“Ever since Harry Anslinger implemented [cannabis prohibition] in the United States, it’s main purpose has been a method of racial control by white people over communities of color and that continues to this day. We will not have racial justice in this country without cannabis justice and vice versa,” says Steve DeAngelo, the Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry.
GRAM spoke with Steve, the founder of Last Prisoner Project. He shared with us the mission and programs that drives Last Prisoner Project, as well as the stories of two specific men they are working to help.
“Michael Thompson is in the 26th year of a 40-60 sentence for selling three lbs. of cannabis to an informant in 1994. After he was arrested, the cops went to Michael’s residence which he shared with his mother and his wife. And they went into a locked gun cabinet, they opened the cabinet and found some antique rifles that had belonged to Michael’s father. On those grounds, they said it was a gun crime, and because Michael had a couple of other minor offenses that had happened during this very intense street enforcement on the ground in the 1990’s in Flint, MI. Now he’s 68 years old; he has pre-existing medical conditions that make him more vulnerable to COVID, and COVID is present in the prison he’s incarcerated in. So we are desperately concerned that Michael is going to get COVID and potentially die, and his already outrageous sentence turns into a death sentence. There are two petitions on Governor Whitmer’s desk for his release right now. One is a compassionate release for COVID; one is a clemency request; those requests for release have been endorsed by the Flint Prosecutor’s Office which is the office that originally prosecuted Michael (that’s something that never ever happens), but Governor Whitmer continues to sit on Michael’s petition; each day exposing him to a possible death sentence,” Steve continues. “There’s dozens and dozens of other cannabis prisoners who are facing similarly long sentences on equally bogus charges.”
The reality of it is it’s not our constituents who are the criminals. The real criminals are the people who passed these laws and enforce these laws.
Steve says, “Our position is that nobody anywhere in the world ever deserved to be arrested for cannabis charges and that nobody ever deserved to be in prison on cannabis charges. We don’t care what the amount was; we really don’t care what the “complicating factors” were. The reality of it is it’s not our constituents who are the criminals. The real criminals are the people who passed these laws and enforce these laws.”
Corvain Cooper is serving a federal sentence of life without parole in Louisiana for a cannabis conviction because he had two minor charges on his record in the state of California that at one time qualified him for the three strikes law, but since he earned those convictions, the law has been revised, and the crimes that he was convicted for are no longer crimes that make you eligible for three strikes. “Yet, Corvain faces spending the rest of his life in prison when it’s really obvious that that is a grossly unjust thing,” says Steve.
Steve says, “Last Prisoner Project has a very single-minded mission, a very singular focus quite deliberately. There’s a lot of organizations who are working on cannabis reform in general, on legislation, who are working on equity and racial justice issues specifically. Our focus is even more narrow. We just want to make sure that every single cannabis prisoner on planet Earth comes home to their families and is given the resources they need to build the lives that were stolen from them. We are interested in further reform, we’re interested in legislative stuff, that’s not where we put our energy, we let other organizations focus there. We just want to get prisoners out.”
Within the first year of its inception, Last Prisoner Project figured out that there are about 40,000 people in prison for cannabis convictions in the United States. They still don’t know the world-wide total. “It’s many many times the 40,000,” says Steve. “Once we had our hands around the problem, the size of it, and where it was located, then we started thinking about the most effective ways that we could get the largest number of prisoners released in the shortest period of time with the funds that were available to us.”
Last Prisoner Project has a couple of programs that achieve that objective. Steve tells us, “One of them is our clemency program which works with governor’s offices in legal cannabis states to develop a set of standard parameters that would allow the governor, at the stroke of a pen, to release hundreds or even (depending on the state) thousands of cannabis prisoners.”
There are currently about 50 people in the United States serving sentences of life without parole for cannabis convictions. “For most of them, their cases are complicated and are challenging for governors to give clemency to. So we do know that–unfortunately, in some cases–we are going to have to raise the funds that are necessary to mount a new legal defense for people who have already (in some cases) been in prison for decades. It’s a very expensive proposition to do that; it’s a very time consuming proposition to do that; it’s an absolutely necessary thing to do.”
The second program within the Last Prisoner Project is the Prison to Prosperity Pipeline. “We want to make sure that when our constituents are released that they have a support network that is sufficient to make sure that their reentry is successful,” says Steve. That involves housing, training, and finding employment. Last Prisoner Project is already serving their constituents through this program and recently hired a full time staff member to administer the program.
82% of the arrests for the war on drugs were for cannabis possession.
“We have a few different ways that we work to fund those programs. Our ‘Roll it up for justice’ program asks cannabis retailers to ask cannabis consumers to make a donation at the end of their cannabis purchase, to at least round up to the next dollar from their cannabis purchase.” Steve states that the program spreads the burden out widely across the whole cannabis community and doesn’t call on anybody too much. “We encourage cannabis retailers to participate in the program, and we encourage cannabis consumers to patronize the dispensaries that do participate in that program. In a similar vein, we have our ‘Partners for Freedom’ program. This program allows cannabis companies other than retailers (growers, manufacturers, etc.) to make a commitment to be a sustaining partner for the Last Prisoner Project, and they earn the ability to put the Last Prisoner Project logo on all the packages of all of their products. The idea being that we want cannabis consumers to have ways that they can support the companies that are supporting the community.”
“We are in a unique time in this country right now. That’s put a fresh lens on law enforcement and what’s been going on with law enforcement over the course of the last two decades in the United States. And what many people don’t realize is that stop and frisk, cops on the ground in black and brown communities harassing people has been justified and driven by cannabis prohibition. 82% of the arrests for the war on drugs were for cannabis possession.”
Learn more about Steve DeAngelo and how he earned the moniker “The Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry” in an upcoming issue of GRAM. In the meantime follow @lastprisonerproject on social media and keep up with Steve on his new podcast: Radio Free Cannabis.
Seizing The Opportunity to Educate the World
How an inner-city kid from Chicago used art + cannabis to take Denver by storm in celebration of black love, black art, + black lives.
The Black Love Mural Festival may seem like a simple play on Black Lives Matter efforts, but it is much more than your typical mural walk. It is the evolution of years of effort on behalf of its curator, Robert Gray. Gray is more commonly known by his brand, Rob The Art Museum, a concept that came to him during some of his earliest visits to art museums in the midwest. Rob’s life journey has taken him across the country, all in the pursuit of living a life that allowed him to enjoy cannabis and give back to his local and global community.
Who is Rob The Art Museum?
Robert Gray, founder and curator of Rob The Art Museum, is originally from Chicago, Illinois. When he was in his early teens, he moved to Milwaukee. “I’m from Chicago, but I claim that I’m from Milwaukee, because that’s where a lot of my friends were when I grew up as a teenager,” Rob explains. It’s also where Rob was first introduced to contemporary and fine art, thanks to a newly built art museum, the same one that was featured in the Transformers movie series.
“Milwaukee is really where I got into art. That’s where a lot of it started. I would try to get away from the city, running around, doing shit I wasn’t supposed to, and it was when they first built the art museum…it was this big beautiful white art museum that looked like a boat right off the lake. So when they built it, I was like ‘this looks cool, let me go try it.’”
Not only did he notice the beauty of the art he was enjoying, but he also found respite in the lack of familiar faces. “Milwaukee was a small city…Like if you go to Walmart, you’re going to see someone from middle school, high school; you’re going to run into someone. So this was like the one place I never ran into someone who was from where I was from. So it was like a different scene. it was very peaceful… But I always wanted to smoke blunts and be in an art museum at the same time. And I never thought it would be possible.”
This idea would stick with him and eventually be the seed that grew into Rob The Art Museum. “It was always in the back of my head [and] that was kind of like where Rob The Art Museum started. I wanted people to have the same emotional reaction that I was having. I was having a spiritual reaction, a physical reaction, an emotional reaction when I was seeing these beautiful pieces of artwork, and it was like my first time really seeing any contemporary art…growing up in the city, we had art programs but it was like children’s art. Paint and paper. That was art, but I really never saw art like fine art growing up where I came from.”
The impression it left on him left him wanting to share those feelings with others. “So I was walking in an art museum and was like ‘Damn, I want to get this artwork out to my people who can’t afford–because it costs money to get into the art museum. If they can’t afford to get into the art museum, they definitely can’t afford anything on the walls. So how can I get this art out to the people? Rob The Art Museum. That’s kinda like where everything started. I was like ‘Oh, that’s funny. Like a double entendre with my name.’ But even then I did it like ‘I wish I could rob the art museum because I know that work is worth a lot. It doesn’t seem like they got top notch security either. I think a bank would be more difficult. Seemed like a good return on investment.’”
Chasing Promotions with No End In Sight
Rather than going through with this fantasy of robbing a museum, Rob ended up like many of us—in a job where he was simply chasing promotion after promotion. This led him from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Kansas City. As he neared the age of 30, Rob realized his love of cannabis and his distaste for the promotional path meant he needed to reevaluate his pursuits.
“My passions were weed and art, and I was in Kansas City, and it’s an 8 hour trip [to Colorado], and I’m over here buying weed in gas stations from people who looked like they smoked weed,” Rob explains. “I didn’t have any friends out there. But I was like he looks like he smokes weed, so I’m going to ask him, ‘bro you know where the weed at?’…One day I just packed up my bags and went to Colorado and just tried to figure everything out. That was three years ago.”
The Mile High Move
When he arrived in Colorado, Rob quickly joined the legal cannabis industry, becoming a budtender, but not before a life-changing car accident would further call into question his decision to move to the mile high state. “When I first moved out here, I was staying on the couch at my brother’s house just trying to figure everything out and one day after I got done smoking like a blunt, I just went to go get food. So I jumped in the car with my friend, she was driving, and we’re going up the way and a drunk driver came out of nowhere and hit us in a head on collision. I was really shooken up…So I ended up going to the ER, and it was a traumatizing experience because I didn’t have like anyone really out here with me. Me and my brother were going through some trials and tribulations…I didn’t have any other family out here. I was in the ER emergency room thinking I was about to lose my vision. And also thinking about being paralyzed because I just got into an accident. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore…
“So, long story short…I have a disability now where like my vision isn’t there in my right eye. It’s crazy that I’m involved in art and my vision is fucked up. And I was going to City, O’ City, which is one of the partners of this festival and the accident happened like right up the street [from Civic Park/City, O’ City]… It’s funny how this has all come full circle, and that’s how I started my trip off in Denver. I was about to go home. I was like ‘Fuck this shit man. I just got in the worst car accident of my life. I don’t have a job. Like, I’m not going to be able to get a job now being injured. I don’t have insurance.’ I was just going to give it all up and go back home and figure shit out.”
After the accident, Rob began smoking cannabis with a specific medical intent. “I was on prescriptions because I was in a bad car accident, all opioids,” he recalls. “Back home, I was smoking weed because, not because it was the cool thing to do but because I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t for a medicinal purpose at that point. Maybe PTSD, but I was smoking weed just like every high school kid did. And this was the first time that I needed it to like actually relieve this pain, this unbearable pain. So it is great to be in a legal state and have legal access to it.”
Cannabis as a Career
As a budtender, Rob quickly learned the legal cannabis industry had its issues with race. He says it was a great experience as far as learning, but the work culture was toxic, comparing it to working as a cashier at a bad McDonald’s. “I got called the N Word by someone my first time working there. So it was like fuck, this shit’s shitty. There’s racism everywhere. But I just rode it out. I addressed it with corporate, and they handled it how I expected so that was nice. But budtending wasn’t for me.”
While corporate worked to fix internal issues, Rob found an opportunity selling concentrates for another company, Craft Concentrates. He recalls the experience being novel, giving he was selling weed on the phone legally, but it was a cold-calling effort and was hard to get accounts that weren’t already carrying the product, something he likens to selling cars. During his time with Craft, he was also doing humanitarian work on the side like park cleanups and feeding the homeless in places like Denver’s RiNO art district, which gave him a positive way to give back and an alternative focus to cold calls.
“My mom always told me that it’s important that you give back. And I feel like inside, if you’re taking from a community, you should give back to that community.” One day, Craft was going to move offices and throw away all of the food in the refrigerator. Rob asked if he could have it. Knowing he was a vegan, they questioned what he would do with all of the meats and dairy products, and he told them he planned to cook it and make meals for the homeless with it. After that, they started to take note of his efforts, making him Head of the Communications department, with the entire focus of giving back to the community.
While this new opportunity was progressive for the cannabis industry, differing views on what “giving back to the community” actually meant, would lead Rob to end that chapter and, as he describes it, “circle back to smoking blunts in the art museum.” His pop up art shows were beginning to take off.
Pop Up Art Shows
The Rob the Art Museum pop up art show is a cannabis-friendly, art event with vegan-friendly foods highlighted, non mainstream, undiscovered and underrepresented artists. It started a wave that would eventually take the efforts nationwide.
“Now that I had a decent job [with Craft] that could fund my crazy ideas that I had, I used that money to rent an AirBnB because I wanted to make a cannabis-friendly art museum, and I couldn’t do that with the Denver Art Museum. So I rented out an AirBnB. It was four stories, had six different bed rooms, and I curated each room to be like a different theme.” Rob recalls approaching as many artists as possible on their Instagrams, only hearing back from about one in ten. They had a bunch of vegan food, good legal cannabis to enjoy, and he invited as many people as possible to see all of the art that he’d hung throughout the house. “We lost money the first time, but it was fun. People came out, and it was fun. I was like ‘I’m going to keep doing it.’”
His friends could not believe he was going to do it again, taking all the time and money to coordinate the event. But Rob valued being top of mind regularly with the audience. “Consistency is key; I knew we had to keep doing it so that people would take it seriously,” reiterating that it wasn’t a “one off” event due to its somewhat random and unprecedented nature.
Eventually, Rob ended up throwing one of the larger afterparties at the Indo Expo 2019 in Denver, inviting cannabis influencers to an art, cannabis, and smoke-friendly affair with good vegan food and good vibes. The next month, he repeated the event for his birthday party, telling his friends to come out and smoke with him since the AirBnB owner was allowing him to use the property. By March, they were actually focusing on art curation as the focal point of the event and starting to make a few hundred bucks each time.
4/20, Private Events, & High Times
With April came the annual celebration plans for 4/20, and Rob’s intention to use the AirBnB came to a halt when he received a letter ordering him to cease and desist because the owner had listed the location’s address publicly. The event had to be private to allow consumption according to Colorado law, and Rob was forced to make very public statements that the event was cancelled. For those in the know, the event still went on, but in a much more private manner.
After this issue due to a technicality, Rob was invited to throw pop up events under his moniker around the country at High Times events. He traveled to Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a variety of large metro areas, setting up his museum and spreading the brand nationally. Denver may have taken a backseat, but as he became more introduced to the art scene and the people within, a chance encounter at a Denver Dispensary would be the seed that became the Black Love Mural Festival months later.
Black Love Mural Festival (BLMF)
After efforts with High Times came to a close, the transition to Rob upping his art efforts in the festival scene was an almost seamless transition. He met Annie, the owner of IRL Art, and they exchanged contact information when he learned she worked with Meow Wolf. They did big festival installations at Far Out Factory, Sonic Bloom, Arise, Gem and Jam, and similar events. Rob eventually secured a spot working with her in October 2019, and became CMO of IRL Art in February.
“Black Love Mural Festival started with being in festivals with [Annie],” Rob explains. “These are all her walls that we bought,” motioning to the black plywood board structures around civic park that were constructed in mere hours. Originally, the idea for the festival had stemmed from a park cleanup effort. One of Rob’s friends knew he was involved in park cleanups and asked for some help overseeing efforts to clean up after protests in Denver. During the cleanup, Rob invited a local artist to live paint a mural to help lighten the mood, and the idea to create walls that could be painted on while also protecting local landmarks came to fruition, initially dubbed “Protect The Park.”
“I didn’t know this was possible,” Rob explains of the mobile mural walls, “to take plywood and build into portable walls and have artists come out and do these big pieces, I didn’t know it was possible.” Originally, Rob had wanted to do a large scale art installation in small scale neighborhood parks to bring the beauty and influence of art into communities that wouldn’t otherwise see it. When the opportunity to take that approach and do it in the center of Denver happened, Rob couldn’t help but seize it.
After a quick pitch to local officials and the Mayor of Denver, Rob and his business partner hammered out a proposal and secured funds for the initial effort. “I want to make sure that black people aren’t blamed for what’s happening,” explains Rob of the motivation behind the festival. “Because, no matter who does the vandalism, no matter who does the looting, it’s going to fall back on the Black Lives Matter movement because that’s what everything is focused around… I want to put a black face to the good that we are doing.”
They pitched the idea as a dual-purpose initiative: for the city, they would protect the monuments using temporary structures to help minimize damage and vandalism. For the community, they would use the walls of these structures as blank canvases to showcase the love and art of Denver’s black community. Once approved, the structures had to be built. Rain and cleanups cut into setup time, leaving them less than 48 hours to have everything set up. Then, they set about recruiting artists, offering subsidies for supplies and starting a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $10,000 to pay all 30+ artists who have since become involved. As of the end of June, they have exceeded this goal.
Asked how it is going, Rob offers a simple “Awesome.” He comments on the fact that this is the first art event he has been to—and for many of the artists participating—that was all black artists, saying normally there is that one token black person, or maybe not even a single person of color, which prevents the artists from being themselves. He’s proud they have curated artists ranging in age from nine to sixty years old, and artists walked up off the street after seeing the news coverage, wanting to get involved in a positive art community that was bettering Denver.
As with everything that has taken him this far, Rob is seizing the opportunity to educate his peers and his community at large about the beauty of black culture as well as the ways humans can be better about treating one another equally.
Opportunities & Education
When asked how he has gotten to this point in his life, and what his advice is to others regarding treating one another better, his answers are the same: Education and Opportunities. Whenever an opportunity presents itself to learn, do so. Learn about other cultures. Learn about new thoughts. Learn about personal trials and tribulations. Seize opportunities to grow, to learn, and to advance yourself and society as a whole. If you have the opportunity to lift someone else up, do so.
Specifically, Rob speaks to the burden placed on people of color by those who are well-intentioned but lazy in their efforts. Wanting to learn more about the ways your black friends or co-workers may have encountered microaggressions or outright racism is healthy and helps acknowledge and change patterns of behavior, but there is a plethora of information available for you to get background information. Walking up to a black person and asking them to simply describe their plight is both burdensome and shows a lack of effort, contrary to the intentions of the question.
Similarly, if you look around and aren’t sure of how you can better the black community, or any community, consider the tools in front of you. Rob mentions the trade of a carpenter, and asks the head carpenter to look around at his team; do you see any black faces? No, maybe try to hire some? Not finding any qualified candidates of color? Maybe create the opportunity for an apprenticeship or an internship where a candidate who is otherwise high quality could learn the craft and help to make the industry more diverse.
Rob’s main point is: there is always an opportunity to help your fellow human and to learn more about one another, and we should seize every chance we can to lift one another up, regardless of color, creed, gender, or other generalizing characteristic.
even if they don’t exist.
The Black Love Mural Festival’s permit was extended through the end of July to allow for a longer display of the art and recognition of the black community. Rob is entertaining future ideas to not only bring the festival back annually, but hopefully to expand to other cities, and to preserve many of the pieces that were created in art galleries and museums, including those dedicated to preserving black art and history.
Educate yourself. Don’t just expect to be educated.
SEE IT LIVE IN DENVER, CO UNTIL JULY 30
Make sure to check out and follow all The talented artists participating in this fantastic event.
PJ and Crystal
Representative Leslie Herod
No one knew that the tragic event that took place on May 25, 2020 would lead to a worldwide civil rights movement. Police brutality has sadly gone on in this country for centuries, specifically to minorities and people of color, and the death of George Floyd was the last straw for everyone. People were tired of being in their homes due to the coronavirus and then the news shifted and played a video over and over again showing a man, begging for his life. This was not the first time we have seen such a video in the United States, but finally, people are taking a stand.
In Colorado, the death of George Floyd led to a protest with thousands of people, shouting “no justice, no peace, no justice, no peace!” These protests lasted for weeks after his passing. Hundreds continued to gather every single day in honor of all the recent black lives that passed. Tributes were made, art was created, tears were shed daily on the Capitol steps. Parts of the Capitol, Civic Center Park (in front of the Capitol,) as well as many other nearby places in Denver were damaged with graffiti and various forms of vandalism, including many broken windows and trash can fires. It was very clear that the people of Colorado were fed up. Over the next couple of weeks, every major city in the US and several places throughout the world followed suit and peacefully protested systemic racism.
But what did these protests do? In Colorado, the legislators saw what was happening to their cities and knew that the time for a change in policy was now. Representative Leslie Herod is responsible for District 8: Denver, Colorado. Her constituents were gathering daily on the Capitol steps, and they were joined by people from neighboring cities and states. They made their point very clear—something needed to be done to enhance the integrity of the police force.
In Colorado, the legislators saw what was happening to their cities and knew that the time for a change in policy was now.
With the assistance of fellow Prime Sponsors, Representative Herod sat down and got to work on the piece of legislation that would become “SB 217, Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity.” Representative Herod tells us, “I am the vice chair of the judiciary committee, and I already worked a lot on policing and criminal justice issues and mass incarcerations. I was specifically looking at a bill to address the local cases we had here in Colorado with Elijah McLain and De’Von Bailey. I had a bill drafted but did not have support to get it introduced through the COVID season. So basically what we did was shelve it, but because of the cries of the protestors for justice and change, we were able to add a lot of really important components to the bill, introduce it, and then have it pass.”
While speaking with Representative Herod, I took note of how excited she sounded when talking about how many people reached out to their legislators. As someone who has spent time working towards advancing cannabis policy, I know how difficult it is to make a massive letter writing campaign be effective. I am proud of the people of Colorado for showing up in big numbers. Representative Herod explains, “The number of people who wrote, and called, and reached out to their legislators was something I had never seen before. The people who showed up to testify and even to protest outside, it was more than I had ever seen. It was definitely the reason I feel we were able to get this (SB217) passed with such bipartisan support. I do think that we may not have had that same type of support if we did not have so much support from the community.”
It is important to realize, “Protests do lead to policy change. It is the sustained process to make it work. What I will say is that I speak a lot with the families and victims here in Colorado, and they are frustrated that it took this before people would show up and support their kids that died. I had to feel ready and like we were in a good place for the introduction of this bill, the protests allowed me to push the bill the way it needed to be pushed. George Floyd was not the reason for this bill, however the protest helped immensely, but I have been ready because of the kids we have lost here in Colorado. They are not left out of this conversation,” says Representative Herod.
I think the most important thing anyone can realize right now is that “This is more than a moment, this is a movement.” Representative Herod speaks such powerful words. She leaves us with this advice, “If you are in elected office and/or if you are a person in a position of power, it is really incumbent upon you right now to begin to address systemic racism right now. If you don’t, people will show up and protest and demand change. As an elected official, I think it is important for people to really think about what is going on right now and think about ways to change.”
To everyone wanting to understand systemic racism and how to advance this movement as a whole, “Keep speaking out, keep showing up. Don’t try to give us your emotional weight; try and take some of it off of us. Don’t give us your race burdens, instead take action. Protest, write to your elected officials, don’t expect us to explain race to you, just be there to support us, even something simple as buying someone lunch and expecting nothing in return.”
Police reform is needed now more than ever and Colorado is on the cutting edge of what that policy should look like. It is this author’s hope that more states adopt legislation like SB217 and make it their own.
SB20-217 Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity
“Concerning measures to enhance law enforcement integrity, and,
in connection therewith, making an appropriation.”
No more choke holds – choke holds and carotid control holds are now banned. Officers can only use force if absolutely necessary and deadly force can’t be used against someone for a minor or nonviolent offense.
The need to intervene – Officers will be protected from retaliation if they intervene. An officer who fails to try to stop another from using excessive force could face a class 1 misdemeanor or greater charge.
Body cameras – By July 1, 2023 all officers in the state of Colorado, with the exception of some administrative positions, undercover officers, and correctional officers under view of other cameras will be required to wear body cameras. Police who purposely tamper with or turn off their camera, can now face criminal charges for doing so.
Police prosecutions – state Attorney general has the authority to prosecute persistently bad departments and officers.
Data tracking – Agencies who don’t provide the required data and information could put their funding in jeopardy. State data will include: their use of force resulting in serious injury or death as well as stops, unannounced entries and use of firearms and demographic information.
Protecting protestors – Shooting rubber bullets indiscriminately into a crowd as well as targeting rubber bullet shots at someone’s head, torso or back is prohibited. As is the use of pepper spray or tear gas, before announcing it will be sprayed to the crowd and allowing time for them to disperse from the area.
Bad cops – If an officer has been found guilty of a crime of inappropriate use of force, failure to intervene to stop excessive force, or found civilly liable for excessive force, or failure to intervene, will lose their Peace Officer Standards and Training board certification permanently.
Art Way Jr
Dreamer + Doer
Recently GRAM sat down with Art Way Jr. owner of Equitable Consulting, the former Colorado State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and police accountability advocate for the last 20 years. We wanted to hear his story and his thoughts on the civil rights movement currently taking place.
“From the very beginning this country was built upon slavery and genocide, if you have a foundation like that, you simply won’t unwind from that because you pass Federal anti-discrimination acts. They say if you are in a bad relationship for 10 years, it will take you at least 5 years to overcome the trauma and negativity that it caused you. When you look at that in comparison to what has happened to black and brown people in America, it’s a toxic fucked up relationship for four centuries. It’s ingrained. It’s only been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and it’s only been 50 years since the last civil rights movement of the 60’s. This shit is going to take time. We are no longer dealing with issues of law and policy anymore. We are dealing with an ingrained culture.”
Art Way Jr. grew up in Colorado, in a neighborhood called Five Points and another called Park Hill. “I remember when officers used to wear penny loafers. When I was real young, I even remember them playing basketball with us, or playing football with us for a little bit. During that time, I remember being able to call a police officer to help you get a cat out of a tree. Then, when mass incarceration began to ramp up, they were no longer throwing balls around, they were throwing us around. I was 15 in 1986 when things really went sideways, and police really started to be more about drugs and addiction, and federal dollars to engage in the drug war, as opposed to being civil servants.”
Art grew up and went to school at Colorado University in Denver and received a degree in history. He then went to the Florida Coastal School of Law to receive his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree. Art had a calling for equality and justice. His career eventually led him to the Colorado Progressive Coalition. From 2008-2011, he served as the Racial Justice Director and ran their racial justice program that was focused on police accountability. “A lot of the work I did for that organization was in regards to looking to minimize the over criminalization of the black and brown communities through police accountability, so it was a natural intersection with the broader drug war. My work with CPC kind of put me on the map and in the right place to take on the job with DPA.” Art tells us.
“We ran a hotline for police brutality, where people were allowed to call in and make complaints against arresting officers, a lot of it was direct service in that manner. I traveled all over the front range and helped people file complaints and then follow up on those complaints. I worked a lot with the Office of the Independent Monitor and the City of Denver, and the Citizen Oversight Board, and I was also able to force some legislation that attempted to really change police culture,” explains Art.
“When a lot of people tried to assert their fourth amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures and say no to a search, that’s when things would usually turn bad. So we were able to put forth legislation that essentially said that if an officer does not have probable cause to search someone, and instead is asking someone for consent, which is essentially that person waving their 4th amendment right, they have to tell the person they have the right to say no. At the time, it was maybe the second piece of police accountability legislation that had ever really passed in Colorado. It was the first consent search legislation of its kind that also covered pedestrians as well as motorists.”
“Looking back and where we are now, we are actually at the ten year anniversary of that legislation and honestly, it seems kind of light weight. The goal was to slowly change the police culture, and remind them that people have constitutional rights and people have a right to tell police no. Many times, in the case of racial profiling, a lot of the pretextual stops and searches that were going on were products of the drug war and police looking for contraband and that was really a large part of the reason racial profiling was so rampant, and we just wanted to slow that reality down a little bit. It was also an educational tool to remind people of their rights. We did a lot of ‘know your rights’ training in conjunction with that.”
The goal was to slowly change the police culture, and remind them that people have constitutional rights and people have a right to tell police no.
“I learned real quickly, even though I fell in love right then and there with legislative work, that it is really more about watchdogging a situation, it is not just about the legislation passing, especially if you are trying to police the police. It is one thing to get a bill passed, but then you truly have to stay on it; you have to watch closely; you have to reach out to the Attorney General’s office and make sure it is being watched properly. It is one thing to get a bill passed through the legislature, but it’s another thing that it actually changes the culture. When it comes to police accountability as well as the recent legislation here in Colorado (SB217), the goal is to change the culture. All of that is such a big lesson that I take with me throughout the rest of my social justice career,” Art tells us.
“Right before I left CPC for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA,) we had started focusing on DA’s (District Attorney’s) and their behavior in basically allowing police to behave how they behaved. I was happy that 6 or 7 years later, DA’s really became a focal point, and people really began holding them accountable as part of police bureaucracy.” Art explains. Police bureaucracy is something that has been happening for centuries.
DPA expanded in 2011 to Colorado, as the 5th state to have an office. The timing was perfect. They already had offices in New Jersey, New Mexico, California, and New York. “It definitely coincided with the time of Amendment 64, the recreational legalization of cannabis in Colorado. DPA was about harm reduction, broader criminal justice reform in regards to drug policy, so that was the trifecta I found myself in.”
Organized policing was one of the many types of social controls imposed on enslaved African Americans. “My great grandfather and people like him were just killed and thrown in ditches and hidden and never talked about, then during the drug war they were able to kill us on camera with no problem,” says Art. “When it coms to slavery, the essence of it, and the residual of it, it remains in the police force to this day. That is how people need to look at it, we need to stop with this “bad apple” bullshit, it’s not about bad apples. It’s about a fucked up, permeating, and pervasive culture that ruins all the apples once they get into it. We are in this now for a marathon. Simply changing laws and policy is not going to change what has been ingrained into this country.
“The protests reflect the frustration, and protests may or may not always lead to policy change. But, the overall goal with social justice is to change people’s paradigm. These protests really reflect that changing paradigm and the shift and change that is currently happening. In 20 years of being a police accountability advocate, I never even thought about a police reform bill at the Federal level. It never even crossed my mind, now there are a couple of bills. One is being pushed in the House and one in the Senate. What is great about these protests right now, is that young people can take the lead, and the old folks like me can finally sit down and shut up a little bit, and learn from these young people that everything is possible,” says Art.
“The most influential policy change that can happen in regards to police accountability is definitely disbanding or defunding the police. This is not saying that we will not have anymore police. It is saying let’s sit down at the table and forget how much money we are going to give you all, and for what. Let’s figure out your hiring practices, and let’s get back to being civil servants, and peace keepers instead of some militarized force. We have gutted our mental health and behavioral health systems for the last 50 years. They (police) are doing things they are not trained to do. If we put money into an actual safety net to take care of our most vulnerable then we wouldn’t have created this huge system of mass incarceration, and having police dealing with things they really shouldn’t be dealing with.”
“Drugs and addiction, whether legal or illegal, is one of the biggest markets in the world. It costs money to fight it, and it creates bureaucracy, and it creates corruption, and it’s the reason law enforcement has lost touch. Thinking back to the 19th century officer, Sir Robert Peel and the policing policies he created back then, that is the kind of policing we need to get back to. He was considered the ‘Father of Modern Policing.’ Officers needed direction and needed to know what to do, and so he created guidelines for officers to follow.”
Start locally, defunding the police is a local issue.
People throughout this country are confused, frustrated, and scared, and many just want to know where to turn their energy and efforts to in order to advance this movement. Art recommends, “Start locally, defunding the police is a local issue, more than it is a state issue. Check out Campaign Zero for resources, they are an excellent place to start. Some areas may not be ready for that conversation yet but what they do have to discuss with you is local policy. I think city council and county commissioners are your first goals, you can go to them and demand that the local police force revise their use of force policy. Get rid of the choke holds, no longer allow the doctrine that allows lethal force, and use of force.”
“I also suggest people start to work with behavioral and public health organizations and think about how we can change the police’s rules of engagement, and what they are actually there to do. Mental health professionals will often respond with an officer, so that part of the public health community really needs to speak up. They are the best group of people to help identify where the money should be reallocated to if the police are defunded. They should be at the front of the conversation. We need to get back to a culture of de-escalation and providing services instead of that command and control culture. If all cities want is arrests, and fines and fees, then that will be difficult. Right now they have an opportunity to be real allies and make real change possible.”
Be open to hearing one another; be open to what we are seeing; minimize the cynicism, and really dream big. Ultimately, that is what everyone needs to do. If you never dream big, then big things won’t happen.
The recent events of peaceful protests around the nation seem to be having an effect. At least here in Colorado with the passing of “SB 217, Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity.” When it came time for the Senate and House to hear the bill, testimonies from people in the community came pouring in. One of those people that went on record was Mr. Way. “I told them my story, I told them that I have been a victim of police abuse since I was 11 years old. I have had a gun put to my head three times in my life, and the first time was at 11 years old and it was by a police officer. He was doing it simply because he could. So I told those lawmakers my story that day; I let them know that everything within SB217 was long overdue and that nothing should be considered radical. Essentially, I explained that the police had been running amuck for years and that it was time for change,” said Art. He adds, “There needs to be an organization formed to engage and be a serious watchdog over the next two or three years to ensure that the policy changes from SB217 really becomes implemented.”
If your goal is to make the world a better place to live in for yourself and for your children, and your children’s children, please listen to these sage words of advice: “Get out of our comfort zones, have those uncomfortable conversations with the people in your family and your kids that need to hear them. We need to do what we can to shape each other’s paradigm. We need to look at what is needed, from a social justice perspective, to actually make the world a better place. We need to bring forth the ideals of our constitution and bring back the ideas that started this country and once made it great. Get out of your comfort zone. Be open to hearing one another; be open to what we are seeing; minimize the cynicism, and really dream big. Ultimately, that is what everyone needs to do. If you never dream big, then big things won’t happen.”
9 Policing Principles
as written by Sir Robert Peel
- To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
- To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
- To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
- To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
- To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
- To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
- To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
- To recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
- To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
Art Way Jr. interview with Nurse Jordan LIVE 7/10
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