After years of rising clamor, the New York Assembly moved last week to take a first tiny step at redressing the injustice of that state's draconian "Rockefeller laws," the tough anti-drug measures first put into effect under then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the early 1970s. As part of a budget measure, legislators passed language that would result in the early release of some 800 drug offenders. But baby steps are not enough to quiet a growing coalition demanding repeal of those laws. And that coalition took a giant step earlier this month, when Russell Simmons, a major rap performer and entrepreneur, brought his Hip Hop Action Summit Network onboard and vowed to bring 100,000 people or more onto the streets of New York City on June 4 if the laws still stand.
The network joins a growing number of political figures, civil rights groups, drug reform organizations and prisoner-oriented groups such as Mothers of the Disappeared in an increasingly numerous and vocal coalition called Countdown to Fairness to bring an end to the Rockefeller laws. Those laws require long mandatory prison sentences -- up to 15 years to life -- for those convicted of possessing or selling relatively small amounts of drugs.
At a May 9 news conference, Simmons, head of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network announced: "The 'Countdown to Fairness' represents the broadest coalition ever assembled on this important issue. The hip-hop community's active involvement will help Governor Pataki and other state officials to see and feel the will of the people as we demand the repeal of these wack laws."
Among the rap performers and executives who have committed to supporting the campaign are Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Jay-Z, Nas, Beastie Boys, Kevin Liles, Steve Rifkind, Reverend Run, Doug E. Fresh, Cash Money Crew, Ludacris, Red Man, Method Man, Keith Murray, Cam'ron, The Diplomats and Ghost Face.
But the Countdown to Fairness is bringing more than rappers to the cause. Groups like Mothers of the Disappeared and the Correctional Association of New York, which have been working in the trenches for years to change the Rockefeller laws, have now been joined by the likes of former New York gubernatorial Tom Golisano, former Democratic gubernatorial contender Andrew Cuomo, US Senators Hilary Clinton and Charles Schumer, US Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY), Elijah Cummings (D-MD), John Conyers (D-MI), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Major Owens (D-NY) and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), former Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), NY State Senators David Patterson, Eric T. Schneiderman, Liz Krueger, NY Assemblyman Jose Rivera, NY City Council Members Joel Rivera, Bill DeBlasio, Yvette Clarke, Larry Seabrook and Adam Clayton Powell III, as well as national civil rights leaders Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III.
Organizations that have now signed on include the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Urban League, NAACP, Donna Lieberman and the ACLU, Nation of Islam, Rabbi Marc Schneier and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Bob Gangi and Drop the Rock (part of the original anti-Rockefeller law campaign), Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, Tony Miranda and the National Latino Officers Association, Frank Garcia and the Bronx Hispanic Association, the National Action Network, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Doe Fund and Dennis Rivera, and 1199 SEIU, New York's Health and Human Service Union.
"It seems to have more energy," said "Countdown to Fairness" supporter and Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon of bringing the hip-hop element into the ongoing battle. "Whenever you can draw on a broad-based coalition, it can help, and I think that it's been infused with a new energy that'll be very constructive."
"Our leaders in Albany have talked about reform for years while thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders remain in jail without good reason," said Cuomo, who is credited with bringing Simmons and the hip hoppers along. "At a time when we need to focus our limited resources on educating our children, caring for those who are sick, and punishing those who present true threats to our safety, we must reject these inhumane and wasteful laws. It is time to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws once and for all."
One of those long-time fighters in the trenches is Anthony Papa (http://www.15yearstolife.com), who served years on a Rockefeller sentence before being granted clemency in 1997 after his artwork drew Gov. Pataki's attention to his case. "Having Simmons on board takes this to a whole other level," Papa told DRCNet. "The governor and the Assembly have been dancing around this issue for years, but they don't want to see tens of thousands of people in the streets protesting in front of their offices. Gov. Pataki already sent his criminal justice man, Chauncey Parker, to meet with Simmons, and so has [Assembly leader] Sheldon Silver. They might be able to spin their vote last week as a reform move, but how are they going to spin a huge protest demonstration?"
All the more reason to be cautious of moves coming from Albany, said Randy Credico of the William F. Kunstler Foundation for Social Justice (http://www.kunstler.org) and the Mothers of the Disappeared. "I'm watching for some sort of anti-reform reform to come out of Albany," said Credico, "but this is 1859 and we're looking to abolish slavery, not modify it slightly. A minor reform now would be a surrender. We want repeal. We've been at this for six years now, and we aren't going to accept a shitty deal."
Other reform groups need to be careful not to get sucked into half-measures, said Credico. "They're trying to divide the groups up in Albany by appealing to groups that will settle for some small victory in order to maintain their fundraising," he said. "But we only get one bite of the apple, and we won't settle for what some people think is possible in the Senate. There is no support for compromise, no field troops for compromise, only a couple of think-tanks without ground troops. We don't want reform, we want repeal, we don't want just drug treatment, we want an end to illegal searches and no-knock warrants."
For Credico, the growing coalition is larger than the Rockefeller laws alone. "For the first time, we are seeing a convergence of the civil rights and anti-war movements with the movement for reform of the drug laws," he pointed out. "Now we can start looking at the bigger picture and inspire others who are fighting the country's drift toward fascism. This issue is being popularized and placed in a broader political context, and is moving from the state to the national and even global stage. Whoever wants to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 better pay attention and jump on board, because right now they're in the caboose."
In the meantime, the clock is running down on the governor and the state legislature. "We are declaring war on the governor of New York," Simmons said. "Any politician who supports this law is a criminal." And New Yorkers will be out by the tens of thousands on June 4 to echo that message.