Frustrated by the lack of progress in Congress on undoing drug war sentencing policies that have left nearly half a million Americans behind bars, a hundred thousand of them in the federal prison system alone, the prison activist group the November Coalition is hitting the road this weekend to energize the group's membership, seek new support, and add thousands of signatures to its ongoing petition campaign asking Congress to "redress drug war injustice."
November Coalition leader Nora Callahan and her husband and fellow activist Chuck Armsbury are departing from their home headquarters in Colville, WA, on a low budget, high energy journey that will take them across the Rockies and the Northern Plains, into Michigan, and on to the East Coast, where they will join in an as yet unspecified action with other drug reform leaders in Washington, DC, on November 1 before turning around and heading West again.
"This is the first of a series of journeys for justice," said Armsbury. "In the Gandhian tradition, we are going from town to town, prison to prison, camp meeting to camp meeting to fortify our membership and strengthen our movement."
"Our members live all over the country," said Callahan. "Not only the prisoners scattered across the land, but their families trying to raise children for them, the elderly couples whose sons and daughters are locked up, they are all devastated by the burdens this mad rush to incarceration has imposed on them. These people are forced to use precious money and vacation time to visit their loved ones," she explained. "So we are traveling to those communities and to those prisons to meet the people. We should be planning for freedom together, not standing alone in motels wondering if that other person is also there to visit a prisoner."
If Callahan and Armsbury are hoping to energize the grassroots, early indications are that they are succeeding. Iowa resident Larry Schulenberg, whose son Martin is serving a 9-year sentence on drug charges at a federal prison camp in Yankton, SD, told DRCNet he couldn't wait for the journey to come to his area. "This is a great opportunity to educate the public and the media about what's going on," said Schulenberg. "There will be a vigil at the prison, then a meeting at a local motel with families and friends of prisoners," he said. For Schulenberg, the journey is about ending an injustice that has hit home. "My son deserves to be punished," he said, "but not for 110 months in jail. There's a two-time loser in the same bust; he should have been serving more time than Martin, but he had names to give the feds."
Another November Coalition member, Debra Wright of Ann Arbor, MI, shares the enthusiasm and the desire for justice. "We're very excited here," she told DRCNet. "The journey is officially starting here in the Detroit area, and we are honored. We've got all kinds of events lined up, including a meeting with Congressman John Conyers, and we will hopefully get people talking about these issues," she said.
Common Sense for Drug Policy's Kevin Zeese is going to Detroit for the Journey, he told DRCNet. "The Journey for Justice is a big step," he said, "and we'll give it a good kickoff in Detroit. This is building the grassroots, and the Journey will be doing that at events across the Midwest, the Northeast, and the Mid-Atlantic area. This tour will build, educate, and activate people, and it has a great mix of public events, private meetings with family members, media appearances, demonstrations and more."
Debra Wright is an example of what the Journey hopes to stir up. Acting on her own, she contacted Zeese last year to help form the Drug Policy Forum of Michigan. "I'm a former prisoner and a former heroin addict clean now for 10 years," she said. "My interest lies in reforming the prison system and helping addicts." Now she is a regional coordinator for the November Coalition.
"We seek to inspire popular resistance to drug war injustice to help us empower people in the grassroots," said Callahan. "We hope to find a hundred Debras."
How to measure the success of such an effort is a question with which the November Coalition has been grappling. "When we get back, we'll sit down and try to evaluate qualitatively and quantitatively where we succeeded and where we need to rethink," said Armsbury. "We'll be looking at the number of signatures we get on our petitions, the number of new regional leaders, the number of new chapters formed to prepare for future journeys," he said. "We'll also look at the feedback we get. With this journey, what we would ordinarily hear secondhand at a conference, we will hear directly from the people and the communities involved," he said.
"We have to recognize that in any grassroots movement, there are grass bottoms and grass tops," said Callahan. "We have to learn from each other."
Although the November Coalition is seeking relief -- any relief -- for the hundreds of thousands of drug war prisoners, Callahan and Armsbury said their ultimate goal is much broader. "We want to end the war on drugs," said Armsbury. "We take a hard stand against this war waged on our people -- everyone knows this isn't about drugs. Of course we would accept some relief for our people behind bars, but we need to start talking about dismantling the whole drug war superstructure. This is a discussion that needs to begin taking place among reform leaders, too, and soon," Armsbury continued. "As our organizers in Michigan wrote on their flyers, 'it's time for a change.'"
For information about Journey events in your area, visit the November Coalition Journey for Justice web site at http://www.journeyforjustice.org online. And don't forget to sign the petition to redress drug war injustice at http://www.novemberjustice.org/petition/index.htm online.