Democracy evolves where freedom is able to determine its own policy. – John Dos Passos
Last week I attended my very first professional conference, this year’s Southern Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, and it went so well it definitely won’t be my last (especially since next years’ one is to be in New Orleans). Like most conventions, there was so much going on that it would be impossible to attend everything, and even if I tried to write at length about all the events I attended it would be overlong (and probably boring to anyone who wasn’t there; such things are better experienced than described). So what I’m going to do today is give you an overview of what I did and saw, and tell you about my impressions of the conference as a whole.
I arrived Wednesday evening, and after checking in and catching up on my emails went down to meet Robert Childs of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, the person who had invited me to attend. There were a number of others in the lobby as well, and five of us eventually agreed upon a restaurant and went to eat. I mention this because that dinner, and Thursday’s and Friday’s as well, were just as important a part of the conference to me as the scheduled events; they allowed more personal interaction with people of similar philosophical bent, but different experiences. That first night, for instance, the group was made up of the young man (Shilo Murphy) who helms the user-run needle exchange in Seattle, three young women from NCHRC who had come into activism via an academic route, and me. Shilo and I were able to share our experiences and views with the academics in a social setting rather than the professional one in which they normally encounter those affected by prohibitionist policies, and we in turn learned about each others’ fields and about the work going on in the academic and political arenas.
Thursday’s scheduled events were mostly big ones in the main conference room; besides the speeches and presentations on a number of different topics by members of NCHRC, Women With a Vision, drug policy and public health organizations, there was also a protest march which took us to the Georgia State Capitol just a few blocks away. Some of you may be amused to hear that this was my very first public demonstration of any kind, but keep in mind that until I started in activism just two years ago I had always tried to avoid drawing official attention to myself or any group of which I was a part.
Though I did learn from the content of the presentations (I found the one entitled “Including Armed Service Personnel, Veterans, Cops and Reverends: Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Reform” to be especially interesting and challenging), it was even more important for me to learn from the presenters’ form; though Robert had told me that he was sure I could just “wing” my first two presentations on Friday, I wasn’t even sure how to go about doing that. But I’m nothing if not a quick learner, and by the end of Thursday I was confident that I wouldn’t make a complete ass of myself (though I still wasn’t sure what I would say in any of them).
Another important Thursday activity for me was meeting both people I knew by reputation (such as Jessica Land, Reverend Lia Scholl and Deon Haywood of Women With a Vision) and ones I didn’t; the latter group included my roommate Stella Zine (with whom I got along quite well and had several fascinating conversations), Prosecutor Jay Fisher of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (who confirmed that LEAP is also officially opposed to the criminalization of sex work), and Hadley Gustafson and Tessie Castillo of NCHRC. Late that afternoon Hadley and Tessie interviewed me for the NCHRC website (I’ll embed the video once they’re done editing it), and I went to dinner with Jessica. We made it back a bit too late for the pool party, but I was exhausted anyway and wanted to get as much sleep as possible before Friday morning.
My first presentation was “Harm Reduction Media”, in which each presenter explained how she uses media in her activism. That was easy for me, because I just had to talk about blogging. My next presentation was tougher for several reasons, the first of which was that “Sex Work in the South” is such a broad, loose topic that I really had no idea what to say! Fortunately I was able to sweet-talk my co-presenters into going before me (the schedule had me up first), and listening to their presentations inspired me. Other factors: the audience was at least twice as large, and we had to stand to speak rather than sitting as in the first panel. But apparently I did well, because I got a lot of praise and a number of people said they couldn’t believe I was unaccustomed to public speaking. And though I was most intimidated by my third presentation on “Sex Worker Criminalization” because it was on a microphone and in the main room rather than one of the “breakout” rooms, I had been inspired by a presentation on the effects of the drug war and jotted down a number of notes which allowed me to give what I hope was an informative talk. Afterward I talked for a long time with two other activists (whose names, unfortunately, have escaped me) and was by then so ravenously hungry that I joined the first group I could find who was headed out to dinner.
That turned out to be a serendipitous choice because I spent a lot of time that evening and the next morning talking to two of them, Lorena Flores (who works with undocumented immigrants) and Ronald Martin, a retired NYPD detective who is interested in opening up dialog between the police, sex workers and drug users and is very critical of the criminalization of “paraphernalia” (such as condoms and syringes) which creates a public health hazard by discouraging their use (especially in street populations). You’re probably surprised that I actually had a pleasant dinner and civil, engaging conversation with a cop, and I reckon I am as well, but that’s the beauty of events like this; they provide a safe space where people of different and even opposite backgrounds can both educate and challenge one another to think differently about the entrenched mechanisms of prohibition which make adversaries out of people who could, under a more just and liberty-centered system, be allies.