Editorial: Awakening from Kemba's Nightmare 12/29/00

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David Borden, Executive Director, borden@drcnet.org

Six and a half years ago, Kemba Smith, age 22, was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in federal prison for a minor role in a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. Kemba became a cause-celebre after her case was featured on the cover of the May 1996 issue of Emerge magazine, under the provocative title "Kemba's Nightmare: A Model Child Becomes Prisoner #26370-083."

Last week, Kemba awoke from the nightmare, freed by President Clinton, a morning of freedom for herself, her parents and son. So did drug war prisoner Dorothy Gaines, now home with family in Tennessee.

Back in 1996, I remember seeing the title "Kemba's Nightmare" attached to a Richmond, Virginia post office box. Facilitated by the publicity provided by Emerge -- which was known as "black America's news magazine" -- Kemba's parents had launched a campaign to educate youth about the danger the criminal justice system poses to them if they are not extraordinarily careful; and to awaken the public to the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing and the need for change.

In every darkness is a glimmer of light pointing to its resolution. Through Kemba's plight, in part, and her family's campaign, a larger awakening to a particularly terrible kind of injustice has been sparked. How many political leaders, opinion leaders, ordinary people, were shocked into consciousness or action as the story and its actors wound their way into mailboxes, classrooms, parlors around the country? There is a very different dialogue on this issue, with a sharper edge to it, than in 1993 when Kemba's Nightmare began.

And now there is a third awakening, an awakening to hope: the knowledge that your voice, your appeal, might even reach the President's desk. Together, our call, our demand, on behalf of the other half million drug war prisoners, one day surely will.

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that Emerge did not live to see Kemba go free, at least not in the same form. Earlier this year, management at the magazine's parent company, BET, shut it down, promising instead a new magazine, Savoy, "offering entertaining and insightful articles that chronicle those people and events that shape the worlds of business, politics, sports and entertainment."

Ironically, the first issue of Savoy arrived in our mail the same week Kemba was released. The magazine included some serious content, to be sure, but whether it will meet the need for the regular, serious discussion of criminal justice issues that was provided by Emerge remains to be seen. That need is a strong one, within our minority and our majority communities. Emerge's editors can take pride in the knowledge that their boldness has left an evolving legacy in the form of one woman's freedom and a growing resistance to the "war on drugs" and the prison state.

Let us put that legacy to good use.

-- END --
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Issue #166, 12/29/00 Clinton Frees Kemba Smith and Dorothy Gaines, More Pardons Possible as 450,000 Non-Violent Drug Offenders Remain Behind Bars | Interview with Dorothy Gaines | Ashcroft Nomination for Attorney General Bodes Ill for Drug Policy Reform | Uruguayan President Becomes First Head of State to Call for Legalization of Drugs, Story Ignored by US Press | FCC Chastises Networks for Drug Czar's Media Campaign, NORML Complaint Brings Victory | Kubby Trial Ends in Mistrial, Eleven Jurors Accept Prop. 215 Defense | Which State Has More People -- Your State or the Prison State? | Urgent Action: Ashcroft, Clemencies, Hemp | NYC and Budapest Job Opportunities | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Awakening from Kemba's Nightmare
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