Pressure mounted on New York's political establishment to repeal the state's draconian Rockefeller as a coalition energized by the enlistment of hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons and his Hip-Hop Action Summit Network (http://www.hiphopsummitactionetwork.org) brought thousands of demonstrators into the streets of lower Manhattan on a rainy day to demand that the laws be repealed. At the same time, tensions emerged between those set on outright repeal of the laws and those seeking to broker a compromise between New York Assembly leader Sheldon Silver (D) and Gov. George Pataki (R), both of whom have introduced proposals that would reform but not repeal those laws. Under the Rockefeller laws, thousands of New Yorkers are serving stiff 15-year minimum sentences for possession of as little as two ounces of illegal drugs or sales of as little as four ounces.
Groups like the Mothers of the Disappeared and the Drop the Rock Coalition, which have struggled in the shadows for years, were joined by a star-studded line-up as politician after politician and celebrity after celebrity took the stage to denounce the Rockefeller laws as unjust and antiquated. The rally, which lasted at least three hours and may have been the first drug reform event to have commercial sponsorship (the name of a financial services provider flashed across the video display periodically), featured speakers ranging from rap stars P. Diddy, 50 Cent, Sean (Puffy) Combs, Jay-Z, Fat Joe, Rev. Run of Run DMC, self-described "old-school" rapper Grand Master Flash, civil rights leaders Benjamin Chavis and representatives of the National Urban League and NAACP, actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, half of the New York City Council, members of the New York State Assembly, pop diva Mariah Carey, one of Gov. Rockefeller's granddaughters, and many, many others.
Russell Simmons, who along with former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo and Mothers of the Disappeared coordinated the rally, called for outright repeal of the Rockefeller laws. "The Rockefeller Drug Laws WILL be repealed and thousands of people who are unjustly in prison or are in prison for too long will be re-sentenced and will come home," he vowed. "Other people will be deferred to treatment much quicker. No one will get the kind of sentences they're getting right now."
"There are a lot of people in the coalition who want to see change," Simmons continued. "But nothing happens without the power of the people, and your power is the reason the Governor, the State Senators and the State Assembly are at work today. They're working today to prioritize this issue because YOU SAID SO." So remember, that none of this could happen without all you mothers and all you kids and all the members of the hip-hop community. Remember your power."
Hip hop performer Busta Rhymes was in fine form, busting rhymes all over the governor's head. "Governor Pataki, you kinda wacky, homeboy," Rhymes orated. "On the real, at the end of the day, it's a whole lot more cost effective to help save and preserve as opposed to condemn and penalize."
Beastie Boy Adam Yauch also joined the rally. "When you have a young kid who hasn't hardly done anything and gets locked up for 15 years, when he gets out after 15 years, he has a whole different attitude on life," said Yauch, who last emerged to support Tibetan liberation struggles. "Ultimately that's going to affect our whole society. Martin Luther King once said that you are what you are supposed to be, I can't be what I'm supposed to be," he added.
This year's version of the bad boy rapper, 50 Cent, put in his four bits worth as well. "They've got these Rockefeller drug laws that sentence our brothers and our people to more time than is just," the controversial performer told a cheering crowd. "I've got lots of friends and family in jail behind that law. I had to come out today to support the repeal of the Laws. I'm not used to speaking at events like this but I'll come out and try to do as much as I can."
But it wasn't all homeboy flava and hip hop beats Wednesday, ex-prisoners such as Anthony Papa (http://www.15yearstolife.com) and family members of those still rotting away behind bars sobered the crowd with stories of the suffering endured. National drug reform leaders also addressed the rally.
"Greetings from the land of hypocrisy," announced Shawn Heller, national director of the Washington, DC-based Students for Sensible Drug Policy, as he help up a t-shirt showing President Bush snorting lines of cocaine, "and here's the biggest hypocrite of all. We are the D.A.R.E. generation," he told the crowd, "and these laws were made in our name. I'm here to tell you we do not want these laws. The Rockefeller laws must go." Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann proclaimed that repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws was "only the beginning," drawing attention to the half a million prisoners nationwide incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.
The multitudinous protest rally came amidst renewed negotiations among Senate Republicans, Assembly Democrats and Governor Pataki to reach a compromise based on competing existing proposals -- none of which would repeal the laws, only modify them. Russell Simmons, along with Deborah Small, director of public policy and outreach for Drug Policy Alliance, joined those negotiations in a Tuesday meeting with Pataki -- a move that has some repeal advocates concerned. Although Simmons called for repeal from the stage on Wednesday, he himself muddied the issue a day earlier by telling the New York Times "repeal or reform, I think, are semantics, but there will be dramatic change."
Simmons' advisor, DPA's Small, caused further worry among repeal advocates by telling the Times she was trying to reach a compromise among the existing reform proposals. "We discussed the differences, and we tried to present to the governor what we thought represented a middle ground," Small said. DPA is hoping to see a bill pass this month that would reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, apply that relief retroactively to prisoners still in the system, and shift control over who decides which offenders qualify for drug treatment away from prosecutors and back to judges.
That's not quite what Randy Credico of Mothers of the Disappeared and the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Social Justice (http://www.kunstler.org) was looking for. "Accepting a compromise now would be like signing the Versailles treaty," he told DRCNet. (For the historically challenged, Versailles was a treaty forced upon the defeated Germans after World War I, which some believe paved the way for World War II.) "We've been working for repeal for years, but now the prospects for killing the movement are very good. Who's going to carry the signs, who's going to do the grunt work, once some small bill gets through?" he asked.
Robert Gangi of Drop the Rock member the Correctional Association of New York (http://www.correctionalassociation.org) was also worried. "We're part of Drop the Rock," he told DRCNet, "not split the rock or drop half the rock. We are concerned that there is a spirit afoot that any deal is better than no deal. We don't agree," he said. "We have tremendous respect for the people involved in negotiating with Russell Simmons, but we are concerned about the possible outcome."
While outright repeal of the Rockefeller laws appears to be a dead letter this year, time is also running out for any compromise in Albany. As Pataki and the legislature squabble over judicial discretion in sentencing for the third year in a row, the legislative clock is ticking. The session ends this month. And while that would mean no relief yet for imprisoned Rockefeller law victims, at least some activists would rather wait another year and hope to get it all than settle for cosmetic changes now.
"We got the ball down to the five-yard line and gave them four downs, and they chose to kick a field goal," said Credico of reformers seeking a compromise. Credico used equally strong language while addressing the rally: "We're not trying to reform slavery, we're trying to abolish it."