Seizing the Spotlight

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

For years, drug-law-reform advocates relied mostly on data, reports, lobbying, and editorials to make their case against the Rockefeller drug laws. Favorite statistics include the fact that the state's prison population soared from 12,500 in 1973 to more than 70,000 in 2000, and that 94 percent of the state's drug prisoners are African American or Latino. Those most directly affected—the state's 21,000 drug prisoners and their families—had long been left out of this political debate.

Enter Credico, armed with a red Nokia phone, a 1500-minute plan, and 13 reporters' numbers programmed into his speed dial. "There was no way things were going to change without a street movement," he says. "There were a lot of people who worked on statistics, but it doesn't mean anything without a face on it. We needed human interest stories written. It's all show business; that's carrying on the tradition of Kunstler. Everything is tried in the court of public opinion."

Prosecutors complain that Credico plays fast and loose with his facts, and his aggressive style and unorthodox tactics have alienated some drug-law reformers. But few could dispute his success. As state legislators who support drug-law reform now try to sway their more conservative colleagues, Credico's stories of prisoners' woes have become invaluable. "They have been extremely effective in trying to personalize this battle, to show the human tragedies associated with the laws," explains Queens assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a Democrat, who has led a fight to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws.

"Different people are moved by different [media] outlets," Aubry says. "Editorials are very helpful for one level of education, but when you get these stories in a smaller market in other regions [outside of New York City], it makes people think. And from a political point of view, it puts it on your radar screen."

When he was growing up in California, Credico heard horror stories about prison every day. His own father had been a safecracker during the Depression and had spent a decade in an Ohio prison before Credico was born. Credico was reminded of his father's ordeal one night in 1997, while watching a debate over the Rockefeller drug laws on C-SPAN.

At the time, Credico was holed up in a $30-a-week hotel near Tampa, Florida, trying to kick his own drug habit. He had spent the last 22 years working as a stand-up comedian, once even performing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Performing at clubs along the Las Vegas strip, he had been introduced to cocaine in 1976; ever since, he had been battling addiction. Now, on C-SPAN, Credico watched Anthony Papa, who had just been released from Sing Sing, talk about spending 12 years in prison for possessing and selling four-and-a-half ounces of cocaine. When he returned to New York City, Credico tracked down Papa and took him out for a few rounds of margaritas.

Together, the comedian and the ex-con hashed out a strategy. Credico spoke about starting a street movement patterned after the Mothers of the Disappeared, the women who marched weekly at the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to draw attention to loved ones killed by military troops. In New York, Credico said, they could recruit drug prisoners' relatives and hold similar vigils.

"I thought he was—I don't want to say weird—I thought he was a little eccentric in a good way, in terms of thinking about things in ways that no one else was," Papa recalls. Looking back on all that has transpired since then, Papa says, "In that sense, he was a genius."

Fifty people and a handful of reporters came to Credico's first vigil, held at Rockefeller Center on May 8, 1998, the 25th anniversary of the Rockefeller drug laws. Back then, he had help from several other drug-law reform groups. Most of his fellow organizers thought the vigil should be a one-time event. Credico disagreed. He took home the garbage bag full of posters and began a seven-day-a-week campaign. He spent Friday and Saturday evenings at Columbus Circle, handing out flyers to the hundreds of relatives and friends boarding buses to visit prisoners across the state. As his literature circulated, Credico began receiving five to 10 letters a day from inmates.

Credico set about searching for the most sympathetic cases. He weeded out those who had a history of violent crime or long rap sheets. His system certainly was not foolproof, but he did find dozens of cases of prisoners with no prior records who had been sentenced to 15 or 20 years. (These inmates are the minority; only 611 of the state's 21,000 drug prisoners are convicted of A-1 felonies, which require sentences of at least 15 years.)

Every now and then Credico would hit the jackpot, like the day he received a letter from Terrence Stevens, a first-time offender who is nearly paralyzed from muscular dystrophy and was then serving 15-years-to-life for cocaine possession. Credico phoned Terrence's mother, Regina, who lives in East Harlem, and invited her to come to the vigils he continued to hold at Rockefeller Center. Regina, who was unemployed at the time, became one of Credico's most enthusiastic supporters, showing up at every vigil.

"I think he's a nut, but he's true to what he's doing," says Stevens, now a cafeteria worker at Chelsea High School. "He puts his all into it. It really touched me because he doesn't have anyone in prison, and he works just as hard, if not harder, than people who do. You just don't find that devotion."

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