The first time I stepped foot into federal court was when I was twelve years old, to testify for my father, who was ultimately sentenced to prison as part of the War on Drugs. He got 35 years, and did some of his time with Richard Stratton, who founded Prison Life magazine
. Stratton looked me up when he got out, and we became friends, so two years ago, when Jonathan Wall
wrote him about being busted by the feds for moving marijuana from California to Maryland, he told Wall to call me. The kid had the courage to stand up against the system, so there was a righteous duty to stand with him.
I’m a connoisseur of jails, but never tried anything as vile as the Chesapeake Detention Facility
. Think Alcatraz with subtle hints of Attica and Pelican Bay in downtown Baltimore, across the street from a sadly boarded-up strip club. It was a tomb. It wasn’t like being buried alive, it was being buried alive. They’d bring him in and we’d spend an hour on the case before settling down into the raw humanity of sick and desperate circumstances. We’d get into loss, sacrifice, resistance and the reverse-engineered meaning of death: the life-affirming things that you only talk about when locked down. The six-hour conversations were surrounded by a soundtrack of brutality. Somebody always getting stabbed, busted, screwed; pain and suffering emanating from the nightmare deprivation. My old man once told me a story about someone putting LSD in the oatmeal into the federal pen in Big Springs and how after being down for nine years it was the greatest release of his life. I thought about bringing the kid a microdose to remind him that there was, maybe, a life outside of state control, but nothing makes the feds happier than seeing a lawyer who doesn’t believe in their law go down.
I’d go hang out with Black people after, because I was the only Chicano in Baltimore, and you can’t be around white people in these situations. Hit the wine bar, therapize, Ned Jenkins
says: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time…be a law-abiding citizen.” I’d straight up kill him. I needed people smart enough to see the system for what it is — who when they found out that I was representing a kid facing ten years to life for pot, would invite me outside to smoke a joint. I’d blow my hit out in the direction of the jail, then walk back to the hotel through Baltimore where the white court clerks, of course, told me that I was going to be killed.
I hoped so, because in cases with the superficial writing on the artificial wall, fighting against the system and lending it credibility are often two sides of the same bloated coin.
Amazon was behind ending Prohibition, so we took out an ad in the Washington Post
, which Jeff Bezos owns, asking who would be the last person incarcerated for marijuana. Got the idea from John Kerry when he came back from Vietnam, asking who would be the last person to die for a mistake. Shined a light, thinking that some senator would call out the prosecution while the government took time to sort it out. But the government never did. No shock that the cons with the keys to the yard are duplicitous and grotesque. The framers accounted for it. That's why judges, prosecutors and other people dumb enough to go to law school don’t get to decide who ends up in a cage.
And that’s exactly what I told the journalism student working for a small, online cannabis magazine
: that of all the systemic tricks, perhaps the systemically trickiest was to get people to believe that law and justice were the same thing. We were going up against the Department of Justice. Courts and jails, especially in Colorado, are known as justice centers. I needed to get twelve people off the streets to see that there was not just daylight between the two, but a transcendently annihilating, or annihilatingly transcendent, sunburst, which in legal terms is known as jury nullification.
You never get credit for all the times you didn’t get drunk and ask a cop for cocaine. I had said no to tons of media out of fear or respect for the process, but the court found this little story and made me screen my opening statement to ensure that I wasn’t going to talk to the jury about the infinite madness of putting people in prison for weed when you can go down the street and buy a fifth of tequila and an AR-15. We filed motion after motion about how one person in one part of the country was making millions in the pot business while another person in another part of the country was in jail facing ten years to life prison for the same thing — violation of Equal Protection — but whereas the court quickly dismissed those, it spent several pages issuing an order that would turn the courtroom into a hermetically sealed vault, breathing of the same stale air as Harry Anslinger
, hero founder of the Drug Enforcement Administration, federal pot prohibition and drug war, who said that marihuana influences negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows, and look at white women twice. Yeah, boy!
I’d walk into the courthouse every morning to a bolded, underlined and possibly italicized notice that in United States v Jonathan Wall
, anything the court deemed inappropriate could result in sanction and violation of federal law. Advocates and activists who had come from around the country were excluded from the courtroom. One was permanently banned from the courthouse for taking a picture in the halls to bring attention. I was warned throughout not to refer to any law outside of the illegality of marijuana on the federal level. Terrorism trials weren’t this locked down. Some of the edibles the government seized and brought into the court on the last day of trial had Grateful Dead Dancing Bears on the packages. I cross-examined the cop — who was part of a “task force” that had busted more than 100 people for marijuana — about the Dead. People smoke pot, sorry, marijuana, at Dead shows, right? And there are millions of Dead fans across the country, right…and tens of millions of people…OBJECTION! SUSTAINED. And then the long walk back to the podium until the next time I was shut down.
Despite the court doing the job it was designed to do, which was to make this case about nothing but the black letter of the law, the jury repeatedly heard that a guilty verdict would result in ten years to life. They saw the cooperators’ — aka snitches’ — plea agreements blown up on the big screen with the federal sentencing guidelines in all their sick and oppressive glory. They heard that cannabis is scheduled the same as heroin, while fentanyl and ketamine are scheduled two levels down so that you get more time for weed than you do for kill-you heroin and horse tranquilizer. They heard about the DEA, Homeland Security and law enforcement using our tax dollars to raid people’s homes for pot while with their own American eyes they could see the Baltimore sidewalks red with blood from violent crime, houseless and broken people haunting the streets like ghosts in the city of Edgar Allen Poe, and the list of existential threats — local, national, global — that we could otherwise be focusing our resources on other than this trial.
I would walk around the courthouse where there were honest exhibits about the legal history of Maryland. Blacks being ruled by the Supreme Court as 3/5ths of a human being, the fact that you would be arrested and imprisoned for helping to free slaves, or even not returning them to their owners, and where there were riots in downtown Baltimore against Union troops traveling south to fight, sorta, against slavery, and where the leader of the Southern secessionist mob, upon being arrested, was brought home-cooked meals by future Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney
— the 3/5ths guy — and who was never convicted of anything and ultimately became state treasurer. (Why is it that nullification always seems to go the wrong way in America?) The jurors had to be reading what I was reading in those halls, that our history was heavy with examples of where to blindly obey the law put you on the wrong side of history and that courts could be places that darkened the darkness.
We gave them every reason not to do it. There were misrepresentations by the government to the grand jury. There was a lack of direct evidence. Any one of those twelve people who thought that condemning a fellow citizen to ten years to life in prison for marijuana in 2022 was not something that they could morally sign off on, had enough legal justification to say no, not me. I’m not going to be a part of the nightmare of federal prohibition, especially right now that we are waking up from it. They knew the law was changing, that 45 minutes away in D.C. you can buy pot and doughnuts and that the House of Representatives had just passed a bill legalizing it. They knew that Maryland itself is going recreational in November and that it wasn’t even being prosecuted in Baltimore anymore. They knew that not only would I be disbarred but disemboweled for bringing any of this up, so that the court’s limitations and warnings were essentially irrelevant because they were aware of everything that I wish I could have said anyway….
They brought back a guilty verdict
in little over an hour and a half, which coincided perfectly with getting out of the courthouse in time to beat traffic, get home for dinner, and spend Friday night watching TV. I’m sure they thought they were applying the evidence to law, which is what the court instructed them to do, but I had believed that deep down we were a people who wanted to stand up against irrationality and injustice. I believed that our apathy and cruelty could be blamed on power, the establishment, the invertebrate whores who say whatever they need to say, do whatever they need to do, because they are empty and soulless —when we are the ones who are empty and soulless. We The People are the manipulative ones, carving out a comfortable little space for ourselves, saying how we would change things if only we had a voice, while loudly blaming everyone else for the broken ugliness of this world.
As I sat in seat 7A on the way back to Denver, I felt alone in a way that I hadn’t felt since watching my father get sent to prison. I would have never known that I had always believed, with an almost religious-style conviction, that if you could take it to the people, then they would take reason over darkness every time. I didn’t know that this faith, until it was gone, had given meaning to the battles of my life, so that there was now nothing but scars and wounds. Somewhere over the heart of this country, I turned my head toward the window, so that the other passengers, my fellow Americans, wouldn’t see me cry.
Jason Flores-Williams is an author, political activist, and civil rights attorney based in Denver; he was the focus of this December 2016 Westword feature regarding his legal fight against homeless encampment sweeps. Reach him at [email protected]
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