Drug Reformers Flex Muscles

The Shadow Convention roared into Philadelphia this week to provide an issues-oriented counterpoint to the Republicans' glittering coronation gala. Much of the 15,000-strong media contingent spent its time breathlessly covering the GOP's carefully scripted show (as if it were an actual news event), worrying about Gerald Ford's speech patterns, or chasing rowdy anarchists through the streets of Center City Philadelphia. Still, the Shadow Convention succeeded in garnering a modicum of press attention.

In addition to considerable coverage from CNN and brief snippets on the national networks, the Shadow Convention got coverage from national newspapers such as the New York Times, USA Today, the Village Voice, and Washington Post, as well as major regional newspapers in cities such as Albuquerque, Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle, among others.

While most coverage was neutral or favorable, conservative columnist Bob Novak penned a shrill attack on the convention and its most prominent figure, Arianna Huffington. Time magazine and the conservative National Review also contributed snide reviews. Huffington responded to Novak in her nationally syndicated column, charging that Novak was privately lobbying conservatives not to participate in the Shadow Convention, while publicly attacking the convention for not having enough conservative participation.

The Shadow Convention also provided a forum that transcended bipartisan divisions and rivalries (although if the response Sen. John McCain received when he implored to the audience to support Gov. Bush is any indication, the Republican Party did not have many friends in attendance). Still, the fact that Jesse Jackson and Sen. McCain, to mention two of the more prominent speakers, spoke from the same podium at the same event, demonstrates the potential for a new politics of reform not beholden to either party, but instead willing to support only those parties or candidates who earn it.

Numerous speakers eloquently and fervently denounced the human costs of the drug war. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called the Shadow Convention a "struggle between the political center and the moral center." Jackson likened drug policy reform to the civil rights movement whose achievements were "written in blood in Selma and cosigned in ink in Washington" because of voices of conscience. "Here we are again," Jackson continued, "tackling a failed drug policy ... whose friendly fire is killing Americans" and "whose unintended consequence is to build a shameful jail-industrial complex."

Attendees heard presentations by New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Gus Smith, father of mandatory minimum prisoner Kemba Smith, comedian Al Franken, and many others. Catherine Crier moderated a mandatory minimums panel that was taped for Court TV.

The most poignant presenters, however, were the convoy of children and other relatives of drug war prisoners from Detroit and Minneapolis. The relatives held placards with photos of their imprisoned loved ones. Introduced one by one on stage, each told who he or she was and for whom they appeared.

"Hello, I'm Tomika Gates and I'm here representing my mother Jackie, who is serving a five-to-ten year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense." And so went the tragic litany, repeated with slight variations dozens of times.

Later, the Children's Choir, composed of Minnesota children of drug war prisoners, brought some in the audience to tears, not because of its dissonant performance, but at the human suffering and perseverance it represented.

We spoke with Tomika Gates, a 21-year-old from the Minneapolis area. Gates is taking care of her four siblings and two children of her own, while her mother, Jackie, finishes a cocaine trafficking sentence, but the family was not always as unified in their mother's absence.

"When mom went away, she had to send the kids to relatives in New York, Chicago, and Mississippi," Gates said. "But the relatives didn't really want them, so I ended up getting all them back."

"We live in a one-bedroom apartment now, but it was hard to find one because no landlords wanted to rent to us," she added.

Gates divides her time among caring for her charges, attending a local community college, and working part-time at a department store.

In a curious, yet not altogether surprising way, Gates incarnates some of the unintended consequences of harsh drug prohibition. Instead of being ground down by the burdens her mother's imprisonment has imposed on her and her siblings, Gates has been moved to act.

"It seems like the authorities want us to fail; when they took our mom, they took our only means of support," said Gates. "I feel like I'm doing the time. It's not fair," she added.

This sense of injustice led Gates to join forces with the Federal FORUM (Females Organizing and Restoring Unity for Mothers), a group started by Mary Gaines, herself a former nonviolent drug war prisoner. The FORUM, along with the November Coalition and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), sponsored the convoy that brought Gates to Philadelphia.

"This gives us kids an alternative," she said, "this is a way for us to participate."

"Mary Gaines gave me the strength to fight back," added Gates. "This is the first time I've been involved in something like this, but it won't be the last. We will be going into the community to find ways to end this injustice," she vowed.

All in attendance could rally around Tomika Gates and her fellow members of families devastated by the drug war, but the Shadow Convention also revealed fissures within the drug reform movement, with many off-the-record mutterings about "reformism" and "lesser evils." California Republican Congressman Tom Campbell, who is challenging Democrat Diane Feinstein for a Senate seat in November, spoke passionately about the need to end the drug war, but his support of California Proposition 36, which would divert nonviolent drug possessors from prison to drug treatment, sparked quiet complaints from some about "coerced treatment."

Similarly, when convention co-convener Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation called for the legalization of marijuana, saying, "Why doesn't the government just leave all those marijuana smokers alone?", one prominent drug policy activist asked, "Why just marijuana smokers? What about heroin and other drugs?"

With the promised participation of more confrontational organizations such as Steve Kubby's American Medical Marijuana Association (www.drugsense.org/amma) at the Los Angeles Shadow Convention, scheduled for August 13th through 17th (drug policy day is the 15th), the LA sessions promise to not only bring the dialogue to the West Coast but to deepen and it perhaps even turn up the heat not only on the drug war but on "moderate, pragmatic" drug reformers.

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