Seizing the Spotlight

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

Sometimes, Credico's vigils attracted only five or six people. Other times, the crowd would grow to 20 or 30. The small numbers bothered Credico less than the absence of reporters. If the media would not come to his vigils, he would schedule events where he thought they would be. He was often in Manhattan, holding demonstrations outside glitzy fundraisers for George Pataki or George W. Bush.

A day or two before, he would send out hyperbolic press releases, which were usually riddled with typos. "PATAKI, SUPPORTER OF ALLEGED COCAINE ABUSER GEORGE W. BUSH, LETS ADDICTS ROT IN NY PRISONS," stated one release. Another, from 1998, claimed that his three-month-old petition opposing the drug laws "already boasts 100,000 signatures." Asked if this figure was accurate, Credico says, "It looked like 100,000 until I started counting." What did it look like after he started counting? "About 13,000 or 14,000," he says.

Terrence Stevens showed up at his first anti-drug-law rally on February 28, four weeks after he left prison. Credico had decided to hold the event in front of the office of Queens district attorney Richard A. Brown, who is defending the drug laws on behalf of the state's prosecutors. Credico sent invites to 200 prisoners' relatives, then hired Terrence to make follow-up calls.

"Terrence is now a huge weapon because he's smart," says Credico. "He's an MX missile. When you see him on TV, people are going to say, 'What the fuck are we doing? We spent $300,000 to keep that guy in a prison?' You do that to Hannibal Lecter. But a kid in a wheelchair? The guy did four more years than Sammy Gravano."

A few days before his rally, Credico sent out a press release accusing Brown of sending "countless" poor people to prison in what "many reform advocates label 'ethnic cleansing.' " Credico faxed the release not only to about 30 media outlets, but also to Brown's office. "I like to piss people off," he explains. His motto, he says, is "Educate. Agitate. Irritate."

Sixty prisoners' relatives and other supporters showed up at the noon rally. Many had worked double shifts, skipped classes, or scraped together cash for babysitters so they could stand in 30-degree weather and hold posters. It felt like a family reunion as Credico and the prisoners' relatives greeted each other with hugs.

Most of the protesters were rally regulars, including Anthony Papa, Regina Stevens, and Al Lewis, the perennial Green Party candidate who played Grandpa on the 1960s TV show The Munsters. There was also Hilda Garcia, 73, whose 68-year-old husband Jose, a first-time offender, died in prison while in the eighth year of a 15-years-to-life sentence. Credico had gone to Jose's funeral, organized a memorial vigil, and called a Daily News reporter, who wrote a column headlined, "A Loving Dad Dies in Prison."

"We are going to show the skeletons in the closet," Credico hollered toward Brown's office. "You are a fraud and this is a fraudulent prosecution of the laws. . . . Come out here and face your accusers!"

The audience for this show was a dozen police officers, plus whoever wandered by. There were also seven photographers, eight reporters, and four documentary filmmakers. After several prisoners' relatives took turns at the microphone, Terrence rolled forward in his wheelchair. Suddenly, all the photographers edged closer.

"There is so much suffering going on with the families that something needs to be done," Terrence said, as Papa held the microphone for him. "I have to be put on and off the toilet. I have to be bathed. . . . What kind of threat to society am I, to be warehoused in an upstate maximum-security state prison for 15-years-to-life?"

The next day, Credico would declare the event a success. Stories about the rally appeared in the Daily News, Newsday, and El Diario. Newsday also published a photo of Terrence. Ninety minutes after the rally began, nearly all the journalists had left. Credico seized the microphone.

"I want to thank everyone for coming out," he began, before being distracted by passing workers.

"You guys who are assistant D.A.s, get a real job!" he hollered. "Quit destroying lives!"

Turning back to his ralliers, he spelled out plans for future protests. "I want everyone to show up for the next one," he said. "You'll get a call from us."

He paused for a moment.

"OK, now I need $500 to pay for this sound system," he said, shoving a hand in his pants pocket. "Does anyone have $20?"

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