Ben came to Madison by way of the largest mass arrest in U.S. history in Washington D.C. on May Day 1970. He was locked up with about 100 UW Madison students. They were there to protest the Vietnam War.
“I’d heard good things about the town and so I decided to throw a college application in and ..there weren’t that many schools that took me.”
[from an interview with Sly of WTDY. online here.]
Ben was infamous enough for me to know a good deal about him before meeting him early last fall.
We talked for some time at the Netroots Wisconsin gathering put together by Steve Hanson of UppityWis.org.
On that day he had a photo of Wisconsin hemp farmers at the ready to hand to Tom Barrett. Specifically to hand to Tom Barrett while Tom was trying to explain why the lefty bloggers in attendance should get fired up for his bid for Governor of Wisconsin. Ben’s timing ruffled Tom’s feathers a bit – as intended – but not much. Perhaps just to ensure that Ben sat down, Tom pledged to discuss the matter of hemp farming with him in December.
Here’s that photo:
Ben wasn’t an easy guy to make sit down. He supported legalization of marijuana by any route necessary, be it as a product to create jobs or as a medicine to provide relief to cancer and glaucoma victims. Of course, what he really wanted was for it to just be legal. Period.
Ben was pragmatic — the most pragmatic lefty I’ve met. His position on gun control from his myspace page:
“I’m a 2nd Amendment Democrat. Advocacy of gun control has only served to drive rural voters into the hands of the Republicans. It’s not just about hunting, these folks are unable to trust a Party which won’t trust them on the choice of what firearms they should own.”
Ben was also a staunch free speech advocate.
Here’s a video of him happy, reading Article 1 Section 4 of the Wisconsin constitution from the 1st floor of Madison’s Capitol Building.
He lacked the egotism that you might expect from somebody with both fierce intelligence and such impressive activist street cred.
He was a figure in the Youth International Party A.K.A. “Yippie” party, at age 17 he became the youngest person placed on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list”, and he helped to found the 40-year-old Marijuana Harvest Festival . ”He was state director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws for six years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and was vice president of the state branch for nearly a decade before his death.”-dailykos
Ben was always rather low key, even when drama might be justified.
Read his description of being maced in 2006 at the UW-Madison student union. Just before this episode, he was gathering signatures for nomination papers to run against U.S. Senator Herb Kohl:
“Asked to show ID, I inquire whether they are there as Agents of the State, or “are you working for a Private Club?” I’m grabbed, maced, put to the ground, and with at least one knee on my back, the rest of the mace emptied into my eyes. Trip to UW stationhouse, charges of Trespass, Disorderly Conduct, and Resisting/Obstructing an Officer. Released on recognizance, return date July 24. Coincidentally, Mayor Dave was playing cards with pals at a table 8 feet away. He’ll make an interesting witness.”
I admired his sense of ease amongst both the natty nation and the nattiest set of politicos. All Ben Masel stories came with dry humor. Tales of lawsuits won at the expense of blundering authorities or of satisfying political campaigns run for statement alone.
I was really regaining my emotional cool here. But then I watched Ben’s Amtrak video at his MySpace page to conclusion. I saw Ben give travelers their”I do not consent to a search” T-shirts. And in the video 1 man says fervently to the camera,
“Without that [pointing to Ben's do not consent shirt] America is lost.
Whithout that, the forefathers, what they fought for, is lost.”
I feel fortunate to have spent some time getting to know Ben Masel. Glad he got arrested with those Madison kids on May Day in 1970. I’ll be just 1 of many thinking of him on May Day in 2011.
From the NORML blog
“A longtime activist with Madison NORML, Ben was instrumental in creating the vibrant cannabis community in the state, including organizing Weedstock and the Great Midwest Harvest Fest that celebrates its fortieth anniversary this October 1-3 (see madisonhempfest.com). He’s currently been fighting over the past few legislative sessions to get Wisconsin to pass the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act.
While Ben fights for the end of marijuana prohibition, his activism also extends into mainstream politics as well. He’s a passionate civil libertarian, advocating equally for free speech and gun rights, personal privacy and a return to stronger congressional control of war powers. Ben has run many times for elective office, from a challenge to Governor Tommy Thompson in 1990 to his current candidacy for the US Senate seat held by Herb Kohl. He first caught attention for his radicalism when at age 17 he became the youngest person placed on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” and “the man” has kept his eye on Ben ever since.
This March at the age of 56, Ben received the horrible news that he’d been stricken by lung cancer. Speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal, Ben said, “I’m feeling pretty upbeat about stuff. Not about having (cancer), but overall. I’m definitely not in the ‘Oh, no, poor me, I’ve got cancer’ mode.””