When the Republican National Convention comes to town this month, Russell Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network will be hoping to shine a spotlight on the brutality of New York’s Rockefeller drug laws—among other issues. “This is a coalitional effort, so we’ll also be raising public awareness about HIV and AIDS,” says Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of HSAN. “This is joint, grassroots mobilization. There are people opposed to the war, people who want to see more money for education. The message is education not incarceration, education not incarceration.”
HSAN will lay out its litany of causes on August 30, during a march and rally outside Madison Square Garden, where a gaggle of celebrities will lend their faces to the fight. Lower-profile activists who’ve been after Rockefeller reform for years are hoping that Simmons’s second war on their behalf won’t end like his first, with a stalemate in Albany and anger in the ranks.
“We have all the elements we need to create a strong political movement that gets us positive gains, if we connect the dots,” says Michael Blain, policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Which brings us to Russell. We believe that HSAN has the people power, but it must be used in a way that connects a political-reform message with a specific direct call to action. Whenever you can put 50,000 people in the street, they must be on message and they must walk away with a clear plan. Otherwise, we do more harm than help.”
Simmons was unavailable for comment, largely because he spent the week registering voters in Boston during the Democratic National Convention.
While activists stop short of saying his headline-dominating campaign hurt the Rockefeller cause last year, they do say a tremendous opportunity was wasted. The entertainment mogul used the movement’s clout, and his own celebrity, to garner a place at the bargaining table with Governor George Pataki. The result was a compromise that activists rejected, and that a legislature ultimately refused to enact.
“When you begin to play the inside political game, people are very well versed politically and understand how to divide and conquer,” says Blain. “And they feed into all the vulnerabilities. For stars, it may be ego. For people, it may be financial. For the activists, they give you the illusion that you got something, when you really end up with nothing.”
Activists have a serious concern that the flash of fighting Rockefeller may be more important to HSAN than putting in the actual work to get the laws fixed. HSAN’s strategy of lining up celeb endorsements drew fire after Eminem—protesting felon disenfranchisement—told a crowd that he was ineligible to vote. In fact, despite a record, Eminem was quite able to vote and had just never exercised the right.
For would-be Rockefeller reformers, it’s extremely important that Simmons’s message be both focused and informed. “I’m encouraged that there will be a march,” says Blain. “But people must be on message and there must be a clear message and if that happens we will reform the Rockefeller drug laws. If it doesn’t, it will be another 31 years.”
HSAN, to put it mildly, sees things a little different. “While activists know about the issue, if you ask the average person on the street, they don’t know,” says Chavis. “That’s our job. There’ve been a whole lot of groups working on this for years, and we salute them. But our job is to bring public awareness. There’s not enough heat yet on the governor. There’s not enough heat on the legislator. There’s not enough heat on the prosecutors. This is not a question of staying on message, this is a question of raising voices.”
One voice that won’t be raised will be Randy Credico’s. As co-chair of Mothers of the Disappeared, Credico has been one of the most vocal, if eccentric, proponents of Rockefeller reform. But he’s throwing his hat in. “The movement is fractured,” says Credico. “I’m so frustrated by how things have lapsed here. You can’t come out once a year and have a rally. It’s an ongoing process. I’ve been to Albany 25 times. I went to all the hearings. Russell didn’t go to one. It was me and Michael Blain and a couple others. He could have helped out so much. He’s got one rally, and that’s it. Will it change anything? I don’t know. It’s been very discouraging.”