Weekly NJ Cannabis Pickets: How Direct Action Works

Weekly demonstrators gather for the first cannabis Speak-Out at the State House on April 2, 2015.

Weekly demonstrators gather for the first cannabis Speak-Out at the State House on April 2, 2015.

That’s right!  The weekly medical cannabis pickets are back in Trenton for 2015.  On Thursday, April 2, the dozen-or-so Usual Suspects attended the launching of the 2015 weekly pickets in front of the State House.  With a total of 18 persons in attendance, at least 3 came out for the first time as a result of the previous massive demonstrations in Trenton.  As for the weekly veterans, we are mentally preparing ourselves for another long year of weekly pickets, since there are no signs that Gov. Chris Christie will cave-in to the demands of cannabis activists and medical patients.  Yet this allows us to be experimental with the weekly protests, considering we can’t make things worse than they already are.

Kyle Moore carrying William Haney's cannabis flag, while weekly members smoke and speak with two bystanders.

Kyle Moore carrying William Haney’s cannabis flag, while weekly members smoke and speak with two bystanders.

The weekly demonstrations first began on Thursday, July 10, 2014.  Originally called “Patients Speak Up: NJ Medical Marijuana Program is Failing,” the weeklies were first organized by Jennie Stormes, a mother and nurse who has never used cannabis for herself.  Jennie’s son Jaxs suffers from Dravert Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy.  Despite trying 56-plus meditation treatments for over a decade, Jaxs continued to suffer from seizures.  Then Jennie discovered that medical cannabis reduced seizures dramatically, allowing her to take Jaxs off of several other treatments that failed to help with his seizures.  Jennie realized how futile it was to try and convince Gov. Chris Christie about the benefits of medical cannabis, and decided to hold a weekly picket outside the Governor’s office until her son received proper medication.

An enthusiastic Kyle Moore takes a picture with NJ Weedman at the very first weekly picket on July 10, 2014, after meeting him for the very first time.  Nearly 8 months later they both took part in nearly all 20 weekly protests in 2014, and co-organized the two largest cannabis rallies in the state, with more on the way.

An enthusiastic Kyle Moore takes a picture with NJ Weedman at the very first weekly picket on July 10, 2014, after meeting him for the very first time. Nearly 8 months later they both took part in nearly all 20 weekly protests in 2014, and co-organized the two largest cannabis rallies in the state, with more on the way.

In the first few demonstrations more than 20 persons showed up, creating important ties between NJ cannabis patients and activists.  They eventually dwindled down to a dozen core group members who attended nearly every weekly.  It was with these people that I formed a close relationship with, most of them having years of experience in the Movement, unlike me, since I attended my only other cannabis demonstration in Trenton on 4-20-14.  The 4-20 rally, “Stoner Day: Confront Christie’s Cannabis Policies,” which 150 persons attended and smoked at, was organized by NJ Weedman, who became one of the weekly regulars.  So it was because of the 4-20 rally that I wanted to get involved in the Movement, and it was because of Jennie’s weekly pickets that I received such an opportunity.  Funny how it only takes a handful of people to set in motion the gears of history.

Weekly members putting their "bodies on the line" to keep the cannabis flag from falling.

Weekly members putting their “bodies on the line” to keep the cannabis flag from falling.

It’s not surprising that most of the weekly attendees are medical patients, having experienced the unimaginable pain of living under Dictator Christie, who recently defined profits stemming from cannabis legalization as being “Blood Money.”  Along with Jennie, Ricardo Rivera attended the weeklies in support of his five-year old daughter Tuffy.  Like the other parents, Ricardo doesn’t smoke, but found cannabis to be the best medicine for his daughter.  Tuffy used to suffer from 300 seizures a day, but after using cannabis, her seizures reduced to once every two weeks. Ricardo, a charismatic, compassionate father and military veteran has done wonders for the Movement.  Not so long ago he was learning about medical cannabis through small home meetings with other parents. Now, thanks to the outlets created by direct action, he has a large following of people who became sympathetic to his story after hearing him speak at the massive smoke-outs in Trenton.  On October 18, at the “NJ Cannabis Conference,” nearly 250 persons listened to his compelling story, with his family standing by in support.  At the “NJ Spring Smoke-Out” on March 21, he was the leading speaker in front of 350 persons, many of whom went up and thanked him for sharing such a moving story.

Half-a-dozen weekly members taking pictures with an excited bystander on October 23, the week after the massive rally.

Half-a-dozen weekly members taking pictures with an excited bystander on October 23, the week after the massive rally.

The 2014 weekly pickets lasted from July 10-November 20, a total of 20 weeks.  Within those 20 weeks, dozens of articles covered our actions and the stories of Jennie and Ricardo.  This was great for both of them, but unfortunately Jennie was left with no choice but to leave the state of New Jersey in October and head to Colorado, in order to receive the proper medical care for her son Jaxs.  The last few pickets were lonely without her because she became a dear friend to all of us, but Ricardo did a fantastic job stepping up and filling the void left by her.  In early October, Senator Cory Booker went out of his way to greet us at the State House and said he was “proud” of the work we were doing.   He then surprised Ricardo by saying he had been following Tuffy’s story in the news. Then in March 2015, Booker was one of 3 U.S. representatives to introduce a Senate Bill that could legalize medical cannabis under federal law.

Senator Cory Booker shaking hands with Jennie Stormes at a weekly picket in October 2014.

Senator Cory Booker shaking hands with Jennie Stormes at a weekly picket in October 2014.

A picture of two of us at a weekly picket in 2014, used on March 31, 2015, as the photo for an article discussing current NJ cannabis policies in the "New Jersey Monthly". This showed how weekly pickets can be picked up by the media at anytime to show support for medical cannabis.

A picture of two of us at a weekly picket in 2014, used on March 31, 2015, as the photo for an article discussing current NJ cannabis policies in the “New Jersey Monthly”. This showed how weekly pickets can be picked up by the media at anytime to show support for medical cannabis.

The weekly demonstrations also set in motion the organizing of the October 18 rally, which 250 persons attended, breaking the previous state-record of 200.  Had it not been for the weekly pickets and the friends I made there, I probably wouldn’t have organized the event, since I would have had no connections and no way of knowing how to get the permits.  Once at the weeklies, however, the rally became a major talking point and the permits were right inside the State House.  In addition, nearly a thousand fliers for the event were distributed at the weeklies, and sometimes we drove around in Weedman’s “Weedmobile” and handed them to bystanders.  In short, I wouldn’t have had the courage to take on such a daunting task had it not been for the support I received from my new friends.

Weekly members discussing future plans while also spreading the message of the Movement through picketing.

Weekly members discussing future plans while also spreading the message of the Movement through picketing.

Weekly demonstrations are historically always small, for obvious reasons.  Yet that doesn’t make them ineffective, but merely means they serve a specific purpose – consistently applying pressure on a weekly basis and slowly building support and publicity for one’s cause.  Two historical examples show this very clearly.

On February 1, 1960, four black students began the legendary sit-ins, which by September involved some 70,000 students and led to 3,600 arrests.  On February 13, NY-CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), a northern direct action group, initiated the first sympathetic weekly pickets outside the northern companies (mostly Woolworth’s dime store) with segregated southern chains.  Weekly pickets were held in NYC for 15 months straight by CORE and in March, 15 Woolworth stores were picketed in one day, marking the largest one-day demonstration since the campaign began.  Moreover, reports showed that Woolworth stores being picketed had half as much customers as those that weren’t picketed, proving the CORE campaign effected sales.  As one clerk at Woolworth’s stated: “Business is dull when the picket lines are here.” CORE also hosted weekly “picket line coordinating meetings,” which resulted in building ties with liberal groups that joined the campaign. By March 1960, over 11,000 northerners signed such pledges, resulting in Woolworth sales dropping 8.9% compared to the year before. On April 2, while CORE had its national day of protest with nearly 2,500 members picketing 100 Woolworth stores in NYC and over 1,000 stores nationwide, northern college students unaffiliated with CORE began their own weekly pickets, marking the first non-CORE pickets in the North (and foreshadowed the radical 1960s student movement). By August policy changes had occurred in 90 towns in 11 Southern states, and by next spring this increased to over 140 towns and cities . CORE’s funds and membership grew dramatically from these weekly pickets, and the following year it organized the legendary Freedom Rides, which galvanized the civil rights movement equally as much as the sit-ins did.  King’s SCLC and the student organization SNCC also benefited greatly from the sit-ins and other direct action methods.  Meanwhile the NAACP flipped-flopped its policy on direct action, previously opposing direct action but, not wanting to fall behind the other civil rights groups, it hesitantly accepted that direct action was more effective than mere legality methods.

The second example is the weekly demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.  In 1964, when Vietnam wasn’t even front page news, a small group of radical pacifists in NYC began protesting the war, initiating the weekly, two-hour “Times Square Vigil” on Saturday, October 3, 1964.  For every Saturday for the next 8 1/3 years, from October 1964 – January 1973, less than a dozen persons picketed at Times Square.  Not carrying the exciting flare as did the massive Vietnam demonstrations (dozens of demonstrations during this same period assembled hundreds of thousands of people) the weeklies were, according to one participant, “so goddamn monotonous that it drew only small numbers of participants.”  But many Vietnam demonstrators in NYC first became involved in the Movement after appearing at several weekly pickets, only later ditching them to take part in larger actions. In addition, weekly pickets such as this one began spreading across the nation.  By 1967, weekly vigils were conducted in over 100 cities and towns nationwide, and by the 1970s there were over a thousand of them.  No matter where President Johnson and Nixon travelled, they were always confronted by demonstrators, and both of them later concluded that the rallies without a doubt had an effect on ending the war.

So what is the point of the weekly cannabis speak-outs?  First, they serve as the grounds for building coalitions and working with allies who share our commitment to end prohibition (as well as forming tight friendships with other weekly members, which surprisingly goes a long way). The idea of coalition building, which was hardly used prior to my involvement, only came to me after I realized that weekly members stemmed from several different organizations, leading me to asking why we don’t all work together.  Thus our weekly members aren’t so different than CORE in 1960.  Secondly, they receive attention for the Movement, which otherwise would be neglected by the media.  NJ.com and dozens of other newspapers have written articles about the weekly pickets and the members involved in them.  Meanwhile, certain non-direct action groups  fancy themselves Leaders of the Movement by building a fortress around themselves so they can use soaring rhetoric when preaching to the choir, while leaving the Real work to be done by those who don’t wholly rely on Brown-nosing politicians who nod their heads as they count their enormous bribes. This leads to the third point – organizing on the grass roots level.  Busy Trenton Thursday’s result in dozens of conversations with bystanders each week.  Hundreds of cars pass by our enormous signs, usually honking in support.  Actually we are very well-known in Trenton, with people expecting to see us every week.  Walking from the train to the State House every week with my “Legalize Marijuana” sign, I am now referred to as the “Weed Guy,” and I have a tight rapport with store owners, bus drivers, and one mailman who always honks his horn and yells “Puff-Puff, Pass.”  At least 9/10 of the people I meet support our cause, but most of them are shocked and surprised when they see what I’m doing.  Although after their initial surprise wears off, whenever they see me they tell me that it’s about time someone started doing something about this.  At the massive smoke-outs I usually have the pleasure to smoke with people I met on the street because they didn’t want to wait on the sidelines anymore.  That is how a Movement is built.

Lastly the weekly pickets are simply meant to be “in place” for when the time is ripe to successfully confront the policy makers.  Academically, this method has scores of books and reports proving demonstrations serve as a much needed outlet when public outrage reaches new heights (particularly women gaining the vote, the labor movement of the 1930s, civil rights and antiwar movement of 1960s, the welfare movement of the 60s’, the antinuclear movement of the 1950s-60s and again from the 1970s-80s, etc.).  Studying the anti-nuclear movement that erupted internationally in the late-1970s, Marco Giugni showed in his book “Social Protest and Policy Change” how the “role of social movements” was to put an issue into the political agenda which brought “about policy change.”  As an example, he showed how the massive demonstrations on nuclear plant sites from 1977-78 gathered enough publicity so that the press was eager to publish and dramatize any sort of malfunction that almost seemed inevitable.  Then in 1979 there was the inevitable moment:  the near-meltdown of the nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island, which, had it occurred, could have killed and radiated millions of Americans on the East Coast.  Two days later in NYC, over a thousand bystanders joined an antinuclear demonstration, an unprecedented number of bystander participation.  Giugni revealed that public opinion shifted toward opposing nuclear plants “before” the Three Mile Island incident occurred, due to the earlier massive protests.

On a non-academic level, the same theory is understood by most long-time activists, such as the previous head of the War Resisters League, Ed Hedemann, who took part in the antiwar and antinuclear movement from the 1960s to today.  In 2010 he emphasized the importance of having a Movement set “in place”:

“No matter its size and overall health, the peace movement has a responsibility to carry on organizing, continue agitating, keep being nonviolently brazing, and simply be ‘in place’ for those times when Americans awaken from their collective complacency to rediscover a revulsion to war, injustice, poverty, and perhaps to be catalyzed by a startling incident, such as what happened at Kent State 40 years ago or Three Mile Island 32 years ago.  In those two examples, outrage was effectively channeled by a rapidly building movement already in place.”

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