This past weekend saw the return of the 51-foot joint, which has dogged Hillary Clinton and the Democrats around the country with its plea for the descheduling of cannabis. The action was once again led by Dana Beal, a longtime cannabis and drug policy reform activist based in New York. This time, we drove from New York City to Provincetown, Massachusetts (with a stop-over at a very special church in Rhode Island).
Our goal was to ‘jaywalk’ at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser held at the Pilgrim Monument in the center of town. But this time we faced a concerted opposition from law enforcement and a lukewarm reception from the locals. More importantly, we let the chaos and confusion divide us, as tempers flared to rival the hot summer sun beating down on us. I hope the story contained in this article will serve as a valuable lesson to anyone involved in activism. When things don’t go the way you expect, and you face roadblocks at every turn, oftentimes the best solution is simple: improvise.
We drove up in two cars from New York City on the evening of Saturday, August 20th. Our group of about 10 people included some of the same people from our last trip to Scranton, while also bringing in some fresh faces.
Our rest-stop that night was the Healing Church in West Greenwich, Rhode Island.
Founded by Alan Gordon and Anne Armstrong, this Christian church uses cannabis ritually based on their interpretation of Biblical and historical sources. In June of this year, their church was raided by local police and the couple are now facing the possibility of a serious prison sentence for possession of cannabis and other materials. Their predicament is a chilling reminder of the very reason we set out on our interstate journey.
We set out the following morning to take the fight, once again, right to Secretary Clinton’s doorstep. By this point two more people had joined our ranks, Ezekiel* from the local organization Mass/Cann NORML and Johnathan “JoMo” Morpurgo, a Van Dyke-bearded activist who came up from New York on his own. We arrived in Provincetown, Massachusetts around 10:30AM on Sunday, August 21 and reconvened in a parking lot. It was here where we removed the giant joint from Ezekiel’s truck, and laid it out on the ground. Soon we encountered our first wave of resistance: the local police department.
The 51-foot joint is inflated courtesy of a leaf blower.
Sgt. Pepper* and Officer Sarah Connor* of the Provincetown Police asked us where our permit was, to which we responded: what permit?
*Some of the names in this article have been changed at the request of the subjects interviewed, or at the author’s discretion.
They explained that because of the size of our balloon, we would be considered a “parade” and would need a permit. Someone from our group had obtained a permit in advance of our action. If only we had brought a paper copy with us, they would review the terms and allow us to proceed. But since we hadn’t brought it they couldn’t let us parade with the joint. This caused a lot of confusion for our group.
Speaking after the fact, Dana said, “I don’t believe that [anyone] tried to get a permit. I think that was just another bureaucratic sleight of hand to rope us into the argument that they would even [accept] what we were doing to begin with.”
According to the ACLU of Massachusetts, no permit is required for a political march that keeps to a sidewalk or other public space, but a permit is required for larger parades or marches that occupy the streets and block traffic. It seems the question of the permit hinged largely on what we planned to do with the joint. The police told us we would not be allowed to bring the joint anywhere near the fundraiser itself, as the area was blocked off by the Secret Service. When asked if we would be arrested, they simply replied there would be “consequences”.
Just as the police and Dana were negotiating an alternative—bringing the joint to the beach just a few blocks away— Ezekiel took control. Ignoring an order from Dana to put the joint in his truck, Ezekiel grabbed the joint and marched away from the parking lot towards the Pilgrim Monument where the fundraiser would be held. At this point, the group split as some followed Ezekiel while others stayed behind with Dana in the lot. Dana continued to try to talk to the police, but they would not budge.
The choices were clear: We could take the joint to the beach, where it would have minimal impact and be completely isolated from the Clinton event and its intended audience. “That’s the objective,” Dana later explained, “to keep us a fringe element.” We could pack up and go home—though Ezekiel now rendered this impossible by taking the joint, and refusing to tell us where he brought it. This left us with the final option: proceed with the action, as planned, and risk arrest.
Ezekiel, it turned out, had brought the joint to a baseball field that was just below the Pilgrim Monument museum. The museum is a small building at the top of a hill in the center of Provincetown. The parking lot outside is accessed by two entrances on opposite ends. People wanting to listen to the event crowded into either of these entrances from two parallel streets flanking the hill. The baseball field was directly downhill from the museum, hidden from view by a cluster of trees. A steep, sandy slope separated the field from the outskirts of the museum parking lot.
The new, improvised plan was to wait in the field until the moment when Mrs. Clinton arrived, then blow up the joint and march up the hill to meet her in the parking lot. We knew that at that point we would have a small window of time to make our statement before we were either kicked out or arrested. For the same reason, we also had to make sure that we timed our action correctly.
We would have only one chance to try to intercept Clinton. So we stayed in the field for several hours, biding our time.
We inflated and deflated the joint a couple of times, patching up any holes and making sure it worked correctly. Many people saw us from afar as they walked up the street towards the Clinton fundraiser. Some other pedestrians passed through the field, and marveled at our giant joint. We explained to them our cause, and most of them reacted warmly. But we had other pairs of eyes on us—more law enforcement.
I noticed at least one police officer prowling the street beside the field, hiding behind some trees. We were later told by Sgt. Pepper*, in our second encounter, that the federal agents at the museum knew where we were the whole time and had tipped off the police to watch us. But during those roughly 2-3 hours in the field, no officer—local or federal—ever bothered to confront us.
Dana finally decided we move around 2:00PM—though not everyone agreed with that decision. We had sent one of our activists, Emma*, to scout out the parking lot for Clinton, but she was receiving mixed reports. “When we hit them it was after Cher arrived and before Hillary arrived,” said JoMo afterwards. “I think we should have done it maybe 10 or 20 minutes later, right before Hillary arrived.
But of course we didn’t know when Hillary was arriving and we certainly didn’t wanna miss it. Emma* had told us to wait a little bit longer, 20 minutes or half an hour, but the group was so antsy, people were already disappointed that we hadn’t gone earlier, so I said, ‘Ok, let’s just go,’ so we went.”
About seven or eight of us lifted the fully-inflated joint onto our shoulders and marched across the field. We quickly climbed over the sandy hill and into the parking lot, where we anchored the joint beside the crowd for all to see. The Hillary supporters outside the fundraiser couldn’t believe their eyes. They whipped out their phones to photograph us, or else just shook their heads. We handed out copies of our letter to Mrs. Clinton.
Within minutes, two very handsome men in dark suits and black sunglasses glided over to us. “It’s a federally secured protected zone by USC 52 if you wanna google it.”
It’s unclear whether they were Secret Service agents or simply adult film actors. “You gotta get it out of here,” they snapped at us. When we countered that we were engaged in First Amendment-protected activity, they explained, through the use of some very convoluted legal jargon, that the area of the museum (normally operated by a private non-profit) was temporarily under the jurisdiction of the federal government for security reasons. Or, to put it more simply, we had to get out “before the handcuffs come out”.
We stalled the agents for as long as we could, trying to argue that we couldn’t leave once the balloon was already inflated, or that the cops wouldn’t let us take it in the streets. But the agents were firm, and only got more annoyed the longer we delayed. Just when it seemed they were running out of patience, we moved. We hoisted up the joint and marched down the hill, emerging in the main street of the town. As we neared the bottom of the hill, I saw a policeman on a bicycle pass underneath our joint. At first I thought he was up to no good—but as we reached the street, we saw that he had taken position in the middle of the street to help direct traffic around us. It was a rare moment of real cooperation between law enforcement and ourselves.
We marched through the street into the center of town. A line of cars, bikes, pedestrians, strollers, and dogs edged past us as we chanted at the top of our lungs: “Cannabis, hey-ho! Better than yayo!” “Legalization, not incarceration!” “Decriminalize, don’t penalize!” (It should be noted how easy it is to rhyme words ending in ‘-ize’ and ‘-ation’.) But unlike the stuffy, pastel-wearing Clinton supporters outside the fundraisers, the people in the streets reacted with much more excitement.
Their smiles, their cheers, and their shouts as they photographed us took us higher than any joint ever could—even one 51-feet long.
We navigated towards the Town Hall, a lovely three-story building in the center of town. The area was swarmed with people, probably many of them tourists. We plopped the joint down on the green lawn outside Town Hall, and announced our mission to the crowd. They broke out in applause. All around, we were greeted with smiles and laughter. At this point, some activists—myself included—approached the crowd and handed out our flyers, the open letter to Clinton. Many more of them accepted our flyers, but within minutes we encountered our most bizarre form of resistance yet.
Sgt. Pepper—one of the cops from our first encounter that morning—stalked into the park with a big frown on his face. “Stop handing those out!” he snapped at me.
“I told you this morning you didn’t have a permit. You gotta stop right now!”
I was taken totally by surprise, but I responded that I had the right to hand out flyers under the First Amendment. He repeated himself— “no, you don’t”. Whether or not he actually intended to arrest me is unclear, but he certainly had a greater objective in mind—to get rid of the whole group and the joint. He turned away from me and approached Dana and the other activists. I resumed handing out flyers, staying well out of Sgt. Pepper’s eyesight.
Sgt. Pepper reiterated to Dana and the others that they had no permit and were not allowed to take part in the action. “You should have stayed in the field,” he fumed, and revealed that the Secret Service was watching us all along. But before Sgt. Pepper could harass us any further, Ezekiel once again went off the cuff and started shouting down the cop, asking simply, “Did you or did you not take a vow to uphold the Constitution?”
Realizing that he could not scare us into leaving, Sgt. Pepper abandoned his efforts. “You should get a life,” he spat at Ezekiel before turning and marching off. The sight of the cop leaving only encouraged Ezekiel. He followed the cop all the way out of the park and into the street with his camera trained on Sgt. Pepper’s face, taunting him with his pleas for Constitutional accountability.
We remained in the park for only about another hour, before the reality of a six-hour drive back to New York set in. It’s hard to analyze how successful we were that day. Nearly every step of the way, we fought and bickered amongst ourselves over the best action to take. Dana, Johnathan, and Ezekiel had many vigorous disagreements. The intense heat and the scarcity of food and water took its toll. The Clinton supporters often ignored or openly denigrated us. And the fuzz, of course, blocked us at every turn. Not to mention that ultimately, we missed Clinton and she never saw the joint.
Speaking on the actions of law enforcement, Dana remarked, “They’d done what they wanted to do! All that was important was to keep us out of the news story with Hillary. There’s some reporters following her around. If we’d done the timing right, we’d have been too much of an interruption for them not to note it. A lot of people saw us though.”
JoMo, who remained behind in Provincetown, described how word of the joint had spread: “The whole town was abuzz. Most people hadn’t seen it but had heard about it, how big it was, and how fabulous and confrontational we were.” And though Clinton didn’t see the joint, at least one high-ranking Democrat did. JoMo explains: “About 30 minutes after we closed down, people started coming down from the hill. And I saw beautiful Donna Brazile. And Donna Brazile laughed and gave me a high five and a hug. ‘Cuz she’s like, ‘Donna Brazile likes the joint’. If we have respect from Donna Brazile, then I am a happy activist.”
As for Dana Beal and the other activists, there are no plans to stop the burn. “We may be doing this until Election Day,” Dana says. “We’re gonna have lots of chances to do this again and do it right. We’re just getting a feeling for it…”
He chuckles. “There’s a lot of great shit coming.”