On April 20, a group of protesters, led by rapper Draze and several African American community groups, converged on Uncle Ike's recreational cannabis store for a "Unity on Union" rally. Their complaints were nothing new—part of an ongoing, racially charged debate about the neighborhood and its zoning rules. The crux of it is the pot shop's proximity to Mount Calvary Christian Center, as well as its location on a corner with a troubled history when it comes to drugs. As Pastor Reggie Witherspoon of Mount Calvary said in a speech, "I'm not arguing against marijuana; I'm arguing against its location."
Neither side seems willing to budge. This fight has been going on ever since Uncle Ike's opened.
I met the protesters at Garfield Community Center and followed them down 23rd Avenue to Union Street, where they assembled in the street with a PA. The idea, said Draze, was to stage a "peaceful, passionate" protest, disrupt a bit of traffic, and generally be heard. That part of the protest went swimmingly, with heartfelt speeches from Pastor Witherspoon and Che Taylor's brother, Andre, and even a live performance of Draze's song on the subject, "Irony on 23rd."
While I don't 100 percent agree with the protesters' points on the dangers of having a pot shop next to a teen center, their thoughts on the racial injustice of the drug war were completely on point. Hearing LeShawn Gamble talk about how hard it was to see all the money being made at Uncle Ike's after spending a year in jail over four blunts, on a corner where people used to go to jail for four blunts, made the injustice of this corner's history real to me.
Protesters broke off from the rally to blockade the parking lot, which was fenced off for the store's big 4/20 party. Aside from the expected slogans—"No justice, no weed" and "No, no, no. Uncle Ike's has got to go"—I overheard some nastier words. Protesters shouted things at Eisenberg's largely African American security staff like "You've taken on the aspect of your oppressor" and "They don't give a fuck about you." The security staff, to their credit, remained calm. Eisenberg reported some direct personal insults, as usual, though thankfully not of the anti-Semitic variety this time.
At one point, a particularly vocal protester crashed the fence, and security staff, aided by Eisenberg himself, rushed to push him back. SPD bicycle cops quickly interceded, pushing the crowd back and helping the man to his feet. He was not detained, and the protests continued without further incident. When I caught up with Draze across the street near Earl's Barbershop, he distanced himself from the blockade.
"That's not what we came here to do," he said. "If you heard me on the microphone, I'm about positive, I'm about peaceful, I'm about honest. But I will say, this is the result of disregarding people's feelings."
Draze's point was there's been a breakdown in communication. "I understand how this happens," he said. "Something like this happens because there is a lack of understanding on both sides. They're yelling at each other, but no one's talking."
It's frustrating to witness because, based on my conversations with Eisenberg, he's not completely insensitive to the issues the protesters are raising.
Instead of quibbling about how far Ike's is from the teen center, Mount Calvary could be working with Ike's to fund science-based teen drug-education classes that give teens the tools to understand the effects of smoking pot on young brains (we don't know much, but what we do know doesn't exactly recommend it). And with a little backing from a certain wealthy uncle, community activists could tackle the really big, overarching racial issues in pot, like the low numbers of minority cannabusiness owners or the thousands of people of color still incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.
I have a hunch the real issue is respect. Having spoken with both sides, the actual disagreement between them looks pretty small, but the emotional gulf is practically the Grand Canyon. As most of the rally's speakers pointed out, it's not about having a pot shop in the neighborhood (Ponder, anyone?), it's about how that pot shop relates to the neighborhood.
"We're talking to a wall right now," Draze said. "All of that flair and nonsense, I see right through that. I'm hiphop—I could come in with all that swag, too. You're a human, I'm a human, let's sit down at this table and have a conversation, and look [at each other] and go, 'Man, explain it to me.'"
After the protest, I told Eisenberg about Draze's comments. At first, he scoffed, citing the countless community meetings he's been to over the past two and a half years.
"I have really tried to reach out to everyone," he said. "I go to the community meetings and get yelled at, but I keep going."
After we talked, Eisenberg reached out to Draze on Facebook. And guess what? The rapper got right back to him. And now they have tentative plans to get together and talk it out. That's progress. Eisenberg was optimistic.
"Thing is," Eisenberg said, "we probably agree on most things."