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 drug laws.

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 drug laws.

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 repeal.

Next to Fat Joe on stage, for example, was Tom Golisano, the millionaire businessman and former gubernatorial candidate. Golisano helped finance the rally.

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 Tim Robbins.

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 sentences.

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 case.

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.