Washington's 32nd Annual Rally, Parade, Concert & Picnic to End Marijuana Prohibition (sometimes known as the smoke-in) started slow and small, but grew throughout an afternoon of music, speeches, and massive marijuana law-breaking before late afternoon thunderstorms put a damper on the festivities. At one point, event participants took matters into their own hands, countering police efforts to pull individual smokers out of the crowd.
The unseasonably pleasant day began at Lafayette Square, just across Pennsylvania Ave. from the White House, as long-time event organizer John Pylka emceed a line-up of speakers, strummers and rabble-rousers. Rally perennial Dana Beal of Cures Not Wars (http://www.cures-not-wars.org), dressed in his trademark boots and jeans, gave his now familiar speech on ibogaine, melatonin, and the history of the DC HempFest, causing more than a few furrowed brows among attendees born long after the Vietnam War ended.
Virginia Libertarian Party candidate for Lieutenant Governor Gary Reams rallied the crowd from its sunny torpor, telling the assembled multitudes: "Prohibition zealots are waging war are tens of millions of Americans, and now they're doing fly-by shootings in South America." Pointing toward the White House across the street, he added, "God put this herb on the earth, who are you to condemn it?"
Describing the lieutenant governor's office as largely ceremonial, Reams urge Virginians to support his campaign, which he calls the Reams Reeferendum. "This could be the major marijuana vote in this off-year," he said, "and could affect the tone of next year's elections."
Speakers alternated between the soporific and the fire-brand, with the finest example of the latter being Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald columnist Ed Tant, the newspaper's self-described "token and tokin' radical." Tant's high energy, fire and brimstone fulminations placed the marijuana reform movement squarely in the tradition of American freedom. "We need more bud and less Bush," Tant roared. "We must end this false, phony, foolish and fascistic war on weed," he told the cheering crowd. "We were right on Vietnam, we were right on civil rights, and we are right on marijuana."
Saying he was proud to have "crossed state lines with the intent to incite the imagination," the populist orator told the crowd, "We are here in the true revolutionary spirit of 1776. Let freedom ring. Raise consciousness, raise hemp, and don't forget to kick the ass of the ruling class."
Promptly at 3:00pm, a crowd of approximately 2,500 people marched from Lafayette Square to a site on the Mall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, moving past the Old Executive Office Building and down Constitution Avenue. Chanting "we smoke pot and we like it a lot," among other things, and holding banners and signs emblazoned with calls for an end to pot prohibition, the marchers drew varied reactions from the crowds of tourists descending on the Mall for the annual fireworks display. Overt hostile reactions were exceedingly rare, with the most common response being bemusement or giggling at the silly hippies. Some passersby were clearly of a like mind with the crowd, though. One tattooed young woman, suddenly figuring out what the march was about, leapt into the air with arm upraised. "Fuck yeah!" she exclaimed. Numerous drivers passing by on Constitution Avenue tooted horns in support. Three Latino teenagers coming across the march joined up on the spot. "What's wrong with weed?" one asked. "Nuthin,'" replied his buddy, "let's march."
Marchers poured into a concert grounds on the Mall where several thousand more people had already gathered for the event's concert component. Throughout the afternoon, reggae, rock and funk beats fueled the festive mood, as bands such as the All Mighty Senators, the Hypnotix, Ordinary Way and Soldiers of Jah Army urged the crowd to emulate late reggae superstar Peter Tosh and "legalize it." Including another event concert venue a few blocks away on the Ellipse, the total crowd probably reached 10,000 -- somewhat smaller than in previous years.
Rally organizer John Pylka attributed the lower turnout to several factors. "We had huge problems with communications," Pylka admitted, "primarily because we lacked resources. But I have to do some introspection myself," he said. "I have to improve my communications and networking skills to make this more effective." But, said Pylka, attendance at the Mall was down overall. "It wasn't just us," he told DRCNet. "I talked to merchants on the Mall, and they all said traffic was down." Threatening weather, which lived up to its bluster by 5:00pm, when torrential rainfalls commenced, also played a role, he said.
The only exception to the peaceful and festive atmosphere came when US Park Police, in full SWAT team regalia, attempted to sweep through the crowd in pairs and arrest unwary tokers. The teams of blue meanies managed to seize and detain one Asian-American youth unmolested (they released him within 10 minutes), but by the time they pulled a second youth from the crowd, a loud and angry group harassed them all the way out of the concert area.
When the bust team returned for a third time, crowd members, including attorney Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Washington interns Dan Goldman and Matt Mazzuckelli, other unidentified ralliers, and yours truly (in a bout of participatory journalism), were ready. Forming a moving cordon around the police officers, they yelled advance warnings to oblivious smokers, loudly berated the cops, and effectively nullified their pot-bust enterprise. As Dana Beal prepared to take the microphone, someone in the crowd yelled, "Hey Dana, we've got cops!" prompting the veteran agitator to add his loudly amplified voice against the unwanted police presence.
Confronted by a chorus of booing and hooting, pestered unrelentingly by Zeese and others ("We're trapped with Perry Mason," one cop moaned to his partner), ducking the small number of empty plastic water bottles tossed their way, and eventually realizing that they would not be allowed to hassle more people without a fight, the cops retreated. There were no more police problems for the remainder of the day.
"That really pissed me off," Zeese told DRCNet. "While there is certainly a role for police at any public gathering, the use of a SWAT team is a manifestation of a police state. It is also an attempt to intimidate a political gathering," he said. "In fact, the use of the SWAT team almost resulted in an unintended consequence -- turning a peaceful crowd into an unruly mob. But when we stood up to those SWAT team folks, they left, which shows that we will not be intimidated."
Pylka, for his part, was relieved that the police presence did not result in the violence that came at the end of last year's rally, when Cannabis Culture photographer Peter Brady was beaten and arrested by police as he attempted to intervene in one of the harassing busts. But the veteran organizer -- this was his 19th event -- is already looking ahead to next year.
"I'm out the door on my way to get the permit for next year," he told DRCNet. "Between now and then, I intend to work on getting more support from the drug reform organizations in town. There's some bad blood there, some of it is my fault, and I need to work on that."
Activist opinion on the utility of marijuana rallies like the 4th of July HempFest is doubtless as divided as before. Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/185.html#marijuanarallies for recent DRCNet discussion of this issue.