Activist Ben Masel Never Shied From Exercising His Rights

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Jim Finnel

Cannabis Warrior - News Moderator
Ben Masel loved liberty. No, not talking about liberty, in the way that self-serving politicians and pontificating pundits do. Liberty was his passion, his avocation, his life's work. Even as he was battling the lung cancer that would end his remarkable life, Masel kept struggling to make real the promise of freedom that has been so often made and so frequently denied to Americans.

A few weeks ago, on a break between radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Masel was outside the Willy Street Co-op promoting the latest of his political projects when a manager informed him that the activity was not allowed. Masel stood his ground. The police were called and they informed the veteran of 40 years of speaking truth to power that he had to cease his campaigning. Actually, Masel informed the officers, he had every right to exercise his rights in so public a place. He directed them to review a specific section on a specific page of a specific set of rules and regulations. The manual was retrieved and reviewed and, when all was said and done, Masel's assessment of his rights - and those of all who dare dissent - was accepted.

"Ben knew the laws better than the police did," explained his longtime friend Amy Gros-Louis, echoing a sentiment shared by judges, lawyers and the many police officers who came to regard Masel with a mix of frustration, awe and, eventually, respect.

So it was with Masel, whose death Saturday at age 56 robbed Madison, Wisconsin and the United States of one of the truest champions of the Constitution, the rule of law, and the founding faith that the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights are not just ideals; they are practical tools to be used on a daily basis to challenge the powerful, to offend the elites, to tip the balance toward some rough equivalent of justice.

These commitments made Masel a supreme annoyance to prickly policemen, prying prosecutors and pretenders to the presidency. Before he reached the age of 18, Masel made it onto the list of Nixon White House enemies, and he would later earn national headlines for mocking segregationist George Wallace and spitting at conservative Democrat Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who earned the wrath of Masel and his Yippie compatriots for his steady service to the military-industrial complex.

In later years, the exuberant agitator would express a measure of remorse for some of the more extreme acts of his youth. But he never apologized for exercising every right afforded a citizen.

No one pushed harder against the limits on dissent in what was supposed to be a free society. That pushing earned him dozens of court dates. But Bennett Masel, the New Jersey native who came to Madison as a UW undergrad and remained to become a local icon, was never merely a provocateur. He was, for all the theatrics, a serious believer in a left-libertarian analysis of the individual liberty that lawyers and judges came to understand as a credible extension of the thinking of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the longest-serving justice on the high court and a hero to 1970s radicals such as Masel.

Douglas was once referred to by Time magazine as "the most doctrinaire and committed civil libertarian ever to sit on the court." And it is fair to say that Masel was the most doctrinaire and committed civil libertarian to appear before the municipal, state and federal courts that had to pass judgement on whether his arrests for protesting outside political party conventions, capitols and grocery stores were legal or not. Ultimately, the judges came to accept the arguments Masel honed over time - to such an extent that attorney Jeff Scott Olson, who represented the activist across the better part of two decades, said his client rarely lost a freedom of speech or right to assemble case.

Like attorney and activist Edward Ben Elson, another radical left-libertarian who used Madison as a base but made national waves, Masel eventually took the art of political provocation to the next logical level. In the 1970s, Elson made frequent runs for public office with an eye toward exposing the hypocrisy of mainstream politicians of both parties - and toward building opposition to what Elson referred to as "bad laws." When he ran for district attorney in 1970, Elson's slogans were "Only obey good laws" and "Elson as DA will protect you from your government."

Masel took inspiration from Elson - they both campaigned in the nude - - but where Elson had many causes, Masel began with a singular focus: ending the war on drugs. As a Republican primary challenger to Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1990, Masel said he was running to "get out information on the industrial and agricultural potential of the hemp plant." That campaign earned Masel a little more than 5 percent of the vote and a burgeoning reputation among journalists as "good copy."

The dean of Wisconsin political reporters in the 1990s, The Capital Times' John Patrick Hunter, wrote that "Bennett Masel is a hell-raising rabble-rouser who has the uncanny ability to get the Establishment's goat."

Masel would prove Hunter right, again and again.

By 1994, Masel was perfecting his politicking. After a surprisingly successful 1992 write-in run for Dane County sheriff - he got more than 7,000 votes - Masel grabbed the open Democratic Party ballot line for the post held by popular Republican Sheriff Rick Raemisch. Promising to serve as a "sheriff with a heart" who would "fight real crime: end the drug war," the leading advocate on behalf of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws earned the endorsement of then-state Rep. Tammy Baldwin. He received more than 39,000 votes - carrying many Madison wards and drawing just enough supporters of marijuana legalization to the polls to provide Democratic state Sen. Joe Wineke of Verona a 60-vote margin of victory over Republican challenger Nancy Mistele.

A dozen years later, when Masel challenged U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl in the Democratic primary, Wineke was the chairman of the state Democratic Party and he afforded the "Hemp for Victory" candidate a prime speaking slot at the state party convention.

Masel's 2006 campaign was smart and serious; he said things candidates for the Senate should, like: "My first official act after being sworn in will be an amendment to the War Powers Act, so that any future wars will be only by explicit, old-fashioned congressional declaration of war. You can't win 'wars' against abstractions, because abstractions are incapable of surrender." But he was still Ben Masel, announcing: "I'm pro-choice on everything."

More than 50,000 Wisconsinites agreed with Ben Masel, giving him almost 15 percent of the vote against a popular and well-financed incumbent. Masel kept on campaigning against Kohl, announcing that he planned to run again in 2012. But for Masel, electoral politics was not about winning; it was about educating and organizing for the saner drug laws that even some Republicans now promote, for civil liberties and for political accountability.

So, even as he struggled with cancer, Ben Masel could be found at the State Capitol holding aloft a sign that read: "This is a test of the Emergency Free Speech System." The old Yippie delighted in the humor, the energy and the consistency of the mass protests of February and March. They gave him hope that, finally, citizens were starting to use all of their rights - as he always did.


NewsHawk: Jim Behr: 420 MAGAZINE
Source: Capital Times, The (WI)
Copyright: 2011 The Capital Times
Contact: tctvoice@madison.com
Website: Cap Times
Details: MAP: Media Directory
Author: John Nichols