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November Coalition Journey for Justice Roars through Michigan

10/18/02 - From the Week Online with DRCnet
Contact: drcnet@drcnet.org - Website: http://www.drcnet.org
Author: Phil Smith

The November Coalition's Journey for Justice got off to a rousing start in Michigan last weekend, according to press and personal accounts. The journey, designed to expand and energize the grassroots base of the November Coalition, a national group working to free federal drug war prisoners, kept group leaders Nora Callahan and Chuck Armsbury and Kevin Zeese of the Washington, DC-based Common Sense for Drug Policy busy all weekend, but it also pushed the movement forward in a variety of ways.

The journey's Michigan weekend encompassed seven events, ranging from a march against the drug war with student activists in Ann Arbor to lectures before Unitarians and law students to a forum on the drug war attended by Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick (who also happens to be the mother of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick). Oh, and then there was the vigil at the federal prison in nearby Milan, MI. And let's not forget the Friday meeting that resulted in the formation of a new, predominantly African-American November Coalition chapter in Detroit.

"If the victims of the drug war stand united, they will form a political constituency that could end the drug war," Conyers told an audience of more than one hundred people at the University of Detroit on Saturday.

The November Coalition found victims aplenty in Michigan, and some of them are becoming active for the first time, but the Journey for Justice is also providing an opportunity for drug reformers of various stripes to rub shoulders. In Ann Arbor, for instance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Drug Policy Forum of Michigan organized the University of Michigan events. In Detroit, Unitarian drug reform activists agreed to provide a meeting place for the new Detroit chapter. And the journey also took time out for an informal strategy session with Tim Beck, leader of the thwarted effort to put medical marijuana on the Detroit city ballot. Drug reformers also had the opportunity to hear from retired Detroit policeman Dan Solano, who formed Police Officers for Drug Law Reform in 2001.

But for Armsbury and Callahan, organizing to fight drug war injustice is a highly personal affair, where the frustrations of the slow work of reaching out to people one at a time are exceeded by the satisfaction of bringing some hope and meaning to others. From Callahan's journey journal:

"At the vigil near Milan, an African American man slowed down and in response to our banner message, "There is no justice in the war on drugs," he shouted out to us, 'I hope you didn't just figure that out!' Chuck drummed up contacts for informal 'camp meetings' by asking the kids in the hotel pool if they were visiting their daddies at the prison. 'We are here to talk with people about ending drug war injustice.'

"One boy jumped out of the pool and said, 'What do we gotta do? We're here with our auntie.' We met with her late in the evening; elderly with a bad cold, she brought children of the family from Chicago to visit her son, 'Doing 20 years for 2 grams of crack. Had we known you were going to be here, we'd have been outside at that vigil with you,' she promised. "At breakfast next morning, the cashier asked where we were from. We told her, and added why we'd come to Milan, Michigan. Chuck went to the men's room and the cashier whispered, 'I was a junkie and they sent me to prison. I got this job, and a few of us gals that work here have done time on drugs. I'm a criminal, I know, but...'

"'You have a treatable medical condition -- the law made you a criminal,' I told her.

"She grabbed my hand for a moment, and said, 'Thanks for telling me that-I'll tell the others. Do you have any information you could give us?' We do! We left it with her to share with others; and I took with me the look in her eyes when I explained to her that sometimes laws are more culprit than those who break it. There was a look of relief in her eyes that will stay with me."
DRCNet spoke briefly with Callahan on Thursday as she and Armsbury drove through the federal prison gulag in upstate New York. "They have prisons everywhere up here," she said. "You don't see them unless you're looking for them, but they're there. We're driving past FCI Ray Brook. It was built to house athletes for the 1980 Winter Olympics. Now it's a federal prison. How weird."

For information about Journey events in your area, visit the November Coalition Journey for Justice web site at http://www.journeyforjustice.org online. And don't forget to sign the petition to redress drug war injustice while you're there.

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