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On the Failures of Nelson D. Rockefeller...And Yesterday's Tomorrow
by Jennifer Stark-Hernandez

It 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 speaking Spanish.

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 and desperation.

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 do.

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 in context.

For more info on...
The Rockefeller Drug Laws
Bureau of Justice Statistics, DOJ
The Rockefellers
HYPERLINK "http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rockefellers" www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rockefellers .


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