November Coalition Workshop Report

By Mary Sibley, November Coalition Regional Leader

It was an inauspicious beginning for our group, an afternoon spent at the Spokane airport waiting for flight arrivals. Bit by bit, TNC collected the group members and deposited them in the lounge we'd chosen to wait in. We made small talk at first, strangers flying in from El Paso, New York, Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. We groped around conversational topics looking for some common ground to share. Then into our midst Tom Murlowski dropped Vivian McPeak, organizer of Seattle's Hempfest that boasted 90,000 attendees in mid-August.

Viv charmed us with his description of the Hempfest and the obstacles put in his way by the police, town council and parks department. By the time he finished with a gruff imitation or two, he had us all laughing, and we were starting to become friends.

Delayed flights arrived, and we piled into the van to drive for two hours through an increasingly rural landscape. It was late evening when we arrived at beautiful Beaver Lodge, 25 miles northeast of Colville, Washington where we were going to spend the next three days working and learning on behalf of the November Coalition.

Most of us stumbled through the dark into our modest cabins, but some grabbed refreshments and talked until the wee hours. The large, full moon turned night into day.

On Friday morning our work began. We gathered in a cabin adorned with enlarged photographs of loved ones, some behind bars, some not. Most of the pictures showed smiling faces, clowning for the camera, expressions that surely belied their current reality of being prisoners with only numbers, no names. John Humphrey, the producer of the prisoners' CD project, videotaped each of us sharing how the war on drugs had affected his or her life.

Each had come to the workshop because of a commitment to ending this miscarriage of justice, to winning amnesty for the prisoners of the war. Together, our minds were made up. Intellectually we "understood the issue", but it was this gathering that captured our hearts and cemented our resolve to band together and use collective power to achieve common goals. Many of us cried while hearing the stories of loved ones railroaded into conspiracy convictions and sentenced to 5, 12, 17 years and more for first-time drug prohibition violations. We wept at the thought of children separated from parents, husbands from wives, brothers from sisters. We marveled at the strength of these women and men who had been through the ordeal of a trial, a sentencing, separation and grief, and who still had the energy to fight and determination to see it through.

There was Kelly, a fresh faced girl, wife and mother, whose husband was convicted in a massive conspiracy trial and sentenced to 17 years; Dietra, a willowy dance teacher from El Paso whose husband is serving 12 years; Debbie from North Carolina, a real fighter who has already held several vigils and is planning one in front of Jesse Helms' office. (Debbie is a hairdresser, and if you go into her shop, you won't read Vogue Magazine or People; instead, you'll be treated to the current issue of the Razor Wire.).

Laney from Tennessee (home of Corrections Corporation of America) educated us on the political action committee she has formed, giving us insight into the lobbying process; Patty's brother is imprisoned, and she described the first vigil she organized which was just herself and a partner standing in Union Square holding our banner: "There is no Justice in the War on Drugs". One of our law students, Kiovanna, described founding the Columbia Law Students for a Humane Drug Policy and her astonishment upon realizing it was the only such organization at a law school in the US; Susan, the mother of a heroin addicted young man in Indiana, is already a pro at doing radio interviews about the drug laws.

Mid-morning we met again in formal session, ably facilitated by Chuck Armsbury, himself a former prisoner of McNeil Island Penitentiary. This was our brainstorming time to formulate ideas on projects and initiatives for the coming year.

The next step was to break off into small groups, and for the rest of the weekend worked, typed, discussed, then presented our initiatives. The first day's session set our focus on the following programs: Communicating to marginalized communities; Public Outreach, which included further developing our mission statement and communication strategy; Prisoner Empowerment; Chapter Development, which included expanding the Vigil Project; Political Action Committee, and Future Planning.

Throughout the weekend we were inspired, prodded and counseled by our leaders. It was the first time many of us had met Nora Callahan, a tiny dynamo who may accomplish more in a week than many people can in a lifetime. Tom Murlowski was on hand to help, driving into town for us, making us laugh, assisting with the computers and keeping the feelings light. Gail Shooting Star was our earth mother and a thoughtful listener who helped our cook, Aszante, laboring calmly all day, chopping, cooking, cleaning, clearing, and brewing pots of strong coffee. And yes, Paul Lewin, who organized the pick-ups, drove the van, stacked the luggage and inspired all of us with his drive, intelligence and passion for this cause.

It wasn't all brainstorming and strategizing. We rowed across a misty Lake Gillette at dawn, walked in the moonlight and listened to live music on Saturday night. Some hearty souls even swam in the lake, while the rest of us, fully dressed, stamped our feet around a roaring fire. We roasted marshmallows and made s'mores and even had some impromptu singing around the campfire.

On Sunday night we closed the workshop with another circle council, this time describing what we had learned and, yes, leaking a few more tears. We confirmed that we had the will to fight the good fight, to support each other through the rough times and not give up until our job is done. Former prisoner, Claude, said it best: "This is not a war on drugs. A war implies two sides. This is a persecution­­the persecution of my people­­the chemically dependent. And together we are going to end this persecution."

By Monday it was a very different scene in the Spokane airport. We lingered together, hugging, kissing and trying to be last on the airplane so as not to break up the group. Brothers and sisters we were now, warriors, comrades. From many, one.

You'll hear more from us. We'll be raising a ruckus, writing letters and staffing the vigils. We are here on the outside, trying as best we can to support and give some hope to those of you on the inside. So many thanks to Nora and the gang for bringing us together, for inspiring us and for keeping the flame burning. Until next year...

Help us recruit more willing hands to our cause and so raise the consciousness of our country. The Vigil Projects are crucial to our strategy of "taking to the streets." Only if our numbers increase, and more will be willing to take it to streets, will we succeed in our mission­­amnesty for drug war prisoners.

If you are reading this, and you want to become involved, or you want your family member to join in common effort, please write to us at the November Coalition.



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