Movement Hijacked by Hiphop?

Activists Fear a Compromise on Rockefeller Repeal

The Countdown to Fairness Coalition's June 4 City Hall rally may have failed to attract an astronomical turnout, but the hiphop-infused initiative has attracted attention in Albany and brought higher visibility to the decades-long war to repeal the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. However, along with the new momentum, there is concern among longtime repeal advocates that mixed signals from the coalition's leadership may blight political negotiations and result in a meaningless makeover instead of a significant overhaul of the disputed legislation.

The Countdown to Fairness Coalition, led by Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), the Mothers of the New York Disappeared (MNYD), and Andrew Cuomo, also includes such notables as Tom Golisano and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, and is the latest offensive in the ongoing battle to overturn the ironclad drug legislation enacted in 1973 under Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller. The laws' mandatory sentencing schemes, which eliminate judicial discretion, have long been criticized as draconian and are credited with unnecessarily inflating state prison populations at enormous taxpayer expense.

Last month, the coalition issued an ultimatum to Albany to either repeal the Rockefeller drug laws by June 4 or face the wrath of the hiphop community, later announcing the date would either serve for celebration of the laws' repeal or protest against the politicians' inaction. Organizers anticipated upward of 100,000 to attend the event, but inclement weather appears to have frustrated expectations. Sources place attendance between 20,000 and 50,000, although HSAN charges that people were turned away by police.

Russell Simmons is no doubt sincere, but is he rushing to make a deal?
photo: Cary Conover
Russell Simmons is no doubt sincere, but is he rushing to make a deal?

"It was a good event," said Drop the Rock spokesman Bob Gangi. "If there had been greater numbers, I think the event would have been even more effective as a strategy. Still, it's the largest drug law repeal rally that has ever been held. Plus, there were a lot of people who got educated about the issue."

"It's not about how many came, but who is listening," said Simmons backstage, and that is precisely why there are concerns within the campaign's leadership. Since the countdown began, there has been a whirlwind of activity around changing the laws. This whirlwind has been both a blessing and a curse to the coalition. There are opposing viewpoints and tensions in the group over ultimate objectives, and who should be at the negotiating table. At the rally, Randy Credico, director of the MNYD, said: "There's been some infighting here among some of the organizers about the message up in Albany. Some of the people involved in the negotiations are promoting reform. We are demanding repeal."

The repeal vs. reform debate is the main point of contention within the coalition. "Everybody agrees that the optimal goal is repeal," said Cuomo, "but everyone also agrees that the shot at getting repeal is the shot of me waking up tomorrow with blond hair, blue eyes, and a small nose. It ain't gonna happen."

Credico sees it differently. "The problem is we set our sights too low," he said. After giving an account of the long and arduous struggles veteran activists have faced, an impassioned Credico added: "For some of the people involved who appropriated the negotiations to call for reform and accept reform, I consider that treasonous. They are saying repeal is not possible and they'll have to answer to us . . . "

To the dismay of these activists, HSAN and Deborah P. Small of the Drug Policy Alliance have emerged as the chief negotiators with state lawmakers. "We should all be involved in the negotiations," said Credico. "[Simmons] can't be involved by himself."

"Russell is sexier to talk to," said Cuomo. "Let's be honest. Meet with the Mothers of the New York Disappeared or with the Correctional Association, you don't get a story. You meet with Russell Simmons, the governor looks like an enlightened activist sitting down with everybody."

There is a sense that the momentum gained by ties to the hiphop community has eclipsed the activists who were the movement's catalysts. More importantly, activists are worried that lawmakers will just offer the new negotiators the same compromise deals that have been rejected in the past. The assembly has already presented the same legislation offered last year; Gangi called it old wine in a new bottle.

"I think that there is a concern," said Gangi, "that out of this momentum could come a 'deal' or 'compromise' that is very limited and that would be worse than no deal at all; that the governor and the legislative leaders will use the cover of Simmons's intervention to come up with a half-baked compromise that doesn't really advance the cause."

Simmons says that he is not alone in the negotiations, and progress is being made: "Deborah Small is doing negotiation. She's been working on this for many years. She's committed to closing. I'm committed to closing. We have a draft of something that we are going to circulate from the governor," said Simmons. "A lot of people are calling it a jailbreak or saying what they want to say about it, and there are other people who are saying that it's too much of a compromise, but I'm a deal maker and I want to make a deal."

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