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Rastas Asked To Make Political Exception For Prop 19

Dan Watson, Frances Vega |
November 2, 2010 | 1:57 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporters

He looms over his church — 6-foot-8, swaying between members with fiery eyes and a booming voice.

(First Church of Rasta service)
(First Church of Rasta service)

“They say, do NOT talk about politics and do NOT talk about religion,” he preaches. “Well tonight, I’m breaking some rules.”

Smoke rises up from a select few in his congregation. The reggae band waits patiently behind the pulpit.

On Friday, just days before the 2010 Midterm Elections, King Oji — priest of The First Church of Rasta — is commanding his Rastafarian congregation to take heed to a different sort of message.

Yes, Rastafarians tend to reject Western society. Yes, they are encouraged to stay away from mainstream political involvement.

But yes, King Oji is breaking the rules.

“If they crack down on Prop 19, we’ll have to run one of us for governor,” he shouts.
The congregation breaks into applause. Rastafarians, in a rare instance, have been encouraged to enter the political realm. 

Rastas are members of a religious movement that arose from Jamaica in the 1930s, their societal caricature depicted by dreadlocks and marijuana.

California Proposition 19 — the passage of which would allow people over the age of 21 to smoke and cultivate up to 25 square feet of plant for personal use — has elicited strong opinions from this community which prides itself in political indifference.

Prop 19 is the most publicized proposition on today’s ballot, the first time in California history that full legalization of marijuana has been up for a vote. While California midterm elections usually only garner 41 percent of eligible voters, many counties are expecting a turnout over 50 percent. Some publications have reported that higher turnout can be attributed to controversial propositions like 19. Counties with high-expected turnouts include San Diego, Riverside, Orange, Sacramento and Placer counties.

For Rastafarians, whose way of life includes the spiritual use of cannabis, it’s a hot topic.

In another time, King Oji — I-Priest of the church — was Vernon Vanoy, 100 pounds heavier, a defensive tackle bouncing between NFL teams. His still-hulking figure commands attention, despite the humble conditions insde the church.

The ministers struggle to pay $1,800 per month for rent on the two rooms that make up the church, crunched in between a line of other businesses along West Venice Blvd. in Los Angeles.

The clutter within both rooms borders on overwhelming. The back room is something like a dirty garage, but, in fact, is where five ministers live. Bedsheets lie on the ground. A fold-up table contains a blender, liquids and a bunch of bananas — their kitchen.

"It’s a lot like being a monk,” said Henry W. Brown III (also known as Aminifu), prime minister of the church.

During his sermon, King Oji begins with a call for his congregation to focus on economics, not money. Soon, he turns to a more taboo subject: politics.

“This is something worthwhile,” he says with conviction. “It will stop someone like you from going to prison and going to jail.”

He continues on: “We resist. We deserve it. These are values. This is what we can teach to the world. The whole world needs these things.”

In most situations, members of the Rastafarian community do not trust government. They see Western government as a symbol of oppression. Rastafarians also do not believe the interests of politicians are in sync with the interests of their people. Yet, there is something different about this election. Leaders of the church are using Prop 19 as an example of how government can cater to Rastafarian interests.

“A lot of Rastas don’t vote in the elections because they see the candidates as the lesser of the two evils. I grew up a different way. I was born in Wisconsin,” said Aminifu. “I voted in the Obama election, I’ll be voting on Nov. 2. These are some of the discussions we’re having in the church as well because we want people to know we can make a change.”

Marijuana is already legal in the Rastafarian community. In 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided that some Rastafarians are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Because the use of cannabis is a religious sacrament to Rastafarians, the court said the act might protect Rastafarians who possess or smoke marijuana as part of their religious practices.  Even though they are legally allowed to smoke, leaders of the church still feel the passage of Prop 19 is important.

“The police have abused their authority with regard to the cannabis culture. For example, you have all the cases that were considered where marijuana is a factor in the case,” Aminifu said. “The jails would be half empty and their budgets wouldn’t be as hefty.”

Endorsement for Prop 19 has come from the likes of current and former politicians, Newsweek and New York Times editorials, Facebook, Gmail and PayPal, in addition to a long list of mainstream organizations, including the California NAACP, Latino Voters League and California Young Democrats. Opposition has come strong and steady from just as many sides, including Governor Schwarzenegger, police and sheriff associations and the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee.

A First Church of Rasta service showcases the diversity descending on the polls today; voters from all walks of life.

Rasta, in and of itself, fosters such an environment, encouraging individualism and ideology over religion.  Attendees say they come to church “to get lifted.”

On this day, there are devoted followers hanging on King Oji’s every word. Others are musicians mostly there for the gig. There are members amusingly banging away at conga drums, while budding young violinists carefully prepare. Some are there for a safe night out, others for the church fellowship. Young and old, male and female — there’s a little bit of everything, a rallying point primarily for the black community.

Deeper into the night, the service grows as the music gets louder. Aminifu enjoys playing during the service. To him, music is the best way to spread love and acceptance. He calls the Rastafarian services “joyful noise.” They are a safe haven for those who feel misunderstand or as if they have nowhere else to go.

“I was one of the first participating Rastas in the community. In those days we used to get physically attacked, spit on, called the devil and all kinds of things,” Aminifu said. “And even now with the emergence of dreadlocks people still do not understand what we’re about and there’s still a lot of prejudice because there isn’t understanding.”

During the music, marijuana smoke drifts into the air. But not all partake. Some are there for other reasons. 

Wency Marjorie changed up the musical mood with her rendition of “Unchained Melody” — on the violin.

“The whole Rasta family here has been a huge source of encouragement and support to me,” she said. “As a budding artist, they invited me to perform. Hands down, I came.”

After a rousing applause, pleas followed for her to “play a Bob Marley song!”

“Next week,” she promised.

Marjorie graduated from Florida State with a minor in music before she took classes at the Berklee College of Music. She currently calls Beverly Hills home while she “tries to forge a path as a solo artist.”

The music often goes until 5 a.m.

Just as Marjorie has come to understand Rasta through music, Aminifu also said the passage of Prop 19 would give their community an opportunity to educate the general public about the Rastafarian lifestyle. He said a lot of people think that Rastas only care about marijuana and smoking. According to Aminifu, Rastas believe everything consumed should be natural. They eat a clean, largely vegetarian diet.

“We start out by not even calling it a diet, that’s what’s killing people. We call our regime of fasting and eating ‘a living,’” Aminifu said. “We eat foods that replenish your body and give it energy rather than things that take away from that. Generally, that’s processed food and animals.”

Rastas view marijuana as a “way to reach God.”

Roseanne Ware, the executive director of Sol Adventurers Foundation, a non-profit that works with youth in Los Angeles and Jamaica, came to know Rasta like many, through reggae.

“In the Bible, it’s even said, herb is for the service of man,” Ware said. “That comes from the Bible. It’s about uplifting people and spreading positive vibration.”

Despite their leaders’ push for Prop 19, some Rastas don’t feel it will accomplish much, or that the perception of their members will not change.

“I think Prop 19 is more about wanting control over what’s happening out there and making money off it,” Ware said.

For the First Church of Rasta ministers, it’s been about spreading the word. The latest Kings Chamber Jah program — distributed to church members and throughout the community — calls for members to “make your ballot count.”

And, on Friday, there was one last sermon from King Oji.

“We have a right to smoke our weed in our places of peace,” he said from the pulpit. “We’re not going to take a defeat. We’re going to organize and keep on working.”

Reach reporter Dan Watson here.
Reach reporter Frances Vega here.



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