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Understanding your mission in building the movement

By Eric Sterling, Executive Director, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

(Editor: This article is a slightly condensed and edited version of Sterling's speech given at the DC March, Saturday, August 13, 2005)

The goal of the movement is to win over the broad majority of the American people to support criminal justice or drug policy reform. To achieve this goal requires a strategy. Being able to carry out the strategy requires that we know what that strategy is.

Today I am not going to try laying out the specific elements of a strategy. But there is a fundamental problem we must understand and a fundamental goal we must understand.

The problem is that those who hold power in government and business and who profit from the status quo do not want change. And they don't want to give up the power that we need to make the change. Our goal is justice for our loved ones, justice for our communities, justice for all of us.

Ordinary Americans must be won over to our cause. They need, over time, to be alerted, educated, inspired and involved in the process. We must win their hearts and their minds. And to do so, our movement must appeal to common values: fairness, equal opportunity, strong families, redemption and second chances, cost effectiveness, and prevention.

There are four roles any movement needs to have successfully filled. These four roles are all important. Sometimes there is conflict in a movement because people who are good in one role don't appreciate the importance of the other roles:

The CITIZEN role emphasizes widely shared beliefs that the public and movement have in common. America's values are consistent with our work for justice. They give us legitimacy.

The REBEL role puts the issues on the agenda through nonviolent action. They show how the government and powerholders violate public trust, and REBELS force society to face the problems the government's approach has created.

The CHANGE AGENT works behind the scenes building coalitions, educating reporters. They redefine the problem to show how everyone is affected by it.

The REFORMER engages in lobbying, referenda and lawsuits.

"Ordinary Americans must be won over to our cause. They need, over time, to be alerted, educated, inspired and involved in the process. We must win their hearts and their minds. And to do so, our movement must appeal to common values: fairness, equal opportunity, strong families, redemption and second chances, cost effectiveness, and prevention."

Many people join the movement or look at the current situation and think that we are just beginning to have impact. Some are here today at their very first rally and think this is the first rally that has ever been held on this issue. People join us today with great enthusiasm, but some also came with an ignorance of where our movement is and what it has already accomplished.

I've heard many people talking under the trees about this movement as though this is the first day anything has been done about criminal justice reform. They mistakenly think we are just beginning our work together. On the contrary, some people who have been working in the movement for years seem at a loss about where we are along the road to success.

Author Bill Moyer ("Doing Democracy") describes eight stages in the process of creating movement success. These stages are not sharp and clear, and are often overlapping. We can be in several stages at the same time, and be moving through several stages simultaneously.

Folks, I've got some very good news! We are not in the first stage, we are actually well along in stages 4, 5 and 6.

In stage 1, there is a critical social problem that violates widely held values. But the public is unaware of the problem. The problem is not yet a social issue. We are way past that stage. That might have been the situation in the 1980s when the Congress was using the media to create the picture of a crime epidemic, and prison population was growing rapidly. In those days, when prosecutors like Rudy Giuliani were running big drug cases, there was not much sympathy to low-level drug offenders being sent away with king-sentences.

In stage 2, opposition begins to grow. Protests and challenges to the powerholder institutions show that official channels aren't fixing the problem. A social movement develops. This was the situation in the late 1980s and early 1990s as FAMM, The Sentencing Project, and Drug Policy Foundation started up. The U.S. Sentencing Commission started writing reports finding that mandatory minimums were creating more racial disparity in sentencing, but Commissioners couldn't get Congress to fix the problem.

In stage 3, the public sees the victims' faces. The 1994 crime bill had the "safety valve" to curb mandatory minimums in some cases. The Democrats tried to offer a more progressive anti-crime bill. The movement was growing. We learn about Kemba Smith and Dorothy Gaines.

In stage 4, there is a take off. There is usually a trigger event. There are dramatic actions. Action is taking place around the country. The problem is put on the national agenda. About 40 percent of the public oppose the current policies.

A trigger event in drug reform occurred when President Clinton commuted the sentences of Dorothy Gaines and Kemba Smith at Christmas 2000. In the medical marijuana movement, it is easier to see a series of trigger events. A key was the election of 1996 in California. Another was the report of the Institute of Medicine in March 1999. Another was the Raich decision in the 9th Circuit in December 2003, followed by a Supreme Court decision in November 2004 and June 2005.

In many respects we are mostly in Stage 4.

Stage 5 is one we are also in. People in the movement see the goals unachieved. They see the powerholders unchanged. People see fewer numbers at the demonstrations or the demonstrations are less frequent. Despair and frustration is felt. We see the intransigent Congress, and the Hinchey Amendment doesn't get lots more votes this year than last year. We lose the medical marijuana case in the Supreme Court. More mandatory minimum bills are considered in the House Judiciary Committee.

Stage 6 is when we have a majority of public opinion. The majority supports medical marijuana. The majority is opposed to ineffective sentencing. We are involving mainstream citizens and institutions. The newspaper editorial boards support us around the nation. Bills to repeal mandatory minimums are introduced.

Stage 7 is success. Large majorities oppose the current policy and support reform. They no longer fear our alternative. Some powerholders split off and change position. Powerholders propose minimal reforms, but the movement continues to demand social change. New laws and policies are enacted and implemented.

The "post success 8th stage" is critically important. It is then when we will push to extend our success.

We want to achieve not simply reform of prisons and the courts, but an education system that fails our kids and shuffles them off to hopelessness and illiteracy.

We want to reform the health care system that fails to adequately treat mental illness, emotional problems or metabolic problems that lead to delinquency and trouble.

We want to end drug prohibition that keeps the organized crime system in place, that keeps corrupt cops going, and that provides drugs to kids and troubled adults without any protections.

Those of you who have gathered today in the face of stage 5 despair are the heroes. You are out here on a hellishly hot day to face off with the powerholders to demand justice. You have the determination and grit to win. With a proper understanding of our jobs, with a well thought out strategy, with wise and proper leadership, we will win, and we are here today to see that we do win.

For more coverage of the August 13, 2005 March on Washington, DC, visit

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