What shook me most about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by the police was their execution-style. Then, to complicate the violence, five police officers were killed in a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration a few days later.
Some would like us to believe that events like these signal a war between social justice factions, between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, between law-abiding citizens and criminals. But there’s an often ignored war that undergirds these killings and violence - and it’s the War on Drugs.
A systematic program that criminalizes illegal drugs and drug users, the War on Drugs has legitimized the use of unconstitutional actions and discriminatory practices, that disproportionately target Blacks and other people of color. Measures like stop-and-frisk without probable cause, and no-knock warrants to conduct paramilitary drug raids, give police too much power to use unchecked force.
When the prevailing image of a criminal is that of a person of color, it’s easy to see why, even in Vermont, Blacks and Latinos are four times more likely to be stopped by the police, even though whites actually carry more contraband. Nationally, while whites and Blacks use drugs at similar rates, Blacks are jailed on drug charges ten times more often than whites.
Other measures of the war on drugs like mandatory life sentences for three drug violations, no matter how minor, and mandatory minimum sentences where judges have no discretion to consider mitigating circumstances and alternatives to prison, explain why drug arrests now account for half a million people in prison. In Vermont, 5.8 percent of the state’s black population is in prison, a rate four times greater than for whites.
The good news is that Vermont is the one state where police did not kill anyone in 2015. But, as Vermont’s ACLU attorney Jay Diaz cautions, “Where the War on Drugs takes root, we see aggressive police tactics taking root as well.”
Despite the billions of dollars spent on the War on Drugs, drug use remains steady. I urge all Vermonters to continue on the path toward offering drug treatment and decriminalizing drug use, two major steps necessary for dismantling this failed war and reducing the violence it engenders.
Editor's Note: The statistic about Vermont referenced above from Fusion covered 2015 through August. Additional checking of the primary source, The Guardian’s database, documents the death of Kenneth Stephens, an armed white male killed in Vermont by the police on December 22, 2015 as a result of a drug raid.