invasion in 2003.
Today he’s active with Iraq Veterans Against the War (http://www.ivac.org) and recently returned from Australia, where he protested President Bush’s appearance at the APEC Summit. Got more press coverage there than he and his vets group get here at home.
Here in Burlington, Vermont, or anywhere in America, Howard told us, the Iraq war “seems a million miles away, and that just adds to the alienation that veterans feel when they come back, when they see that disconnect. You know, one percent of the population is shouldering the burden of fighting this war. Yes, we volunteered, but we didn’t ask to do it alone.”
Indeed, the media appears to have frozen out the antiwar veterans. Recent protests in Washington and Syracuse received scant coverage.
“Since I’ve got back, that’s been the disconnect,” said Howard. “How do you reintegrate into society when you realize everyone’s just going on as if it’s business as usual? As if there’s not a war going on?”
Yours truly, 31 years older than this Marine, was having a little Vietnam flashback. A flashback to the 1960s, when a different White House also lied to its soldiers about what they were giving their lives for.
Howard is continuing the good fight, however. He says IVAW is starting a “truth-in-recruiting campaign, and I’m trying to get myself in the classrooms and high schools around the state to talk to kids, to tell the realities about what military service is and what combat actually consists of,” he told us.
More and more, bit by bit, the truth is getting out about Iraq. The Blackwater USA private-security slaughter is the latest scandal to break, but Howard noted people in the movement have known about U.S. malfeasance for some time.
“There I was in Iraq in 2003 without any body armor. When did that story break? Two years later!” Howard said.
Still, the story did get out. And today the vast majority of Americans dearly want our troops out of Iraq and George Bush out of the White House.
“Maybe we are getting somewhere,” said the Iraq war vet. “Finally.”
Matt Howard isn’t giving up.
The Nurse — Jen Henry has been a nurse for 20 years — 16 of them at the Mary Fanny on Hospital Hill in Burlington. And Jen Henry, wife and mother of four, loves being a nurse.
“I love people’s stories,” she told “Inside Track.” “As a nurse, a lot of what you do is connect with people’s stories, because how they feel has a lot to do with how they need to heal.”
Nurse Jen, who describes herself as an “idealist” and an “optimist,” has also been the courageous lead organizer and president of the Fletcher Allen Health Care nurses’ union, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month.
“When we organized, we had 1100 nurses, and we had an over 13 percent vacancy rate at Fletcher Allen,” said Henry. That’s a vacancy rate of nurse positions unfilled.
“Now it’s our fifth-year anniversary,” said Nurse Jen, “and we have 1650 nurses and we have a 4 percent vacancy rate, while the national average is 8.5 percent. So we are solving the nursing shortage at Fletcher Allen, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Happy nurses make for good medicine, eh?
Ever since she started working at the Mary Fanny, said Henry, she “felt the place had a soul. We just had to bring it back.”
The Senator — Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders held his own Sunday service this week from 10 a.m. to noon in a packed South Burlington High School cafeteria. And the Reverend Ol’ Bernardo got twice as many cars in the parking lot as the Methodists down the road did. Nice chow line. Good music from a fiddle and banjo, and a 30-minute sermon from the senator followed by 45 minutes of questions from the parishioners.
“One thing a lot of us are disturbed about is that the United States’ standing in the entire world is at an all-time low,” said Sanders. “All over the world people are saying, ‘What is going on in America?’”
“That is a bad thing for a lot of reasons,” continued Bernie. “It is a very bad thing if you want to draw the whole world together to fight international terrorism, which is not just a threat to the United States but to the whole world.”
The bottom line, Sanders told the almost 200 non-church-goers, is that since President George W. Bush launched his invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda, the guys behind the 9/11 attack on New York, “have expanded their influence significantly.”
“In many ways,” said Sanders, “if you were Osama bin Laden, you could not have dreamed that George Bush would be doing all of the things that he has done to make your life easier.”
But as long as voices like Ol’ Bernardo’s are growing stronger by the day, there is light ahead, mes amis.
“I would like to see the United States government use its resources not just to arm, to spend billions on weapons to put into people’s hands all over the world, but to help those countries with health care, education, environmental issues,” Vermont’s junior senator said.
Not such a radical idea, is it?
“There was a time that some of us can remember when this country was so highly respected and looked up to by all the countries in the world,” he
Ol’ Bernardo recalled when President John F. Kennedy toured Europe in the early 1960s and “hundreds of thousands turned out waving American flags.”
When our current president goes around the world, noted Sanders — a senator from the only state Bush has declined to visit — “you have hundreds of thousands of people out demonstrating against him.”
But the times are indeed a-changin’ — not fast enough for many, but changing they are.
“Bush’s ideology of right-wing extremism,” Sanders told the faithful, is backed by only 5 to 10 percent of the populace — “the very wealthiest people and the right-wing fundamentalist religious groups. That’s about all they’ve got.
“I remain profoundly optimistic,” said this voice of hope, “the vast majority of the people agree with our vision for the future of this country. We are the vast majority,” Ol’ Bernardo told the crowd, “and if we get our act together, if we mobilize people, we can beat them.”
Better days ahead, eh?