On the Failures of Nelson D. Rockefeller...And
by Jennifer Stark-Hernandez
was a rainy day and the windows on our bus were fogged.
From the freeway approaching downtown Albany, I got my first view
of the strangest state capitol in the union. On the nearing horizon
were tall white towers, depressing two-dimensional steel sculptures,
and a massive, obliquely curved blob of a building hovering like
a space ship above nothing. It was like we were entering the future,
except this was the opposite of the future.
This was Tuesday, March 26th and I was on a bus full of NYU Campus
Greens and law students, going to the state capitol to protest
the thirty-year-old Rockefeller drug laws. Protesting was old
hat for me, but if Tuesday"s event was anything special it
was entirely because of the alien landscape of our state capital.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted in 1973 by then Governor
Nelson A. Rockefeller. In an attempt to get tough on crime, the
laws began the War on Drugs still being fought today. These laws
fight drugs the way killing innocent Afghans fights terrorism.
They enforce mandatory minimum sentences based solely on the amount
of drugs a person is conviceted of having. This disempowers judges
to sentence based on the convict's situation, history, and the
severity of his/her crime. Under these laws, judges must sentence
fifteen years to life to those found guilty of possessing with
intent to distribute two grams of heroin, cocaine, or crack.
For perspective, it is important to compare fifteen years to the
typical sentences of violent criminals. According to a Department
of Justice study on state inmates, the average minimum sentence
of violent offenders in New York in 1994 was sixty months. That
means people convicted of homicide, kidnapping, forcible rape,
and child abuse on average had a minimum sentence one third as
long as those found guilty trying to sell two grams of coke.
In Albany, we protesters, most of whom were from the New York
metro area, converged in a church. There we heard testimonies
by ex-cons imprisoned under the Rockefeller drug laws. Those brave
enough to actually lobby and talk to legislators were trained
in the basement. On the walls of the church were photographs and
stories of victims of the Rockefeller drug laws. Most of the pictures
were taken during family visits. Their smiles and goofy poses
made them look like normal families but I wondered what normal
means to someone stuck in jail for fifteen years.
REALIZATION #1: You just sound more radical when youÌre
The march from the church to the capitol included the obligatory
hey-hey-ho-_____-has-got-to-go cheer, though we peppered it up
with attempts at Spanish: Imperia Yanquinstas. Las leyes son racistas!
Indeed, the laws are racist and were made by an imperial Yankee.
Nelson Rockefeller was one of the countrys richest men, grandson
of John D. Rockefeller, the world's first billionaire, founder
of the feared monopoly Standard Oil, and once owner of 90% of
the world's oil refineries. Nelson's brother David heads Chase
Manhattan Bank, infamous for (among other things) a leaked memo
in 1995 that showed the bank using Mexican indebtedness to persuade
the Mexican government to eliminate the Zapatistas.
Imperialism aside, the laws are unequivocally racist. In 2000,
74% of those sent to state prison were drug offenders. According
to the Corrections Association of New York, 94% of drug offenders
in New York state prisons are Afro-American or Latino, even though
studies show that most drug users are white. Nearly 65% of New
York State prisoners are from New York City. Two-thirds of the
prisons are more than three hours from New York, located in mainly
white, rural, and republican areas. These laws are sending a disproportionate
amount of people of color to prison. They destroy lives by severing
families, creating orphans, thus continuing a cycle of poverty
REALIZATION #2: Brooklyn preteens are way cooler than me.
The march ended with a rally on the steps of the capital. In the
freezing drizzle we endured many speeches and performances. The
Brooklyn theater troupe Outspoken Youth managed to make me momentarily
forget my soggy feet.
They performed a piece called Democracy in Wonderland. In the
skit, ÏDemocracyÓ was a little girl in black hot pants
and white tissue paper, singing and tossing a white ball (symbolic
of society?) around heaven. Then there was a kid in a flowery
rain slicker talking about peace and love. Rockefeller then came
on the scene and said, ÏWhat we have here is a hippy problem.
Then, under the guidance of Satan, he instituted his drug laws,
sending the hippy to jail for fifteen years to life. On her way
to jail she wailed, I just had a couple of ounces of drugs. I
was just trying to feed my habit. What I need is treatment!
Out of all the lawyers, religious leaders, ex-cons, and teach-in
speakers I've heard in the last few weeks, none had such an accurate
and compelling analysis of the Rockefeller Drug Laws as these
Brooklyn kids. As I lost feeling in my fingers, as the crowd began
to the retreat from the rain, I was asking myself why I was there.
Outspoken Youth gave meaning to my presence in Albany.
REALIZATION #3: Nelson D. Rockefeller got it all wrong.
Walking back to the church after the rally, I saw a placard that
read, Nelson D. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. Could it be that
one man was responsible for the 1972 massacre at Attica state
prison, terrible drug laws, and an ugly, dehumanizing capital
complex? Of course! Inspired by the city of the Brazilian capital
of Brasilia, Rockefeller used his money and political influence
to build the Empire State Plaza. Built in the dead center of Brazil
in previously uninhabited wilderness, Brasilia is a cement sprawl
of brutal towers, highways, and irrelevant sculptor parks. In
a country where most people cannot afford cars, Brasilia was designed
at an unwalkable scale. Notoriously unlivable, the construction
of Brasilia in the middle of nowhere for politicians and their
servants created a social disparity severe even by Brazilian standards.
The construction of Empire State Plaza displaced thousands of
residents and small business, cost tons because of the omnipresent
marble sheathing, and gave the state capital an all-around Fascist
appearance. On Tuesday, the place looked dead as hell and it wasnÌt
just the weather.
As Rockefeller attempted to streamline the architecture of Albany,
so did he try to streamline the laws of New York. Both came out
a detached and simplified interpretation of peopleÌs needs
and ways of living. People thrive in the communities they create
themselves. They don't need paternalistic urban renewal anymore
than they need stern laws forbidding their drug use.
Neither works. Unless people's needs and problems are understood
in all their social, political, racial, economic, and sexual complexities,
any attempted solution will be impotent at best and destructive
at worse. By not recognizing the causes of drug abuse and the
drug trade, the Rockefeller drug laws have only exacerbated the
situation Rockefeller sought to solve. Since his term as governor,
drug abuse has increased as more parents serve long term jail
sentences. Urban communities of color have become even more disenfranchised
from the economic mainstream. All this in addition to the CIAÌs
odious involvement with the drug trade.
Because of the injustice of Rockefeller's legacy, I went to yet
another protest, hoping to be part of a growing movement. I vote.
I write letters. I hope you do too. Please check out the following
resources for more information about the laws and what you can
Let me end with one more point: our own role in the drug trade.
I know a lot of you who won't eat food made with animal products,
wear used clothes or Carharts to avoid sweatshop labor, while
at the same time using drugs with highly exploitive origins. Maybe
you got it from the kid down the hall, but where are your drugs
coming from in the first place? In the process that is our work,
life, and struggle, I propose we pause to consider our responsibility
For more info on...
The Rockefeller Drug Laws
Bureau of Justice Statistics, DOJ