The “Countdown to Fairness,” an endeavor that brings the rap world into the fight against the Rockefeller Drug Laws, launched a campaign on May 9 that establishes a deadline of June 4 for the repeal of legislation that subjects nonviolent offenders to extended mandatory sentences for minimal possession. Taking a cue from nation leaders, a motley coalition of veteran opposition groups, such as Drop The Rock and Mothers of the N.Y. Disappeared, joined together with Russell Simmons and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), the Reverend Al Sharpton, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, and the Nation of Islam on the 30th anniversary of the law’s enactment to issue an ultimatum to the state government. The campaign is demanding that politicians disarm laws that critics perceive as a racist and draconian weapon of mass destruction to the economic, political, and social structure of New York’s minority communities.
Standing with family members and victims of the contested drug laws, Randy Credico, director of Mothers of the NY Disappeared hailed the new coalition of hiphoppers and veteran activists as an opportunity to significantly elevate the issue’s profile. “Today it’s gone from being a nationally known problem. It’s going to be known around the world and in the universe with the crew that Dr. Ben Chavis, Russell Simmons, and Andrew Cuomo have put together.”
Although Governor Pataki and state legislators have agreed that something should be done about the Rockefeller Drug Laws, as of yet they have failed to meaningfully address the issue. The coalition hopes the new initiative will put the heat on politicians to act. “One of the reasons why I think you haven’t seen a change here is that the people who are affected tend to be the voiceless and the powerless. Ninety-four percent happen to be Black and Latino,” said Cuomo. “They don’t have lobbyists, they’re not making big campaign contributions, so the system doesn’t pay them any attention. Well, then create another vehicle to get those people and those issues attention, and that’s what this is. We don’t have a lobbyist running around the halls of Albany because we can’t afford it. But this we can do.”
“It seems to have more energy,” said coalition supporter and Oscar-winning actress Sarandon of bringing the hiphop element into the ongoing battle. “Whenever you can draw on a broad-based coalition, it can help, and I think that it’s been infused with a new energy that’ll be very constructive.”
The Rockefeller Drug Laws have been plagued by controversy and criticism since their inception during the administration of Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller. Their mandatory sentencing schemes have long been deemed as excessively harsh and disproportionate. Judges are mandated to follow sentencing guidelines without the discretion to factor in the circumstances of the crime or the background of the accused.
Critics argue that instead of deterring narcotics-trafficking, the laws have often led to the incarceration of addicts who would be better served through drug-treatment programs. In the years that have followed the laws’ implementation, prison populations have soared and corrections budgets have skyrocketed. The NYCLU’s Donna Lieberman pointed out that last year the state imprisoned more minorities than it graduated in its institutions of higher education. Activists also say that $610,000,000 is spent yearly on unnecessary incarceration, not to mention the billions that are spent on construction of new correctional facilities, a point of contention that should not be lost on a cash-strapped New York economy.
The campaign kicked off immediately after the press conference with a protest rally outside the governor’s offices at 40th Street and 3rd Avenue. It included a call from Sharpton for politicians, in evaluating drug control measures, to give New York’s minority community the same understanding the state of Florida extends to the president’s drug-addicted niece.
City Council member Yvette Clarke delivered a rousing speech condemning the economic injustice that has resulted from the legislation. She cited the erosion of resources in inner-city communities due to counting inmates as residents of the upstate jurisdictions in which they’re imprisoned. She also noted the harm of long-term detainment of individuals who could be financially supporting their families. Representatives of the Urban League and the NAACP also were in attendance at the conference and rally.
After his appearance, Simmons went directly to a B.E.T. video show taping to promote awareness of the campaign. He said that high-profile rap artists will record service announcements to mobilize the hiphop community in support of the countdown. “The first thing we are going to do, we are going to start to educate them through their own mouths. Rappers are concerned about this,” said Simmons. “These are the people who will educate the people.”
If the deadline passes without any movement on the issue, the campaign vows to increase the pressure and keep it up until their demands are acknowledged. “The Governor, Sheldon Silver, and Bruno, we know when they get together they can do what has to get done,” said Simmons. “When we get the power of hiphop and the power of all these organizers together, young people and the people who have stood fast, we know that within less than 30 days they [the politicians] can get it done. We know that there are three people we can hold accountable.”
Some organizers have even advocated for a “regime change” come next election if the ultimatum is not met. “Don’t forget politicians,” said Frank Garcia, president of the Bronx Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, speaking on behalf of the Latino community. “You could be here now, but we have the votes, and the Hispanic and African American community has united. We’re working together and strong.”
Simmons, recalling the turnout of at last year’s City Hall rally to fight educational budget cuts, said although the education issue drew strong support in the hiphop community, the drug-law issues hits home even harder. “I hope that the governor, Sheldon, and Bruno understand what powers we have to bear,” said Simmons. “We have money, we have a great coalition and we are going to work.”