He was about 50, heavyset, with cropped grey hair. He wore a button-down short-sleeved shirt, cheap jeans and white New Balance sneakers. His eyes were completely hidden by a pair of knockoff reflective shades – the ‘alien eye’ variety. He had an earpiece with a cable that led to his cell phone. And he was walking along in the NYC Cannabis Peace March, with hundreds of loud pot protestors.
There was one big difference between this man and the rest of the crowd: he was an undercover cop. What happened when I confronted him cuts to the core of why cannabis prohibition must end.
The 2011 New York marijuana march was blessed with inviting sun and 72 degrees of warmth – the first thaw for city dwellers after a long winter. The yearly protest started at Washington Square Park, where about 30 uniformed New York City police officers greeted the gathering marchers.
Participants were told to stand in a box created by sections of metal parade fencing. Although penned and surrounded by police, the marchers were nonchalant, keeping up lively conversation, handing out signs and snapping photos. The uniformed cops were passive, but there was certainly a tense bite to the air.
My job was to help with the organization of the parade. I took a moment to speak with Jim, the Police Civil Affairs Unit contact. He wore a sweatshirt with an embroidered badge instead of a uniform and a gun, but he was clearly a cop.
Jim cordially explained the route and told us to give them a five-minute heads-up before the start. More marchers arrived along with even more uniformed police. Other activists such as Empire State NORML, NYC NORML and Cures Not Wars brought hundreds of rally signs. In a short time, almost every single marcher had one in their hands.
We gathered the marijuana supporters, started them chanting, “DEA GO AWAY” and began to move onto Broadway.
The route would take us about one mile down to Foley Square and we had to stay on the sidewalk. The marching group was happy, loud and plowing through the crowds of weekend tourists and shoppers. Hundreds of gawkers snapped photos, waved and shouted their support for legalization.
We were only about a block down Broadway, but already there was a single file line of almost 30 uniformed police officers walking in the street parallel to the cannabis march.
Helping to keep up the chants had me constantly running to the front, back, and middle of the parade, occasionally having to weave between the fence posts of black uniforms.
Then someone lit a joint. I didn’t see it; I could smell it. Suddenly the sweet odor was gone. A photographer ran up to me saying “They just got some guy.” I looked back but saw nothing. That was the first time I noticed Mr. Undercover, walking in the cop line.
Things were moving along quickly. In fact, we were walking a bit too fast. It began to feel like the Cannabis Peace Jog. As we tried to slow down the pace, a video documentarian grabbed my arm and said, “They’re arresting another one!”
I turned and saw fleeting images of a scuffle through the crowd. Mr. Undercover and two uniformed cops seemed to be handling a 20-something man. Yelling out another chant, I continued with the march.
The next time I looked back, Mr. Undercover was right in the crowd. This time, he was holding one of our marijuana rally signs too. This flipped a little switch in me and my decision was to address the situation.
I sidled up to him as the peaceful protest continued down Broadway. We were under some scaffolding and in the shade. Catching his attention I said, “Hey man, it sure is great to see you guys marching with us.”
Mr. Undercover cut me off with a thick Gotham accent and a deadly serious tone: “You are not going to bring any at attention to me. Do we understand each other?”
“I’m just here marching,” I said.
“And I’m marching too,” said Mr. Undercover. “But if you bring any more attention to me, this march will be over for you. Do we understand each other?”
“Walk away from me. You will not bring any more attention to me today. Do we understand each other??”
“I’ll just keep doing what I do then.”
Taking a few steps away, I turned around to face the marchers and shouted, “WHO WANTS TO LEGALIZE MARIJUANA IN NEW YORK?”
“WHO WANTS THE POLICE TO STOP ARRESTING POT SMOKERS?”
Mr. Undercover glared at me. I had the uneasy sense that he was taking that very moment to decide whether to shoot, taze or arrest me. But instead he moved out of the crowd and marched off to the side.
We were about halfway to our destination. After our little chat, Mr. Undercover spent the rest of the march intermittently holding his sign up at chest level and then down at his side. He kept a smartphone in his hand or at his ear from that point on.
I imagined him calling up the special police unit that stood ready to handle smartass marijuana activists. But after a few minutes, I recognized that we had an uncomfortable détente.
Mr. Undercover was afraid that I would call “NARC” and point to him – certainly a possibility that crossed my mind. Still, this guy was already sticking out like a sore thumb. Clearly he wasn’t a professional undercover officer but a regular cop in plain clothes. This made me feel sorry for him as a human being, but it also intensified my anger at the tactic.
Using police to poorly infiltrate the political efforts to change marijuana laws goes against everything that the United States stands for. Americans should be free to gather, speak out, and confront the government. Surrounding such activities with armed, uniformed police and sending undercover police agents into a non-violent crowd is what we expect out of China, Libya, Syria, Bahrain or Russia.
But it looks like we must expect that treatment in New York City as well. This heavy-handed approach to legitimate political change should disgust all Americans.
As a Quaker, I believe in and practice non-violence. In order to meet that challenge in real-life confrontation, it takes one thing: empathy.
Law enforcement officers in New York and around the country are enslaved by our senseless prohibition laws. They risk their lives, often losing them, fighting a futile war against their own neighbors. Ending marijuana prohibition is imperative to the freedom of all Americans. But it will also free our law enforcement officers from the bonds of this tragically failed policy.
Commentary from Editor Chris Goldstein
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Chris Goldstein is a respected marijuana reform advocate. As a writer and radio broadcaster he has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. He volunteers with local groups to change prohibition laws including PhillyNORML and The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.