Hempfest brutality in Washington DC

Miriam White, star of Cannabis Culture‘s Pot-TV network and a senior staffer with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), organized DC’s contribution to the millennium marijuana march held that day in 80 cities around the world.
White had no permits, funding or logistical support, but still drew several hundred people to a tree-shaded area next to the US capitol building.

US park police, along with other federal law enforcement officers, watched the event. at one point, they threatened to bring drug dogs into the crowd. NORML legal specialist tom dean, along with White, convinced officers not to do that. White then deftly negotiated an escorted parade route to the steps of the capitol.

At the end of the day, we marched to the front of the capitol. banners and pot flags festooned the air – a perfect photo opportunity and political lobbying event witnessed by hundreds of tourists.

Police caused no problems, even when stoned teenagers swam in fountains in front of the hallowed building.

Believing this event’s success foreshadowed even better news at the legendary July 4 “smoke-out” that has taken place in DC for thirty years, i showed up at lafayette park across from the White House on July 4, expecting fun, free speech, and exciting journalistic opportunities.

July 4 smoke-in

July 4 is the quintessential American holiday. Many Americans celebrate July 4 by gathering in groups, cooking and eating animals, and by lighting fireworks. The premier venue for this ?ber-patriotic celebration is Washington, DC.

Thus, it is something of a coup that marijuana advocates for thirty years have been granted permits for demonstrations in prime areas near the White House and in the Capitol Mall.

Officials and private citizens have attempted to prevent the July 4 smokeout from taking place, citing the event’s history of problems, including alcohol-inspired brawls, dog bites, near-riots, medical emergencies, and “open marijuana smoking.”

Advertising and word of mouth hype for the July 4 event bills it as a “smoke-out” or a “smoke-in” – no matter which descriptor is used, the word “smoke” is the key element of the phrase.

Even though the event’s advertising was a colorful drawing of Betsy Ross smoking a joint while sewing the first American flag, the event’s organizers, the Fourth of July Hemp Coalition, have ambivalent feelings about public marijuana smoking. At a planning meeting held in a bar days before the event, I heard them arguing about what to tell the audience about pot-smoking during the festivities.

To toke or not to toke, that was the question.

Who sucks? who inhales?

At high noon across from Bill Clinton’s house, the July 4 tribe gathered. Keith Stroup, NORML’s executive director, got up from a dentist’s chair where he’d been having oral surgery and sped to Lafayette Park in time to give his first speech at a DC smoke-out since 1977.

Ann McCormick, mother of California pot prisoner Todd McCormick, carried roses and a poster of slain libertarian author/pot activist Peter McWilliams, who died several months ago because a federal judge refused to allow him to use medical marijuana.

A young man blew pot smoke into his pet boa’s face. Police watched impassively from the sidelines as clouds of ganja wafted toward the White House.

DC’s infamous humidity and a fierce global warming sun coated us in sweat. Every so often, an activist’s speech pierced the torpor, as when Miriam White spoke from the stage, describing Marc Emery’s spirit of defiance, urging Americans to boldly defend their right to use marijuana.

A surge of applause swept the crowd when White said, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” The cheers increased when White lit a pipe filled with marijuana, and took a long deep inhalation.

When I saw White later, she angrily confided that event organizer Doug McVay had harshly chastised her for smoking pot onstage.

“I guess he was terrified of upsetting the police,” she said, “but I feel that marijuana is a sacred medicine and there’s nothing wrong with smoking it. It seems rather pointless for us to just stand around saying we should be able to smoke pot. Let’s smoke some and show Clinton we’re proud of who we are. It’s so weird that somebody who claims to be for pot legalization would tell a pot legalizer not to smoke pot at a pot rally.”

Police fishing

In mid-afternoon, several thousand marijuana marchers lined up in the street behind the White House and headed south toward two concert venues approximately a mile away.

A police car was driven unsafely through the crowd, which included people dressed as joints, and about 4,000 other herb supporters.

The marchers were funneled into a field with a small stage and concert speakers. The field was fenced, with few openings. One access pathway was blocked by a crowd lined up to use the event’s three overburdened outhouses.

US Park Police officers and police cars were stationed at the other exits and around the event perimeter. Several officers wore SWAT team jumpsuits and identification. One officer had a nametag that identified him as a DARE instructor.

The agents worked the perimeters of the crowd. Standing imperiously in the middle of a group of kids, officers scrutinized clusters of backpacks, blankets and people, then swooped down, picking up a backpack without permission, ordering individuals to stand and submit to interrogation and search.

The officers were clumsy and unprofessional, blundering in on groups of people in the general vicinity of where smoke was visible, but unaware of specifically who had marijuana or paraphernalia. They were fishing for busts but often came up with an empty hook; on several occasions, police searched individuals and found no contraband.

Typically, victims mutely complied with police orders while their friends sat immobilized and cowering on the ground. Police put their hands on people who had not consented to being searched. They asked questions without informing victims of their rights. They picked up people and led them away without placing them under arrest or telling them what crime they’d committed. They handcuffed people and put them in police cars. They took pot, pipes, money, identification documents and other items. They led youngsters across the busy street away from the venue, and told them to leave the park or they’d be arrested.

I repeatedly asked police if they had been given a strategic plan or any other general orders regarding civil liberties or enforcement of pot laws at the event. Most of the time, officers answered my questions dismissively, or with threats and profanity, but one officer told me that because there was so much “dope-smoking” going on, any search he conducted would be covered by “probable cause,” which he asserted freed him from the need to get a warrant or permission to search.

“Just doing their job”

Many people attending the event were outraged by police actions, and began protesting the officers’ actions, as well as asking event sponsors to intervene.

After the event, event organizers defended police actions. “We want the police to feel welcome at our event,” one said. “They’re just doing their job,” another organizer told me. “Sure, they harassed people, but they didn’t arrest that many. If people had problems, it’s because they smoked pot in public. What do you expect?”

Whatever pot smokers expected, it certainly wasn’t the treatment meted out to a 16-year-old boy I spoke to, who’d driven to DC with his friends from Roanoke, Virginia, several hundred miles away.

He said the officers had terrified him.

“The DARE guy was running head trips: I shouldn’t be here, what would my parents think, didn’t I know that marijuana was a dangerous drug, how could I be so stupid, they’ve got my name and address and would give it to my hometown police. The SWAT guy grabbed my arm and twisted it. It hurt. They told me I can’t go back in the park, but I came here in somebody else’s car, so how can I get home? When I told the police guy, he said, ‘That’s what you get for hanging out with dopeheads.'”

I heard of and witnessed similar terror tactics throughout the day, but what really made this kid’s story compelling was what he said after I gave him ten dollars to call his parents and arrange alternate transportation: “The fucked-up thing is, I didn’t even have any pot. I don’t smoke the shit. I just wanted to see fireworks.”

Excessive force

Fear of terrorism combines with DC’s well-deserved reputation for violent street crime to make police especially likely to respond disproportionately to political protests.

The biggest recent example of police abuses occurred in April, when thousands of activists came to DC to protest meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Police illegally shut down an activist center, cordoned off meeting sites so protesters could not speak directly to IMF/WTO officials, used armored vehicles to trap protesters on barricaded streets, and gassed, beat or arrested hundreds of non-violent citizens.

Journalists covering the protests were also mistreated; police smashed the head of photojournalist Stan Hope as he was photographing protesters being abused by police. Washington Post photographer Carol Guzy, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes for photojournalism, was also abused by police, who grabbed her arm and twisted it.

“I said, ‘What are you getting rough for?’ So they twisted my arm even harder,” Guzy recalls. “I kept saying ‘Hey, what are you doing? You’re breaking my arm!’ So they said, ‘OK, you’re arrested.’ They put handcuffs on me and put me on a bus and charged me with marching without a permit. I had my press credentials on. They knew I was a press photographer. They did this because I had the audacity to question how they were handling me.”

Associated Press photographer Heesoon Yim was clubbed unconscious by police while he was taking pictures near the White House. Sygma Photo Agency photog Les Stone was slammed face-first into the hood of a police car and handcuffed, even though he was wearing press credentials.

Meanwhile, one DC police officer is facing charges of selling seized drugs, another was recently found guilty of raping women during marijuana arrests. Another DC-area officer was recently convicted of repeatedly raping his pre-pubescent daughter. In DC, as in Philadelphia, New York and other large American cities, it is often the police themselves who are the criminals.

Camera shy

After it became obvious that event organizers were unwilling to prevent police abuses, activists like Ron Goldberg and Rob Robinson, began following police, photographing and taping their actions.

My first interaction with police happened around 3:45, when I witnessed them putting their hands in teenagers’ pockets in a secluded area just outside the concert venue.

When I tried to take pictures from about ten feet away, an officer told me I couldn’t take photos of minors without their permission. I told him that wasn’t true.

He then said I couldn’t take pictures of police without police permission.

He put his hand in front of my camera lens and advanced on me, forcing me backwards into the street. He then yelled at me for being in the street, threatening me with arrest or confiscation of my cameras if I stayed near the search scene. I asked the officer for an official US Park Service media proximity policy. “Shut up and get out of here,” he responded.

“These kids are our brothers and sisters,” said New York pot events promoter Rob Robinson. “We’re cowards if we stand by and allow them to be harassed and taken away.”

On several occasions, officers shoved journalists and threatened to arrest them if they monitored police actions.


As darkness fell on the July 4 smoke-in, my partner and I were on our way out of the park when I saw two black police officers standing over a scared-looking pair of Latino youngsters.

“I’m getting really tired of you, get your ass on your feet,” the shorter of the two officers said to a Hispanic girl who was kneeling on the ground in front of him. He picked up her backpack and began to search it; I took one picture. The officers glared at me with open derision and told me to leave. One of the officers, later identified as JA Minix, walked over to where I stood on the periphery.

He was already angry when we began talking. I asked him if he could provide me an official US Park Police policy on photographer proximity. Within a few seconds, Minix had knocked me to the ground. I informed him and other officers who were leaping on my back that I was a medical pot patient who had a severe spinal injury, and that their actions were creating more injuries.

The officers responded by kicking me in the ribs, pulling my hair and eyelids, spraying mace in my eyes, pushing my face into the ground in an attempt to suffocate me, kneeing me, twisting my arms at dangerous angles, and executing a variety of pressure point “pain compliance” holds.

The strangest irony was that I was not resisting arrest at all- the officers could have handcuffed me at any time, but chose to beat me instead. The abuse continued for an eternity, while the crowd threw bottles and rocks, and shouted protests.

“He wasn’t doing anything but taking pictures, you Nazis,” was typical of what I heard.

Officers handcuffed me behind my back, then dragged me through the circling protesters to where they’d parked a paddy wagon just next to the roadside. This location was useful for them; few in the crowd could see around the truck. The officers took advantage of the seclusion by ramming my head into the wagon.

I was still on my feet when the DARE cop came up behind me and said, “Put him on his knees.” The other cops didn’t move to hurt me fast enough, so the DARE cop kicked my calves and knees from behind. I fell forward, again hitting my head, and blacked out for a few seconds.

When I woke up, police were rifling through my camera backpack, removing exposed film from canisters. One of my most expensive lenses rolled into the street. I heard my partner yelling at police and crying out in pain; she later explained that at that moment one of the cops who had instigated the incident had been injuring her with a pain compliance hold, trying to pry my tape recorder from her hands.

Two cops threw me in the paddy wagon. The DARE cop followed me in, kicking me as I lay on the floor until I had been pushed far back into a small fenced cell.

“You’re a pot-smoking pussy,” he said, smiling. “Kiss my ass, you son of a bitch.”


I sat in the back of the paddy wagon for more than an hour. A few officers stood outside the wagon. I told officers that I was injured and needed medical care. They laughed, and Minix said he’d been hit by bottles thrown by the crowd.

When I asked why my transport to jail or a hospital was being delayed, an officer told me that the police wanted to watch the fireworks.

After a harrowing ride in gridlocked traffic, I was dragged inside a dingy booking area. Some of the officers who had been abusing people at the pot rally were there, wearing T-shirts without identification badges.

I feared an Abner Louima moment – I was alone in a police station with men who had already beaten me up once. I didn’t want to end up like Louima: NYPD officers had sodomized him with a broomstick inside a New York City police department bathroom.

I was led to a bare holding cell, where I lay on the floor unable to move my right arm, doubled up because of the blows to my ribs, wincing because of a massive headache, worried about my career as a photographer because my eyes couldn’t focus.

Later, I stood for 20 excruciating minutes while being digitally fingerprinted. Next to me, the arresting officers were typing their incident reports while other officers coached them. The reports were being written by committee.

I kept telling officers I needed medical care. The DARE officer filled out a medical incident form, and said I would be transferred to DC General Hospital.

I asked Minix why he had knocked me down.

“You assaulted me,” he said.

“Oh, my ribs assaulted your foot when you kicked me?” I asked.

He said he’d been “afraid” my presence might distract him in “a very dangerous arrest situation.”

I reminded him that his so-called “dangerous situation” was little more than an unarmed Latina girl with a backpack, and that he was a well-muscled, large, gun-toting man who had no sane reason to be afraid of me or the girl.

“We can’t have you questioning us or taking pictures when we are out in public,” he said. “What if some guy wanted to shoot me? What if that girl had a gun in her backpack? I’d have my back turned talking to you, and could get shot, and then I’d never see my family again.”

Who cares?

At 2 am, five hours after I had been injured by police, I was finally transported to DC General Hospital. Instead of receiving medical care, however, I was put into a “strongroom.” The room was a tiny jail cell with a toilet in the corner.

At 3 am, police put two prisoners in my cell. One man was bleeding profusely from a head wound. His right elbow was cut, and swollen the size of a grapefruit. His wrist was bent, swollen and cut.

I stood so the man would have room to lie down, but he asked me to help him get water from the sink above the toilet. I held the water button for him while he drank; he was too injured to do so. His blood got on my hand and arms.

I held the bars of the cell as the night ticked away. Whenever a cop or hospital employee walked by, I made sure they knew that those of us in the cell would appreciate medical care.

“This guy is in a lot of pain, and he’s bleeding pretty badly,” I said.

“Who cares?” a woman employee responded as she walked out of the unit. “Shouldn’t have messed with the muthafuckin’ police.”

Prisoners of war

At 8 am, I asked if I would see a doctor before arraignment, which was scheduled for 9 am.

“Holiday schedule,” the attendant responded. “There are no doctors. Sign your ass out if you have to.”

I signed a form, and was delivered to a large cage with 42 male prisoners; 35 of them were African-American, four were Hispanic, two were white, one was Asian-American.

The Asian-American was a 19-year-old who had been arrested after spending much of the day at the July 4 smokeout. He said he’d left the event around 6 p.m., because it was “boring and the lines for the toilets were too long.”

He’d been arrested after lighting “bottle rockets” near the White House. A contingent of Secret Service agents ran up and threw him to the ground. Then, an agent stood the kid against a police car, and told him if he moved a half inch he’d be shot.

“He was searching my pocket, and a firecracker fell out,” the kid recalled. “The guy froze, literally froze. He was terrified. He shouted over his shoulder, ‘Get the bomb squad.’ They charged me with being in possession of terrorist explosives. It’s a felony.”

The morning wore on as prisoners met with attorneys, argued with each other, and were urine tested.

I tried to interview all the prisoners, but only had a chance to talk to 20 of them – 18 were in on drug charges.

“I just got me the best motherfuckin’ news I ever got,” said a hyperactive, muscular 21-year-old black youth who was wearing a t-shirt that showed a sexy woman holding a .357 magnum handgun. “The motherfuckers arrested me at that motherfucker dope concert, selling eighths. I had me a brick, about half kilo, when the motherfucker narc-ass bitches come up on me. I just got out of prison for 2 years, 8 months for dope and a gun. So I was mad. Goddam! I don’t want to go back to that goddam prison. But my lawyer just told me that the police report be saying all I had was 1.4 grams. Now, the motherfucker police done stole a lot of good dope from me, but the bitch be giving me a misdemeanor ticket out of here and I am gone.”

A few minutes later, somebody called his name, unlocked the cell door, and he was free.

They look good in suits

I was glad to see Keith Stroup and Kevin Zeese. They arrived in stylish suits, which impressed my court-appointed lawyer almost as much as being greeted by the heads of two of the biggest drug policy reform groups in the nation.

Out of three charges that the cops had tried to lay on me, including a felony charge of Assaulting a Police Officer (APO), only one charge remained – a misdemeanor APO. Several days later, I received a letter notifying me that a charge of disorderly conduct had been filed. The police were on another fishing expedition, hoping to find a charge they could get past a judge.

When I saw the police reports, I realized why the charges had been so drastically reduced. Both reports, one written by Officer JA Minix, the other by Officer EL Burnett, contained bad grammar, misspelled words, and many factual errors.

The most obvious error derived from the two officer’s divergent descriptions of my alleged assault on Minix. “Brady swung his arm backward at me, hitting me in my right side,” Minix wrote. Describing the same incident, Burnett said, “Brady hit Minix with a hard jab to the chest area.”

Of course, I didn’t hit anybody. The only thing I hit was the ground.

No apologies

As I write this, I am awaiting trial on the APO and the disorderly conduct charge. If convicted, I can be sent to prison and fined thousands of dollars.

My tape and tape recorder, along with five of seven rolls of film I shot on July 4, my reporter’s notebook, and an expensive lens, disappeared after I was arrested.

My body is not healing well; pain, headaches and eyesight problems have interfered with work, sleep and rehabilitation.

Many people contacted me, volunteering to be witnesses against the police. Friends and witnesses sent good vibes to help me overcome the considerable trauma inflicted by the gun and badge gang.

The Fourth of July Hemp Coalition offered few condolences; they were concerned that criticizing police tactics might make it difficult for them to obtain a permit for next year’s event. They basically blamed me for being arrested and beaten up, saying that if I hadn’t been “confrontational” with police, everything would have been wonderful.

Keith Stroup said the reason he hadn’t spoken at a July 4 smoke-out since 1977 was that the event hadn’t provided a safe, politically-meaningful experience for professionals, families and other “mainstream” pot smokers.

“It hasn’t been something that a lot of people felt comfortable going to, and there were problems associated with its image and how it was carried out, so we declined to participate,” Stroup said. “This year, we decided NORML should participate. That’s why I went to speak. Given what happened, it’s obvious that the organizers have a lot of work to do if this event is going to live up to what it could be.”

? Fourth of July Hemp Coalition: tel (202) 887-5770; email [email protected]; web www.fourthofJuly.org