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News ::
Boston rallies around annual protest event
30 Sep 2001
Coverage of the MassCann/NORML Freedom Rally, interviews with Keith Stroup, CEO of NORML, and Rich Mackin, spoken word artist. Descriptions of protesters, bands, speakers, police activity; discussions of the implications of September 11th. Originally published in the student press. Photographs by Cameron Nazzari. (article 5)

Boston rallies around annual protest event
by Devin McDougall

"We're at war with a new kind of enemy- it's not a person, it's not a country. We're at war with an ideology" comments River, the vocalist of Boston hardcore legends Tree as the feedback from their last song fades. "It's a new kind of war." Ten thousand people gathered on Boston Common last Saturday, for the twelfth annual MassCann/NORML Freedom Rally, an all-day event with bands sharing the stage with political speakers.
The rally was originally founded in the 80's to protest the injustices of marijuana laws, but in recent years, it has grown to encompass demonstrations for a range of causes. This year, in the wake of Tuesday's tragedy, it was refocused, rallying to end not just the drug war, but all war. People of Boston gathered to draw strength from each other, each dealing with the realities of Tuesday in his or her own way, some by altering their mood and meditating, others by a cathartic fracas in the mosh pits.
Most of the police dealt with the rally by being even more cantankerous and testy than usual- threatening photographers, searching backpacks perhaps to fill arrest quotas. After a few hours, though, their activity leveled off and they once again became just part of the scenery.
Merchants' tents ran along the edge of the field in front of the stage, hawking wares like Rastafari jewelry, handmade drawings, event t-shirts, and literature such as Get Stoned and Read This Book. Many third party political groups had set up tables, from the fringe groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party to the rising Libertarian Party. A drag queen wandered around holding up a sign "Gulf War II is a just war, The War on Drugs is not." A man wearing a globe on his head and a smock decorated with prison bars danced with himself and yelled incoherently about King George II and the Stoned Age. A woman dressed as Pocahontas, complete with feathered headdress, fringed leather and six-inch platforms also showed up, apparently without a political agenda. Apart from the antics of those who chose to exercise their freedom of speech more colorfully than most, however, there was much relevant debate and discussion amongst the attendees.
I had a chance to interview the Executive Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Keith Stroup. Keith is a lawyer who works at the Washington, D.C. branch of NORML. Backstage, and through the din of hardcore acts performing at the time, we talked about the future of legalization. He has polls showing that a majority of voters believe responsible marijuana smokers shouldn't be jailed, but lawmakers need to know they exist.
Stroup reports, "Elected officials have to hear from us... It's a fight those people who smoke marijuana have to win themselves. And we have the numbers to do it." According to Stroup, state legislatures don't want to seem radical or out of touch with their constituents, they are reluctant to bring up these kinds of bills.
"So when I talk to a member of congress, they say 'You may have 76 million people who smoke marijuana but I sure don't hear about it from my district'…What everyone can do is this: they can contact their state or federal elected official, and they don't have to say they smoke marijuana, just say, 'I will never again vote for somebody that wants to arrest and jail responsible marijuana smokers- and if they hear this from a significant number of their constituents, let me tell you, it won't be long before they'll be with us."
With regards to eventual legalization in these parts, he says, "Massachusetts is probably one of the two or three states likely to be next to decriminalize…within a year or two you'll see it [a bill] in Congress…For many years, the city used to deny MassCann/NORML a permit to even gather here every year, and every year, lawyers would have to spend hundreds of hours to sue the city, and every year, we won, because it's an absolute first amendment right, to advocate the right to stop arresting marijuana smokers…This is the Boston Common. I mean, it was embarrassing that we had to go to court in the cradle of liberty here, to assert a basic right."
I also talked to local spoken word artist Rich Mackin about the day's protests, and he remarked, "If anything, I think it would be more interesting if more people just got together, and were like, 'Hey, five hundred of us are gonna all smoke pot right now'. I see a lot of people kind of like, getting together in little clutches and looking paranoid. I'd be more interested in like, if it was 'We're all smoking pot right now, together, are you gonna arrest all five hundred of us'. Now I'm not necessarily saying I would do that, but I'd be more interested in seeing that…
"One thing I think with this is that for every political person here, there's ten people who are just like, 'Oh, OK'. But that's not even necessarily a bad thing because if you get the political people putting on something interesting you're gonna get people who would normally be sitting at home smoking pot at least exposed to something that they normally wouldn't be."
Mackin concluded, "Question everything. Don't take my word for it, get sources…For example, there's footage of Palestinians celebrating, that's definitely 'here's Palestinians who are celebrating', but I've heard from sources that that's actually from back in the Gulf War, where they're happy because we're helping to liberate Kuwait, so in solidarity they took to the streets…there are people who have things to gain, so, question what you see."
Race tensions surfaced intermittently throughout the day. A speaker from the Connecticut chapter of the Students for Sensible Drug Policies excorciated the "racist drug war" as a "tool of social oppression," citing statistics of disproportionate ratios of minorities jailed on drug charges. I saw a fight almost break out between two hippies over the use of a racial epithet. The most troubling expression of all, however, was an Arab-American walking around with a sign on his back "I Am Not a Terrorist."
I think the visions of the recent cataclysms burnt into the minds of everyone in the crowd and everyone on stage led to unusually inspired sets by the day's bands. Tree tore it up onstage, crying out against the onset of racism. Sam Black Church reunited for a last show, their dreadlocked vocalist inciting the pit into a free-for-all and stirring the blood of everyone within earshot. Local heroes Scissorfight kept up the intensity during their barrage of songs. All day long, bands rioted against transgressions of our civil liberties.
The rally gave closure to what was a surreal and disorienting week for all. We are at war with an ideology- an ideology that threatens our democracy. Beneath all else, the objective of this rally was to advocate for our nation's freedoms, which stand endangered not only to threats of terrorism, but also to being eclipsed by reactionary policy at home.