Over the last few days, City Council candidate N.A. Poe and a small gang of supporters and campaign staff have been criss-crossing Center City looking for parking tickets. The comedian and rabble-rouser well known for his activism around marijuana legalization has been branding himself as a thorn in the side of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and as we speak outside a Center City café, he assures me at least 75 drivers are well aware of his campaign tactics.
When Poe’s name shows up on Tuesday’s ballot, written out as “Nikki Allen Poe” (note: his real name is Richard Tamaccio) he’s hoping to make a splash, but is not confident he can actually beat the Democratic machine candidate. For the time being, Poe’s doing all he can to get his name out there—which has resulted in a milestone for the campaign this day: He’s on the front cover of Metro.
That is exciting. But like any campaign, the job isn’t complete until Election Day. And those involved with his effort have been staking out cars in Center City with a ticket tucked under a front windshield wiper. When finding one, they’d stick their own ticket of sorts next to it.
It’s a black-and-white print-out reading “Boot the PPA,” inviting those who’ve parked illegally to their Friday rally in front of the PPA’s office and court on Filbert Street in Center City. And there are stickers. They read: “If elected to City Council, Nikki Allen Poe will Abolish the PPA.”
When I ask him about it, Poe takes a step back. “We’re not actually trying to shut down the PPA,” he says. “We know we can’t shut down the PPA; that’s not what we want. Accountability is all we want.”
The first step toward accountability: an audit of the parking authority, the end of certain so-called predatory practices and an assurance to the people of Philadelphia that they’ve got a regular guy—or, at least, as regular as Poe is—in their corner.
“It’s like, ‘Hey I’m an average guy. I’ve been affected by the system; obviously I’m a drug war victim,” he says, recounting his arrest during a Smokedown Prohibition rally last May. “I just want people to know there’s someone looking out for them, and I should be that person looking out for them, I guess.”
Average guy? That’s up for debate. Victim of the drug war? Perhaps. A sign of what a few people (many of whom met at Occupy Philadelphia in 2011) in a large city can do when they put their heads together and attempt to illicit change from within? Most definitely.
Poe has created a name for himself and become something of a folk hero to a certain sect of the city through his leadership in the monthly Smokedown Prohibition protests, pro-marijuana gatherings which took place at Independence Mall once a month through 2013. At those events, which drew attention from all over the country, protesters would speak about the ills of the drug war, and, often, at 4:20pm, would smoke marijuana as a sign of disobedience.
The events, organized by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ Philly chapter and comedy/activist troupe The Panic Hour (from which Poe has been barred, following his conviction for resisting arrest and possessing marijuana), received a ton of ink and pixels around the city and attracted mainstream politicians, like gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, who has since dropped out of the race but made marijuana reform the centerpiece of his campaign. That’s something that never happened during Occupy.
Poe, for his part, actually considers Occupy Philly—and the Occupy movement as a whole—a failure. “I don’t like to lose, so I’ve tried to distance myself from it,” he says, mostly because of what the media at the time often, correctly, wrote of it: It was disorganized and often attracted a bad element, which helped standardize the narrative. Not to mention what Poe considers the disingenuousness of many organizers.
“Look at the disenfranchised anarchist left,” he says. “They would probably buy a coffee at Starbucks before they’d throw a brick through the window, but they’re constantly not happy about anything. One thing about our activism: We know when to chalk up the ‘W.’”
And one of those Ws: Marijuana reform. Smokedown Prohibition took place at a time in American history where some states began transitioning to legalizing it, and Americans as a whole are becoming tolerant of the plant, according to polls. Numerous politicians spoke at the Philadelphia rallies in favor of legalization. Every gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania—and many around the country—now favor marijuana reform. And there’s a charge to decriminalize pot in Philadelphia, which has been made possible by the hands-on work of activists like NORML’s Chris Goldstein, who, also arrested during Smokedown, is barred from crossing into Philadelphia from his home in New Jersey for marijuana-related activism.
“I’m not saying my work personally, or Smokedown Prohibition, led to that—but it was part of that,” Poe muses. “The other activists in this city who are never going to be happy about anything: If you want to be in this game, you need to take the small victories and see where they’re leading.”
But of the hundreds of fellow protesters who camped out at Dilworth Plaza for two months in 2011, he and others estimate there were about 60 to100 people who came out of that encampment ready to continue fighting for some of those same issues—to an extent.
Among those former Occupiers on the campaign: Joshua Scott Albert, the infamous creator and writer of StaphMeal, a gossip blog about the Philadelphia restaurant industry, which earned him the descriptor “A Troll Too Far” on Gawker. Albert went to jail for eight months following a series of Facebook pages titled “Kill [Insert Public Figure’s Name]” and, out for a year, has been helping document Poe’s campaign with his camera.
“A couple people had questioned him working with me, and I said I’m going to stand by Joshua,” Poe says. “We’re both guys who have been through a lot of stuff, and everyone deserves a second chance. I see a lot of myself in Joshua. He’s younger than me, but we both sort of have that spirit.”
Poe met Albert at Occupy at a time when StaphMeal was still anonymous. Albert was outed after a lawsuit, then became more extreme in his blogging. He was the subject of numerous profiles in local and national media before, during and after his run-in with the law, which he maintained was a First Amendment issue.
Today, Albert says, he’s trying to refocus his life. “I’m just trying to take all that energy that I had with StaphMeal and use it for good,” he says, adding that of his work with Poe: “We cause trouble because we care.”
Other members of the campaign include Kenneth Lipp and Dustin Slaughter, who co-produce The Declaration, a muckraking news blog. Lipp, Albert and Poe agree, is the brains of his operation and regularly provides the numbers and details behind some of Poe’s ideas.
Then there’s Vanessa Maria. The communications liaison behind Poe’s operation, she’s been working on activism on several fronts over the years, from marijuana reform to anti-fracking demonstrations.
This is all topped off with some people who actually weren’t at Occupy, but who fit the same Land of Misfit Toys storyline Poe and his crew are going for: Marc Brodzik at Scrapple TV, the previously PW-profiled producers of news videos at a studio in Northern Liberties who have helped create all of Poe’s promotional video material for the web. One of them, titled N.A. Poe Interviews N.A. Poe, actually features Poe, the average person interviewing Poe, the candidate.
This motley crew has helped create an election campaign for a non-politician who’s received less than $100 in total donations throughout the process. And, sure, he’s probably not going to win against the Johnny Doc-fueled candidacy of Ed Neilson, former political director of IBEW Local 98 (Poe is also running against Republican Matt Wolfe), but few other local politicians seem to be talking about the PPA and pot.
“The people that are being affected by [the PPA, the drug war] are the people of Philadelphia,” Poe says. “I want to be the inside man for these people if I’m elected. And if everyone votes for something, and I vote against it, at least I can walk out on the steps of City Hall and say, ‘Hey, people of people of Philadelphia, behind closed doors, everyone voted for this. I voted against it for you, and I want you to know they’re doing this.’ You know what I mean? That would be important.”
Want pot on the ballot, like other states did it? Sorry. At some point in the future, you may be asked on a statewide election ballot if Pennsylvania should legalize marijuana. Voting “yes” will feel good. And based upon polls that show a majority of residents now support recreational marijuana, such a vote would pass, just as it did in Colorado and Washington during the 2012 elections. In fact, just this spring, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Democrat and Desert Storm veteran from Pittsburgh, introduced House Bill 2137, which, he says, would “determine if it is the will of the electorate of this Commonwealth to urge the Pennsylvania General Assembly to legalize marijuana.” Excited? Don’t be. Even if Wheatley’s bill passed in the House (which it likely will not), passed in the Senate (which it definitely will not) or made it onto the November ballot (which, oh boy, no), it would have no immediate effect on your life. Because, unlike Colorado, Washington and 21 other states around the country, Pennsylvania does not allow referendums. Our state law does not trust the people of Pennsylvania to make statewide policy decisions for ourselves.
We’re one of the many eastern states that do not allow referendums. (Most western states do.) We can, however, weigh in on constitutional amendments (remember those?), and residents regularly vote on local issues concerning things like debt and how to use public funds. Even getting a local amendment on the ballot takes approval by the General Assembly, twice in two sessions, essentially making sure our state pols already approve of what the people of local cities and municipalities will be voting upon.
Wheatley’s bill would allow citizens to vote on a non-binding resolution—not binding legislation—which would signal to the legislature that yes, the people of Pennsylvania want this, so get the fuck on it. That could serve as a moral win over the prohibitionists who want marijuana to stay illegal, though that constituency is getting smaller every day. Advocacy groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws have made this bill part of their greater cause over the last couple months. They’ve included a petition on their website, which Pennsylvanians can sign, then send to their representative in the state House. But for real: Don’t hold your breath.
As the Democratic campaigns for governor have unfolded, the dollars have spoken as loud as the speeches.