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Modesto Needle Exchange Case Ends: Interview with Volunteer
Interview with volunteer, overview in organizing leading up to and during court battle.
In April of 2011, the ‘Mono Park 2;’ the two defendants given misdemeanor charges for their participation in the Modesto Needle Exchange had all charges against them dropped. Robert Stanford (current Mayoral hopeful), the man who set the trail in motion which cost tax-payers in Stanislaus County thousands of dollars never got his wish to see the Mono Park 2 “go to jail.” The trail brought an end to a two year battle in which supporters continuously demonstrated outside, packed the courthouse, distributed educational information, and also conducted needle clean-ups in various parks and neighborhoods. The trail also set a legal precedent for those who in the future conduct needle exchange program; those found ‘guilty’ will only have to take a divergent class.
In the Spring of 2009, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department launched a sting operation against the Modesto Needle Exchange Program. The SCSD had been tipped off by Robert Stanford, a self-described “civil-rights” activist. In conversations with supporters later, Stanford would express later that the Airport Neighborhood where the exchange took place was “his,” and that no-one could organize there unless he was in charge. In a letter to the District Attorney, Stanford stated that the needle exchange program was doing everything from simply giving needles away to giving them to young children. He also claimed that it was organized by the “terrorist group” Modesto Anarcho. While before the sting Stanford was a vocal opponent of head Sheriff Adam Christianson, they both appeared together before the Board of Supervisors during the time of the sting claiming that they would end the needle exchange at Mono Park in order to clean out the park of “junkies and anarchists.” In the police report after the shut-down of the of the exchange, Sheriffs made note that copies of Modesto Anarcho were being distributed and that one of the volunteers was wearing a t-shirt with an anarchist symbol.
For politicians in waiting like Stanford, the case offered him a change to tout something that he had done – gotten the needle-exchange shut down while he ran (and lost) his race for a council seat. For the police, the case represented a chance to legally go after community organizers and anti-authoritarians in the city that they saw as a threat.
However, while the politicians and police hoped that those arrested would plead out quickly and stop organizing, instead the Mono Park 2 started organizing. In the end, it was the determination of the Mono Park 2 to fight the charges that forced the DA to drop them. This interview was conducted to document the true nature of the work that the needle exchange was doing in order to clean the streets of dirty needles and stop the spread of Hep C and HIV in our neighborhoods.
The Mono Park 2 are working class heroes. Regular people who saw government inaction and indifference in the wake of a massive program – and they took direct action. In doing so they faced repression, but they also discovered solidarity from hundreds who stood behind them. It also shows us the lengths in which the government and their police will go to stop grassroots efforts to fight and deal with drug addiction and disease in working-class and poor communities. Let us remember that they stood up, and let us also remember who tried to make them fall.
MA: What is a needle exchange?
A needle exchange or NEP/SEP (Needle/Syringe Exchange Program) is a place where Intravenous (IV) drug users & diabetics can get free access to clean syringes in exchange for used (“dirty”) ones. That would include anything one could break down their product with. That includes water, a cooker (or spoon), a match &/or a lighter. Anything from prescription pills to street based narcotics like methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine/crack, ect…It’s also a place where one can get access to everything sterile, cobra’s/cookers (the little tin metal caps that looks similar to the twist off caps on 40 oz beer bottles & the cobra term is referred to a paper clip manipulated into the shape of a snake to hold the cooker for easy access to cook one’s product), tourniquets, sterile water containers, bleach bottles, cotton pellets or balls, condoms, sterile crack pipes & brillo pads for filters (aka “rose bud” glass containers like the ones you see in liquor stores with a fake rose stem in them), meth pipes (similar to rose bud stems), safe injection info, hepatitis, HIV, & other such safety pamphlets are usually what is supplied at needle exchanges. Sometimes wound care, hepatitis testing, & sex worker outreach is available. Sometimes there at clinics, other times there street based sites or mobile delivery services. Some are legal & some aren’t. Each individual exchange does similar things, but each one is different in its creativity.
So the question would be: why do we supply all these materials? The answer is simple. People are going to use narcotics regardless of what we say. Poor folks with diabetes can’t afford clean syringes & other materials. The concept here is to reduce the harm on the individuals self & from sharing needles with others. The hepatitis C virus can live outside the body for up to 4 days. However, many experts think it usually survives up to 16 hours at room temperature. It’s transmitted by blood to blood contact & seldom through sex without condom. That explains contagious blood on a tourniquet, cotton ball, in or on a syringe, cooker, broken crack or meth pipe, or even someone’s shirt. The sterile water is because water is contaminated & injection could be harmful from tap water. The bleach bottle is an old school method of reducing harm by drawing up bleach through used syringes before sharing. This has been proven NOT 100% effective in reducing disease spread, but some exchanges still give them out. No harm in having access to all safe precautions. A clean needle IS 100% proven effective though.
MA: What is harm reduction?
One could say that Harm Reduction (HR) is an old idea but a new movement. Indigenous tribes all over the world have been experimenting with mind altering earth based plant species like marijuana, Iboga (Ibogaine), mushrooms & peyote since the beginning of time. Even some American indigenous reservations practice with psychotropics to get off other such drugs like methamphetamine & alcohol & ritualistically some still do to this day. Harm Reduction is a philosophy, a way to live one’s life, an effective alternative tool to the current disease model. Harm Reduction is strapping on a seat belt, not because it’s a law, but because it could help save ones ass from a possible accident. Collectively it means dealing with where one is at in the moment & time in their lives, rather than telling them where they need or should be. HR is a compassionate approach. Two things I very much embrace are HR & Autonomy. Individually & collectively speaking.
MA: Why did people in Modesto decide to start a needle exchange program?
I got word that an above ground attempt to get an exchange running was in the works. It was soon after voted 4-0 by the Board of Supervisors against it. Overall I found it to be a poor effort put together by citizens, our public health dept., & bureaucrats. I started getting some training & going to workshops on how to start a Needle Exchange Program (NEP). I started exchanging with two associates I new that were IV users. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time & found it hard to navigate the exchange that way. So I decided to pick a location & started talking with street folks. They directed me to a park called Mono on Mono Dr. in the Airport District of Modesto. I checked it out & the day I went I witnessed a person drawing up water out of a puddle into their syringe to do their fix. This screamed PROBLEM! Support from all over donated materials for us to start the exchange. I made a banner & soon after the exchange started as a street based site at Mono Park.
The history of NEP’s in our country started by self-organized efforts regardless of laws. They date back to the times of early Food Not Bombs arrests (late ‘80’s-early 90’s). There have been plenty of arrests & court battles for doing so. This is nothing new. Just new to Modesto. In the Central Valley area, Sacramento went through several NEP cases. It’s now been legalized in the city but not in some parts of Sacramento County. Fresno started in 1994. There were 2 arrests in 18 years of dedicated needle exchanging. Both times the cases were dropped. The pressure by people putting them selves on the line is what is the driving force behind public health policies to change. Much similar to folk’s opinion of the Oscar Grant riots in Oakland pushing those bureaucrats to hold the BART cop accountable for his murderous actions in killing Oscar. May not of been the result folks were looking for but you catch my drift. In other words. Those Oakland rebellions forced the power structure to recognize the power the people hold.
MA: What were some of the conditions in Modesto that the needle exchange sought to change or combat?
The spread of Hepatitis C & HIV. The spread of any diseases for that matter. Modesto is an indeed hot spot on the map in our Nation. It’s estimated somewhere roughly between 60-90% of IV users in Stanislaus County are Hep C. C infected. That’s above 50%. Again, this screams problem! I can't count how many users that came to the exchange telling me they were Hep C positive. One person was HIV & Hep C. positive. Needle Exchanges are proven scientifically that they reduce the spread of disease. It’s fact! The research & evidence is there. I also wanted to build a compassionate trust relationship with users too. To let users know they aren’t being ignored. This system has us reliant on the fact that were dumb & not capable of taking care of each other unless there’s a law that says so, that insinuates I don’t have a conscious, that it’s not “professional enough”, that we need a doctors note, a bosses permission, the strict authoritarian guidelines were are all to familiar with. To also say enough is enough. We don’t need permission to help others. The fact that our city neglects to tackle this issue breeds violence in itself. They say were encouraging their drug use. We say, no, we were not. How the hell does a clean syringe encourage drug use? Syringes don’t get you high! It’s like the gun or the person with the gun argument.
MA: What was the response from the surrounding community towards the needle exchange?
That was actually a complicated part in starting this exchange. Here I am coming onto their turf with clean needles. I imagined if I were in their shoes, that this might look a little odd or make them think it was a trap or that I had bad motives or something. Little did I know that right away I would be accepted? They gave me props. They told me it was about time. They said they were glad to see me, because a day earlier they just happened to look out their window & saw two men sharing a rig out in broad daylight in Mono Park. On the other hand you had cops driving by slowly to see what was going on. Over all though. I witnessed more positive than negative feedback.
MA: What happened when the needle exchange was stopped by the Sheriff's Department?
The day Modesto Needle Exchange was shut down, two undercover cops received clean syringes from us & about 15-20 minutes later unmarked sheriff cars rolled up on us. They set up a sting operation to have us shut down. We went through the general procedure one goes through. They took pictures of us, all the materials on the picnic table, & confiscated 178 clean syringes & left us with the hundreds of dirty ones. The police report later verified it was all surveillance on video & the undercover sheriffs were “tapped” with an audio wire. Also, two “clients” of the exchange were stopped, detained, searched, & one was picked up on parole violation, assuming for possession of drug paraphernalia at this point. Supposedly an officer was propositioned for a narcotic at some point before the shut down. Evidently, nothing came out of that. They were obviously there to shut down the exchange & not get the “drug dealer”. My female partner was searched by a male officer without her consent as was the girl that was with the parolee was told to undo her bra strap from under her shirt & shake as if to see syringes fall from her breast area. This was witnessed by me & my partner.
MA: Can you explain the involvement of the snitch in all of this?
He’s not someone to trust, that’s for sure. For those reading this, his name is Robert Stanford & he works or has worked with anyone from law enforcement to the local chapter of our ACLU. He’s plugged into every pseudo-liberal agenda that’s going on in the community. He can’t keep his nose out of anything. When one side of him you would see a general caring person that you could probably agree on many levels with, another minute he is ruining the lives of others that generally care too, doing honest direct service to the community regardless of laws or what legal term overrides simple compassion & conscious decision making. His slander & abuse has included him mostly blogging about us online. Anything from calling me/us a bunch of delinquent young skater punks, to lying about that no dirty needles were coming in, to saying we were giving out syringes to kids or under-agers. Lets make this clear again. A clean syringe doesn’t get one high. It’s what could possibly go in the syringe. Peoples “sweep it under the rug” mentalities will not stop the sharing of syringes. They will do it regardless. One has to come to where the person is at in their lives, rather then tell them what they should be doing. I can’t stop a user from using. I wasn’t there to counsel, I.D. people, or get into other personal detail. The mission of the Modesto Needle Exchange was simply to provide clean syringes so they wouldn’t share & regardless of how many go out at a time. Another complaint by “Blogger Bob” was that we were giving out 20 syringes for every 2 weeks. Fresno NEP gives out 21 a week. The estimated use by a User is 3 needles a day.
MA: What has the result of the sting operation been on the needle exchange volunteers?
I can’t speak on behalf of my partner in the (post) case cause there are still some loopholes she has to go through in order to get her life back together... Let’s just say she was screwed over economically in every way imaginable. It’s been fucked up both mentally & emotionally for both of us. I had to leave my job as a care-provider for a client I had with cerebral palsy for more than 6 years because the stress became too unbearable as I new some form of punishment was hanging over my head & it wasn’t fair to me or him to continue working.
MA: The Stan County Sheriffs Dept. has made a large deal about this being an ‘anarchist project.’ Why do you think this is?
The intention wasn’t at all to be an “anarchist or a non-anarchist project.” Sure, it had radical sway & tendencies. Its usually defined radical when one steps outside the box to take concern regardless of laws or reason for laws. It was a concern for local public health neglect in our community. What better way to get out there & do something about a situation when public health decides what they think public health should or is. It’s just easy to target it as an anarchist project. Especially when there is an anarchist presence in a small city like Modesto too. I don’t need to tell any anarchist out there that historically they get this kind of treatment. At the same time though, what does one expect when the mainstream slant on anarchism or anarchy means blowing shit up. Stan County communities don’t really know what anarchism is or gets misconstrued ideas of what it means by big media outlets ect…Fuck the haters! Who cares what ones political ideologue is. Just be down to do something about something (*laughs).
MA: Some people have stated that the exchange was 'giving needle to children,' and 'simply giving needles away.' How would you respond to this?
It’s bullshit. Robert (the snitch) Stanford stated that on his online blog about us. My answer to that is simple. Sure, maybe there “could” have been questionable ages at the exchange. My duty & dedication didn’t include picture Idling people; at the same time, we weren’t encouraging kids to come to the exchange. We had a log sheet that asked everyone anonymously what age they were, how many needles were going out & coming in, if they were homeless or not, race, sex, ect…, & that was it. We weren’t there too make “clients” more nervous than they already were for being at the exchange (which was the case a lot of the time). For example; I had a women at the exchange approach me crying & telling me she was both Hepatitis C & HIV positive & that she just found out that she was infected recently. All I could do was listen to her & show compassion. I was not someone that could help with her emotional issues & trauma from dealing with being infected.
MA: How have people supported you leading up to the trail?
We never went to trial. After nearly 2 years in court, countless court dates, the judge denying us medical reasoning for why we were doing the exchange, & approx. a week before trial the DA (District Attorney) finally gave us a deal that wouldn’t involve any conviction on our records. We took a 6-hour drug diversion class that would open the doors for others. According to latest in propositions this type of statewide diversion would help folks with similar charges avoid jail time. The class was amusing though. In the class there was even a prostitute & a guy busted for trying to pick up a prostitute. What does that have to do with drug diversion? Though we weren’t pleased with being punished or labeled "selling" or "giving" away drugs, at the same time though, nor were we martyrs for Needle Exchanges, but rather concerned with the neglect of the local public health departments duty & knowing it doesn’t take a genius to know how to self organize. Being that the bureaucrats have framed this whole case political, we were just doing conscious Public Health work. It doesn't take a "professional" to know there is a way to educate people the simple concept of the harms of sharing needles & the steps in preventing the spread of diseases. A statewide legalization on emergency impacted area's (including Stanislaus County being on that list) is closely approaching. We all might just get what were hoping for by the end of the year.
MA: Anything you would like to say in closing? How can people contact you?
Get Harm Reduction & NEP training. Start a NEP in your area. Just be cautious of your surroundings if you’re doing it underground. Get hip to your county laws. Go mobile. Use your cell phone for Exchanges. Do the above ground work, but don’t ignore the power in self-organizing your own Exchange individually or collectively.
I wanna first & foremost thank my partner in this case for being down enough & being the Braveheart that she was, to get involved. It was a crazy & bitter process but we both learned a lot from it. I wanna thank all of our supporters, local & abroad. All my friends that stood by us in court. The folks that donated funds. The Longhaul Infoshop in Berkeley, David with Bound Together Bookstore collective in San Fran., Mary Howe with SF Needle Exchange, Celeste with Free Mind Media of Santa Rosa, Points of Distribution in Oakland, Rachel, Lynell, & folks with S.A.N.E., Modesto Anarcho, Bobby B. with Richmond Exchange, The Revolutionary Hip-Hop Report, Modesto Copwatch, Dallas & Ashley with Fresno Needle Exchange, the Oasis Clinic folks of Oakland, my sister & mentor Rachel Jackson, Patt Denning, & Tara Klien at Harm Reduction Therapy Center in Oakland for emotional support, Hilary & staff (gone & present) at Harm Reduction Coalition. The Harm Reduction Institute for all the training’s. And anyone else I may have forgotten. It’s been a long two years.
In the words of Blackfire ~ “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”
Contact: stancountyrmh [at] gmail.com