The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has been recognizing cannabis legalization advocates from around the country since 1998, as part of their National Conference and Lobby Day in Washington DC.
The Michael J Kennedy Social Justice Award, now in its third year, is part of that tradition.
Named after legendary civil rights and criminal defense attorney Michael Kennedy, who served as general counsel to High Times from its founding in 1974 until his death in early 2016, the award was established by NORML with the blessing of Kennedy’s wife, Eleanora, and their daughter Anna.
For those who may not have known Kennedy, chairman of High Times for many years, his daughter Anna introduced him with a short film about his, High Times’, and NORML’s enduring struggle to legalize cannabis.
In her welcome speech, Eleanora Kennedy told the packed conference hall that her husband had been devoted to NORML and its mission for decades.
“We want to honor those individuals who, like Michael, are working for the legalization of cannabis and advancing the cause of social justice in America,” Kennedy said.
Hence, this year’s choice for the Michael J. Kennedy Social Justice Award was perfectly appropriate: Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, children’s and women’s rights advocate, and former professor at Northwestern University School of Law.
Enter Michael Kennedy
Dohrn, who met the Kennedys during the turbulent 1960s, told the NORML audience that Michael Kennedy gave the word “defiant” a new meaning.
“Kennedy was absolutely committed to his clients, and absolutely contemptuous of the apparatus and trappings of the state when he was in pursuit of justice,” Dohrn said.
Kennedy’s client list included some of the most high profile criminal and civil-rights cases in the second half of the 20th century. He represented LSD guru, Timothy Leary, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, countless anti-war and free speech activists among the Chicago Seven, Black Panther Party co-founder, Huey Newton, and Native American protesters in 1973 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
He also kept High Times’ founder, Tom Forçade, out of prison on drug-smuggling charges.
“Tom Forçade once famously said there are only two kinds of smugglers: those who need a forklift, and those who don’t. Clearly Forçade needed the forklift, and he needed Michael Kennedy to stay out of jail,” Keith Stroup, a close friend of both men and the founder of NORML, said.
“I’m not sure NORML would have made it all these years without Michael Kennedy, in addition to some much-needed financial support that came from the bales of weed Tom [Forçade] flew into Miami,” Stroup told High Times.
Tom Forçade passed away in November 1978.
Stroup noted that Kennedy and High Times remained true to Forcade’s desire to always support NORML, making the magazine the single largest financial supporter in the organization’s nearly 50-year history.
“In more recent times, as we began to enact legalization measures in more and more states, Kennedy was one of the strongest voices reminding everyone that we must not forget those who are still in prison on marijuana charges,” Stroup said.
Enter Guitarist Tom Morello
Eleanora Kennedy introduced Tom Morello, co-founder of Rage against the Machine, Audioslave and Prophets of Rage, as living proof of the transformative power of rock & roll.
“Tom has continually pushed the limits of what one man can do with six strings,” she said.
Morello doesn’t dispute that. “Music is political, either supporting the status quo or challenging it.”
Asked by NORML to introduce his close friend Bernardine Dohrn, Morello called her “an almost mythical hero of my youth” who influenced his political consciousness for years to come.
Judging from the crowd’s reaction to Dohrn, Morello was not the only one who felt that way about the woman he called “an unapologetic warrior for social justice.”
“Less talk, more rock.”
“Bernardine Dohrn is punk rock as hell. And the Days of Rage? Where do you think my band got its fucking name?” Morello said.
He said that at the core of Dohrn’s lifetime of work “is the unshakeable notion that everyone, every underdog, deserves to be able to become the person they were meant to be.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently named Morello 2020 Ambassador for their Campaign for Smart Justice, which aims to cut the U.S. prison population in half.
“The next Mozart might be slaving away in a maquiladora [sweat shop] , or the person who has the cure for cancer locked in their head might be locked up for weed possession in Alabama,” Morello told conference attendees, many of whom were already up on their feet.“And now I would like to play a rousing song for all these nice people,” Morello said, then belted out a ferocious version of Flesh Shapes the Day.