Local Rastafari church protested for hate speech, as landlord moves to evict

by | May 23, 2019 | 0 comments

“Blaze it, don’t appropriate it!”

“Pro-pot. Anti-hate.”

The signs held by protesters outside of the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari church were universal in their support for legalized marijuana – and opposition to hate speech.

About a dozen or so people gathered outside the establishment at the corner of West Mifflin and North Bedford Streets on a warm, windy day in May to protest the two-month-old establishment most well-known for its open distribution of marijuana. They handed out fliers highlighting the memes and other statements posted to the Lion of Judah Facebook page that are homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic.

“A lot of people are familiar with the weed aspect,” said Megan Slivka, one of the organizers of the protest. “But we want to bring awareness to the community about the hateful messages they’re spreading.”

One such image calls for “Straight Pride” and claims persecution by “heterophobia,” while another calls feminism “the idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they serve their husband and children.” Other images denigrate transgender people. The page has also posted solicitations to assist people interested in mail-order-spouses from Kenta or Jamaica, with a photo showing Black women posing in bikinis.

“Where do the donations go?” Slivka went on, questioning the use of money given by those seeking weed. “My cis, white, male friend went in and spoke with them and asked about that. The guy said, ‘The weed you’re getting, bro.”

Slivka points out that the church doesn’t appear to be offering any other services. “If this was black-owned, it would have been shut down immediately,” she added.

The City of Madison in April sent a cease and desist letter to the building’s landlord, Charajeet Kaur, directing her to remove the tenants within five days for drug use and distribution. At an Alcohol License Review Committee meeting on May 22, later on the same day as the protest, Kaur confirmed that they were beginning eviction proceedings against Lion of Judah.

Kaur had applied to renew a liquor license for Harry’s Market, which had occupied the building before Lion of Judah and intends to reopen once they’ve gone. The ALRC tabled discussion or approval of the renewal until such time as that matter is settled.

Whose religion is it, anyway?

The debate about how officials might have handled the situation differently were Lion of Judah run by people of color is part of what drove Dana Pellebon, a longtime Madison queer and racial justice activist, to visit the space about a week before the protest. In a video posted to her Facebook page, Pellebon is shown attempting to engage the owner on the subject of cultural appropriation. Rastafari is an Africa-centered religion created in Jamaica in the 1930s after the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who Rastafari believe was either the second coming of Jesus Christ, or a prophet of God (called Jah). The two men who run Lion of Judah are both white Americans, at least one of whom speaks with an affected Jamaican accent.

Rastafari has a checkered history and present when it comes to LGBTQ people and women. In short, the attitudes on display by the people at Lion of Judah are not out of line with much of Rastafari ideology, which is patriarchal and asserts that women are physically and morally “weaker” than men and should be subservient to them. It also preaches that homosexuality is “evil” and “unnatural.”

In the video, Pellebon’s conversation quickly turns heated, as the owner and another man begin to speak over and argue with her. They eventually forcibly remove her from the building while the white owner calls Pellebon, who is Black, a “Neanderthal.” During the protest, LOJ staff referred to Pellebon as “Dana Bablyon,” called one young man a “fa**ot,” and referred to the others “baboons.”

Religious rites

The issue of whether marijuana smoking should be considered a sacrament or rite, protected by the Freedom of Religion, is a complicated one.

Current law works against them, given a 1990 Supreme Court decision that ruled against two men fired for the use of peyote in an indigenous religious ceremony. President Bill Clinton in 1993 helped pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, largely in response to that decision. The “measure allows believers to opt out of complying with laws that impose a ‘substantial burden’ on the free exercise of their religion unless there is a compelling government interest in forcing them to comply and the law is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

Understandably, interpretation of the measure has varied over time, and the current climate heavily favors more conservative and far-right Christian views. The 2014 Supreme Court decision upholding Hobby Lobby’s right to deny birth control prescription coverage to employees relied on the RFRA, for instance, but no cases involving the use of currently illegal drugs have garnered the same kind of legal support.

Meanwhile, public support for the legalization of either medical or recreational marijuana has grown substantially, with 10 states legalizing it entirely, and 33 states allowing it for medical use with a doctor’s note. The patchwork of laws, as well as the Trump Administration’s generally unfriendly attitude, have created uncertainty and sometimes seeming legal traps for marijuana businesses, however, including restrictions on banking.

An even larger issue is amnesty. While some states and municipalities have enacted legal amnesty for those serving time for marijuana-related offenses, many have not. That leaves some people still serving time for offenses that are no longer illegal. Pot arrests disproportionately target and impact people of color, too, and so far those profiting off legalization are largely white, and/or corporate.

Mixed messages

At the protest, two men who said they worked for the church checking IDs at the door both insisted that they didn’t “hate gay people,” and felt attacked by those picketing outside.

Byron, who described himself as a 64-year-old “homeless bum,” says he was thankful that the church took him in. “They let me check IDs, help me out with food and a place to sleep.” He apologized for calling one of the protesters a slur and said he thought “gays and Rastafari should march together. We’re on the same side [for legalization].”

Another younger man, Jerry, also defended the church. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” he insisted. “If my religion says that my woman should be subservient then that’s my right.”

“They [the protesters] call me a bigot so now I feel how they feel,” he went on. “That’s what causes wars, man.”

Jerry also identified a nearby woman as “my friend” who is a lesbian and often hangs out with him at the church, smoking weed. The woman questioned some of the protesters, claiming she was “neutral” and didn’t understand the need for the picketing.

Anna Bailey held a sign urging passersby to “CCAP Jesse Schwork,” a nod to the lengthy criminal history of one of the church’s operators. Lion of Judah is run by Jesse R. Schworck and Dylan Paul Bangert, both white men who are Madison natives but currently living in Stoughton. Schwork’s CCAP record includes charges for sexual assault of a child (later changed and convicted as two counts of 4th degree sexual assault), domestic abuse, restraining orders, and drug offenses.

Bailey was thoughtful about her reasons for being at the protest. “I’m not here protesting pot. I’m protesting white men appropriating a black religion, and using tax-exempt status to spread hate,” she said. “They’re not doing anything to actually fight for legalized pot, or against incarceration or the drug war, like how it disproportionately targets people of color.”

A short but wild life

The Lion of Judah made headlines when it opened in March, but almost all of the attention centered around their claim that the use and distribution of marijuana is a protected religious sacrament. The church says it filed for and receive federal tax-exempt status, and that giving marijuana to visitors for a “suggested donation” was their right. Madison city officials disagree, saying there’s no such documentation to prove it’s an actual church or has such status.

In late March, police entered the building and confiscated several jars of marijuana and related paraphernalia. Then, on April 12, the city’s attorney sent a cease and desist drug nuisance letter to Schwork and Bangert, saying “there is no question that you are possessing, selling and offering to sell marijuana, THC products, and drug paraphernalia.”

Things escalated even further when, on April 18, Lion of Judah filed a federal lawsuit claiming that enforcement actions by the city and police, intended to stop the distribution of pot and close the church, were unconstitutional. Ten days later, they filed for an injunction against the city, but a judge dismissed it. LOJ filed another injunction request six days later, with an amended complaint.

As for the police, MPD Public Information Officer Joel DeSpain could only say that there was an ongoing investigation and that meant he couldn’t comment further.

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