Los Angeles Shadow Convention Energizes Reformers for November and Beyond 8/22/00

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(For comprehensive coverage of the jam-packed schedule, visit http://www.shadowconventions.com on the web.)

Overflow crowds filled a sweaty, sweltering Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles for the Shadow Convention's drug policy day, easily the most well-attended of the convention's four-day run. As attendees fanned themselves inside or sought a shady breeze outside on Figueroa Street, a parade of reformers, patients, entertainers, and politicians denounced the war on drugs as failed, futile, and inhumane.

Neither the blistering Southern California sun nor the massive police presence for the nearby Democratic Convention could dampen the enthusiasm of the hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, people who saw all or part of the program, which ran well into the night.

And more so than in Philadelphia, the Shadow Convention's drug policy day drew a steady stream of politicians from the party holding its convention down the street. Making repeat appearances were two Republican politicians, Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA), who is challenging incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein for a senate seat. Rev. Jesse Jackson also made a second Shadow Convention appearance.

But the Democrats appeared less spooked by the possibility of being identified with drug war critics than their Republican rivals in Philadelphia, as elected officials including Rep. Maxine Waters, who represents nearby South Central LA, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who is in line to head the House Judiciary Committee if the Democrats seize control of the House, New York Rep. Charles Rangel, and, surprisingly to many, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who gained recent notoriety for canceling that city's DARE program, all addressed the event. And more people wearing tags identifying them as delegates to the major party convention were in evidence than in Philadelphia.

The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation's Ethan Nadelmann opened the day with an acknowledgment of the way drug policy reform has bisected traditional partisan distinctions, telling an enthusiastic audience that the gathering "marks a new movement of strange bedfellows." An upbeat Nadelmann told the crowd that the elected officials who are beginning to raise their heads are only the tip of the iceberg in a growing and building movement to end the drug war.

Several speakers, including Lindesmith's Deborah Small, hammered home the theme of racial disparity in the drug war. Small spoke bluntly, calling the drug war "racist in its intent, implementation, and impact," and offered up the numbers to back her claim. As during other points during the day when speakers denounced the drug war as a war on the poor and minorities, an energized and angered audience raucously greeted Small's remarks.

Rep. Maxine Waters returned to that theme later in the day, drawing repeatedly on the Contra-CIA-crack scandal exposed in 1996 by San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb. While some have jumped to conspiratorial conclusions about the CIA's intentions, Waters took care to build the case that, at the least, the agency turned a blind eye to cocaine trafficking by its right-wing Contra allies, while the people of her district have paid the price.

Water's also strongly denounced the US military assistance plan for Colombia, calling it a gift to "right-wing dictator types," and told drug warriors "get out of the way and let us develop good drug policies that will let us stop incarcerating the victims of this so-called drug war."

She drew loud applause when she told the audience she had introduced a bill to correct the federal mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, but the biggest crowd response came when Waters called for the immediate resignation of drug czar Barry McCaffrey, much to the delight of the whooping and hollering audience.

Waters also saluted Bill Zimmerman, head of Campaign for New Drug Policies, which is running the campaign to pass California Proposition 36, which CNDP drafted and which would divert non-violent drug possession offenders from prison into treatment. Saying the proposition would "turn the state around," Waters told the audience that the Congressional Black Caucus had endorsed the initiative.

Zimmerman himself made a strong pitch for drug reformers to support Proposition 36. Addressing the dismay and concern felt in parts of the reform movement over an initiative that some describe as exchanging the prison-industrial complex for a therapeutic-industrial complex, Zimmerman urged the crowd to set aside any reservations and "vote for what is possible," not what is ideal.

He acknowledged that "many wish Prop. 36 would go further," but he argued that reformers can't expect the public to vote for something it is not ready to support. "There is little point in putting on the ballot an initiative that would fail," he said, and characterized Prop. 36 as "the beginning, not the end."

But Zimmerman's strongest argument came when he urged the crowd to "think about what this will accomplish, think about the 37,000" people who would avoid prison each year under the initiative's plan.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson was the surprise of the Shadow Convention. Much in the vein of New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, Anderson emphasized a rational, business-like, bottom-line approach to drug policy. Again like Johnson, Anderson displayed little concern about the political cost of such a stand. When asked after his speech about official and popular support for his stance, Anderson told DRCNet that he had not much of either. "The Utah Democratic party is a bunch of cowards," he said, "they run as fast as they can away from this issue, like any other controversial issue."

As for popular support, he told DRCNet that it was minimal. "We've had lots of calls from parents and even kids who say they like DARE and they love the t-shirts and bumper stickers," Anderson said, but he added that their enthusiasm did not outweigh the serious research showing that DARE was a failed program.

Instead of being terrified of being called "soft on drugs," said Anderson, politicians should be terrified of supporting policies that are "ineffective, wasteful, and inhumane."

And, he told DRCNet, "the truth resonates, but people have to hear it from credible sources. People have to speak out clearly and unequivocally," Anderson added. "Eventually the political parties and candidates will come around."

While congressional veterans such as Waters, Conyers, and Rangel and party heavyweights such as Jesse Jackson have come around to criticizing the drug war based on the disproportionate impact it has had on their constituencies, Anderson, along with New Mexico's Johnson and California's Campbell appear to represent a new breed and a new generation. All three are in their forties, and all come to the issue with a well thought-out universal critique of the drug war paradigm. And all three demonstrated the political courage to "lead, not follow" the popular will, as Anderson put it.

But the Shadow Convention was not all serious wonkery. Evening events included a "Shadow Cabaret" and a "rapid response" panel consisting of comics Al Franken and Tommy Smothers, professional iconoclasts Alexander Cockburn and Paul Krassner, and cultural commentator Farai Chideya, dissecting the not always realistic speeches being broadcast from the Staples Center (location of the Democratic Convention).

And, in a mid-day appearance, Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher ripped into Al Gore and George W. Bush for drug war hypocrisy. Saying he could understand how politicians of the older generation, such as Bush senior, were on the wrong side," Maher lit into the two baby boomer candidates. "Bush and Gore understand what drugs are all about -- big-time," he said. "One of them had an inappropriate relationship with Bolivia."

"Pot didn't make Gore any dumber and coke didn't make Bush any smarter," he snickered. "Nobody ever died from pot," Maher added, "although it's caused quite a few births."

Turning serious, Maher concluded that if there is to be zero tolerance, it should be "zero tolerance for injustice."

Although media coverage has not been as extensive as in Philadelphia, in part because the novelty has worn off, the Shadow Convention has played to generally favorable reviews in the national press. And politicians such as Anderson, Johnson and Campbell all drew extensive coverage from their local media outlets, bringing their drug reform themes home to local voters.

With the two Shadow Conventions, drug policy and criminal justice reformers appear more energized, united, and likely to score electoral successes than ever before. If the Shadow Conventions have helped bring the movement together, they are also a reflection of the growing strength of a movement which has long bubbled beneath the surface and now threatens to explode into mainstream politics.

Congratulations to the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation for successfully organizing this event.

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Issue #150, 8/22/00 Los Angeles Shadow Convention Energizes Reformers for November and Beyond | Chronic Pain Doctor and Pharmacy Under Assault in California Case | Interview with Chris Conrad | Apprendi Sentencing Ruling Begins to Bite | Heroin Injection Center Wins Approval in Sydney | Appeals Court Denies Government's Request for Emergency Order Halting Oakland CBC from Distributing Marijuana | RESOURCES: Drug War Facts Updated, TomPaine.com Drug War Feature This Week, Alternet, Spanish Language Documents, More | Benefit Screening for Jack Herer | Errata | Alerts: Colombia, Mandatory Minimums, California, New York | HEA Campaign | Event Calendar | Job Listings (NYC): Streetwork Project | Editorial: No Fringe Group

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