“Fight for freedom” was the mantra of the night. As I heard this phrase said all night, I felt hope and pride for the United States.
Earlier this year, I attended an open mic night at a local café. The event was centered around the Ohio Student Association’s ballot initiative to end the war on drugs. The ballot initiative aims to decriminalize non-violent drug charges to misdemeanors and use money saved to facilitate rehab programs in and out of prison (a bill will similar goals failed in the House last year). The Ohio prison system is over capacity right now, which presents inhumane conditions and extra costs to the state. Additionally, addiction is not being treated like an illness – addicts aren’t getting the support they need and fall back into old patterns when they are released from prison.
At the event, they had snacks, t-shirts and stickers. They were also taking signatures to get the ballot initiative on the ballot this November (they need a certain amount of signatures for it to appear), along with sign-ups for email lists and volunteering. The event started out with some statistics about drug incarceration in Ohio and information given about the event in general. The mic was then turned over to the audience. After hearing from a legalize marijuana activist who has worked on many ballot initiatives before, people from the audience began to take the stage.
It was a small event and not many people were there in the beginning, but by two hours later when it was over the room had filled up. People read poems, sang songs, and read original stories centered around the theme of freedom and how drugs and the prison system impact that freedom. Is it fair to be sent to prison for extended periods of time for what many view to be a minor offense? Many at the event thought no, it wasn’t fair and it was an infringement on freedom. At the end of the night, we broke up into small groups and discussed how the war on drugs has impacted us personally and why we were all there that night. It was eye-opening to see how drugs and how drug addiction is dealt with in the United States had impacted everyone there in some way – even me.
“We (Americans) say we’re free, but that freedom gets taken away a lot to say that.”
This night made me think a lot about our democracy in the US. We have the freedom to do things like hold this and have protests, but those freedoms can be taken away quickly without a second thought by the person taking them away (lawmakers). We push people off to the side when they don’t behave how we want and send them to prison and expect them to magically get better on their own. Our criminal justice system is flawed and our democracy is flawed. We are not free until we are all free. I’m not saying set murderers or rapists free, but don’t overly criminalize things that should be treated differently. Drugs are hurting those who are using, so let’s help them.
The night ended with us being taught a hymn that was created by a local Columbus activist, MarShawn McCarrel, who has since passed away. The final line of the song describes the March to the Statehouse that will happen when the initiative has gotten enough signatures, hopefully this June. The final goal of this initiative is to show the state government that the people have the power and the people want change. It is a form of civil resistance that’s goals are bigger than simply ending the war on drugs, but taking the power and putting it into the people’s hands.
“We’re going to walk to the statehouse and show the people in power who has the power. We have the power. The people have the power.”
The key to successful civil resistance is nonviolence. The goal of any movement is to get people to come to your side and this ballot initiative is an example of efforts to do that. I do not know if this initiative will be successful. Success takes time. I do know that whether or not this issue appears on the ballot in November is not the only sign of success. Bringing attention to an issue is the first step in bringing about change. This initiative is only one step in the efforts to change the criminal justice system in the United States.
Much of the readings I’ve done lately about democratic erosion have made me feel worried about the state of democracy in the United States. There are troubling things happening in our country. Trump is a populist and populism can lead to authoritarianism. There are characteristics of stealth authoritarianism that can be seen in the U.S., such as Trump questioning the validity of millions of voters and criticizing his own Department of Justice when they do not agree with him.
However, going to this ballot initiative event made me realize that our democracy is alive and well. People are fighting for change, protesting the government, and speaking their minds every day. A tenant of democracy is strength in civil liberties. A sign of democratic erosion is the silencing or weakening of the opposition and opposition movements. Opposition movements are happening everywhere. Our institutions are strong, our Constitution protects our right to assemble and oppose and our citizens are vibrant. This event made me hopeful about the state of democracy in the United States. This initiative is a form of resistance to democratic erosion – showing that civil liberties are strong and opposition is alive and well.
Image from Krystian Olszanski.