[sixties-l] Smoke-Ins, Hempfests and Mass Protests...

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Tue May 15 2001 - 04:39:03 EDT

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    Smoke-Ins, Hempfests and Mass Protests:
    Movement Makers or Risky Distractions?


    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

    "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

    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

    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

    "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

    "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

    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

    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

    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.

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