Seizing the Spotlight

A Stand-Up Comedian Fights the Drug Laws by Working the Media

When Randy Credico is feeling bored or angry or anxious, he stands outside Brooklyn State Supreme Court and hollers at strangers. "Read about the racist Rockefeller drug laws!" shouted Credico, who is white, on a recent afternoon, waving photocopies of newspaper stories. "Spread the word! They're taking black children out of your neighborhood and putting them in Attica! This is a modern-day slave auction block!"

When he is not holding one-man protests outside courthouses, Credico is trying to build a movement to publicize what he believes are the injustices of New York's drug laws. For three years, Credico, a 45-year-old comedian, has been the project director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. Despite having no full-time staff and an annual budget of only $50,000, he has managed to start a small but scrappy movement of drug prisoners and their relatives.

Acting as their press agent, Credico has drawn unprecedented attention to their plight, winning media exposure from virtually every major news outlet in New York:

• An anti-drug-law rally Credico organized in Albany in March 1999 generated nearly 40 newspaper, television, and radio stories in outlets from New York 1 to the Albany Times Union and the Syracuse Post-Standard.

• In 2000, Credico hooked up a New York Times reporter with Terrence Stevens, a wheelchair-bound drug prisoner who was serving 15-years-to-life. After the reporter wrote two columns about Stevens, Governor George Pataki granted him clemency. The inmate was released in January.

• Earlier this year, when the INS moved to deport Melita Oliveira, a drug prisoner who had just received clemency from Pataki, Credico got her story on Court TV, WABC-TV, and in three issues of the Daily News. In early February, the INS agreed to set Oliveira free while reconsidering her case. El Diario ran a photo of her release on its cover.

• From 1998 to 2000, Credico organized semiregular vigils at Rockefeller Center, which generated dozens of news stories in a wide range of media outlets, including Newsday, the Financial Times, the Daily News, BBC Radio, and The Charles Grodin Show on CNBC.

"He has been effective," says Jimmy Breslin, the Newsday columnist who, like dozens of reporters around town, hears from Credico every few days. "He's put it on people's minds." But "you can't write one [column] every day about the Rockefeller laws, which is what he wants."

Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacted the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which require lengthy mandatory prison sentences for anyone convicted of a drug crime, in 1973. From its start, New York's drug war has been fought not only in the streets and courts, but also in the media.

Credico's side appears to be gaining ground. In recent months, there have been signs that drug-law opponents may finally succeed in convincing state legislators to soften the drug laws. Governor Pataki unveiled a detailed reform proposal in January. And leaders of both the assembly and senate have said that they too favor reform.

There is one major opponent of change, the New York State District Attorneys Association, but Credico remains confident. "It's a propaganda war," he says. "This is show business, and we have a much better act than the other side. They don't have a fucking act. Theirs is dead; it's stale. Ours is a quality show."

When they first meet Credico, most people find it tough to take him seriously. Maybe it is the coffee stains on his jeans, the half-open fly, the chewed-up cigar in his shirt pocket, the unlaced sneakers, or the pin showing Mayor Rudy Giuliani sporting a Hitler-esque moustache. Or maybe it is because he seems to operate in overdrive—always manic, as if he just downed a few double espressos.

On a recent afternoon, Credico leaned back in a chair in the middle of his West Village office, pressed a phone to his ear, and worked himself into a lather. An Associated Press reporter was on the line. A few weeks earlier, Credico had steered the reporter to Denise Smith, who is serving a 10-to-20-year prison sentence for selling crack. According to Credico, she was an addict—not a dealer—and only guilty of passing along a couple $30 bags of crack.

"They should have put her in the hospital," Credico shouted into the receiver. "It's like having somebody with cancer out there. What was the point? It's a dirty thing for a cop to do. Just to pull that woman off the streets—a sick person off the street—and into prison? Now we're going to pay the tab and it's going to be up to $700,000 for 20 years when we could have fixed her by putting her into a treatment center for $12,000 a year."

A few days later, the reporter faxed over his story. Credico tossed it into a plastic bin overflowing with newspaper articles about the state's drug prisoners. Not all of the inmates Credico promotes are as sympathetic as he claims. (Another he mentioned to the Associated Press reporter turned out to have a federal conviction for possessing a gun while selling drugs.) But most of the headlines in his plastic bin tell Credico's side of the drug-war story: "Rockefeller Drug Laws Are Too Harsh, Protesters Charge," and "The Other Victims of the War on Drugs."

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