The November Coalition: A Decade of Fighting For Those Behind Bars

In early 1997 a handful of daring folks from the remote mountains of northeastern Washington State called for peace in the war on drugs. Nora Callahan, along with some local friends with loved ones in prison, began publicly demanding an end to what they termed as the “war on people” and formed the November Coalition. Three years later, at a Washington DC ceremony recognizing the November Coalition, Callahan accepted the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award of 2000 sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, which was presented by Detroit Congressman John Conyers who commented, “Out of a Colville, Washington kitchen comes a national organization.”

The general goals of November Coalition are to educate, arouse and activate people in order to halt to the government’s use of drug law enforcement to increase prison populations. Its mission statement calls for trashing drug prohibition/zero tolerance ideology because it only increases gangland violence, profiteering, and corrupt institutions. From the earliest 1997 speeches, writings and public vigils, “Novemberistas” have been anti-prohibitionists and defenders of Constitutional law, anchored by anguished families with a loved one in prison. Concerned, dedicated citizens stand with them in growing numbers, too.

It was Callahan’s incarcerated brother G. Patrick who asked her to organize public opposition to the heartbreaking war on drugs and the prison aftermath that ruins lives and families. After the website www.november.org was launched in early 1997 and the first Razor Wire newspapers began circulating nationally, the Coalition’s Colville office was flooded with mail and phone calls from drug war prisoners and their loved ones, each one eager to tell us about drug war injustice. After reading hundreds of such stories, a pattern emerged of prosecutors who coerced testimony, friends and family members who became snitches while others do the time, and judges who go along with it all. Tyrone Brown is one powerful case study among hundreds of heartbreaking case histories found at The Wall (november.org/thewall), illustrating tortures inflicted as a result of demonizing certain drugs and punishing their users for years on end in grotesque prisons, or perhaps until death finally liberates them from hell here on earth.

Tyrone wrote the Coalition in July 2004 with a tale we could hardly believe. He said he got a life sentence at age 17 for smoking marijuana while on probation for an armed robbery where no one was hurt. He had already served 14 years when he contacted our office. After verification and obtaining written consent, Tyrone’s words were posted on The Wall in March 2005. That autumn we heard from reporter Brooks Egerton of the Dallas Morning News who said that while browsing The Wall he read Brown’s unbelievable story about getting life in prison for smoking pot. On April 23, 2006, the Morning News published Egerton’s investigation of Tyrone Brown. Egerton found that Judge Keith Dean did order Brown, a black teenager, to serve life in prison for testing positive in a urinalysis for marijuana use in violation of the earlier 10-year probation Dean had given Brown. Yet Egerton also found that Judge Dean handled a well connected cocaine-abusing, Caucasian murderer much differently, by repeatedly excusing the man’s numerous extreme probation violations. After Egerton’s story broke, the Coalition began hearing from Texans outraged by the unequal justice, stupefied by judicial bias against marijuana, and stunned by the favoritism for a white defendant with connections to power and influence.

Tyrone Brown’s plainly told story and poems, which he had first sent to our office in mid-2004, were about to get even more public exposure. Just before the elections in early November 2006, an ABC 20/20 Special featured the story, including interviews with Egerton and Brown and a clip of ABC’s futile attempt to talk with a stonewalling Judge Dean, who was then actively campaigning for re-election – which he lost. Public support for Tyrone Brown, and demands for his immediate release, exploded soon after. Today, Texas officials are listening – notably, Judge Dean and prosecutor Bill Hill, both of whom have joined in a plea to the Parole Board and Governor Rick Perry to release Tyrone.

Much of the November Coalition’s educational thrust in 2007 is aimed at exposing the social fracturing of families and communities caused by the government’s widespread use of “informants”. The secrecy generated by massive drug war informing was fully documented in 2005 by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) in its 15-year study. The Commission bemoaned the hidden deals made by prosecutors who secretly manage intricate webs of snitches, especially in large urban communities. Drug police units rely heavily on confidential informants, but no one knows how many are in any area because prosecutors and police forces keep the information secret, leaving Commissioners asking, “How can we assess the evidence if we’re barred from reviewing it?” The chief result is that the Commission could not do the job required of it by Congress.

According to Nora Callahan, “Ninety-eight percent of the time, police don’t have any goods on anyone – just a confidential informant.” Many of our Wall stories reflect this reality of convicting the accused by words alone: innocent people who have no information to “snitch” with in order to get lesser punishment are sentenced to far more time than the individuals actually involved in the crime. In Kansas City, Missouri, a grassroots movement called “Stop Snitchin’” bought space on a large billboard sponsored by a local family. The billboard has generated considerable talk and media attention. Initially, the City’s Mayor was enraged by the message, but after meeting with the family and a local news reporter under the billboard, the Mayor absorbed the heartfelt words of a drug war prisoner’s father, and offered to help create a less-divisive message about the ugly downside of snitching.

November Coalition volunteers have unearthed many of these once-hidden truths about prosecutorial abuse of power, which exists through all phases of the criminal justice procedure. Both in Razor Wire (november.org/razorwire) articles and in direct communications with affected communities, “Novemberistas” continue to call for public review of the negative impact snitching has had on working class brown and black communities, and specially targeted groups of various “non-conformists”.

Over the past three years Coalition volunteers across the country have collected signatures of support for legislation to bring back federal parole. More than 120,000 people have signed our Petition for Relief from Drug War Injustice, and congressional leaders have responded by introducing bills. It is expected that the Second Chance Act and a bill to return federal parole will be introduced early in the new 110th Congress.

“What we need most is an Omnibus Crime Bill,” said Nora Callahan in a recent interview with Drug War Chronicle’s Phil Smith. “Otherwise we’ll be picking this thing apart for the next five decades. An omnibus bill would open the door to broad hearings where we could address the myriad, negative effects of the drug war – huge numbers of people imprisoned, students deprived of loans, poor people denied housing and other federal benefits, political corruption, police violence; the list goes on. If we try to deal with all these problems one by one, the prison population will have doubled again by the time we get it done.”

November Coalition is spearheading a campaign called “No New Prisons” in 2007. Focusing first on Washington State and the Pacific Northwest, we plan to publish details of those who struggle to prevent prison expansion. A national “Journey for Justice 2007 Coalition” has begun plans for a cascade of local, regional and national events throughout the country by assembling a special delegation from each state, which will be made up of families angry about, and tired with, drug war injustice. November Coalition staff and volunteers have a renovated historic 1920s Colville church – later a natural food co-op – that now serves as offices and meeting space. Called “Our House”, the 4500 square foot building has a large kitchen, guest accommodations, and a Great Room where private meetings, special workshops and public events take place. In late-October 2006, “Our House” hosted the 2nd Annual Washington State Drug Policy Workshop. On March 31, 2007, staff and volunteers will conduct an online and local Benefit Auction for November Coalition to mark 10 years of organizing. People are donating art, collectibles and memorabilia. Razor Wire continues to be published and made available to grassroots’ activists for public distribution, and we’ve established a business called November’s Natural Soap using hemp and other fine oils, the profits earmarked to supplement the tireless generosity of those who support the Coalition’s work.

We see 2007 as a year of enhancing grassroots’ networks and organizing nationally. It’s right to expect good things to happen – what better time than now for increasing mutual respect, and aid, within the drug reform movement and its diverse interests? For further information on our projects and how you can participate, contact the Colville office at 509-684-1550 or email [email protected] Please also visit our websites: www.november.org and www.novembersoap.org.

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