Children of the drug war doing their job

Center stage at Philly Shadow

By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor

I was standing on the hot steps of the Annenberg Center when Tomika said, "Chuck, we're doing what we came here to do, aren't we?"

"Yes, yes, we are," I answered. She really wasn't asking me, she was telling me with a 'knowing' look in her eyes, we really are getting a job done. That job was to tell the world at Philadelphia's Shadow Convention in early-August about her and other children's separation from mothers in prison, women serving long sentences mandated by this heartless drug war.

Moments before, a visiting German journalist had interviewed Tomika Gates while sitting on these outside steps. She told her story to the world, repeatedly, that hot afternoon. The journalist was shocked to hear that she has been raising five siblings and two children of her own since she was sixteen. At age 22 she's still taking care of siblings, her own two children, attending school and missing her imprisoned mother.

Tomika and twenty-nine other young people, including toddlers, visited Philly's Shadow Convention to help dramatize and make real the devastation to black families caused by the racist drug war. November Coalition teamed with St. Paul's Federal FORUM, Detroit's Women of Action and regional leader, Kelly Ali of Cleveland, Ohio to bring children by bus, children from each city, young people with chilling stories of childhood poverty and parents or relatives in prison.

This was no small effort. The Shadow organizers called on November Coalition, FAMM and the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice of NY, to show the nation in plain, human terms how the drug war has particularly devastated black American families. With little time to organize, TNC called Mary Gaines of FedFORUM who then called Mattie Thomas of Women of Action, two former drug war prisoners, long-time friends and united in desire to foster the often tenuous relationship between women in prison and their children.

FedFORUM, in particular, offers support services which include a family transit system to carry children in the St. Paul area to Pekin, Illinois for visits with their mothers confined in the federal women's camp. A trip to Philadelphia would be a longer journey yet, an adventure in grassroots politics, a huge opportunity for expression of their special oppression.

Thanks to Mattie in Detroit, a tour bus with driver was hired to take children and chaperones from Detroit to St. Paul, pick up Mary and her group, and then motor on to Philly in time to appear on the Annenberg stage by Tuesday, August 1st. Kelly drove her small group of three all night from Cleveland for an early morning arrival.

The children were billed in Shadow promotional literature as a "choir" from Minnesota. What TNC suggested, originally, was not a "choir" at all, but, rather, a mixed group of young people singing, People get ready, a popular 1960s song. Ah, the magic of it. Yes, we did present a "choir" to the large Shadows' audience, complete with poetry readings between songs thanks to Donnie Blecher's writing talent and the arrangement of New York City's Jillian, a professional vocalist.

Our children of the drug war, our "choir", stayed with us at a Drexel University dormitory arranged for our three-day stay by Shadow organizers. A small, neighborhood restaurant fed over 30 of us, children plus adults, good meals. We greatly appreciate this Greek couple who patiently planned the food schedule with us with no previous notice given for those days we streamed in and out of their restaurant.

A Philly neighborhood church provided two of our meals. At one of our meals there, CNN was filming church leaders and dignitaries for live broadcast to the Republican Convention. We meandered to the basement with "our brood" amidst secret service agents and celebrities. It was surreal, all that security, and for our group, a bit strange.

Jillian arrived by train from NYC on Monday, July 31st, about Midnight. We held our first successful 'choir practice' at 2 a.m. Other than keeping other residents awake and having to placate dorm security, we sang, or the children sang. Jillian or Jill Armsbury, my daughter, led dead-eyed, tired children into a passable rendition of People Get Ready.

On Tuesday, August lst, the Annenberg Center was jammed with press plus a full house of drug law reformers. The children were on stage before Jesse Jackson's speech. The place was rockin' after Rev. Sanders condemned the drug war in the opening benediction ­ momentum continued to build.

That's when the children came on stage. Dave Borden of DRCNet may have described the presentations best, saying, "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."

Teenage Donnie Belcher of St. Paul read two of her own poems aloud, chilling listeners into sad silence for the shame of it all - the filthy drug war, its many young victims. You had to have been there to appreciate such beautiful dissonance.

Our children were interviewed successive times by many journalists. They told wrenching stories for radio broadcast later in Philadelphia, and some took part in a live television broadcast by Democracy Now. Others were taped and excerpts broadcast as TNC's Nora Callahan and Deborah Small of the Lindesmith Center joined live radio hosts Elizabeth Robinson and Norman Solomon of the National Radio Project. Reporters from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area wrote feature articles for the Star-Tribune about these young travelers, and their message spread far and wide.

It was a job well done, as Tomika observed. The message got out. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota spoke at the Philly Shadows, afterward spending a half-hour talking with Mary, Mattie and the children, promising to meet with them "back home". Aides from U.S. Congressman John Conyers' (Michigan) office spoke with us later, praising the children for their powerful presentation and encouraging us to bring them to Washington DC in the future where they could tell their stories to other congressional members and staff.

We've learned from both Mary and Mattie that many of the youth were inspired to have new confidence in themselves. Most had never spoken publicly about the incarceration of their loved ones; many since have pledged to be active with their peers and communities. Despite bus problems, hot, humid weather and a grueling schedule for such a large group of children - the compelling stories of the drug war victims were voiced, heard, honored.

Thank you, everyone, chaparones, kids and Shadow organizers, for the great success of our Shadows journey. Thank you children for sharing your stories, your love and for inspiring many others to make this world into a better place.

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