My friend Siobhan Reynolds died this weekend in an Ohio plane crash, and I wanted to write about her life and her work. Siobhan needs some introduction, and you will get some from this post. But you should also first read Radley Balko’s tribute at The Agitator for background.
In Media Res?
In 2010, I started a nonprofit, Americans for Forfeiture Reform, to work on asset forfeiture issues in the United States. Asset forfeiture laws are deeply implicated in the conduct and structure of American governance, allowing executive branch agencies to control part of their own funding free of legislative or democratic control. The subject is closely related to Radley Balko’s seminal work on the emergence of paramilitary policing in the United States, and also to Siobhan’s work against the atrocities conducted in the name of the Controlled Substances Act. I remember reading Balko’s coverage of Sioban’s persecution by federal prosecutor Tonya Treadway, and later on realizing that somehow Siobhan and I had somehow connected over Facebook.
Siobhan’s story is compelling and unique. It was obvious to me that many of the arguments she was making were by and large correct, and represented a substantial path forward in curtailing the Drug War and reforming American democracy. Her nonprofit work through the Pain Relief Network was gutsy, brilliant, and effective. We began talking, and I ended up flying out to Santa Fe to meet her earlier this year.
Siobhan was a rare person. Having suffered much, she did not relent. Yet challenging an entrenched, powerful bureaucracy that holds itself above and beyond any law is a task beyond most, and Sisyphus himself may have had an easier doom. When I first met Siobhan, she warned me of the many ways in which Leviathan has become a Hydra, and how easily the government can crush those who speak against it.
Siobhan helped me see the silly semiotics of the “big government” trope. I think she would say that it isn’t “big government” but “unconstrained and unrestrained government” that forms the core of the political issue of our time (of any time?).
When I saw Siobhan for the first time in Santa Fe, I was particularly struck by her presence. Siobhan is bold, and fearless; she speaks with a blazing contempt for those who she considers the “controlled opposition” of drug policy and criminal justice system reform. I did not always agree with her conclusions, but there is no doubt that some of the barriers to true policy reform in this country are found in the institutions that ought to support it.
Yet, beyond all expectation, Siobhan was tremendously effective. We know this because the government, represented by the federal prosecutor Tanya Treadway, went out of its way to bankrupt Siobhan’s nonprofit, the Pain Relief Network (Balko):
Of course, the government doesn’t like a rabble rouser. It becomes especially wary of rabble rousers who begin to have some success. And so as Reynolds’ advocacy began to move the ball and get real results, the government hit back. When Reynolds began a campaign on behalf of Kansas physician Stephen Schneider, who had been indicted for over-prescribing painkillers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tonya Treadway launched a blatantly vindictive attack on Reynolds’ free speech. Treadway opened a criminal investigation into Reynolds and her organization, attempting to paint Reynolds’ advocacy as obstruction of justice. Treadway then issued a sweeping subpoena for all email correspondence, phone records, and other documents that, had Reynolds complied, would have been the end of her organization. Treadway wanted records of Reynolds’ private conversations with attorneys, doctors, and pain patients and their families. It was unconscionable Here’s an activist advocating on behalf of suffering people, and the government comes along and demands she turn over accounts of her private conversations with those same people. (Some of whom undoubtedly sought out extra-legal ways to relieve their pain, since the government had made it impossible for them to legally find relief.)
So Reynolds fought the subpoena, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And she lost. Not only did she lose, but the government, with compliance from the federal courts, was able to keep the entire fight sealed. The briefs for the case are secret. The judges’ rulings are secret. Reynolds was barred from sharing the briefs she filed with the press. Perversely, Treadway had used the very grand jury secrecy intended to protect Reynolds as a gag to censor her. The case was a startling example not only of how far a prosecutor will go to tear down a critic, but of how much power they have to do so.
The sad thing is that it worked. The Pain Relief Network went under. Reynolds also lost a good deal of her own money. She was never charged with any crime. But that was never the point. It was a transparent and malicious effort to smash an annoying critic. And it was successful. (I wrote a piece for Slate on Treadway’s vendetta against Reynolds.)
Does no one remember their Solzhenitsyn? One finds eerie parallels to this kind of political repression in the behavior of all kinds of noxious governments, from the Soviet to the Nazi to the North Korean.
In latin, “iacta alea est”. It is attributed to Caesar on crossing the Rubicon. At the time the meaning implied something closer to “The game is afoot”, indicating that the proverbial dice had been tossed and that there was yet a determination to be made as to the emergent, chaotic outcome that hinged on the skill of the player and the vagaries of chance.
My friend Mitch Richards called me early this morning on hearing of Siobhan’s death. Earlier this year, I’d connected Siobhan with Mitch for an interview on the Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum, a radio show in Columbia, Missouri. Here is a link to the mp3 of that interview.
But I digress. Yes, the “game is afoot”. The work Siobhan started has a future. “Politics is a lagging indicator of society”, as Jacob Sullum says, and Siobhan was a visionary, as Radley Balko says:
There aren’t very many people who can claim that they personally changed the public debate about an issue. Reynolds could.
Radley, of course, is too modest to note that he is another such person, who has single-handedly changed the public debate on law enforcement and police militarization.
At one point Siobhan told me that “War is not just what America does. It is what we are.” I did not disagree with her. She was a warrior.