By Kevin Zeese
At the outset let me apologize. In the past when I really wanted to write something well, I’d do my best draft and redraft and redraft; and then send it to Mike Gray. He would turn my charcoal into diamonds. I can no longer do that, as Mike has left us, and he will be missed by all of us at Common Sense for Drug Policy, where he served as chairman of the board, as well as the reform movement and so many others he touched.
We first met when he came to a Drug Policy Foundation conference because he was working on his book “Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out,” (Random House 1998). When the book came out I remember a meeting initiated by Robert Field with Mike Gray where we discussed what we could do together to promote his book so had an influential impact. That was the beginning of one of the most important relationships of Robert and my lives. We did so much good work together.
“Drug Crazy” was immediately important, as Marsha Rosenbaum writes for the Drug Policy Alliance it became “a mainstay in drug policy libraries all over the world” and a classic that is “required reading for newcomers.”
I’ll mention two projects we worked on together at Common Sense, two of many, here. First our five year advertising campaign, Is Truth a Casualty of the Drug War? In all, Common Sense produced 92 advertisements that ran in a half dozen public policy magazines that were designed to reach political activists and opinion leaders from across the political spectrum. Mike was a great asset in this process. He was able to write in a way that reached people, more than in a factual way, in a gut-checking, emotional way. No doubt this campaign helped shift the debate, change public opinion and help lay the groundwork for the success of so many reform initiatives.
Mike was also a key to the creation of the Alliance of Reform Organizations. The purpose of ARO was to get the movement starting to think like a movement, sharing information, uniting issues, working together in solidarity to end the abusive drug war. Throughout the years of this coalition, Mike’s role was to be a wise, elder statesman who offered words of encouragement and wisdom from his wide breadth of experience.
And, he brought a lot of wisdom and experience. While he was a Hollywood guy – with lots of credits to his name – he was also a Midwesterner from Indiana and those roots were always there making him a practical, commonsense activist. While he was a Hollywood writer, he was trained as an engineer. The combination of those two seeming opposites was devastatingly powerful.
His work in political advocacy ran deep, as a documentary film maker with his amazing story telling. In 1965 he and long-time colleague, Jim Dennett formed The Film Group, a Chicago-based movie production company. They made television commercials as well as movies and documentaries, producing more than 50 film and documentary projects.
It was when he and Jim were working on a commercial in Chicago that they got critical historic footage of the room where Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot before the police closed it down. It became the basis for the movie, The Murder of Fred Hampton, which documented the cold blooded murder of this young leader by the US security state, but also told the story of someone whose power Mike said you could feel when you were near him. It was a power based in the fearlessness of knowing he was right and unafraid of telling the truth.
In American Revolution II, Mike documented the uprisings of the 1960s in Chicago. His documentary film style – a hand held camera, no script, letting the voices of those he covered tell the story – has since been used by many, but it was a style he developed in order to let the story tell itself.
Mike was a great screenwriter and film maker, one movie that brought so many of his characteristics to the table was an Academy Award winner, The China Syndrome. Mike had brought his engineers’ training to understanding nuclear energy and its risks. China Syndrome, which starred Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon and Michael Douglas, told the story of a nuclear plant in meltdown – melting through all its containment structures, into the underlying earth, “all the way to China.”
The remarkable story of the film may not have been the movie itself but its timing – less than two weeks after its release in 1979 the Three Mile Island accident occurred. Mike the activist, took over for Mike the Hollywood filmmaker. He stayed with the issue, covered the hearings on Three Mile Island, conducted 200 hours of interviews and collected 50,000 pages of transcripts from five government investigations. He wrote about it for Rolling Stone and wrote a book on the issue four years later, The Warning. Nuclear power has really never recovered from this series of Mike Gray and self-inflicted blows.
Phil Smith the editor of Drug War Chronicle highights some of Mike’s drug policy related films “the DVDs ‘Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,’ highlighting spokespersons of the group by the same name, and ‘Cops & Clergy Condemn the War on Drugs.’”
Mike’s key to writing was drafting and re-drafting, editing and re-editing. One of his favorite quotes came from Mark Twain “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mike was always careful to pick the right word. He did the same thing editing his films. He told me once about cutting at just the right millisecond so they eye sees and the ear hears, just what is needed.
I experienced this recently with Mike. Over the last two years I’ve been working on a screenplay about a critically important historical incident that has been swept under the rug of history. I showed an early draft to Mike and he told me some of the basics of screenwriting – after a few hints he suggested a re-write, starting the story in a completely different place. Six months later I sent him a re-draft that had been edited and re-edited. He looked at it, giving some positive comments of the potential for the movie, urged me to stay with it and made some constructively critical suggestions and said – re-write it. I’ve done so and was preparing to send it to him again.
Last week, I told some of my colleagues at Common Sense, that as part of the new Green Shadow Cabinet where I serve as Attorney General and coordinate the Justice Council, I would be writing a report on how the Obama administration should handle the voter initiatives legalizing marijuana in Washington and Colorado. Mike immediately offered to help. I sent him the first three sections of the report and never heard back.
One of the people Mike introduced me to was Robert E. Lee, III, a Black Panther turned community organizer in Houston, known as the unofficial “Mayor of da’ Fifth Ward” with his office in the local barber shop. Lee became someone I heard from regularly on the state of racism, on how to organize and how to create change. When he died Mike was working on a movie about Lee and Barack Obama called The Organizer.
The Organizer, even this short clip, will help us all do what my long-time colleague and collaborator Robert Field suggests we all need to do now writing to the Common Sense team: “We all have to work even harder in the causes of justice and enlightenment to help compensate for this great loss.”
Kevin Zeese serves as president for Common Sense for Drug Policy where Mike Gray served as Chairman. Zeese co-directs It’s Our Economy, co-hosts Clearing the FOG and is an organizer of Occupy Washington, DC