“The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table” Campaign pays tribute to those who are not with us because of incarceration, an overdose death, stigma or prohibition violence.
For the last few years, as the holiday season has rolled around, I have changed my Facebook profile picture to an empty chair, in support of the Empty Chair at the Holiday Table Campaign. The purpose of the Empty Chair Campaign is to bring awareness to the damage being done by the war on drugs. It pays tribute to those who are not with us because of incarceration, an overdose death, stigma or prohibition violence.
The Empty Chair Campaign is led by a bunch of moms who are working in various ways to end the war on drugs. However, I have a lot of other friends who are also involved in various facets fighting against the war on drugs as well. You’ve probably heard about the medical marijuana folks and the recreational marijuana folks, everybody has heard about the “stoners.” There is a whole lot more than that though.
There are the industrial hemp folks, the end the war on drugs folks, the we got a really big problem with mass incarceration folks, the folks who realize the inconsistencies in the sentencing of drug and other offenses, not to mention the over bloated legal and policing system that have grown up in anticipation of all the money that is to be made off locking people up for drugs.
You also have the folks who realize that the people who need real help with real drug problems aren’t getting the help they need. There are a number of reasons for that, starting with all the lies that have been spread for generations about marijuana. Folks have caught onto those lies, the thing is, some drugs really are dangerous and cause a whole lot of damage and they really do destroy lives. However, we are to the point now that there are so many lies about marijuana, which does a whole lot more good than harm, that when the kids catch onto the lies about that, they are not believing the truth about seriously dangerous drugs, synthetic marijuana and heroin, for example, and there is no doubt that those drugs kill.
So now we have epidemic level problems with heroin. A lot of people really do need help, a whole lot of them aren’t getting it because they are afraid that if they go for help, they will get messed up in the legal system, which is a completely valid concern. Although there are some exceptions in some areas, a whole lot of the folks in a whole lot of areas are locked up for serious drug problems and they are not getting the help they need in prison. Not only that, they are not able to go anywhere else for help, because they are “locked up in prison.” All together, that amounts to a whole lot of people with a whole lot of drug problems that are not being treated.
The list goes on and on when it comes to the damage done by the war on drugs and why so many chairs are empty and just as quickly as I made that list, somebody else could point out another related issue that I missed. Another life lost. Another life destroyed. Another empty chair.
One thing really hit after that accident I had a few years back, the one that completely changed life as I knew it. It changed the way that I thought about a whole lot of things. What would you do if you didn’t know whether you were going to be alive tomorrow? Although I have other political involvements as well, my answer was to get involved in working toward helping to end the war on drugs; the timing was particularly germane for me at that point. Not just the accident, or what kind of shape it left me in, I had an empty chair at my house too.
On the one hand, being real, I didn’t honestly expect to live out the year. So it is kind of like, if you have to take somebody down, take me. I’m already gone. A lot of times, the powers that be don’t like folks who write about certain issues. Every journalist in the field knows that one. On the other hand, this is not about me.
That same year, my son was facing prison for his own misstep with drugs. The first thing he did after he got arrested for drugs was drop out of college to pay his legal bills. He was right at three years in the wait before trial. Right at two weeks before the statute of limitations ran out. You can’t help but wonder at that one. Anyway, he didn’t go out much at all during that time. All he did was work to pay those legal bills. That is another issue all together though. There are a whole lot of bills if you end up a POW in the war on drugs.
I am not even going to argue the right or wrong of what he did. That’s another story. And he has paid his so called debt to society already. Most people don’t have a clue that there is a thing wrong with our legal system until either they or a loved one get messed up in it. From what I know now, the problem with the war on drugs is one of the absolute biggest problems facing the people in this country today. Although there sure are some drug problems that need a whole lot of attention, I didn’t say the problem with drugs was our biggest problem, I said that the problem with the war on drugs was. There is a whole lot of money in drugs though. Who is actually making that money is another story altogether.
People don’t always speak up on these issues and you seldom hear a word from the people who know the most about what is wrong with it all. There is more than one reason for that. It is a sad testament to what our country has come to that the ones who could speak out with the most truth and conviction about the wrongs are afraid to because of the repercussions. On top of that, a lot of folks who seriously need help don’t get it because of the repercussions of even seeking help. And right smack in the middle of all this, we have a growing heroin epidemic. Those folks aren’t getting any kind of honest help either. The plague of the empty chair is already rampant in this country.
About this time last year, four young lives in my own circle of friends and community were buried after getting tangled up in various ways in the war on drugs. One lost the battle to addiction, another got in over her head with an overdose and chose to sweat it out, too afraid of the legal system to call for help. She didn’t make it.
Another survived his prison term for drugs, but he did not survive the damage that the war on drugs did to his psyche. It destroyed him. In absolute and utter despair, he took his own life. Others simply gave up the ghost way before their time, after so many years of struggle and fight with the system and what it did to them. Goodbye, James. Goodbye, Danielle. Goodbye, Stefanie. And goodbye, David.
Yet another and another. I’m already past the four that I started to mention. Nathan gave up after suffering so long through the indignities and agonies of dealing with the probation system. Free but not really free at all. The reason he was smoking weed in the first place was to treat his PTSD, while he dealt with supervised treatment for addiction, like when they give you another drug to treat your drug addiction. The treatment wasn’t working for him. With the probation drug testing, he couldn’t use weed for his PTSD and nothing was working for him on that either. This is not some Cheech and Chong stoner bull, this stuff is life and death serious. Cannabis is well known as a very effective treatment for PTSD. It is not however legal in every state. Nathan seriously needed and had been asking for real help but wasn’t able to get it in our state. He was counting the days until he could make it to a place where he could get treatment for both the PTSD and his addiction. Nathan never made it to that safe place.
The empty chairs are piled high. There are way too many casualties in this so called war on drugs. More than a few do some really hard time, POWs by any other name. It’s another story still about how many of those who are locked up for drugs never hurt another person in their life. Some are so messed up by our legal system that their psyche never recovers. I don’t know of an act of violence against another person from any of the ones I mentioned. Most of their crimes had to do with a weed that God himself planted on this earth and some say Jesus used in his anointing oils. At a certain point, you have to ask, why are so many of those chairs empty. And why are we still destroying lives and locking folks up for a weed.
The activists in the war on drugs are not at all what or who you would expect. They sure weren’t what I expected the first time I dared to step foot in a medical marijuana conference. It’s been a while now though and I have written a bit along the way. Knowing how outspoken I have been on the issue, a lot of people have a hard time understanding that I would pass any drug or hair test on the planet. I only take a prescription medication if I absolutely have to.
I have friends who also share on the drug war and prohibition related issues. Some are very active. A whole lot of people giggle at the “stoners,” not taking them serious at all, when the reason they share and work so hard on working for change and building awareness of these issues is the lives that have been lost of people they loved so dearly.
Although you hear a whole lot about the lives ruined by drugs. Good people have most certainly lost their freedom and had their lives destroyed, the real casualties are because of the inhumane laws, harsh sentences, and conditions directed against our own citizens in the war on drugs. A war by any other name implies casualties and this one is no different.
At the same time, there is so much propaganda and outright false and misleading information out on marijuana that when the young people today realize the blatant lies on the matter, they absolutely refuse to listen to a single thing that anybody tries to tell them about seriously dangerous drugs such as heroin. So, in the middle of all this so called war on drugs, heroin abuse has reached epidemic level proportions. And the casualties are piling up ever faster.
People are losing their lives needlessly to addiction, overdose and suicide. Still others have watched helplessly as loved ones suffered needlessly because the cure for their ailment was illegal. Change is coming to one state after the other on the medical marijuana laws, but folks are still watching their loved ones die when they know that there would have been hope if they had been able to move to an area where the treatment was legal.
How do you watch a loved one die when the cure is illegal and you know that there really is a cure? How do you live life knowing that when they reached for the cure, they were arrested anyway and then died shackled to a hospital bed without the medication that they risked so much to get? A whole lot of folks who never hurt another person in their life are locked up for years. There are a whole lot of empty chairs in the US of A.
We sure love to hang on to our image of the good guys and the bad guys but it has been a long time since things were that simple, if they ever were.
Some folks want me to support one side of the war on drugs over the other. At times, I have voiced support for the various but I don’t favor one over the other at all. I see it all as battles in the same war. They are all our people and I’m with the moms on this one. I want to see the whole damn war ended.
It goes a whole lot deeper than rhetoric for me. A few years back, after work one night, I drove up to my house with a yard full of high-fiving strangers and a slew of police cars. My son, Jon, had been arrested for drugs. They were high-fiving because they arrested him. I will remember those high-fives forever. And I still didn’t know what was going on. I’m not going into details of any sort. Just my place as a mom, his empty chair and how the war on drugs affected our family.
Growing up, Jon was never a trouble maker. I was never called to the school about much of anything, not with him. He was immensely popular and is still close to the same friends he had in high-school. When he got in trouble though, he made up for lost time. Now, as anybody who has ever been messed up in our legal system knows, much less when it comes to drugs, those folks are going to start talking about deals, making bargains to reduce the sentence, telling them what they need to do to get off. Before the bars close shut and you sign the paperwork for the bail, those deals are in motion.
We had more than a few long hard talks. Jon said that he knew that he had made some mistakes and that he was going to have to pay for them but he wasn’t going to ruin anybody else’s life because of what he had done. He couldn’t do that. One thing about him, right or wrong, no matter what mistake he made, I have never in my life seen him deliberately hurt another person. Ever.
Not turning somebody else in, not ratting somebody else out, not ruining somebody else’s life will get you deemed “uncooperative” in the war on drugs. I’d always heard about “uncooperative” criminal types, but I never really understood exactly what an “uncooperative criminal type” might be. I know now. The DA hit him with as a hard a sentence as he could muster. Thinking the whole time that Jon was going to buckle. Make a deal or he’d make him an example. And he sure did make him an example. To tell you the truth, I was wishing that he would make a deal too. But nope. Jon did not buckle. He said that he would not destroy another person’s life because of his own mistakes.
There are no words to describe how I felt the day I took him to the county jail to turn himself in, to be processed in to begin his sentence. It sure wasn’t just about me though. I cannot imagine how he felt, or the inner courage that it took to stand up for what he knew was right. Despite what he did and what he was facing, he walked through those heavy locked doors with his head held high.
If I could have changed anything at all to make it different, I sure would have, I have questioned myself so many times as a parent. But despite it all, I am proud of him for standing up for what he knew in his heart was right. For paying his debt to society honorably and for staying true to his moral standards and values. It cost him over three years of his freedom to stay true to those morals and values. I am not sure how many people look at such regarding morals and values in the context of prison bars. I learned a lot in those years. We both did.
Jon is back home now, working and rebuilding his life. But we sure did have some long and lonely empty chair days at my house. Every single day, you wonder, will my child make it back home safely? Will his chair ever be filled again? That is a real question for a whole lot of folks. And the answer is not always what we want to hear.
During those years, I connected with other mamas. We’ve surely been through some miles together. Long days when the only thing left was to pray and reach out to each other for comfort. Staring at those empty chairs.
One of the greatest joys of my life was when Jon walked back through that gate to freedom. One of my greatest sorrows is with the moms whose children didn’t make it, who gave up the ghost because they weren’t able to withstand the brutality of the system and what it did to them.
There was another mom, Arlen, she did all she could, took all she could, every single day a struggle. Her health was failing in the middle of it all. She too gave up the ghost and never saw the day when her son returned to freedom. Too many empty chairs.
I didn’t start the thing about the empty chair. It’s been around a while. I am not involved with this group. Every year, like so many others, I change my Facebook profile and say a little about what it is about. Try to build awareness. My son is out now and he has been for a while. With the passing years, he’s doing well, rebuilding his life, working hard and making good progress. He is a good and hard working man. I thought that maybe it was time to share. That’s our story.
The holidays are a particularly painful time for families — whether they are separated because of a loved one’s incarceration, lost on the streets due to drug problems, in danger because of drug war violence, or they have lost a loved one to accidental overdose.
Each year, Moms United gathers photos featuring a chair with a picture of a lost or missing loved one, and a sign with one of these statements: incarceration, accidental overdose, drug war violence, or stigma. These photos have become a part of a growing collection of personal stories of loss.
The International Moms United Campaign works to end the violence, mass incarceration and accidental overdose deaths that are a result of current punitive and discriminatory drug policies. They are building a movement to stop the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs or who are addicted to drugs.
Moms United is asking mothers and others to take action during this holiday season in two ways:
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