Ben Masel Day

420 is Ben Masel Day
by Rökker
April 2012

Ben Masel imagery by Dan Goodrich

Ben Masel imagery by Dan Goodrich

Last May, Madison’s city council along with mayor Paul Soglin passed a resolution (legislative file #22458)  “honoring the life of Bennett “Ben” Masel, his contributions to our community and declaring April 20th as “Ben Masel Day” in the City of Madison”. Ben Masel, the iconic Madison civil rights defender, passed away last April after a battle with cancer.

Here is the full text of the resolution from the city’s website,

“WHEREAS,  Bennett “Ben” Masel was a fierce defender of personal and civil liberty, a champion of the Constitution, the rule of law and the founding faith that the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights were not just ideals, they were practical tools to be used on a daily basis to challenge power; and

WHEREAS, Ben Masel peacefully fought for his rights with courage, cleverness, and joy; and

WHEREAS, Ben Masel participated actively in our democracy, running for public office in Wisconsin at the county, state and federal levels starting with his run against Tommy Thompson in 1990 in the Republican primary for Governor and used the campaign to re-introduce hemp as a raw material for such industries as textiles, as a fuel source and, especially of interest to Wisconsin, paper; and

WHEREAS, Ben Masel advocated for intelligent drug policy, opposed the Drug War and supported the legalization of medicinal marijuana and marijuana possession in the State of Wisconsin; and

WHEREAS, Ben Masel created Weedstock, an annual celebration of cannabis held every Memorial Day in various Wisconsin locales, and The Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival; and

WHEREAS, Ben Masel served as vice-president of the Wisconsin state chapter of NORML for the last decade and was the state director during the late 1980s and early 90s; and

WHEREAS, even during his illness, Ben Masel could be found at the State Capitol, opposing Governor Scott Walker’s budget and exercising his constitutional rights for free assembly holding a sign that read: “This is a Test of the Emergency Free Speech System”; and

WHEREAS, Ben was the very proud father of Semilla Anderson and grandfather of his beloved granddaughter Anandi;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Madison does hereby honor the life of Bennett “Ben” Masel and his contribution to our community.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the City of Madison hereby declares that April 20th shall annually be known as “Ben Masel Day” in the City of Madison.”

Some of the wording chosen for this resolution speaks volumes about the man, Ben Masel. Honestly, try reading it again, especially the first few lines.

The first paragraph uses the phrase “a fierce defender of personal and civil liberty”. That is for sure. When it came to our liberties, not “his” liberties, Ben would not back down. He was not willing to let anything slip under the waves silently. He would attend, testify, and demonstrate against any attack on those liberties whether alone or in mass. He was always ready to commit civil disobedience if needed. He once claimed to be the most arrested man in Madison, he still may be. He was not afraid to put his principles first.

The resolution goes on to say that Ben was “a champion of the Constitution”. That’s almost an understatement. It was common knowledge that Ben would sometimes recite local, state, and federal law to law enforcement officers who often did not know the laws themselves or violated his rights while arresting him. Ben won many lawsuits against the government for infringing on his and others rights. He always said, “it’s good work if you can wait to get paid.”

The first paragraph ends with “the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights were not just ideals, they were practical tools to be used on a daily basis to challenge power”. For as much as Ben seemed to be “against” the government, he wasn’t. He loved it more than anyone. So much so that he dedicated his life to making sure that government held to it’s word, it’s law, and it’s guarantee of our civil liberties. He did so on a daily basis, not many days passed that he wasn’t up to something. He could be seen supporting at just about any public gathering that was standing for civil liberties. And even if he didn’t agree with their message, he always believed in the right to free speech and assembly. He once told me “if they can take it away from them, they can take it away from you”. The resoution is right on, he did challenge power every day.

The second paragraph is right on too. Ben was always peaceful and did a great job keeping others peaceful. His events were always peaceful and like Ghandi, he knew the only way for real change was through non-violent means. That doesn’t mean the police sometimes got out of hand, and when they did he had his day in court. He rarely lost a case.

Courage. Yes, Ben had courage. He was only afraid of one thing; of losing our rights from the slow, steady erosion campaign of zealous politicians. Ben put himself in the thick of it, sometimes risking his own freedoms to insure them for others.

Cleverness and Joy. Ben was a chess player, and a good one at that. His friend Stephen once said, “Yes, Ben was the ultimate trickster and had an intrinsic understanding of game theory always anticipating his opponents’ responses and using those responses to further manipulate the opposition.” Law and politics was just a big game of chess to Ben, and joy? Yes, he loved to play!

A brilliant example is from last year’s crackdown at the capitol when the Department of Administration started arresting people with protest signs. From his “office” at EVP Coffee he put out the notice that he was heading down to the rotunda in the capitol with the sign “This Is A Test Of The Emergency Free Speech System”. He then proceeded to the state constitution display and waited for his arrest. Of course, the officers knew better saying, “oh Ben, you’re not going to get us this time.” It was amazing, they arrested others, but not Ben. He showed that by knowing the law, standing up for yourself and being willing to face litigation that free speech was in fact still alive.

The rest of the resolution credits a small list of his accomplishments as the full monty would require a hard cover, I’m sure.

The first time I had hear of Ben Masel was as student attending the University of Wisconsin. Ben, of course, ran the Great Midwest Marijuana Festival which always featured a ton of the best local bands around, and the crowd got pretty fun at times too!

I remember thinking to myself at the time, given the state of politics during the Regan era, that the effort was fun, but seemed futile. What laws would this change, how would “that” be possible. But from the mid ‘80s to now, A LOT has changed in the United States regarding medical marijuana laws. Ben didn’t change the laws, but he worked within a movement that changed them. He was an encyclopedia on hemp and its industrial uses.

By the early nineties I had become the drummer for a local electric blues band called Cornerstone, and did the booking for the band. I had my eyes set to play at Ben’s annual “Harvest Fest” as playing on a flat bed truck at the top of State Street for more than 5,000 people sounded pretty fun. I approached Ben to solicit ourselves for a gig and he hired us for the 1992 Harvest fest. I think that may have been the largest crowd I have ever played for, so thank you Ben!

That was my experience, but Ben had great relationships with many local and regional bands. From Weedstock to Harvest Fest to throwing an impromptu Willy Street Fair after the official one was “rained out”, Ben always had his hands in setting up a stage with bands. He was a great asset to the Madison music scene. He’s in my Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame!

There is so much written about Ben Masel that I implore you to go and educate yourself on the man and his life. One of the best articles is by local and national writer John Nichols who did a piece shortly after Ben’s passing that had some great information, and Sly from WTDY has interviews with Ben archived that you can listen to, and of course there’s always Youtube and Google.

On April 20th, a concert to honor the life of Ben Masel will be held at the Barrymore Theater in Madison at 8pm. There will be bands, speakers, and the lobby will feature memorabilia, pictures, information, and education on anything Ben Masel. A portion of the proceeds from the event will be donated to cover the costs of a headstone for Ben’s gravesite. A donations table and merchandising for this purpose will also be present. It is my hope that the people who loved him most can participate in this great pursuit.

Natty Nation will open the show following a few guest speakers and will be followed by Baghdad Scuba Review, The Grasshoppers and Steez.

In closing, when I think about Ben Masel, I think about “why” he did all this. He couldn’t make us stand up for ourselves, we have to do that. His purpose was to show us that we can, to be an example, to be a citizen.

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