It was a seven-year fight. A fight that most told him that he would never win. A draconian drug law that had been on the books since 1973 was used to fill up New York State prisons with tens of thousands of black and brown men. Rockefeller. Those laws. Seven years later and the fight was over. Women and girls who had been separated from their fathers and husbands were about to see many of them come home. The laws were being repealed. It was my first few months working for Russell Simmons as his political director and we were off to Queens for the signing of a new bill by Governor David Paterson that would end the Rockefeller Drug Laws after forty years. With a signature inked on paper, the laws were gone. And as we left, the Governor turned to Russell and handed him the pen, a symbol of gratitude for his leadership and commitment to those who were wrongfully incarcerated.
I have worked for Russell for the past four and half years, after I spent three years prior to that filming a documentary about his quest to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws. We got to know each other during that time, and when President Obama was elected, he asked if I would put my film career on hold and join him on his life-long commitment to uplift those living in struggle. I immediately said yes, as I grew up admiring him not just for the culture he helped create, but for his work that has transformed our nation to one that is much more compassionate, tolerant and generous. A kid who considers himself part of the hip-hop generation, Russell taught us the important lesson that life is not just about getting money, but really about achieving true happiness. And happiness is found when you help other people.
Over the past four and half years, I am proud of the work that we have done together. I am proud of fighting for marriage equality in New York and Maryland. I am proud of trying to stop the execution of Troy Davis. I am proud of supporting the NYCLU in their efforts to pass the Women’s Equality Act in New York State. I am proud of calling out Loew’s for their unnecessary boycott of the television program, All-American Muslim. I am proud of sleeping in Zucotti Park with the thousands of young people who demanded a government that is not controlled by corporate lobbying. I am proud of supporting Breakthrough and their international campaign that focuses on violence against women. I am proud of the millions of dollars raised for arts in education. I am proud of the thousands of young people who have been given meditation in their schools. I am proud of helping President Obama get re-elected. I am proud of the heroic work of the various anti-violence programs that we have supported over the years. I am proud of the pressure we have kept on Washington to end the “War on Drugs.” And I am certainly proud of helping to start the campaign that continues to fight for justice for Trayvon Martin.
Over the past 17 months, since the death of Trayvon, our nation has entered into a very difficult conversation about race. Emotions are raw. Tension is high. Relationships are fragile. The Harriet Tubman video hit a nerve and it stung like hell. And understandably so. But, if we are to move forward as a people, as a community, as a nation, it is times like these that must make us better. Not just make Russell Simmons better, but must make us all better. Better to each other, better to ourselves and better to those who we have never met. In the memory of a King who marched on Washington 50 years ago, it is not the words of our enemies we will remember, but the silence of our friends. Don’t be silent, even if your words are critical, as long as they are honest and constructive.
I know that I work for him. I know I am bias. I know there are some that will not listen to anything I say, because they believe that I am just writing this because he signs my paycheck. But, I too, was disappointed in the Harriet Tubman video. I, too, believe it was horribly insensitive and offensive. But, I also believe in Russell’s apology and his immediate removal of the video as proof that he knew he was wrong. And most importantly, I know what is in this man’s heart. I know that it is full of goodness and compassion. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t show up to work on Monday morning. Plain and simple. And trust me, on Monday morning, Russell will go back to work on everything he believes in, everything that makes us better, everything that pushes the people of our great nation even closer to the mountaintop. And I will be proud to stand there right next to him.
Michael Skolnik is the Editor-In-Chief of GlobalGrind.com and the political director to Russell Simmons. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. Previously, Michael was an award-winning filmmaker. Follow him on twitter @MichaelSkolnik