by Anthony Papa, Mothers of the New York Disappeared and 15yearstolife.comOn February 5, 2004, an historic march took place at the Plaza de Mayo circle in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Traditionally for over 25 years, Argentina mothers have come to the circle to protest against the disappearance of their love ones from the despicable acts of the dictatorship of Argentina, which formed in 1976. What made the day different was that members of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared joined them. They came to Argentina to pay homage to the Mothers who had inspired them in their seven-year struggle against the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State. Two groups of mothers from worlds apart united against the violation of human rights.
It was a bright sunny day. The air was sharp as crowds of tourists gathered to watch the mothers prepare themselves for their vigil. Tens of dozens of elderly women, most in the twilight of their lives, entered the arena of hope praying that their dedication might somehow bring justice to the children of the disappeared. Old women from the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (http://www.madres.org), the most radical of several groups. began the march waving bright blue flags proudly displaying their logo. Women with hearts full of passion whose frailed hands held tightly onto a banner that read "Ni Un Paso A Tras!!" -- "Not One Step Back" when translated. A sea of white handkerchiefs adorned the heads of the Argentinean mothers as they gracefully marched in protest against atrocities that were committed against them and their families. They were unspeakable crimes against humanity. It is estimated that 30,000 people had been kidnapped and murdered in the reign of terror that existed from 1976 to 1983.
In 1973, a similar reign silently began in New York State. Men and women, many nonviolent offenders, were being convicted of drug crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. They had in fact disappeared from the roles they played in society. For over thirty years, these draconian laws have devastated and destroyed families, especially affecting the lives of children. Although it cannot be said that the acts of the legislature were of the same caliber as those implemented by the Argentinean dictatorship, the enactment of the Rockefeller Drug Laws has led to the systematic imprisonment of men and women of black and Latino decent. Over 94% of the population of New York State prisons are persons of color. It was not a concrete act of genocide, but no less a form of it, and for sure, a violation of human rights.
In 1998 the Mothers of the NY Disappeared was formed to fight to repeal these laws. In five years, using street level protests inspired by the Argentine mothers, they managed to change the political climate of New York State by putting a human face on the issue of the drug war. In 2001, for the first time in 27 years, the governor of New York along with the Senate and Assembly all agreed that the laws must be changed. However, for three consecutive years this was not done because of disagreement on what changes should be made. In the meantime, over 16,000 men and women convicted under these laws are wasting away in New York State prisons.
One member of the Mothers group from New York was Julie Colon, an aspiring actress whose mother, Melita Oliviera, a first time nonviolent offender, had served 13 years of a 15 to life sentence for the sale of cocaine before she was granted clemency two years ago by Governor George Pataki. "My mother had made a mistake, and she paid dearly for it" said Colon. "I am here to join with other mothers and family members to share the pain of losing someone dear. Although it was not final, the act of her being taken from my life for all those years was devastating to me." Julie was placed in foster care. Her case is representative of many others in the New York group, including Arlene Olberg, whose baby was born in prison while she was serving time under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
When asked if she was afraid to protest their actions, she responded, "Yes, it was dangerous, some of us were kidnapped and assassinated. But for the most part because we were women so they left us alone. They felt we were no threat." Their perseverance paid off. Recently the government has annulled two immunity laws protecting those who committed the atrocities, allowing the law to be able to prosecute them. She told us that "the new president opens his doors to us all the time because he belongs to the same generation of the children that disappeared."
It was a similar story that was told by a half dozen members of another group called the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora. Their office walls were adorned with photos of loved ones that had disappeared. Some of the women had pictures of murdered family members draped around their necks in the place of jewelry. A roundtable discussion took place, exchanging information about each groups' struggle. At the end of the meeting their leader suggested that she would write an open letter to the governor of New York State, asking him repeal the laws. The letter would be signed by many organizations that fight for human rights in Argentina. "We thanked them for their generosity and understanding. We went there not knowing how they would accept us," said Luciana, the wife of a former Rockefeller drug offender who attended the meeting. "Seeing these women gives me the strength to continue my fight to change these laws."
Some might argue that the families of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws have not suffered as the Madres in Argentina. But, I would point out that for thirty years the oppression of these laws has been felt in the context of the social death implemented by the punitive laws of New York State. There are haunting similarities which make one think of what the difference is between a democratic society and a dictatorship. For both groups of mothers, worlds apart, they are connected by their respective struggles. One day it is hoped that both groups find peace when justice is found.
In the second week of April 2004, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora will visit New York as guests of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice to meet with New York politicians and others to voice their protest. Visit http://www.15yearstolife.com/imothers.htm for more information on the schedule of events.
Anthony Papa is cofounder of the Mothers of the NY Disappeared. He served 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. His book "15 To Life" is being published in fall 2004 by Feral House.