BY JUAN GONZALEZ
On the big
stage near City Hall, some of the biggest names in hip hop gathered -
Sean (Puffy) Combs, Jay-Z, Fat Joe, Rev. Run of Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys
and the godfather of rap himself, Russell Simmons - to protest the Rockefeller
Except for Simmons, most were youngsters or not even born back in 1973
when New York State passed the toughest mandatory sentencing laws in the
nation, sponsored by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
But 30 years later, with thousands of blacks and Hispanics serving long
prison sentences for first-time drug offenses, the hip hop icons had come
downtown to lend their star power to press for an end to New York's harsh
It is a cause even Gov. Pataki and the politicians in Albany cannot ignore
much longer. A strange and growing alliance has sprung up in favor of
Next to Fat Joe on stage, for example, was Tom Golisano, the millionaire
businessman and former gubernatorial candidate. Golisano helped finance
And next to them was Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who co-sponsored the protest
with Simmons, as well as half the City Council, former mayoral candidate
Mark Green, state Controller Alan Hevesi and actors Susan Sarandon and
Thanks to Simmons' overambitious prediction that 100,000 youths would
descend on City Hall, the cops were out in force. Actually, a few thousand
at best showed up in the chilly rain.
But it was "still the largest turnout ever for drug law reform,"
said Bob Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York.
Five years ago, Gangi and Randy Credico, head of the William Moses Kunstler
Fund for Racial Justice, were lone voices calling for repeal. They were
joined in their campaign by Tony Papa, a first-time drug offender who
had served 12 years in prison before getting clemency from Pataki.
One summer night in 1998, I watched Credico and Papa at Columbus Circle
giving out flyers to prisoners' wives and mothers waiting for a bus for
the long trip upstate to visit their loved ones behind bars.
Little by little, Credico recruited enough women to create the Mothers
of the New York Disappeared. The longer they kept up their vigils and
tiny protests, the more people joined.
In Albany, Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and
Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) kept saying they wanted
to reform the drug laws. All the talk produced nothing.
Sticking it to the small fry.
So the prisons kept filling up with low-level drug offenders.
"I spent 16 years in jail, and I don't know a single [drug] kingpin,"
said Elaine Bartlett, a Rockefeller drug law inmate who eventually received
clemency from Pataki.
Bartlett's speech at yesterday's rally brought many in the crowd to tears
as she spoke about the thousands of families torn apart and devastated
by the long sentences for minor drug sales.
Early this year, the long fight against the drug laws finally caught a
break. Cuomo convinced Simmons to join the movement against the mandatory
Cuomo had taken a strong stand for repeal in his failed race for governor.
Sure, he could have moved on, but he told Credico he wanted to take the
lead in this.
With Cuomo organizing the city's politicians and Simmons reaching out
to the hip hop stars, the movement took off.
Up in Albany, Silver rammed a half-hearted drug reform bill through the
Assembly. It removes some of the worst aspects of the Rockefeller laws
but still includes stiff mandatory sentences and does not restore to
judges the discretion to apply sentences depending on the merits of each
For Credico and Cuomo and Gangi, that kind of sham reform is not worth
it, not after so many years of fighting. Bait-and-switch justice tactics
won't work anymore.