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Ways of Seeing, Joanna Colwell: Let's work to make laws just for all

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Posted on October 5, 2017 |
By Joanna Colwell



Last weekend I joined a whole lot of Middlebury people outside the college art museum, where we were treated to the amazing sight of dancers suspended on ropes, dancing on the vertical wall. The dance troupe, Bandaloop, combines the skills of rock climbing and dance, and creates performances on skyscrapers, bridges, natural cliffs, and historic sites all over the world.

After watching two performances I felt uplifted and buoyant myself. If people can dance on a wall, springing and flipping through the air, maybe anything IS possible! Now my challenge in the weeks, months, and years ahead is to hold that sense of possibility, like a cool lump of clay, and knead it and shape it and form it.

Our group, Showing Up for Racial Justice, is part of a national effort to get white people to take action against racism. Some of the issues we look at are mass incarceration, unfair disparities in sentencing, unequal access to resources like healthcare and education, and police brutality. At first glance, these seem like intractable social problems, and I would be lying if I told you I never felt hopelessness and despair about these injustices.

But when I pay close attention to what is happening right here in our community, I see where I might be able to take action. Let’s take the example of mass incarceration. You are probably aware that the United States leads the world in the number of citizens incarcerated. For-profit prisons, draconian drug laws, mandatory minimums, and the bail bond industry all contribute to this mass deprivation of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But did you know that our little state of Vermont leads the U.S. in racial disparities: while Black Vermonters make up only 1.2 percent of our state’s population, they account for 10.7 percent of Vermont’s prison population!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t live with this. It is unacceptable to me. I actually know what it is like to be in jail. I spent a week in the Humboldt County Jail in 1990, after being arrested for blocking a logging road to protect a section of Headwaters Forest in Northern California. I took part in this group civil disobedience because I wanted to save a tiny remaining sliver of old growth redwood forest in my home state. I got arrested on purpose and I do not equate the fact that I have spent time in jail with the horrific suffering endured by communities of color.

I am only telling the story to you, gentle readers, in the hope that you will spend some time contemplating what it means that in this beautiful country of ours, we lock up so many men, women, and children. As you read these words, a judge somewhere is sentencing a young person to years behind bars. Can you imagine what it is like to not be able to see your family, taste your favorite foods, play outside?

I support the legalization of cannabis because it is an important step in ending the travesty known as the War on Drugs. When the United States experimented with the prohibition of alcohol, from 1920 to 1933, there were a great many unintended consequences. One of these unintended consequences was the creation of organized crime networks to distribute the hugely profitable, now illegal substance.

In transporting contraband across borders and for long distances, it made sense to traffic in the most concentrated product. So while countless vineyards and breweries were shuttered, the strongest possible proofs of liquor were being distributed through unregulated, untaxed networks.

Sound familiar? Statistically cannabis is way safer than alcohol. Alcohol is super dangerous. But we don’t respond to the danger with prohibition. We tried that and it didn’t work. We regulate and tax alcohol. We use some of that tax revenue to educate about the dangers of impaired driving and to enforce laws to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors. It’s not perfect but we keep working on it.

The War on Drugs has been a decades-long exercise in prohibition and it has failed miserably. If making substances illegal was  effective, the United States would not be experiencing a massive opioid crisis right now. By the way, states that have legalized cannabis have seen a 24 percent decrease in opioid DEATHS, and if that is not reason enough to regulate and legalize immediately, I don’t know what is.

Now back to Vermont, and its place in the national debate about drugs, prison, and racism. By the time you read this, the Middlebury Select Board will have made some decision about whether to endorse the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ position against the legalization of cannabis. I hope they voted to move us away from prohibition and towards sensible regulation. But I guarantee you, I am going to keep working on this. I have a vision that we will turn away from punishing people and towards helping them. I want all our communities to have equal rights and protections under the law. I want the laws to be just.

Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected]

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