Photo by JENuineVision
Every word I type on social media is read by the federal government. The jokes I write about my dick or my girlfriend. The photos of me with my family and my adorable nieces. Every last word.
I’m not being paranoid; I’ve watched my YouTube videos in federal court, and received sentencing memos that included my Facebook statuses. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing on the witness stand as a meme of my pet bearded dragon was submitted into evidence.
I’m not joking.
Sometimes I like to imagine the federal employee whose job it is to monitor my online activity. Are they secretly a fan of my work? Are they giggling in their cubicle at my daily musings? I sure hope so.
We live in the age of the anti-hero. Brave men like Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz, and Edward Snowden have become digital rock stars, brazenly mocking and exposing the most powerful and intrusive government in the history of the world. As the Orwellian police state continues to rise, my colleagues and I have stumbled upon our own unique weapon to rage against the machine: comedy.
When I first picked up a microphone as a comedian in early 2011, I would close my eyes at night and picture myself parading around a stage in front of thousands of adoring fans hanging on my every word. My ambitions at the time consisted of trying to craft the perfect dick joke and work my way onto the stand-up circuit. Now I find myself on the federal court circuit, not exactly what I had in mind as a 10-year-old boy hiding in my aunt’s bedroom listening to George Carlin and Dennis Leary cassettes.
In December 2012, my comedy troupe, The Panic Hour, inspired by events like the the Boston Freedom Rally, partnered with Philly NORML and organized a monthly civil disobedience rally at the Liberty Bell. We chose the location strategically based on the rich history of Independence National Historical Park. It is known primarily as the location where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted. What better place for us to redress our grievances with the government and declare cannabis independence?
After some initial back and forth, we decided on the name “Smoke Down Prohibition.” The goal of the protest was to educate the public about the benefits of marijuana and to break the law at 4:20pm by openly engaging in a moment of “cannabis reflection.” We booked a few speakers from the cannabis reform community, twisted up a bunch of doobies, and went to the park.
We pulled off this action four months in a row, each time drawing a larger crowd and creating a glorious cloud of smoke that wafted through the park. In retrospect, we really had no idea how big of a can of worms we were opening. We thought those glory days would never end.
Then on May 18th, 2013, my life changed forever. There was something in the air that day. When we arrived at the park, a “Freedom Cage” was assembled around the “free speech” area, which was now adorned with signs warning of the penalties for smoking pot in the park. There were enough pigs there to stage a ground assault on Baghdad.
What was a comedic, educational, and celebratory rally had now turned into a showdown with authorities. As part of the Occupy movement, I had been face-to-face with cops in tense situations on more than a few occasions, and to be honest, as a performer and MC of the events, my performance thrived on that tension. My disdain for authority and for the police has been growing steadily inside me since the emergence of flannel shirts and grunge music.
At 4:20pm, I led a spirited countdown and sparked a joint. I was approached from behind by a Park Ranger, subdued, and violently tackled to the ground by three rangers. I can proudly say that the joint never left my lips. When the dust settled, I found myself in a Federal Detention Center, charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest. I spent five days in special confinement, and was denied medical treatment and access to a lawyer. Upon release, I was saddled with severe restrictions including an absurd 100-foot ban from Independence National Historic Park.
The activist community rallied around me, and I became the subject of numerous memes, articles, and videos. There were more angles of my targeted arrest than there was footage of the 9-11 attacks. After months of negotiations with a vengeful and childish prosecutor, I pleaded guilty to an assortment of misdemeanors. I was recently sentenced to one year of probation by a federal judge, who upheld many of my First Amendment rights during the proceedings.
As of this publication, I have not smoked marijuana in 38 days, a condition to which I begrudgingly adhere in order to maintain my freedom. In my opinion, the increased publicity of the cause and momentum that marijuana legalization has gained through Smoke Down Prohibition has been well worth my personal ordeal. The lengths to which the federal government will go to suppress activism and free speech has been exposed to the masses. The intimidation and arrests of peaceful protesters at the Liberty Bell have inspired hundreds more to speak out.
In the long run, being a comedian has been a great cover for my work as an activist. Never underestimate the role of the court jester.