Libertarians Find 'Common Ground'
by Ari Armstrong
[The following article originally appeared in the June/July 2001 edition of Colorado Liberty.]
The Libertarian Party's convention welcomed speakers who are sympathetic to many libertarian ideas but don't necessarily agree with the LP across the board.
Reggie Rivers -- former Broncos player, radio show host, and columnist -- spoke at the banquet May 19 and called for tolerance and limited state power. "Many people in the general population are committed to the brand of freedom they choose," he said. "People act on beliefs without thinking them through."
For example, Rivers noted it's ok to take a person out for dinner and a movie and then have sex, but if the cash equivalent of dinner and a movie is offered for sex, then that's illegal. He said that the general attitude seems to be, "If it offends, it should be outlawed." He added that our "system asks us to see beyond our own prejudices and see that people have fundamental freedoms."
Because of the tendency to pass more and more laws, police agents gain additional powers. "The government doesn't need any more power from us," he said. Unfortunately, we've reached the point where people regularly fall under suspicion. Rivers noted the recent Supreme Court case which decided moving away from a police officer counts as probable cause of wrong-doing. He said most of us have done something which would have sent us to prison had we been caught.
"We have to respect how much power we're giving to police officers," Rivers said, adding that sometimes the police get a little power hungry. Because so many Americans go to prison, "we live in a police state," Rivers said. In many cases an empty prison bed is seen as a lost opportunity to those who profit from the prison industry.
People in Chains
Christie Donner of the Prison Moratorium Coalition is also concerned about the prison-industrial complex. She noted the rapidly expanding prison population starting in the mid-1980s, due largely to accelerated enforcement of the drug war. "Drug offenses are the number one crimes for which people are incarcerated," she said, even though the average drug sentence is shorter than that for violent crimes. Indeed, prison expansion is the "fastest growing portion of the state budget," Donner noted. Sometimes entire communities become economically linked to prisons. "People are making money off of people in chains," she said.
Ironically, even though Donner would not often be considered in the same boat as conservatives, she had to "thank goodness" for TABOR restrictions which have prevented prisons from expanded even faster.
Drug prohibition has resulted in numerous other problems, including the "militarization and federalization" of our police forces. The central government is "taking control over states' rights like in no other area," Donner added. Asset forfeiture laws are "inherently corrupt" because they allow police to take property with no jury process or criminal conviction. The city of Boulder recently purchased a tank it's calling the "peacemaker" for use in drug interdiction.
"The weirdest thing about the drug war is nobody supports it," Donner said, "but publicly nobody wants to say it." Thankfully Donner is saying it, and so are Libertarians.
Bill Vandenberg of the Colorado Progressive Coalition disagrees with numerous libertarian positions, though he shares with libertarians the desire to cut out police abuses. Vandenberg said the convention was the first Libertarian event he ever attended. He praised the party for out-reaching to other groups and building coalitions.
During the legislative session, Van-denberg was instrumental in the passage of a bill to curb racial profiling by the police -- the topic of his talk. (He also worked with Donner and other activists in an attempt to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.) He discussed a survey published by his organization in which numerous Denver residents tell of racial profiling. He said racial profiling is a big problem in the Cole community, where Ismael Mena was killed by Denver police in a mistaken no-knock raid.
Vandenberg tapped into a theme that ran through the convention when he said the drug war creates a "police-state environment" which is also "a large factor" in the racial profiling problem.
He told the story of Josh, a 16-year-old whose car was searched for no good reason as he and his friends were called "wetbacks" by the police. A serious problem, said Vandenberg, is that "most people don't know what their rights are." He added, "We need to do a better job educating the public. People are scared to death -- and for good reason."
The bill to curb racial profiling requires Denver police and the State Patrol to collect data, and it requires all Colorado police to provide business cards whenever they don't issue a ticket. While the bill did not include everything Vandenberg wanted, it was better than Bill Owens' "toothless" executive order and the half-hearted efforts of the Denver Police Department, he said. His organization is also setting up a toll-free number where anyone can report incidents of racial profiling.