12/06/15 Doug McVay

Doug McVay reports: This week we continue our coverage of the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference, with audio from Deborah Small from Break The Chains, and interviews with author and activist Kemba Smith, and with Jonathan Perri of Change.org.

Century of Lies
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL120615.mp3



DECEMBER 6, 2015


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization. Legalization. The end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello! And welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net.

And now, on with the show.

This week we're continuing our coverage of the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference, which was held last month in Crystal City, Virginia, right outside Washington, DC.

KEMBA SMITH: My name is Kemba Smith Pradia, and I am -- why am I telling my age? -- but, 43 years old, 44 years old, and I was sentenced as a first time nonviolent drug offender to 24 and a half years in federal prison when I was 23 and I was still supposed to be in prison today, until 45. My release date would have been 2016. But I received executive clemency after having served 6 and a half years, from President Bill Clinton, and ever since my release I've been on this journey with the advocacy and speaking for those that I left behind in prison.

DOUG MCVAY: You have a book, I believe, called Poster Child, and, I mean -- tell us about some of the, about some of the work that you're doing these days.

KEMBA SMITH: Well, the big thing here at the conference is just continuing this push. Obviously now there's a lot of rhetoric, bipartisan, about mass incarceration and drug offenders, nonviolent drug offenders, and how we need to change the system. Well, I'm one of those people that was effected, and I'm determined that I'm going to continue to be a face for this issue, and continue to speak for those that I left behind in prison, but also the work that I've been doing as well is revolved around felony disenfranchisement.

Because, even when I was released from federal prison, most people think clemency, executive clemency, is, you have a clean slate, but no, it was just commutation where I still had a record, I still had to meet with a probation officer, and I lost my right to vote. And I couldn't get my right restored because Virginia permanently disenfranchises. There's a waiting period before you can even apply to get your rights restored, and then, once that waiting period's up, it's almost like you're trying to buy a house, all of what they require, when this is something that's a basic, human, fundamental right. So, I had the opportunity to be a part of an NAACP delegation that traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, and spoke before high officials at the United Nations about voter suppression laws in the US. That was something that was surreal for me. I felt like I was being a part of history, because there were other high officials from different countries that were just like, we can't even believe that this is happening in one of the most democratic nations in this world.

And so, that has been part of my work. But then also, too, what's been important for me, along with the advocacy, is, on the front end, and preventative education. So, I have been sharing with youth about some of the poor choices that I made while I was in college. That's what I've doing ever since I've been home, for almost 15 years. But my mindset has transformed a great deal since the beginning of me being home, and now, I'm more so moving away from blaming myself, and the fact that I lost 6 and a half years of raising my son, as a first time nonviolent drug offender, when I was no real threat to public safety. And so, I think that we really need to look at these policies.

I'm grateful that I'm continuing to heal. I've learned to forgive myself. But I think, where we criminalize so many issues, it puts a scarlet letter on individuals, that even once they serve their time and come out, they still have to check the box to being a convicted felon, with getting a job. They're still limited as far as housing. They're still limited as far as different occupations. And so, we really need to look at restructuring this whole system. And, you know, something that should just be immediate is this issue of voting, because I remember, on election day 2008, I was sitting in front of the TV, sad, angry, depressed, asking myself why am I being treated different from other people that pay taxes, productive citizens, and I'm the same, doing the same thing. So, that's something that I think could be immediate.

But then also, too, I want to see some of my friends who were incarcerated with me, who have a life sentence, never been in trouble before, they need to be home now. So I'm praying that, before Obama goes out of office, that he does continue doing these mass commutations. But then, what is the legislature, the federal legislature, going to do to keep all of this rhetoric moving forward and making it action?

DOUG MCVAY: I know that you have to get going, and I am so grateful to you for the time, but just real quickly, what do you hope people will come away from the conference with, and what do you hope that they do after this?

KEMBA SMITH: I think one of the biggest things with this conference, because a lot of people are on the same page here at the conference, and I just hope that we can just be re-energized, network to be able to work with various organizations, who are doing the same thing as you are, where you're able to take ideas back to your state or back to your country to kind of implement the same things that you've done, where you've been successful at doing it. But, hopefully it will just re-energize people, just to keep pushing forward, keep pushing for change, and not to think we've made it to the mountaintop because 6,000 people were released from the federal government, or we've got some marijuana laws changing. I mean, sure, we all have moved forward, and a great deal, but at the same time, there's so much more we have to go.

DOUG MCVAY: Absolutely. Any closing thoughts, and do you have a Twitter, do you have a website? Where can people keep up with what you're up to?

KEMBA SMITH: Yes, I have, my Facebook -- I'm horrible with social media -- which is Kemba Smith. I have a twitter that's @KembaSmith as well. I have Instagram, which is KembaSmith. I think Twitter is Kemba underscore Smith [sic: Kemba's twitter account is @KembaSmith]. And also, if you want to get a copy of my book, there are e-versions online, where it's called Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story. Or you can order a copy of it, actually, on my website, which is www.KembaSmith.com, kembasmith.com.

DOUG MCVAY: The book again is Poster Child, by Kemba Smith Pradia. The website again is Kemba, with an E, KembaSmith.com. Thank you so much, thank you so very much.

KEMBA SMITH: Thank you so much for all that you do, because had it not been for the media pushing my story, who knows how far I would have gotten. So thank you for your commitment in this struggle.

DOUG MCVAY: That was an interview I had with Kemba Smith Pradia, she's a wife, mother, advocate, and national public speaker. Her memoir is titled Poster Child. I spoke with her at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference in November.

You're listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

I'm here at the Drug Policy Alliance International Reform Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, and I'm here talking with my good friend Jonathan Perri. Jon was at SSDP for a few years, and then he went on to other things. And, Jon, what are you up to these days?

JONATHAN PERRI: Right now, I'm the Associate Campaigns Director at Change.org. We are the world's largest online petition platform. Anyone can go, start a petition on our site about anything that they want to create change about. And, we just hit 120 million users around the world, so we're growing at an incredible pace, and it's a tool that people are realizing they can use to create movements, really at any level.

DOUG MCVAY: It's terrific stuff. I see emails from folks who are using Change.org all the time, and it's, I mean, it can be a really powerful tool for motivating the public. You've just been -- I mean, this is your, you just had your fourth anniversary there, right?

JONATHAN PERRI: Yeah. Yep, I started there in 2011, that's when I left Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and, yeah. It's been great. I mean, my focus is still on criminal justice reform work. It's become -- Change.org has allowed me to work a little bit more broadly on different issues. I do a lot of, like disability rights stuff as well, things around veterans, not just specifically drug policy. But I'm still, criminal justice is kind of my main wheelhouse there, and one of the bigger -- it's one of the bigger issues just on the platform in general. Criminal justice is incredibly popular with people taking action on the site.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, you've been uniquely positioned, really, in a way, for having worked there in the last, in this four year period. I mean, the Republicans have taken both houses of Congress. There's -- some might think that there's been a conservative backlash to some of the progressive ideas that President Obama has put forward. Criminal justice reform's gotten some pushback. You've had four years now to watch this thing evolve. Do you think it's a little easier now to sell the argument for criminal justice reform than when you started?

JONATHAN PERRI: It's so much easier. I mean, and a lot of that comes -- what we find on our platform too, is our platform is very good story telling. All campaigns are really based on stories. So, the clemency is probably a really good example of this. So, when I first started, I mean, we pretty much just avoided, to some extent, kind of had to avoid campaigns around, like, prisoners, and people in prison. It was very hard to build up public support. Just within really that first year. Within a couple years, I mean, and really one of the biggest issues that we have now, are petitions around granting nonviolent drug offenders clemency. A lot of these are individual petitions, started by moms or dads, brothers or sisters or sons or daughters, asking for their loved one to be granted clemency for a federal drug offense, under which they're probably serving a life sentence or some outrageous sentence. Those are really some of the most popular petitions on the site. Together, there's almost three million signatures on about 60 petitions. And, some of them are winning.

One of the most, the most notable one is with Jeff Mizanskey, who was granted clemency recently in Missouri by Governor Jay Nixon, after a really great campaign, and a big component of that campaign was their Change.org petition, started by his son, Chris.

DOUG MCVAY: Have you had a chance to meet Jeff? He is here.

JONATHAN PERRI: I just met Jeff and Chris last night for the first time. It was really fantastic, it was really great. I mean, all smiles and he's kind of like a celebrity now. Here, and I saw some pictures of him at the Las Vegas event, the industry event, a couple of weeks ago. So, it's, just, what a great, humble guy, and Chris, his son, is just such a dedicated voice for him, and pushing for him to finally be released after, I think it was, what, 22 years in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses. Yeah, I mean, but I think his case really did show, to an extent, the power of our platform, because it ended up nearing 400,000 signatures, which is, for one campaign, it's all around the country.

And then, they were sort of, they were be able to use that, and that's what our platform does really well, able to use that for leverage, so they could ask all those people who've signed the petition to, like, tweet at Governor Nixon, or to make a phone call to Governor Nixon's office, or to -- they raised some money, asked those people to donate at a crowdfunding campaign, and they used some of that money to buy billboards, where everybody on their way to the state house would drive by these billboards, saying free, you know, calling on Governor Nixon to free Jeff Mizanskey. So, there's some really great things within that campaign that I think you can see about the Change.org platform.

DOUG MCVAY: How exactly does the thing work, how do people use your site?

JONATHAN PERRI: It's incredibly easy. So, just go to Change.org and you'll see a big button that says "start a petition." If you're interested in starting one, it's three simple fields, really. You want to say who you want to petition, what you want them to do, and that's really your petition title, your petition ask. And then you want to tell your story a little bit, why this is important. And that's how you create a petition. And then from there, we have great steps on how to share and how to build signatures, and how to engage those signers, how to get press attention for your campaigns, and things like that. And if you're not interested in starting one, you can sign them. And, go to our home page, find lots of petitions that are trending, that people are starting to sign and very popular right now. You can search on the site for things that might be related to sentencing reform, or marijuana reform, and find ways to take action that way. And once you sign up, we'll be sure to keep you updated with campaigns that you're likely to be interested in signing.

DOUG MCVAY: Especially because, with Change.org you're seeing some trends, and how people are moving them. Where do you think we're going to be in two years at the next DPA, when we meet again down in Atlanta in October 2017, at the next international reform conference?

JONATHAN PERRI: Well, I don't -- I'm not sure. I mean, I think for sure what we will see is quite a few more states with full cannabis legalization. Right? So that's highly likely. I mean, I"m in California, and it seems like 2016 is going to be the year for that. And so, you know, we're hopefully coming back with even more victories under our belts, and a whole lot less nonviolent drug offenders in prison, and some really sensible criminal justice reforms that are passed. Hopefully some of those happen this year, looks like they are. But you know, they certainly don't go far enough, but I think that they're going to give us the momentum over the next two years to get a lot more criminal justice work done, and I hope our platform is part of making that happen.

DOUG MCVAY: Jon Perri, again, thank you so much. Now, any closing thoughts, and I guess the question I usually ask about, you know, where people can find out more, that one's pretty easy: Change.org. Right?

JONATHAN PERRI: Yep. Exactly. Yeah, just check it out. We've got our facebook page and our twitter, also just Change.org, or @Change. And we're constantly updating folks with the stories, and campaigns that everyday people are starting on our site.

DOUG MCVAY: Jon, thank you so much.

That was an interview with Jonathan Perri, he's the Associate Campaigns Director at Change.org. I spoke with him at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference, which was held back in November in Crystal City, Virginia, right outside Washington, DC.

You're listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Let's close out the show with some words from Deborah Peterson Small, the executive director of Break The Chains. Here she is speaking at a plenary session on Drug Policy Reform: A Human Rights Imperative:

DEBORAH SMALL: I want to pick up where Ethan left off yesterday in talking about the importance of knowing our history. Because for me, you know, I came to this movement because of my belief and commitment to social justice, and I feel like I'm always learning more and more and more about how all these things tie together. So I want you all to go with me on a little history journey. I'm going go even further back than Damon went. I'm going to go back 400 years, because I think it's important for us to recognize that the western civilization, of which most of us are a part, was built and funded on the promotion of addiction for profit. I want to repeat that: the western civilization that we are part of, the Anglo-American enterprise of which the US was the most successful project, was built and financed by promoting addiction for profit -- to sugar, tobacco, alcohol. The slave trade was developed in order to support the promotion of addiction for profit. Racism was invented to justify the slave trade, which was developed to promote addiction for profit.

And here we are, four hundred years later, after having built an empire on the backs of people that we got addicted to things so we could make money from them, now we have a new system of punishing people for the addictions we developed so that we can profit from the punishment. So I want to assert that the greatest addictions that Americans have is not to drugs. Our three biggest addictions are to denial, to punishment, and to the American dream. I'm going to take a minute on that one, because we talked about that a little bit yesterday, and I just want people to think about this, because we don't actually have critical conversations about the words that we use and what they mean.

What is it to be a country that defines itself in terms of a dream? Which is, by definition, not real. Like, really. Our whole identity is built up in pursuing something that actually doesn't exist. And if we were real about our history, we would acknowledge that that period of goldenness, wonderful America, only lasted for thirty years. Thirty years, out of an almost three hundred period, but we've defined our whole identity inside of this thirty year period when everybody seemed to be doing good, because the rest of the world was doing bad.

That's not sustainable. So, one of the messages I have for you all, it's like, it's time for us to wake up and live in reality, not in the dream. And in the reality of our system that we're in now, one of the biggest problems that we have is our addiction to consumerism, and to believing that we are what we consume. You know, I say that, by definition, drug prohibition cannot exist compatible with human rights. It's not possible to have a system based on prohibition that's compatible with human rights, because by practice, it's a policy that requires that you punish people who are involved with drugs. We say that it's a war on drugs, but it's not a war on drugs, it's a war on people. You can't war on the plants, they keep growing no matter what we do. So what really this is, is a war on people.

And it's not a war on people who are doing things that we all agree are problematic. It's a war on people that we don't like who are doing things that are only problematic because they're doing them. All right? I mean, one of the biggest frustrations that I continue to have, as a drug policy reform advocate, is the willingness of so many people to feel it's okeh to punish those other people for things that they're doing. And that, you know, reform is punishment light. But we never get to the point of like actually not talking about punishment. I say that as a society and culture, our relationship with drugs is rooted in hypocrisy, greed, human exploitation. We care more about our ability to be able to punish people than we care about actually preserving their health, than we do about protecting them.

So I want to just go over just a few examples, of real examples of the ways in which drug policies operate in ways that are dehumanizing. The first one I want to speak to, because I'm a female, is the way in which our policies are directed against women. One of the justifications for adopting these treaties in the first place was that they were going to protect women and children. And yet, what we have seen now in the US and in other countries is the stigmatization of women, and particularly of pregnant and parenting women, and the criminalization of their outcomes, based on whether or not they used drugs. So in the 80s, it was crack babies, in the 2000s, it's oxy-tots. We never talk about poverty as a problem for people's birth outcomes. We never talk about all the legal drugs that people get to use. But we're more than willing to lock up women for that.

Second: dehumanizing drug conspiracy laws. Guilt by association. That's why Kemba got sentenced to all that time. They acknowledged that she didn't use drugs, they acknowledged that she didn't sell drugs. But she was guilty because of her association. What kind of dehumanization is that? And one of the consequences of that is that we use those conspiracy laws to force people to tell lies on each other, in order to avoid having the majority of their life be spent behind bars. That is dehumanizing. Don't clap, because I've only got three minutes.

Last two points. Three strikes laws. For me, this is something I really want us to think about, because we not only apply that in sentencing, we apply that in treatment, we apply that in schools, and we never ask ourselves, where the hell does three strikes come from? It's a baseball metaphor. Why do you have strikes in baseball? Because there is no clock. I'm serious, don't laugh. There's no clock in baseball, so the purpose of balls and strikes is to add some level of boundary and finality to an otherwise untimed game. But people are not like baseball, we're more like football and basketball, because our clock starts running from the moment that we're born. We are finite people. So we need to think about what it means to apply a sports metaphor that's designed, in that context, to people. To people's lives. To say, three strikes you're out. What the hell does that mean? And we actually don't even critically examine how that, how we came up with that, how we're applying it, and what it actually means.

Now, I know I'm running out of time, so I'm going to go to my last two points real quick. Which is, what is drug policy reform? This is again a point where history has to teach us something. In the same way that ending legal slavery did not equate with black freedom, ending mass incarceration is not the same as actually removing all the shackles etc. that drug policies have placed on people of color. Okeh, we need to actually think about what is the role that the drug war has played? It has been a space to continue to allow the economic, political, and social oppression and exploitation of people in general but black and brown people in particular. So if our reform is not changing that power relationship, if all we're doing is taking off people's physical chains and putting them in the economic chains of having to pay for the privilege of not going to prison, so that somebody else gets to profit, that's not real reform.

And for all of you pot entrepreneurs out there, my question to you is, are you going to be a parasite, or a social engineer? Are you going to use your money to keep sucking the blood out of our community, or are you actually going to be part of the solution of applying reparations, and yes I said that word, because god damn it, I am done with the idea of people having policies that screw over people for decades, and then one day they say, oh wow, we've become enlightened, my bad, and all of a sudden it's all good, and we're still left with the scars. We're still left with the hurt. We're still left with all of the damage that has been done. You guys owe us, and I'm here to collect. See ya.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Deborah Small, she's the executive director of Break The Chains and a longtime advocate for drug policy reform. She was speaking at a plenary session on drug policy reform and human rights at the DPA's International Reform Conference last month in Crystal City, Virginia. We'll have more from that conference next week.

For now, that's all the time we have. Thank you for listening. This is Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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