By Mary Sibley, November
Coalition Regional Leader
It was an inauspicious beginning for our group, an afternoon
spent at the Spokane airport waiting for flight arrivals. Bit
by bit, TNC collected the group members and deposited them in
the lounge we'd chosen to wait in. We made small talk at first,
strangers flying in from El Paso, New York, Cleveland, San Francisco
and Los Angeles. We groped around conversational topics looking
for some common ground to share. Then into our midst Tom Murlowski
dropped Vivian McPeak, organizer of Seattle's Hempfest that boasted
90,000 attendees in mid-August.
Viv charmed us with his description of the Hempfest and the
obstacles put in his way by the police, town council and parks
department. By the time he finished with a gruff imitation or
two, he had us all laughing, and we were starting to become friends.
Delayed flights arrived, and we piled into the van to drive
for two hours through an increasingly rural landscape. It was
late evening when we arrived at beautiful Beaver Lodge, 25 miles
northeast of Colville, Washington where we were going to spend
the next three days working and learning on behalf of the November
Most of us stumbled through the dark into our modest cabins,
but some grabbed refreshments and talked until the wee hours.
The large, full moon turned night into day.
On Friday morning our work began. We gathered in a cabin adorned
with enlarged photographs of loved ones, some behind bars, some
not. Most of the pictures showed smiling faces, clowning for
the camera, expressions that surely belied their current reality
of being prisoners with only numbers, no names. John Humphrey,
the producer of the prisoners' CD project, videotaped each of
us sharing how the war on drugs had affected his or her life.
Each had come to the workshop because of a commitment to ending
this miscarriage of justice, to winning amnesty for the prisoners
of the war. Together, our minds were made up. Intellectually
we "understood the issue", but it was this gathering
that captured our hearts and cemented our resolve to band together
and use collective power to achieve common goals. Many of us
cried while hearing the stories of loved ones railroaded into
conspiracy convictions and sentenced to 5, 12, 17 years and more
for first-time drug prohibition violations. We wept at the thought
of children separated from parents, husbands from wives, brothers
from sisters. We marveled at the strength of these women and
men who had been through the ordeal of a trial, a sentencing,
separation and grief, and who still had the energy to fight and
determination to see it through.
There was Kelly, a fresh faced girl, wife and mother, whose
husband was convicted in a massive conspiracy trial and sentenced
to 17 years; Dietra, a willowy dance teacher from El Paso whose
husband is serving 12 years; Debbie from North Carolina, a real
fighter who has already held several vigils and is planning one
in front of Jesse Helms' office. (Debbie is a hairdresser, and
if you go into her shop, you won't read Vogue Magazine or People;
instead, you'll be treated to the current issue of the Razor
Laney from Tennessee (home of Corrections Corporation of America)
educated us on the political action committee she has formed,
giving us insight into the lobbying process; Patty's brother
is imprisoned, and she described the first vigil she organized
which was just herself and a partner standing in Union Square
holding our banner: "There is no Justice in the War on Drugs".
One of our law students, Kiovanna, described founding the Columbia
Law Students for a Humane Drug Policy and her astonishment upon
realizing it was the only such organization at a law school in
the US; Susan, the mother of a heroin addicted young man in Indiana,
is already a pro at doing radio interviews about the drug laws.
Mid-morning we met again in formal session, ably facilitated
by Chuck Armsbury, himself a former prisoner of McNeil Island
Penitentiary. This was our brainstorming time to formulate ideas
on projects and initiatives for the coming year.
The next step was to break off into small groups, and for
the rest of the weekend worked, typed, discussed, then presented
our initiatives. The first day's session set our focus on the
following programs: Communicating to marginalized communities;
Public Outreach, which included further developing our mission
statement and communication strategy; Prisoner Empowerment; Chapter
Development, which included expanding the Vigil Project; Political
Action Committee, and Future Planning.
Throughout the weekend we were inspired, prodded and counseled
by our leaders. It was the first time many of us had met Nora
Callahan, a tiny dynamo who may accomplish more in a week than
many people can in a lifetime. Tom Murlowski was on hand to help,
driving into town for us, making us laugh, assisting with the
computers and keeping the feelings light. Gail Shooting Star
was our earth mother and a thoughtful listener who helped our
cook, Aszante, laboring calmly all day, chopping, cooking, cleaning,
clearing, and brewing pots of strong coffee. And yes, Paul Lewin,
who organized the pick-ups, drove the van, stacked the luggage
and inspired all of us with his drive, intelligence and passion
for this cause.
It wasn't all brainstorming and strategizing. We rowed across
a misty Lake Gillette at dawn, walked in the moonlight and listened
to live music on Saturday night. Some hearty souls even swam
in the lake, while the rest of us, fully dressed, stamped our
feet around a roaring fire. We roasted marshmallows and made
s'mores and even had some impromptu singing around the campfire.
On Sunday night we closed the workshop with another circle
council, this time describing what we had learned and, yes, leaking
a few more tears. We confirmed that we had the will to fight
the good fight, to support each other through the rough times
and not give up until our job is done. Former prisoner, Claude,
said it best: "This is not a war on drugs. A war implies
two sides. This is a persecutionthe persecution of
my peoplethe chemically dependent. And together we
are going to end this persecution."
By Monday it was a very different scene in the Spokane airport.
We lingered together, hugging, kissing and trying to be last
on the airplane so as not to break up the group. Brothers and
sisters we were now, warriors, comrades. From many, one.
You'll hear more from us. We'll
be raising a ruckus, writing letters and staffing the vigils.
We are here on the outside, trying as best we can to support
and give some hope to those of you on the inside. So many thanks
to Nora and the gang for bringing us together, for inspiring
us and for keeping the flame burning. Until next year...
Help us recruit more willing hands to our cause and so raise
the consciousness of our country. The Vigil Projects are crucial
to our strategy of "taking to the streets." Only if
our numbers increase, and more will be willing to take it to
streets, will we succeed in our missionamnesty for
drug war prisoners.
If you are reading this, and you want to become involved,
or you want your family member to join in common effort, please
write to us at the November Coalition.
MORE PICTURES FROM THE WORKSHOP: