Greenest of the Green

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Inside the prison nothing was green. My students’ uniforms were white, those of the officers dark blue. Styrofoam cups of coffee: white. Cinderblock walls: blue-gray. The linoleum stained beige with tiny flecks of red and blue. The few windows offered a view of the yard where close-cropped grass died to a yellow-brown under the scorching Alabama sun. Visible from the yard, through the multiple layers of electrified fence, the gates, past the brown guard towers, was a stand of longleaf pines, their moving needles dark green.

The cannabis store I visited in Denver, Colorado, advertised Snoop Dogg–branded edibles. Dogg Treat Fruit Chews. Dogg Treat Peanut Butter Gems dusted with gold flakes. A cardboard cutout of potrepreneur Snoop stood in front of the locked case with his arms crossed. He wore high-fashion athleisure. Small bowls of weed kibbles sat embedded under glass in long cases that stretched from one end of the store to the other, and above each bowl stood a clean magnifying glass. To better examine the trichomes, I learned, and check the color. Green or purple. Susceptible as anyone to celebrity endorsements, I bought some of the Snoop Dogg edibles and went for a walk along an urban trail. I perceived the air around me as glass riven through with iridescent fractures in light blue and purple. My field of vision zoomed in, to the head of a stalk of grass, to the legs of a bee covered in pollen.

One of my students incarcerated in Alabama told me that his dream was to be a small cannabis farmer in rural Colorado. His plans were for a ranch. He wanted the solitude, away from anyone else, on his own grassland, maybe with a couple of cows, the open space of the field stretching away from him on all sides—his own cultivated weed, sticky and fresh. Each morning, he said, he planned to wake up early and roll a quarter-sized joint, which he would smoke as he walked around and checked on everything, unbothered. The state of Alabama plans, instead, to warehouse him until he dies.

Each day, before I taught, I arrived early and waited on a worn loveseat in the prison’s administrative offices. The staff celebrated holidays, their mood festive: pink plastic necklaces for Valentine’s Day, green for St. Patrick’s. The only people who sat on the loveseat were visitors to the prison. Next to the loveseat, positioned at an angle behind a pillar so as to be visible only to those who sat on it, stood what I thought of as the Shank Museum. Unlabeled and unacknowledged, the Shank Museum lurked, a corkboard about two feet square. Behind its glass front, weapons of all shapes and sizes gathered dust. Variations on knives: several metal rulers with one end filed to a point at the corner, a diamond-shaped blade inserted into a melted wax handle. A recorder, painted white, the mouthpiece tapered, and another painted blue. A length of metal pipe. Frayed electrical cord, the wire at the end gathered together. Lighters in plastic packaging. The point of the museum, I guessed, was to construct a narrative about how dangerous the people incarcerated there are, that they are capable of turning objects into weapons. To say to visitors that the people they are about to meet with—as students, as clients—are monsters. To claim they deserve to live there, and only by the grace of the discovery of these weapons are visitors safe from them.

Most of the weed my grad school friends smoked in Alabama came from a local dealer. It was possible they participated in the same local cannabis economy as my prison students. The source of the sweet clouds that hung above back porches at parties and the furtive tokes behind bars came from somewhere, was grown under some kind of light, nurtured and watered by somebody’s hands. Easier to pretend the only cost of our fun was the cash exchanged for a zip-top bag. None of us are incarcerated in a greenless maximum security prison. Though cannabis has been legal in Colorado long enough for weed techno-capitalism to take root, in Alabama selling weed is a felony. Possession, a misdemeanor. The skin of most of my grad school friends: white. The skin of most of my students: black.

An internet meme shows a still from Snoop Dogg’s appearance on the Martha Stewart Show. The text overlay reads: guess which one is the felon. The joke: it’s Martha Stewart. The joke: the expectation it will be Snoop, with his braids and gold jewelry. The joke: systematic racism.

The word marijuana was originally used in the United States to frame the plant as foreign and play on white racial fears. As many Black scholars and public intellectuals have pointed out, Black and brown users are much more likely to be incarcerated than white users. Their sentences for drug possession and use are usually harsher, more punitive. Plus, even if they are not convicted of any crime, users can be incarcerated for months awaiting adjudication if they cannot make bail. Former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions pursued harsher punishment for cannabis users during his brief foray into federal government. As the attorney general, he focused on weed, leading the push to rescind the Cole Memorandum, which prevented federal prosecutors from bringing charges against states like Colorado that had legalized weed. In Sessions’ own memorandum to rescind, he referenced “Congress’s determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.” Marijuana, in Sessions’ view, makes monsters of men.

On November 7, 2018, the same day that Jeff Sessions resigned as attorney general of the United States, Snoop Dogg decided to smoke cannabis outside the White House in protest of President Trump and the Trump administration. A car took him to Lafayette Square, across from the White House, where he sat on a bench and smoked three fat joints. On Instagram, he released a multipart video series of his protest tokes titled “I had 2 do it.” On camera, he walks in the park, smoking, and saying “Fuck the president.” Smoking recreational weed is legal in the District of Columbia, although at the time of his video it was not legal on federal lands like Lafayette Square.

In the bumper for their Super Bowl commercial, Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg sit on a couch, wearing matching blue collegiate-style sweatshirts with the phrase BAKERS GONNA BAKE sewed to the front. For eight seconds, the camera cuts back and forth between them as they sit on a couch, look at the camera, and nod. They say nothing. The joke: baking is slang for weed. The joke: haters gonna hate.

During the “4/20” episode of Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, Snoop gives Martha a glass bong. Jokingly, she asks for instruction, and, jokingly, he says she knows how to use it. For their dinner party, Martha makes bright green cocktails with vodka, lime juice, and celery juice. Tiny umbrellas accentuate the vivid color. The joke: 4/20 is the annual day of celebration for stoners everywhere.

In his late teenage years, Snoop Dogg spent three years in and out of prison and jail for drug charges related to possession. He continued being arrested for possession, even as he became more famous. In 2006, he was arrested for possession after taping an episode of Jay Leno’s television show. As an early medical cannabis user, he has had his card since 2007. There is no public word on whether this card has stopped harassment from the police.

When she was in her sixties, Martha Stewart was found guilty of making false statements, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy, and she served a five-month term in Federal Prison Camp, Alderson, in West Virginia. She sold her ImClone System stocks before their value fell to avoid a financial loss, and then she lied about it. Before her indictment, she made a deal and resigned her position on the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange, purveyors of digital green.

As an instructor, I was not supposed to look up why my students were incarcerated, the concern being that it might affect how I treated them. Near the end of the semester, curious and perplexed, I let myself do it. Instead of being scared of them, or judging them, I was angry at the fact of their incarceration, at the unjust length of their sentences. One of my students had too much weed by weight in his car. Another, who already had a record with the criminal justice system, broke into a house he thought was empty for drug money. A third, a whip-smart Black man in his mid-forties, smarter than me, smarter than many of my grad school peers, had killed another kid as a sixteen-year-old and been incarcerated ever since. The waste of their immense human potential was not only an injustice to them and to their communities, but an injustice to the community at large. They themselves are missing out on what their lives might have been, on raising their children, on pursuing a college education, on getting to sleep at night in darkness instead of bright white light. But the rest of us are missing out, too. Incarceration silences and removes a person from public life. We cannot attend their speeches, help them campaign for office, patronize their businesses. Where are their light sentences? Their cooking shows? Their Super Bowl commercials? They are not monsters, but men.

As I was leaving the prison after class one day, an officer detained me in the lobby security area, which consisted of a metal detector for my body and an x-ray machine for my course materials. Sometimes the x-ray machine was broken. The officer was a middle-aged white man with a bent back and roving eyes. I knew he had been called back from retirement because the state prison system was short of employees willing to do a difficult job for long hours and low pay. He told me he wanted to make sure I knew this prison was maximum security, and he called my students animals.

I felt safer with my incarcerated students present than I usually do with my traditional undergraduates. My students told me that if there was ever a threat to the classroom, they would take care of it. The classroom was their space, a place where they could teach and learn, and they wanted to protect it. I trusted them, and they deserved to be trusted. They had been traumatized, often horribly and at length, by people and systems throughout the course of their lives, and yet they still showed up for class, did their readings, had thoughtful comments for discussion. They were survivors. They were more, so much more, than the single worst event of their lives.

Signs along the road to the prison in Alabama:

     Jesus Loves U (nailed to a tree)
     Pray 4 Jesus
     FREE DONKEYS (crossed out with spray paint a week later)
     LICE PALACE (yard sign)
     MINE AMBULANCE ENTRANCE (near pile of coal slag)

Signs along the road to the weed store in Colorado:

     Target ad
     Toll Ahead (near condominiums)
     Toll Ahead (near strip malls)
     Toll Ahead (exit here)

After one class, as I was cleaning up and packing my materials, my students left the classroom along with the officer assigned to my class. The officer took his time coming back, long enough that I was concerned he might not return. I tried the doors. My chest went tight as I tried not to panic about being forgotten inside. The door to outside, to the administrative offices and the front door, was locked. The door inside, to the rest of the prison, was locked. I was inside, alone, behind deadbolts. I tried the outside door again, hip-checked it, stuck my hand behind the handle of curved metal and banged the door back and forth as hard as it would go. No one responded. In the corner of the cafeteria where my class was held, an officer sat behind a grate, watching sports on television. He ignored me when I said hi, excuse me, excuse me sir, hello sir. Eventually the officer assigned to my classroom returned, unlocked the door.

The last day I taught at the prison, we watched episodes of Planet Earth projected on the white concrete wall. Like all of my students, these men sometimes had side conversations in class, but each time we watched a nature show, they fell silent, mesmerized. We watched the splashes of color shift. We listened to the sound of birdsong chittering in the underbrush and the ponderous cry of a whale in the depths of the wine-dark sea. We admired creatures in a tropical forest lush with trees, vines, and an endless, epic green.



Wednesday, January 15, 2020