Wisconsin's best known drug policy reformer, Weedstock organizer Ben Masel, was pepper-sprayed and arrested by University of Wisconsin-Madison police as he collected signatures for his senatorial campaign the evening of June 30. He was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting a police officer, trespassing, and remaining after being warned to leave, all misdemeanors.
The long-time activist was at the UW Memorial Union collecting signatures during a hip-hop concert when two union managers told him he could not solicit signatures on the property and asked him to leave. Masel "politely declined," explaining that he is allowed to collect signatures on public property. The managers again asked him to leave and called campus police when he failed to do so. Campus police officers John McCaughtry and Michael Mansavage accosted Masel, pepper-sprayed him in the eyes, then pepper-sprayed him again while he was on the ground and restrained.
Masel -- whose is only accepting contributions of $1 -- said he never struggled with the officers and would have gone along willingly if the police had asked. "If they had said something along the lines of 'Mr. Masel, you're under arrest,' I would have put my hands behind my back and complied," he said.
The entire incident was witnessed by -- among others -- Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who told the Wisconsin State Journal Masel wasn't bothering anyone. "I didn't feel Ben was causing any disruptions," Cieslewicz said. "I certainly didn't feel he was disrupting my evening at all. I didn't see a reason to remove him from the terrace."
Wisconsin Union assistant facilities director Roger Vogts told the Journal the Memorial Union has a policy forbidding people from handing out literature, collecting signatures, or similar activities. "We don't want people coming in, going table to table, bothering people," Vogts said.
But the union has been inconsistent in enforcing its legally questionable policy. In the wake of the incident, the Capital Times contacted several politicians who said they routinely solicited signatures at the spot where Masel was arrested. They were never asked to leave, let alone assaulted and arrested, they said.
The UW Memorial Union and its cops picked on the wrong guy, as Masel is notorious for winning lawsuits against state and local officials for violating his rights. He has filed and won lawsuits against Dane County for blocking his leafleting at the Harvest Festival, against then Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) for denying permits for the festival and over the issue of amplification at the festival, against the city of Madison over leafleting the US Conference of Mayors in 2005, and against a community college and the city of Madison for being arrested while leafleting for an anti-drug war district attorney candidate. Masel's biggest win (and payout) came in Sauk County, where the county had to pay him $95,000 after illegally arresting him during the 2000 Weedstock festival.
He is also suing police in Kansas City over a 2001 incident on an Amtrak passenger train. Masel was traveling from Albuquerque to Chicago when police boarded the train and asked two young men to consent to a warrantless search of their belongings. Masel stood and informed the young men they had the right to refuse a search, after which police arrested him for obstruction of justice. He is seeking punitive damages for violation of his free speech rights and compensation for repeated trips to Missouri to fight the case against him, which was eventually dropped.
Now the university's Memorial Union will be the next to face a Masel lawsuit, he told DRCNet. "First, I'll be defending against the criminal charges, and then I will be bringing a countersuit on behalf of the campaign for violating free speech rights and against the officers for excessive use of force," he said. "There was not even a smidgen of justification for that second spraying when I was on the ground with the guy's knee in my back. The unnecessary force claim will focus on that one that they have no defense for. And I have some great witnesses," Masel laughed. "The mayor was sitting only eight feet away."
The incident has aided his signature-gathering effort, Masel said. "It's been a lot easier to collect signatures since I got pepper-sprayed," he said. "And the state Democratic Party chair, who had promised me a speaking slot at the convention, but then didn't have me on the list very quickly, turned around and gave me a slot after my arrest."
Masel, whose activism has taken place under varying banners, said he was running as a Democrat because the incumbent, Herb Kohl, did little and because the party claimed it was open to grassroots activism. "There's been a lot of rhetoric from Howard Dean and the state Democratic Party here about how the party is more open now, so I decided to test them. They haven't quite passed with flying colors, but they haven't failed the test, either," he said.
While he is known primarily as a drug reformer, Masel is not emphasizing the issue -- because he doesn't have to. "I'm so known statewide on drug policy, I don't actually have to talk about it much. The reporters will always ask me about it." Instead, he is emphasizing concerns about the Patriot Act and related electronic privacy issues and says his first bill as senator would tighten the War Powers Act to make it more difficult for presidents to take the country to war. "I'm trying to break out of the one-trick pony thing on drug policy," he said.