Ben Masel at the Wisconsin Capitol in 2010
Bennett A. Masel
October 17, 1954
|Died||April 30, 2011 (aged 56)|
First Amendment plaintiff
Bennett A. "Ben" Masel (October 17, 1954 – April 30, 2011) was an American writer, publisher, cannabis rights and free speech activist, expert witness for marijuana defendants, and frequent candidate for public office. A skilled chess player, Masel was director of Wisconsin NORML, and organizer of Weedstock and the annual Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival which has been held in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol every autumn since 1971.
Masel, who was known for his Yippie theatrics and anti-war and pro-labor activism, was born in the Bronx, grew up in New Jersey, and in 1971 relocated to Madison, where he became a fixture of the Wisconsin political scene for 40 years. He died after battling cancer, in 2011.
Life and activism
Education and early activism
Masel, who was born in New York in 1954 and grew up in New Jersey, became involved with the Youth International Party when he was a teenager, earning him the distinction of being the youngest person on Nixon's Enemies List. Masel was arrested during the Yippie protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The arrest embarked Masel on a lifelong career of First Amendment litigation and activism.
Masel, a Yippie "street theatre" Vietnam War and personal freedom protester, made national headlines in 1976 for heckling segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace from a wheelchair. Over his lifetime, Masel was arrested 137 times.
Harvestfest and Weedstock
The Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival in Madison, the oldest and longest running cannabis rights festival in the United States, was first held in 1971 following a series of marijuana-trafficking arrests. Marchers carried signs reading "Free Dana Beal." Masel organized the demonstration to support Beal and after that it became an annual event.
Political writing and publishing
In 1985, Masel co-authored Blacklisted News: Secret Histories from Chicago, '68 to 1984, a comprehensive history of the Youth International Party.
Election campaigns and advocacy
According to Steve DeAngelo, the first Hemp Tour in 1989 was Masel's idea. Jack Herer visited fourteen American cities, promoting the revised edition of his book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, in 1989.
When the 1990 Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival at the Wisconsin Capitol drew the criticism of Attorney General Don Hanaway, Masel challenged Hanaway to a chess match in order to prove that cannabis does not diminish intelligence. Hanaway declined Masel's chess game challenge.
During a 1992 write-in bid for Dane County sheriff, Masel's campaign poster pictured him naked with the slogan: "Nothing to Hide, Masel for Sheriff." He got more than 7,000 votes. And when he made the ballot in 1994 as the Democratic candidate for sheriff, Masel received more than 39,000 votes.
Civil rights career
Masel was a professional protester. He got a $95,000 settlement from Sauk County, Wisconsin, after police officers wearing body armor arrested about a dozen Weedstock festival-goers, including Masel, who refused an order to vacate the grounds after being told the festival could not be held on a private field there, in 2000.
On June 29, 2006, while lawfully gathering signatures during an election campaign, Masel was confronted by two University of Wisconsin–Madison police officers who threw him to the ground, pinned him with a knee on his back and then pepper-sprayed him in the face. Masel's federal civil rights suit against police officers John McCaughtry and Michael Mansavage which was heard at trial in 2009 before a hung jury and was to be reheard at a second trial in 2010, was settled out of court. Masel agreed to accept $7,500 from the state of Wisconsin to dismiss the appeal.
A longtime friend of Masel, Amy Gros-Louis, told a Wisconsin State Journal reporter that "Ben knew the laws better than the police did." Masel fought limitations to free speech and the right to assemble. Whenever police tried to stop him, he would sue. And he usually won, according to Jeff Scott Olson, Masel's lawyer.
Legacy and recognition
In April, 2011, Masel was recognized by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws board of directors with an award of special appreciation for "A Lifetime of Outstanding Work in Advancing the Cause of Legalizing Marijuana."
The 420 Chess Club held an online competition called The Ben Masel Memorial 420 Chess Tournament from May, 2011, through February, 2012.
Illness and death
In January, 2011, Masel was diagnosed with lung cancer. He underwent a series of radiation treatments and was given steroids to aid his breathing, but became too weak to undergo chemotherapy. Nevertheless, Masel remained upbeat and never stopped demonstrating, even defying his doctor's advice in order to join a month-long labor rights protest being held at the Wisconsin Capitol during April. Masel, who did not have health insurance, died in a hospice, surrounded by friends and family, on April 30, 2011. He is survived by his daughter, Semilla Anderson, and granddaughter, Anandi.
- Lueders, Bill (February 8, 1991). "Ben Masel: An amazing plant - Reviving hemp production could boost Wisconsin's economy, aid the environment and make the U.S. energy-independent". Isthmus.
- Nichols, John (May 3, 2011). "Activist Ben Masel Never Shied From Exercising His Rights". The Capital Times.
- Rabideau Silvers, Amy (May 5, 2011). "Marijuana activist Masel was Madison gadfly for 40 years". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Barbour, Clay (April 30, 2011). "Prominent marijuana activist Ben Masel, 56, dies of cancer". Wisconsin State Journal.
- Belville, Russ (April 30, 2011). "Madison NORML's Ben Masel loses battle with lung cancer". NORML Blog.
- Wirtshafter, Don E. (April 30, 2011). "Ben Masel, RIP: Perfecting the Art of Civil Protest". www.facebook.com.
- Blades, Meteor (April 30, 2011). "R.I.P. Ben Masel". Daily Kos.
- "Heckling Flares At Madison, Wis". The New York Times. April 1, 1976.
- Hucker, Charles W. (July 12, 1976). "Antiabortionists Rally To Protest Party Platform". Kansas City Times.
- "Harvest Fest participants march for smoking rights". The Badger Herald. October 6, 2008.
- Stanford, Paul (May 2, 2011). "Ben Masel, Freedom Fighter, Dies Too Young". Hemp News.
- Kuipers, Dean (June 13, 2006). Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke, pp.124-125. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1596911420.
- "State House Decries Yippie's Action". Kansas City Times. April 27, 1976.
- New Yippie Book Collective (January 1985). Blacklisted News: Secret Histories from Chicago, '68 to 1984. Bleecker Publishing. ISBN 978-0912873008.
- Masel, Ben (June 1, 2009). "June 14, 1978: FBI and anti-abortion terrorism". TalkLeft.
- Bachara, Michael (April 30, 2011). "Celebrating the Life of Wisconsin Activist Ben Masel: An activism pioneer who inspired many, Ben Masel loses battle with lung cancer". Hemp News.
- Reichertz, WJ (2012). "Purpose Beyond 2012: The Wisconsin Idea, Occupy Wall Street and Democracy's Future, p. 467". Xlibris.
- Lee, Martin A. (August 2013). "Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana - Medical, Recreational and Scientific, p. 199". Simon & Schuster.
- Bridgeford, Brian (December 5, 2001). "Weedstock case goes up in smoke". Baraboo News Republic.
- Slater, Dj (July 1, 2006). "Weedstock organizer peppersprayed, arrested". Baraboo News Republic.
- Treleven, Ed (May 27, 2010). "Pot activist Masel, state reach deal on excessive force lawsuit". Wisconsin State Journal.
- Kirkman, Lisa (May 7, 2011). "The Ben Masel Memorial 420 Chess Tournament". Chess.com.
- Madison Common Council (May 17, 2011). "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" (PDF). City of Madison.
- "Happy Ben Masel Day!". The Capital Times. April 20, 2012.