Seizing the Spotlight
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.
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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 overdrivealways 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 addictnot a dealerand 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 streetsa sick person off the streetand 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."
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 affectedthe state's 21,000 drug prisoners and their familieshad 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 wasI don't want to say weirdI 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."
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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