If ever there were a time to pay tribute to the men and women who take a stand to defend the rights of us all, it is now. The sucker-punch of Sept. 11 that knocked the wind out of our nation’s peace and tranquility also left many of our nation’s leaders cowering behind the false assumption that security and freedom must be mutually exclusive terms.
Consider the severe erosion of civil liberties in the last nine months. Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks and with no public hearings and virtually no congressional debate, intelligence and law enforcement agencies were handed broad and sweeping powers to enter citizens’ homes and businesses without a search warrant, eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mail, rifle through financial and medical records, and monitor confidential attorney-client conversations—all without the judicial checks and balances that historically have served as the bedrock of our democracy.
But even as the pendulum swings perilously close to tyranny, on this Fourth of July the Independent celebrates those individuals who in the last year, through choice or necessity, have stood on the front lines to defend their rights: Adrianne Neff, Carla Grayson. Nancy Siegel and Carol Snetsinger, the plaintiffs suing the Montana University System for same-sex partner benefits; Robin Prosser, the Missoula hunger striker who went 60 days without food to claim her right to live free of pain; and John Cobb, the Republican state legislator who defied partisan politics to restore Medicaid funding. For their willingness to stand in the face of hostility, prejudice and widespread indifference, we salute their courage.
The ACLU plaintiffs: Rising from the ashes
After their Missoula home was torched in February and they barely escaped with their lives, Carla Grayson, Adrianne Neff, and their 22-month-old son sat in their neighbor’s house waiting for the fire marshal. Out on the street, Neff had told the firefighters that she had heard someone inside the house before the alarm went off.
“I think somebody set the fire,” Neff recalls telling them.
Sitting in their neighbors’ home in their pajamas, they were not preoccupied with the cause of the fire. They assumed they would not know for days, even weeks. Then the fire marshal walked in.
“He just sat down and he said, ‘Somebody set fire to your house,’” Grayson recalls.
As Grayson and Neff soon learned, someone had soaked a rope in gasoline and methodically spread it around their house so that all the exits were blocked, both upstairs and downstairs. The rope served as a wick so that the arsonist could set the fire in one spot and leave as it spread through the house.
“I just remember I started to shake and said, ‘Somebody’s trying to kill us, somebody’s trying to kill us,’” Grayson says. “It was hard to believe that somebody hated us that much, especially as I was watching my son walk around the living room of this neighbor’s house in his smoky-smelling little jammies.”
As the shock and the fear descended, Neff says, “That’s when we thought, ‘Oh my God! Nancy and Carol!”
Nancy Siegel and Carol Snetsinger are the other women who, along with Grayson and Neff, sued the Montana University System seeking benefits for the same-sex domestic partners of university employees. Grayson, a professor of psychology, and Snetsinger, a biology department researcher, are both University of Montana faculty members and Neff and Siegel are their long-term domestic partners. The lawsuit, filed by the four women and lawyers from the Montana American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU), is the culmination of a long-running effort to get the university system to provide the same benefits to gays and lesbians as it does to heterosexual domestic partners. After Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts and the Board of Regents rejected a proposal from the Outfield Alliance (a coalition of lesbian and gay faculty members) to extend those benefits, the group turned to legal means.
On Feb. 4, a lawsuit was filed and the four women appeared at a press conference in Missoula. The story made the front pages and TV and radio news across the state. Four days later fire gutted the home of Grayson and Neff.
At about 6:30 a.m., the couple called Scott Crichton, executive director of the Montana ACLU. The ACLU activated a network of individuals and groups to handle the shock that was spreading throughout Missoula. Meanwhile, Grayson and Neff were facing an immediate dilemma as the sun rose: Where to go?
They planned to go over to a friend’s house, but their neighbor reminded them that the friend had a small child, and what if someone attacked them there as well? They went to get in their car, but a neighbor warned that the arsonist might have their license plate number as well.
“We felt like we didn’t know what we could do,” Neff says. “And we still don’t know how much danger we’re in. That’s impossible to know.”
As word spread, however, help from the community began to pour in. They started the day of Feb. 8 in their pajamas with more than 80 percent of their belongings destroyed (including irreplaceable items like a six-hour video diary of their son’s infancy, original paintings, and gifts from a deceased family friend). By the end of the day they had socks, shampoo, cell phones, a coffee pot, herbal tea, and every kind of children’s cereal imaginable.
Most importantly, they had people with them 24 hours a day.
Grayson and Neff checked into a local hotel, where friends slept in the next room. The fact that they were staying there soon became something of an open secret.
“Several of my students worked there,” Grayson recalls, laughing. “We were saying ‘hi,’ and they were great. They promised, ‘I won’t tell anybody!’”
Meanwhile, Snetsinger and Siegel went from not locking their front door to getting a security guard and a home protection system.
“It’s sort of like what happened to our nation after Sept. 11,” Snetsinger says. “You spend so much time trying to out-think somebody who’s very sick and dangerous and you kind of make yourself ill thinking of all the weird things they might do to you and all the places they might find you.”
While the support kept coming, and the “Hate Hurts” signs around Missoula constantly remind everyone of how touching the response was, the couples encountered other problems in the weeks following the attack. With no suspects and no leads, press reports began to suggest that the police considered Neff and Grayson suspects themselves.
“It’s been really hard to be subjects of an investigation and to have the police tell the newspaper that they considered us people to be investigated,” Neff says. “There’s no way around it, but it’s just incredibly difficult.”
Both are disappointed that no one has been arrested in the case. One positive development, however, is that their insurance company concluded its investigation and determined that the couple was not at fault. The insurance money will help, especially because the police investigation has led to mounting legal fees. (Because the couple cannot legally marry, they have had to retain two lawyers—another example, the couple points out, of the institutional discrimination the lawsuit addresses).
“It makes me so mad when people suggest we did this to further our cause,” Neff says. “It’s not like it was a ballot referendum that needed publicity. A lawsuit doesn’t need any publicity at all.”
The lawsuit is working its way through the courts, though it may take a year or more before a decision is reached. In the meantime, the four women at the center of it all have emerged from the events of February with a new commitment to fighting for justice and equality.
The arson was a wake-up call for all kinds of people, says Snetsinger. Institutional discrimination can be dealt with and brushed off, but the arson revealed the true depth of hatred that exists.
“I’m rearing to go,” Snetsinger says. “In some ways I’ve found my voice and realized that what I have to say matters, and the world is really run by the people who show up and speak out, and I plan to do a lot more of that.”
The lawsuit and the arson have had a ripple effect beyond the four plaintiffs. Gays and lesbians in Missoula have become empowered to speak out and the community as a whole has rallied around them. The rallies and “Hate Hurts” signs were followed by a push by the Missoula City Council to extend benefits to same-sex domestic partners of its employees, a proposal still being studied. Still, the fire has left Missoulians rattled in a fundamental way, striking at their very notion of Missoula as a safe, welcoming community. To that, Neff offers some consolation: “I personally like to believe that it was somebody from outside that came into Missoula, did this and left. I don’t have any real basis for that, but it’s what I want to believe. Because in general, Missoula is great and the people here are great. That’s true not only of the support we’ve had since the fire but before the fire as well.”
Neff and Grayson are newly energized, too, but also utterly exhausted. Nearly five months after the fire, they’re still cleaning up. Still, they say, there is no going back to the private lives they led before the fire.
“Even if the insurance money had covered everything, even if we had wanted the publicity nothing would be worth the emotional and personal cost of what we’ve gone through,” Grayson says. “But given that this horrific thing happened, now I ask myself, ‘OK, how can I move forward?’ And one way I can move forward is talking to other people about ways they don’t have to tolerate prejudice and discrimination in their lives along whatever axis or dimension that might be occurring.”
Robin Prosser: Living free of pain
At their purest level, political causes are like family: You don’t pick them, they pick you. And so it is with Robin Prosser, the 45-year-old Missoula woman who embarked on an astonishing 60-day hunger strike to protest her inability to grow her own marijuana for medicinal purposes.
If Prosser could have chosen a life-defining cause to align herself with, she probably would have steered clear of the medicinal marijuana movement. With the prevailing sociopolitical discourse skewed towards rabid anti-cannabis rhetoric—despite reams of medical findings indicating its many curative medicinal properties—it would have been easy to find a more sympathetic cause.
But Prosser, who spent 10 years as a medical guinea pig seeking a treatment for an immunosuppressive disorder akin to that suffered by some Gulf War veterans, didn’t have much choice. Seven years ago, she discovered that the only medicine that allowed her some semblance of a normal life—to function as a musician, writer, community citizen and, most importantly, mother to her 17-year-old daughter—was the pot she once smoked on a recreational basis. After years of working through conventional channels—Prosser joined several pro-medical pot groups and was scheduled to testify in a federal class-action lawsuit that has since been dropped—Prosser decided on a method of protest as rare as it is dangerous: For 60 days, beginning of April 20, she ingested nothing but water, herbal tea, the occasional cup of coffee, and a potassium supplement designed to keep her heart going.
To put the length of Prosser’s protest into perspective, the longest hunger strike in the United States since suffragists used fasting as a tool to gain the right to vote appears to be that of homeless activist Mitch Synder, who in 1984 maintained a water-only diet for 51 days in an effort to gain federal funding to renovate a homeless shelter. (Snyder became the subject of a CBS “60 Minutes” profile, and the building underwent a $14-million facelift).
With the help of a supportive webmaster, Prosser started her own Web site (www.cannabisnow.org) where she posted a diary chronicling her journey into starvation. She actively enlisted the support of a number of pro-cannabis groups, conducted interviews with local journalists, and anxiously awaited a media storm that never came.
Outside of a few local news outlets and sympathetic pro-pot Web sites, the only mention of Prosser’s strike appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle—and that was in conjunction with a story on a number of tag-team hunger strikers protesting the federal crackdown on California’s voter-approved medicinal marijuana initiatives. (Those strikers ceased after six days.)
As her fast grew in length and the weight melted away—she lost 68 lbs. over the course of the strike—Prosser grew disillusioned with her inability to make a national media splash. She also became bitter over the lack of organized support she expected from the groups who’d promised to be there.
“It was getting really quiet, you know, way too quiet,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die, and nothing is going to come of this.’”
Spurred by the concerns of her daughter and her Web site’s discussion-board visitors, nearly all of whom pleaded for her to stop the strike and live to fight another day, Prosser began contemplating the hard-to-swallow notion of ending the strike without meeting her goals.
“A lot of people were starting to make sense to me about what good my death would bring. If I died, it might not be a service to the movement. The other side could say, ‘Well, look, she died anyway,’” she says.
Nearly 50 days into the strike, two events set Prosser on the path she now follows with renewed vigor. The first was the suggestion that Prosser look into a hemp-based diet as a means of sustaining herself while still fighting the good fight. “The more I read about hemp, the more I’m finding out that there really is a connection between my body and what I’m able to obtain from these plants, hemp and cannabis,” she says. “It has the highest concentration of alpha nucleic acid, which is really good for your heart, and it’s an incredible source of omega-3 and omega-6 oils, and protein. I’m intrigued by it. I really think it would be a healthy thing, and I have something to prove.”
The second fortuitous event came when Dr. Susan Selbach, a physician at the Western Montana Clinic, agreed to treat Prosser on her own terms. “In the beginning of this whole thing, I went through a couple of emergency room visits but was not able to get a doctor to treat me,” Prosser says. “I thought I was going to lose my mind.
When I finally got in to see her—and I don’t know how it took me this long to find her—I swear, she’s the best doctor in Missoula. She takes me seriously, she doesn’t laugh at my hunger strike, and she is really interested in this hemp nutrition.”
Selbach’s decision to take on Prosser didn’t come without trepidation, however. “I can’t agree that what she is doing is in her best medical interests,” says Selbach, who obtained a written release from Prosser to talk about the physical effects of the strike.
“And I’m not supportive of the fact that she is starving herself and could die. However, I am supportive of when someone is committed to a cause, has tried a lot of different options and felt like this was the only way that she could make a statement as an individual.”
Under the care of a trusted physician, Prosser decided to explore a more long-term solution to her problems. After 60 days she began taking protein supplements, and is now in the process of re-integrating her body to the concept of nutrition—although it’s not as easy a task as it might seem.
“I think I’m finding it harder to reverse this process than it was to get in to it,” says Prosser. “My body is having strange reactions to doing something good for it, which I didn’t expect.”
As she gets stronger and is able to wean herself of liquid-based nourishment, Prosser says that she will concentrate on designing a diet as dependent on hemp as possible, supplemented by fruits and vegetables.
“I just hope that this ends up to have some kind of influence, made some kind of a difference to somebody,” she says of her campaign. “Not that I want people to put themselves at risk, but I want people to not take it any more, not be complacent. Stir the pot a little bit.”
John Cobb: Fighting for the disabled
Before Montana’s budget problems, many citizens would have considered John Cobb the archetypal Montana politician. Like many of his peers, the state senator from Augusta is both a Republican and a cattle rancher who believes firmly in small government and limited spending. So it’s hard to believe Cobb has become a champion of disability rights and spent the last six months in the news challenging the value systems of Gov. Judy Martz and many of his fellow senators.
Earlier this year, the Martz administration began trimming budgets to defray the projected multi-million dollar deficit in the state general fund. One of the agencies hit hardest was the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) which oversees Medicaid, the state/federal plan that helps cover the healthcare costs of the aged, disabled and poor families with children. After being hit with approximate $17 million in budget cuts between 2002 and 2003, Medicaid is under an additional strain as the lagging economy forces more and more people to depend on the system.
“When you start making these cuts, a value system develops really quickly,” says Cobb. “You have to decide who you’re going to help in government. And if you’re not going to help the most disabled and the people who can’t take care of themselves, then what’s the reason for government?”
The cuts in the DPHHS budget spurred Cobb to break with partisan politics and team up with Sen. Mignon Waterman, (D–Helena). In February, the two tried calling a special session of the Legislature to examine cuts in social service programs that they found unacceptable.
“The legislator should be deciding what cuts to do. That’s our role,” Cobb says. “Elected officials should be deciding values, not bureaucrats.”
Legislators voted 85–60 against holding the session, but this didn’t dissuade Cobb and Waterman from trying again. Last month, the senators gathered 11 of their peers—two Republicans and nine Democrats—to rally support for a session. Before lawmakers had time to vote again on the issue, Martz settled the matter. Saying that she did not have the authority to make such sweeping cuts, the governor used her power to call a special session that begins Aug. 5. This is the chance Cobb has been waiting for since February.
“Now I have to get in there and fight for money like everybody else,” he says. “The trouble is everybody likes it the way it is and people always want the status quo.”
But certain segments of the population are forgotten when the status quo is maintained and special interest groups end up deciding how the state’s revenue is divided up, he said.
“A good example of how the system works are the efforts of senior citizens,” says Cobb. Senior citizens have a far easier time getting their agendas approved than do people with mentally illnesses and disabilities. Seniors organize, speak up and vote. They also make use of their sufficient lobbying leverage.
“This is the reason why politicians will never touch Medicare,” says Cobb.
Medicaid represents the flip side of the spending coin. The people who depend most upon this system—those with major mental illnesses, disabilities and debilitating diseases—are often the “forgotten people.” Typically they aren’t politically active and vote in fewer numbers. Their lobbying groups often have limited success in promoting their underfunded causes. This results in their needs frequently falling through the cracks, says Cobb.
“In government there has always been fighting between special interest groups and turf fights over how to spend all this revenue, but what is the real purpose of government?” Cobb asks. “It’s to help those most in need, to help those who can’t speak up.”
Cobb isn’t referring to “handouts” or frivolous spending, but to programs that are absolutely necessary for people’s survival. Cobb sights co-pays as one of these indispensable programs.
Before the budget cuts, Medicaid patients’ prescriptions were capped so that prices couldn’t exceed an affordable amount—for many this added up to about $10 to 20 a month. Now, these same patients can be responsible for more than $100 a month for the drugs keeping them healthy or keeping them alive.
“In nursing homes, they can now afford to pull your teeth but can’t afford to provide you with dentures,” says Cobb. “So what do we do now? Do we tell these people they just can’t eat?”
While Cobb wishes programs could work efficiently with the money they have, he knows this is unrealistic. He understands that there is a baseline amount of money programs need to operate effectively. Now this baseline has disappeared.
“Montana has never expanded any of our programs because we never had the money to,” says Cobb referring to other states that create social service programs they later have a hard time funding.
“I’m just trying to point out that we’ve been pretty cheap doing these programs. And so when you are cutting them, you are really getting into them. Sure, you can always make programs run better, but there is really not much fat to cut.”
Cobb’s opinions have not met with much popularity in Helena.
“They don’t like me on the floor,” says Cobb. “But there are people that need our help and we shouldn’t be saying no to them.”
While it remains to be seen which departments are going to see addition AL cuts during the August special session, Cobb will do all he can to make sure DPHHS isn’t shortchanged again.
“There are always going to be more needs than money. We’re always going to have that problem,” he says. “But we have to ask ourselves when cutting some of these programs, is this really what government is for? We just can’t put people in a box they can’t get out of. We can’t just give them no alternative.”