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Confronting Mass Incarceration in the Heart of a Red State

The passage of a recent marijuana initiative in Wichita, Kansas, shows how real change begins at the grassroots.

A United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas. (Photo: sofakingevil)

In December 2014, billionaire Charles Koch announced his sudden concern for the “disadvantaged” in the local newspaper in Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is headquartered, and how in the coming year they would be “pushing” to make the criminal legal system “fair” and reform sentencing laws.

The Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch, are modern-day oil barons whom progressives love to hate. They are known for funding Tea Party politicians, polluting the environment and busting unions. Koch Industries, which maintains a number of oil refineries and pipelines, is the second-largest privately owned company in the United States, worth more than $100 billion. The Kochs have recently been making a concerted effort to rebrand their name. Last summer, they rolled out a “We Are Koch” campaign on YouTube.

Legalization of pot in nearby Colorado has stirred up great fear and anxiety in conservative Kansas.

Not long after protests erupted in Ferguson, the Kochs became increasingly vocal about mass incarceration. They helped to sponsor several recent conferences on criminal justice reform that have created a buzz about “bipartisanship” on the issue. One was a summit in Washington, DC, featuring Newt Gingrich and Van Jones. The Charles Koch Institute, the billionaire’s philanthropic arm, held two panels on criminal justice, one in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other in Tallahassee, Florida. Their lead spokesperson on the topic is longtime Koch attorney Mark Holden, who appeared at the recent criminal justice confabs.

Yet in Wichita, where Charles Koch lives in his expansive mansion, a referendum to decriminalize marijuana was passed without any of his help. This campaign was won with no big money, only the tenacious organizing of a handful of local activists. A $25,000 donation was recently made to a youth mentoring organization in Wichita by Koch Industries, with Holden saying this would help the disadvantaged, “especially in our hometown.” Yet the Kochs, who rarely stay out of politics, have remained silent on the marijuana initiative, which has been in the news cycle for the past year.

Indeed, there is a growing consensus, even deep in the red state of Kansas, that the criminal legal system needs to be overhauled. But it has become a national story because those at the grassroots are challenging the “common sense” of the last three decades that has produced the world’s highest incarceration rates.

Kochs’ Legal Troubles

The Kochs are no strangers to the courtroom. Charles Koch’s son, Chase Koch, killed a 12-year-old boy while speeding in his car, the punishment for which was losing his license and agreeing to pay for the funeral. On a larger industrial scale, the families of two youth killed by a pipeline explosion in rural Texas won a lawsuit against Koch Industries and were awarded $296 million, at the time the largest payout levied against a corporation for a wrongful death suit in US history.

In 2000, a 97-count federal indictment threatened to put Koch officials behind bars. It alleged the company put 91 metric tons of cancer-causing benzene into the air from a refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. Koch Industries was facing heavy fines and plant managers (although not the Koch brothers themselves) could have been sent to prison if convicted. After a change of presidential administrations, the case was eventually settled with Koch Industries pleading guilty to a single charge of “covering up environmental violations” and paying a fine of $20 million.

“Marijuana was a tool used to perpetuate mass incarceration. It’s a total fraud against the people.”

The Corpus Christi case, said Koch attorney Mark Holden, taught them “first-hand what happens when anyone gets into the criminal justice system.” Koch still maintains they did nothing wrong. Elsewhere, Holden characterized the charges as “government’s overreaching.” He sees the company as a victim much like the thousands of nonviolent offenders driving up the prison population. In this era of corporate personhood, Holden can equate major corporate malfeasance with those being imprisoned by the war on drugs.

Since Ferguson, the Kochs have jumped on the bandwagon of those calling for reform of the criminal legal system. In an August 2014 interview with The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak, a former Koch-funded summer fellow, Holden said, “we need to address issues such as overcriminalization, excessive and disproportionate sentencing, inadequate indigent defense that is inconsistent with the Sixth Amendment, and the militarization of police.”

Charles Koch has echoed Holden, saying that criminal justice is a priority, “and I am urging Mark [Holden] and our team to continue helping build as broad a coalition as possible to make reform a reality.” In a recent editorial for The Washington Post, he defended their publicity campaign: “If our responses and our efforts to set the record straight have become more visible, we think that’s a good thing.” He denied that the company has suffered from political attacks. Still, it’s clear the Kochs are trying to remake their image, with criminal justice issues one of their key talking points.

Decriminalize Wichita

While the Kochs have been talking about criminal justice reform, activists in Wichita have been out walking the streets with petitions to decriminalize marijuana. Petition organizers spoke to Truthout about their successful campaign. As one of the leaders, Janice Bradley, recognized, “People in Kansas aren’t ready for legalization.” They had to be careful with campaign messaging. Legalization of pot in nearby Colorado has stirred up great fear and anxiety in conservative Kansas. The story about a mother in western Kansas arrested after her son spoke up at school about the medical benefits of marijuana was circulated widely on social media.

Rather than legalization or medicalization, Bradley said organizers made the campaign about “the drug war and mass incarceration, that’s what we pushed.” They came to this realization after several events educating themselves and the larger public about the unprecedented number of people locked up in the United States.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug to prison.”

For Bradley, it began with reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Bradley recalls when the book came out it “hit a nerve.” The Peace & Social Justice Center put together an action group with members of Wichita’s Black community, including Gail Finney, a state representative from northeast Wichita, as well as Bonita Gooch, who runs a local Black newspaper, The Community Voice. They came together to show a video of a talk by Michelle Alexander that generated much conversation. They held a sold-out screening of the documentary The House I Live In that spurred further momentum.

Their campaign was also aided by statistics acquired through a public records request. They found that over four years, 60 percent of drug arrests were for small amounts of marijuana possession or related paraphernalia. In a city where Black people make up 11.5 percent of the population, they comprise 37.5 percent of those arrested for drugs.

Next, they invited Jack Cole, a retired police officer with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), who is from Wichita, but now lives in Massachusetts, to give a series of talks. According to Bradley, Cole suggested the idea of a nonbinding referendum.

Esau Freeman had been lobbying at the state level with Kansas for Change for a medical marijuana bill, but had met numerous obstacles in such a conservative part of the country. When Bradley approached him with the idea of a referendum, he initially thought it was a bad idea, but after further consideration he was convinced that “this would be a good conversation to keep marijuana in the news.” After seeing the statistics they collected, he came to the realization that “marijuana was a tool used to perpetuate mass incarceration. It’s a total fraud against the people.”

According to Freeman, he knew firsthand about the ills of the criminal legal system. When he was younger, he was arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and a switchblade. He found out then “how the system really works.” Freeman has many tattoos, one on his neck with his daughter’s name, but he is White, had a grandfather who paid off his fines and was able to successfully complete 18 months of probation. Still, he faced discrimination when employers found out about his record, and police frequently stopped and searched his car.

This was a familiar story to Bonita Gooch. Next to the offices of her newspaper is a drug treatment center. One day, she asked one of the men on the sidewalk, “How did you get in this position?” He responded, “Ms. Bonita, it just started with a traffic ticket.” She knew well how “things could snowball” for people who are already marginalized. When asked to help collect signatures for a referendum, she said, “I was in.” For those who claimed marijuana is a gateway drug, she would tell them, “Marijuana is a gateway drug to prison.”

Definitely a Bipartisan Issue

The growing coalition in Wichita went before the City Council on April 1, 2014, to announce that they were circulating petitions to put a referendum on the ballot for reducing the penalties for marijuana possession. State law includes a fine of up to $2,500 and a year in jail. The referendum proposed to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a ticketable offense.

Activists went to places where they expected to find people willing to sign a marijuana petition, such as a Styx concert at the downtown arena. They attended Riverfest, a popular summer festival.

They went to 13th and Grove, the center of the African-American community in Wichita, to collect signatures. “It wasn’t hard to convince my community to get on board,” Gooch said. “They understood because they’re the ones living it.”

They reached out to those with felony convictions, but first had to dispel rumors they couldn’t vote. In Kansas, those with felony convictions, who are not on parole or probation, can still vote.

When organizers turned in the petitions, they were rejected due to the many signatures from unregistered voters, or those who did not have a Wichita address. The group had to go back to the drawing board.

After working with the City Council, which supported the referendum as a “voice of the people,” they started a second petition. Janice Bradley came up with the “brilliant idea” of going to polling places on Election Day, where almost everyone was a registered voter. In one day, they collected 3,500 signatures, enough to place the referendum on the ballot.

Activists battled with the press for fair coverage. Repeatedly, it was referred to as a “legalization” referendum. “We’re fighting the stoner image,” Bradley said. “In the press it’s always the pot leaf. Why don’t they show the jail cells, the handcuffs?”

Just days before the election, the Kansas attorney general held a press conference threatening to sue the city if they adopted the resolution.

Still, on April 7, 2015, voters approved the marijuana referendum by 54 percent. There were 20,000 people who voted for the referendum. If approved by the City Council, it would reduce the penalty for small amounts of marijuana to a $50 city ticket.

“This is definitely a bipartisan issue,” Esau Freeman said. “There were a lot of Republicans and Libertarians that voted for us. There aren’t that many Democrats in Kansas.”

In the latest issue of The Community Voice, Bonita Gooch published an inspired editorial about the marijuana initiative: “It’s become clear that building collaborations – working together across race, age, and even political lines – is a great model that should be patterned for the next issue.”

There may be another opportunity to collaborate. The attorney general has filed a lawsuit to block the city from passing a resolution that would go against the state marijuana law. The coalition now needs to raise money for attorney fees, and they could certainly use a generous donation from a local billionaire.

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