Richard Tamaccio is watching a video of himself being “violently slammed and hog-tied.” That’s what he says for the record, at least. We’re in federal court at 6th and Market, and Tamaccio’s on the witness stand, careening his head around the judge’s bench to watch one of dozens of movies that’ve been circulated over the Internet in recent months. Viewed by bloggers, activists, YouTube browsers, judges and lawyers working for the federal government, they depict a pro-weed protest at Independence Mall from earlier this year gone terribly wrong.
Wearing a yellow and brown San Diego Padres hat on screen, a bearded Tamaccio helps count down the seconds to 4:20 p.m. on May 18th with libertarian activist Adam Kokesh. At the strike of the clock, Tamaccio and at least ten others begin toking up. And as they do, a swarm of park rangers and Philadelphia police move in.
Tamaccio, 34, who goes by N.A. Poe during Smokedown rallies and in his comedy/media/activist troupe The Panic Hour, is then pulled away by two rangers, a joint hanging from his mouth, bear hugged by one, and thrown to the ground.
Seven officers surround and tie him up, an army of camera phones from every direction surveilling the sequence.
Tamaccio and Kokesh would be brought to the federal detention center in Center City, where Tamaccio would stay for five days.
Two months later, he’d plead guilty to interference with an agency function, disorderly conduct and possession of a controlled substance. He admitted he was wrong, especially about resisting arrest.
Today, he’s being sentenced, but not before he gets to take the stand in front of the federal government and fellow cannabis advocates to make his case.
It’s coming up on a year since The Panic Hour began sponsoring their Smokedown Prohibition protests—a civil disobedience display against so-called marijuana prohibition laws which exist in Pennsylvania—alongside PhillyNORML and others at Independence Mall.
In that year, a lot’s happened. The protest began, like others in Boston and Seattle, as a means to gather peacefully and light up in a crowd, using the power of numbers to keep police from arresting the whole gamut of assemblers.
Monthly protests from December through April found marijuana enthusiasts, political candidates and others met with observational indifference by Philadelphia police and federal park rangers. There’s even a YouTube video in which a man behind a camera phone hassles park rangers to arrest the pot smokers, but they don’t.
That changed in May. When about 150 pot enthusiasts showed up at Independence Mall for their fifth such gathering, they were greeted by signs hooked to short fencing reading, “The possession of controlled substances is prohibited.”
Some protesters, afraid of arrest, left before the gathering could even begin. Others who stayed on the dreary, rainy day were expecting citations. What happened was much worse.
“I’ve never seen such a police show of force at a peaceful protest like this,” said protester and PhillyNORML member Kevin Clough after the rally.
The arrests at the protest were the first of their kind. Over the next week, PhillyNORML and The Panic Hour would release several statements, continually noting Kokesh and Tamaccio were arrested “next to a granite monument inscribed with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
The Panic Hour took it a step farther, making suggestions about the police.
“These arrests only provide more evidence for the existence of a police state, the suppression of free speech and failed drug policies,” they wrote in a press release. “We are not deterred. We will continue to fight to get our friends removed from federal custody and continue to organize to legalize cannabis in PA.” The gatherings continued, and protesters allowed themselves to be arrested, peacefully.
On July 11th, Tamaccio pled guilty to the charges against him. On Fri., Dec. 13, the federal government sent Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Goldberg to make sure he got the sentence they believe he deserved: three years probation.
Tamaccio had already admitted to wrongdoing, so Friday’s hearing was mostly about whether he’d felt retribution for what he did—and whether he was at risk of doing it again.
He showed up freshly shaven, looking a lot like Fredo in The Godfather Part II. His hair was parted to the side, and he wore a white shirt and dark tie.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom