A large crowd assembled outside New York City Hall to protest harsh drug laws. The rally was organized by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. Photo: Carl Krutchfield

NEW YORK (FinalCall.com)–Thousands of New Yorkers joined “hip hop godfather” Russell Simmons June 4 at a rally outside city hall to push for reform of the 30-year-old Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Enacted in 1973 under then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the laws require harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of two to four ounces of a narcotic substance. Activists have charged that the harshest provision of the statute mandates a judge to impose a prison term of no less than 15 years to life for first-time offenders.

“The Rockefeller Drug Laws are harsh, unfair racially biased and wasteful,” Mr. Simmons said. “The people of our community are speaking out and saying that enough is enough.”


Joining Mr. Simmons in putting together a multi-cultural, national coalition were Sean “P. Diddy” Combs; Hip Hop Summit Action Network CEO Dr. Benjamin Chavis; Mariah Carey; rapper Jay Z; former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo; Mothers of the N.Y. Disappeared; the Drug Policy Alliance; Minister Kevin Muhammad of the Harlem-based Muhammad Mosque No. 7; David Dinkins, New York’s first and only Black mayor; actress Susan Sarandon and her husband Tim Robbins, among others.

Speaking onstage to the thousands in attendance at the Rally to Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Hip-Hop Summit Chairman Russell Simmons (L), Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent used their celebrity status to educate and mobilize the crowd around this issue. All three men spoke on how the Rockefeller Drug Laws have affected their lives. Photo: Johnny Nunez

Mr. Simmons continues to point to the disproportionate number of poor people “languishing” in N.Y. State prisons where, according to the N.Y. Legal Aid Society, Blacks and Latinos comprise over 94 percent of those locked up for drug offenses in the state.

“Seventy-four percent of the women locked up for drug offenses are mothers, and there are 6,000 New York children suffering because their mothers are in jail,” Susan Sarandon said during the rally.

Elaine Bartlett was a 26-years-old mother of four when she was sentenced to 20-to-life for selling four ounces of cocaine to an informant.

“I spent 16 years in Bedford Hills, a New York State prison for women,” Ms. Bartlett told the demonstrators. “That was my first offense. I had five dollars in my pocket when they arrested me.

“I have three grandchildren now, and I am grateful for Gov. Pataki granting me parole, but I must fight for the 19,000 drug offenders still in jail,” Ms. Bartlett said. “When they lock us up, they lock up our families. That is the message we must get to the politicians.”

The Drug Policy Alliance reported in December 1998 that there were 3,504 women in New York State prisons and that over 56 percent of them were there for drug offenses. Of that number, 91 percent were women of color.

“The laws aren’t fair,” said Jay-Z, left, as he and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, right, make their way to the stage to talk to the crowd at the Rally to Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws held in New York City. Photo: Johnny Nunez

Declaring that putting non-violent criminals in jail with violent criminals is a nonsensical policy, actor Tim Robbins said, “You gotta keep putting the pressure on. This is about removing draconian drug laws that are targeting [people] in a racial way.”

“My community has been hit hard,” rapper “Fat Joe” told The Final Call. “We are not saying that these guys doing time are innocent, but let the punishment fit the crime.”

Rapper P. Diddy brought the message home to the hip hop community.

“This law has affected hip hop, our families, our friends, our future. Ninety-six percent of the people incarcerated by this law are minorities. It’s one of the most unjust laws in history,” he said.

Shandra Sekaran, assistant director of the N.Y. Drug Policy Alliance, told The Final Call that there was a three-week window to get the governor, Senate leader Joe Bruno (R) and Assembly leader Sheldon Silver together to agree on the language, so that a bill would be passed before the lawmakers adjourn for the summer.

“There is an Assembly bill on the table that we can live with for now, that talks about sentence reduction and judiciary discretion,” Ms. Sekaran said. “The rally was perfect timing. It showed that people are concerned and that they will continue to be proactive.”

However, Ms. Sekaran stressed that there is formidable opposition to any serious change in the laws. The 62-member N.Y. State District Attorneys Association continues to oppose increased sentencing discretion for judges and they oppose a reduction in sentencing.

Legislative leaders say that a full repeal of the laws is not going to happen, but they say the new bill goes far in overhauling the system.

“They are politically tough, but 82 percent of the public says that now is the time to change these laws, so the critics of change must see the handwriting on the wall,” Ms. Sekaran said.

“We have been fighting in the trenches in Albany for the last five years, so we will take this bill and we will go forward. But, make no mistake about it, our ultimate goal is full repeal of the Rockefeller Law. For now, we go one step at a time,” she added.