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Grass-Roots Protest

The few, the proud, the pot people.

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By Susan Stahl

On a warm September Saturday in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building, the rally to free Mumia Abu-Jamal has just ended. An older woman with burly arms and long braids of graying hair speaks assertively into a bullhorn: "Go on over to the pot festival, Jackson and Columbus. There's live bands, and there'll be people over there if you have literature to hand out."

The woman pushes a cart draped with a white T-shirt emblazoned with a large marijuana leaf. A younger guy carries an identical T-shirt over his arm, along with a board displaying hemp necklaces. He saunters around the plaza until a cop hassles him for peddling.

Over in Grant Park, two hours into the pot fest, a band churns out desultory rock 'n' roll for three or four people standing around a mixing board. Another woman--also sporting impressively long, graying braids--dances and waves a handmade cardboard sign over her head. The stage is festooned with tie-dyed cloth and more handmade signs--the one facing Jackson Street reads "Honk 4 Hemp." There are actually more than four people in attendance, but they're crouching in the shadows, away from the band, blending in with what's left of the park's grass.

Two women stand off to the side, almost on the sidewalk. One wears a plastic badge on a shoelace around her neck: Joan Fencik, general counsel for the Chicago Park District. She says that this is only the second Harvest Festival (the first was "about two years ago" in Lincoln Park). "We have a zillion events in the park, and we're just here to make sure that everybody's only doing what they're supposed to be doing and respecting the property, which is mainly what we care about."

Much of the park is undergoing some kind of landscaping rehabilitation. A large portion of the ground is covered with straw and plastic mesh to encourage the grass to grow back where it's been trampled to death. Remnants of electrical wiring screwed into the trees, reportedly left over from the Taste of Chicago, are clearly visible, but the Park District has forbidden the Harvest Fest from even tying banners to the trees with string.

A few organizers sit behind a long table under a tarp. The table is covered with books about growing pot, as well as cooking and eating it, rolling it, sewing with it--using it for just about anything. There are free tracts, form letters to elected representatives, and leaflets: "Know Your Rights!!! Never Consent to a Search!!!," "Cannabis and Glaucoma," "Why D.A.R.E. Is BAD for Schools, Police, Parents & Kids!" Paint cans covered with political stickers hang from the tent poles; slots have been cut in their tops for donations. There's hemp jewelry for sale. A sign hanging behind the tables reads "Please don't ask us for pot--change the law!"

Two teenage boys wander over. One asks if it's OK to smoke pot at the festival, and the man behind the table laughs heartily. "No it ain't OK! You think we'd be here doin' this if it was OK?" The young guys drove an hour to get here from Indiana. "We thought we could just come here and everybody would be smoking," the talkative one says. "We figured if we could do it here we should come and check it out."

A group of police officers stands away from the center of activity. They say they've been instructed not to talk to reporters, and direct me to a man they call the "Force Media Supervisor," who is standing on the other side of the park. When I approach him, he guffaws. "They told you that? No, I don't have anything to say." Clusters of police are scattered throughout the small park--a head count reveals one cop for every four civilians. Mounted police appear after a while and position their horses as close to the makeshift tent as they can without being under it. Caren Thomas, a festival organizer, asks them to move, but she's told they've been instructed to stay put.

Commander Patrick McNulty says the police "have been instructed to do whatever they would normally do at any event here in Grant Park, whether it's Blues Fest, Taste of Chicago, Celtic Festival, Jazz Fest, whatever." Thomas jokes with him about instructing the mounted officers to park their horses right next to the tent. "I'm going to take care of that right now," he says, and a few minutes later the cops have moved their horses to the center of the field.

A tall chicken-wire fence holds photos and descriptions of people whose lives have been ruined by the war on drugs. The sentences are as specific as the charges are vague: seizure of all personal assets and future income--29 years, 92 years, 112 years, "natural life." Many of the accused have been photographed with their families--young children with smiling faces, wives and husbands. Three cops spend several minutes perusing the fence. One examines the story of a pretty young woman, beaming in a studio photograph presumably taken before the shit hit the fan. "Stupid bitch," he mutters.

Thomas's group, the Windy City Hemp Development Board, is also an organizer of the annual Million Marijuana March, scheduled for next May. "We think it's important to keep protesting," she says. In the past a few like-minded groups have sponsored free festivals in the parks: purely pro-pot events like Weedfest and fairs that were primarily about music like FreeFest and Peace Fest. Eventually the Park District cracked down because they perceived the crowds as too unruly. "We've had to sue them for the right to use the parks," Thomas says. "They want us to pay corporate festival rates, even though we're not-for-profit. And in any case, these are our parks. We're not here trying to make a profit; we're just trying to pay for some literature and do some work educating the public."

According to the group's lawyer, Wayne Giampiettro, there have been a couple of different lawsuits brought against the Park District and the city, one of which is currently waiting to be heard. "They've tried to deny these people a permit on the grounds that they'd violated restrictions in the past," says Giampiettro. "There's all kinds of restrictions--no drinking, no staying past the park's curfew, no leaving a mess--but there's nothing in the Constitution that says you can deny any group the right to speak in a public place, no matter what they've done before."

Sue Hofer, press secretary for the Park District, says not-for-profit groups get a 50 percent reduction on the corporate rate, but Giampiettro says "they never said anything like that when it was in litigation. It was all or nothing--you paid the corporate fee or the fee was waived at the discretion of the Park District. But there were no legitimate, well-defined rules for determining who is nonprofit." Thomas's crew finally prevailed earlier this year, and last May they held the Windy City Hemp Fest near Cricket Hill by court order. For today's event the permit fee was waived; the group paid a processing fee of $100 and a security deposit of $1,750. "Free speech is very expensive," Thomas says.

Thomas is disappointed by today's turnout. "Maybe some people feel that protest is trite, but also I think people are afraid--at the last several events there have been so many police. Now we're trying to convey to people that we're really here to protest more than to have a real smoke-in. You know, when there's a turnout, people do what they want and it's no problem. But we're officially here to protest the law and make noise. It's amazing how many people come up to the table and ask if it's legal to smoke today. Sorry, I wish we could wave that magic wand, but..."

Back in the field, two young guys are lying in the grass. Soon they're joined by a friend, and then another and another. They are the happiest-looking people I've seen at the event, and they greet me openly, asking my name and asking me to take their picture. "I smoke a lot of weed," one says, "but about the question of it being legal, I don't know."

While he's considering this question, his friend Hakim engages him in a debate about the superiority of marijuana, a "natural" substance, to heavily processed drugs like cocaine. Hakim prefers alcohol to pot, but stresses that he supports those who favor the herb. Nevertheless, he rattles off a battery of reasons that marijuana shouldn't be legal. "Listen," he says, "you could go get yourself a pound of weed for $800 and turn around and sell it for $1,600. If it was legal, then the government would take most of that away in taxes. Hell, I think anybody making money is better than the government making money. Fuck the government!"

"So, let's get high today, my brothahs," his friend intones cheerily. "Let's get high, to-day!"

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