Smoke-Ins, Hempfests and Mass Protests: Movement Makers or Risky Distractions? 5/11/01

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Summer's here and the time is right, well, maybe not for fighting in the streets, as a much younger Mick Jagger once advised, but at least for marching in the streets. As winter's cold gives way to pleasant weather, the marijuana movement's traditional street protests and rallies blossom like the hardy perennials they are. And with the return of protest season comes the annual debate about the utility of such tactics.

The season is already here. Last month in Ann Arbor, thousands flooded into the University of Michigan quad for the annual Hash Bash, puffing furiously and providing a healthy jump-start for Michigan's marijuana legalization initiative petition drive (http://www.PRAyes.com). And last weekend, activists in more than 130 cities worldwide, including dozens in the US, held street marches under the auspices of Space Odyssey 2001, this year's version of the annual Million Marijuana March effort led by venerable yippie activist Dana Beal. (See http://www.cures-not-wars.org for further information).

More are on the way, including the 32nd annual Washington, DC 4th of July smoke-in, the annual monster events, such as Boston's Freedom Rally and Seattle's Hempfest, both of which draw up to 100,000 participants, and innumerable smaller hempfests, pot parades and smoke-ins across the land.

Not all reformers leap at the prospect of such mass actions. David Borden, DRCNet's executive director, sees little utility in smoke-ins, marches, and the like. "A lot of competent, devoted people spend a lot of time on these events that could instead be poured into more effective types of activism," said Borden.

Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), which focuses on lobbying Congress and state legislatures, told DRCNet he doesn't totally disavow protest actions, but that the possible benefits must be weighed against possible negative publicity and that such actions need to be carefully thought out.

"At MPP, we draw a distinction -- we do demonstrations, not rallies," said Thomas. "We will do a targeted, focused demonstration aimed at a member of Congress on a particular issue."

"Before doing a public demonstration, people need to determine specifically what it is they want to accomplish," said Thomas. "They also need to assess their other efforts. Have they tried all other options -- have they written to their legislators, have they tried to set up meetings, have they built a broad coalition, have they recruited the best spokespersons, have they written letters to the editor, have they exhausted all options and as a last resort now see the need for some sort of organized public pressure?"

But even then, said Thomas, protest organizers can expect to be bushwhacked by the press. "No matter how well organized a rally is and how well controlled the message is, the media are so hungry to find one example to confirm their stereotypes of marijuana users that all it takes is one young person smoking a marijuana cigarette or one misspelled sign or one strange looking fellow in a tie-dye, and there's the image on the evening news," Thomas explained. "Such images unfortunately can scare the more close-minded people in our society, and those are people we need to turn around."

Doug McVay of Common Sense for Drug Policy is a member of the collective that organizes the annual Washington, DC, 4th of July smoke-in (http://www.fourthofjuly.org). "It's not a smoke-in," pleaded McVay, fruitlessly following the organizers' official line. "It's the 4th of July Hemp Coalition Rally, March, and Concert to End Marijuana Prohibition." (Organizers can call it what they want, but in the local marijuana culture it will forever be the smoke-in.) McVay is not so concerned about possible bad media images, arguing that the media will take them where they find them and use them as they see fit.

"If they can't find a 15-year-old kid smoking a joint at a pot rally, all they have to do is go to any rock concert to get their picture," said McVay. "And we cannot afford to be so intimidated that we do not show our faces. It's a fallacy to believe that Bill Bennett and his ilk will shut up and leave us alone if we just keep a low profile."

Dana Beal has no plans to keep a low profile and no qualms about organizing marijuana marches. "These are important events for the movement," he told DRCNet. "We had marches in at least 130 cities, and there may be more I haven't heard about yet. If you have marches in enough cities, especially where it hasn't happened before, it can represent the kind of sea change that happened when the gay liberation movement emerged in the late 1960s."

But Beal also understands how the media tends to operate and organizes accordingly. "It's how you configure the public event," he said. "For example, we turned our event from a festival to a march, and the media tends to focus on the front of the march, so we make sure we have our people with signs up front." Beal emphasized that the event was a march, not a smoke-in. "There was no conscious civil disobedience, no one trying to get arrested."

But arrests did happen, at least at the New York City march. In line with Mayor Giuliani's crackdown on marijuana smokers, New York's finest sent undercover cops into the crowd to finger smokers, then began arresting crowd members who pointed out the narcs. There were 197 arrests, Beal said, the majority for interfering with police. The police also resorted to pepper spray as the march threatened to turn into a police-provoked melee.

"What happened in New York shows the importance of local conditions," said McVay. "Issues and things like relations with the police are very site specific. In New York, you have a long tradition of gritty activism with the yippies and the squatters, and the cops there are the ones used to roust the homeless and street activists. Washington Square Park is not a place for mainstream America," he added. "And the police came off looking like the aggressors, especially when they pepper-sprayed the crowd.

"Similarly, here in Washington we know that on the 4th of July the Mall will be crawling with police. That's why we make such a point of stressing nonviolence and no confrontations. This isn't a smoke-in -- at least not in the sense that people are engaging in civil disobedience to get arrested. We've been saddled with the smoke-in name for 30 years, but the point of the rally is legalization, not getting together to smoke pot in public," said McVay. "These things give people a chance to speak out publicly and know it's all right. Our opponents will always try to marginalize us, whether we're wearing suits or t-shirts. But we're not marginal; drug reform is mainstream now. What's not mainstream is opening your mouth about changing the law, and if mainstream drug reform organizations would support us, we would be ecstatic," McVay added.

"Look, these rallies do have a purpose. The first is to show that your issue has popular support, that you can get the bodies, and second, to be in the middle of a crowd of people talking out loud about drug policy reform and marijuana legalizing is empowering and validating. That's what these rallies are good for," McVay concluded.

Bob Doyle, a board member of MassCann (http://www.masscann.org), the organizers of the Boston Freedom Rally each fall, told DRCNet his organization rehashes this very debate every year. MassCann plays both sides, he said. "We have the button-down guys in suits working with the legislature, and we helped write seven drug reform bills before the legislature. But we also do the rally, and what does that get us?" he asked rhetorically. "It gets us 100,000 showing up to hear our message and it gets our name on the front page of the Boston Globe."

Doyle recognizes the danger of media stereotyping, but he told DRCNet he believes MassCann has begun to move the local media beyond such reflex reporting. "The Herald and the Globe always concentrated on the 14-year-old smoking a joint, but now we're being taken more seriously. Now, when we go to the media and tell them we're from MassCann, they say 'oh, you're the guys who put 100,000 people on the Commons.' The publicity is great and the name recognition is important," Doyle said.

But Doyle has complaints, ones that other drug reformers can only dream about. "We're stuck with the Freedom Rally," he said. "It's so big we couldn't think of not holding it anymore." Doyle would like to see a number of smaller rallies across Massachusetts. "We have to get more mainstream," he told DRCNet. "We believe our views are mainstream, we think most people agree with us about medical marijuana, decriminalization, etc., but it is still so much fun for the mainstream media to play with those '60s and '70s stereotypes."

The divisions over mass protests are not only tactical. They also represent broader cultural, racial, and class divisions within the drug reform movement and society at large. Unlike, Canada and some European countries which have organized hard drug users' groups, the only drug users organized in any significant manner in the US are marijuana smokers, and actual demographics aside, their public face is overwhelmingly young, white, and middle-class.

For Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, mass protests over marijuana are a diversion from more serious work. "I work on the intersection of race and poverty with the drug war," he told DRCNet. "I don't go to smoke-ins, nor do I listen to the Grateful Dead." (DRCNet did not have the heart to ask him about Phish.) "I don't have much use for such actions unless they are able to mobilize people into a disciplined electoral force, and I don't see much sign of that. After all, it's the laws that we are trying to change, not the culture. There are plenty of libertarians who can fight for the right of privileged white drug users to party."

California activist Mikki Norris of Human Rights and the Drug War has heard such sentiments before and has a ready response. "You shouldn't be calling these things smoke-ins because you want to send a message that goes beyond having a right to party," she told DRCNet. "We have protests for equal rights for pot smokers."

In fact, Norris has created a web site -- http://www.potpride.com -- to carry forth her pot-positive message. "Equal rights are for everybody," says the site. "Discrimination is wrong. Equal rights for pot smokers." Norris and her husband and fellow activist Chris Conrad took themselves and their message to San Francisco for that city's marijuana march on May 5.

"In San Francisco, we had a parade and I had a bullhorn and we did some chants: 'Say it loud, I smoke pot and I'm proud,' 'what do we want -- equal rights, when do we want them -- now,'" Norris demonstrated. "We emphasized how we are good people, not criminals, and we deserve the same rights as anyone else. It wasn't about our right to party; that doesn't get you anywhere."

Norris and Conrad agree that pro-pot rallies can have adverse consequences -- "pictures of kids smoking pot are not helpful," Norris noted -- but argue that such events also provide a morale boost for the movement. "These actions give people a sense of empowerment, camaraderie, and of power in numbers," said Norris.

They also agree with MPP's Chuck Thomas that mass actions need to be carefully thought out as part of an integrated political strategy, although, unlike Thomas, they do not view them as a last resort.

"You can do a smoke-in," Conrad told DRCNet, "by which I mean an act of civil disobedience where people plan to be arrested for violating the marijuana laws. But if you're going to do that, you need to be serious. You need people ready for a structured confrontation with the police, you need attorneys present, and you need to ensure that the person doing the smoking is an articulate and legitimate spokesman, such as a medical marijuana patient or responsible adult."

"But," Norris chimed in, "you have to do more than just a smoke-in. You have to be calling on your representatives or elected officials, engaging in the political process, and demanding that you no longer be treated as second class citizens."

For MPP's Thomas "pot pride" is all well and good, but does not by itself pull marijuana smokers from their marginal position in society. "We need to point to marijuana smokers who are already successes in society and to the extent we can do that, that's a good thing," Thomas said. "But if someone is going to hold himself out as a responsible pot smoker, he better be one. It can't be 'look at me, I smoke pot and I have a good job... in drug reform,'" he added. "You'd have to be willing to lay it all on the line and be willing to undergo scrutiny from critics to show you actually are a normal, mainstream person. It's only worthwhile to come out yourself if you can withstand the scrutiny."

The Marijuana Policy Project has 6,000 people writing letters to legislators, Thomas said. "Our goal is to provide an organization where the most mainstream supporters of marijuana policy reform can feel like they have a role in the movement."

And the various smoke-ins, rallies, and marches bring out hundreds of thousands. Neither form of activism is likely to go away. As the drug reform movement matures, the question is not letter-writing vs. taking it to the streets, but how best to take advantage of all the tactics at the movement's disposal and wield those tools in an integrated, appropriate manner within a multifaceted reform movement.

-- END --
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Issue #185, 5/11/01 Editorial: People of All Shapes and Sizes | With DEA Administrator Nomination, Bush Puts a Hardline Drug Policy Troika in Place | DEA Internal Report on Supersnitch: Agency Finds Itself Not Guilty | US Slapped Down at UN, Removed from Human Rights, Drug Panels, Congress Threatens to Take Ball and Go Home | Louisiana Legislators Act to Reduce Drug Sentences as Prisons Bulge, Alabama Prison Crisis Going Un-addressed This Year | Australia: First Injection Room Opens in Sydney as West Australia Eyes Similar Plan | Canada's Top Drug Cop Calls for Look at Injection Rooms | SSDP Making Waves: Madison, Hampshire, Amherst SSDPer Stages Mock Coffee Prohibition, Other Events | Smoke-Ins, Hempfests and Mass Protests: Movement Makers or Risky Distractions? | The Reformer's Calendar
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