Ben Masel, October 17, 1954 to April 30, 2011. 

In arrest at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago sent Ben Masel on a life course like no other. Ben joined the protestors who sued the City of Chicago and Mayor Dailey over their illegal detentions and police brutality. After several years fighting city hall, Ben collected $40,000 in damages. His career course was set.

Born in the Bronx, Ben Masel moved to Madison Wisconsin after he met a group of Madison activists at the May Day 1970 mass protest against the Vietnam War. Madison and the world will never be the same.

Ben Masel in his trademark shirt protests in front of the State Capital, Madison, WI.

Ben adopted the progressive politics and comical theatrics of the Youth International Party, the Yippie's. In 1970, when his friend and dealer got busted and was being held in a Wisconsin jail, Ben organized a rally in his support. Protestors marched to the Capital building in Madison carrying the banner, “Free Dana Beal”. Ben called this event The Great Midwest Harvest Fest. It became an annual event that Ben continued to organize until his death.

Ben also organized an annual rural bacchanalia called Weedfest that was a constant thorn in the sides of local authorities. This festival became the prototype for the hundreds of freedom festivals and hemp fests that are held around the country each summer.

Ben was a master strategist who could see the future better than most anyone. He acted on this vision in ways that put his life and liberty on the line. With courageousness and determination, Ben changed our world. Ben often ran for public office. One run for Sheriff featured a campaign poster of a butt-naked Ben and the slogan, “Nothing to Hide, Masel for Sheriff.” In 2008, Ben ran for the US Senate. He only accepted one dollar campaign contributions and ran under the slogan, “A Senator you can afford.” Despite no budget, Ben received 14 percent of the vote against incumbent Herb Kohl. Ben was busy organizing to run again against Kohl for the US Senate in 2012 when his illness overcame him.

Ben could not miss a good protest and became a fixture at events around the country. He frequented protests organized around national party conventions. Ben was a Rainbow Warrior who thrived at the annual Rainbow Gatherings held in national forests across the country. Of all things to protest, Ben’s favorite became the insane drug war that is pulling down our country. Ben was regular at drug policy conferences and NORML events. He remained a leader of Wisconsin NORML though his adulthood. Ben was proud of his 137 arrests, most all of them at protest events. He fought each ticket accepting only minor misdemeanor penalties in six of these prosecutions. He constantly sued back collecting twelve judgments against civil authorities before his death. He even got notorious New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to pay attorney fees in one case.

Ben became an expert in civil liberties and police brutality law. When protestors were not allowed to read the 4th Amendments to juries in criminal trials, Ben designed a shirt for people doing civil disobedience to wear for their arrests. The front of the shirt gave Notice to Law Enforcement Officers that the wearer retained all of his rights. The back quoted the entire 4th Amendment, thus one arrested in Ben's shirt could get these bulkheads of our liberty into evidence at their subsequent trial. Ben's shirt became a uniform for civil disobedience advocates and drug smugglers across the country. One time the local sheriff arrested Ben for passing out leaflets on the sidewalk. That was an easy win for Ben as the right to leaflet in public spaces is clearly established. Ben won a quick judgment against the Sheriff. The next year the Clinton/Gore campaign came to town. Clinton's handlers did not like to see Ben on the sidewalk leafleting. Secret Service agents asked the Sheriff to arrest him. “No way," responded the Sheriff, "Do you have any idea what happened the last time I tried to arrest Benny for leafleting."

After election of Tommy Thompson as Wisconsin governor, with Ben running in opposition, The Great Midwest Harvest Festival became controversial. Thompson pledged he would get rid of the annual protest on the State Capital grounds. The Harvest Fest was interrupted by the arrest of Ben and others (including myself) for not having a permit. Ben turned around and sued the state. He quickly won a permanent injunction that prevented the state from interfering with the rights of peaceable assembly on the capitol grounds.

The next year Ben upped the ante by bringing a large sound system to the Harvest Fest. Capital police arrested him for the sound system. Ben again turned around and sued the state. This time the court awarded Ben a permanent injunction that prevented the state from interfering with the rights of peaceful protestors to have large sound systems and therefore large crowds on the statehouse lawn. Through the intransigence of one activist, Madison became the one state capital in the US with well-defined rights for demonstrators. The miracle we recently saw unfolding in Madison, our nation's Cairo moment, the people's response to Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to bust the public employee unions, could have only taken place in Madison because of the advanced work of one activist, Ben Masel.

Ben first learned of the Madison protests within minutes of his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer this January. Ben’s friends had taken him to the hospital after Ben woke up in extreme respiratory distress. The doctors quickly understood a growing tumor was blocking Ben’s breathing tube. As a temporary measure, they injected him with steroids to reduce the mass. Quickly, Ben’s respiration returned to normal. It was then that his phone rang with the news that a public protest had been called for the state capital that day at noon.

Ben was adamant with his doctor; he had to get to the capital building. The doctor was resistant telling Ben of the dangers of hemorrhaging after such a big dose of steroids. “If you hemorrhage in the hospital, there is a chance we can save you. If you hemorrhage down there, you are dead.” “That’s okay Doc, Ben replied, “If I have to die I would rather do it at the capital in front of Walker than to die here in the hospital.” The doctor knew better than to argue with such a determined man. Instead all the doctor could do was to admonish Ben to be on time for his 1:30 pm MRI appointment.

Ben’s last protest took place during the month-long worker occupation of the capital. People had been arrested for carrying signs inside the capital building. Ben decided to challenge this and put out an announcement on Twitter and FaceBook calling for civil disobedience inside the capital. Ben’s strategy was that the state capital houses the Wisconsin State Constitution on its second floor. So he created protest signs up that quoted the Constitution. Try as hard as he could, Ben’s crew could not get themselves arrested that day.

Ben set an example of courage and determination that should inspire all of us to action. Activists will continue to draw on Ben’s inspiration and example. They will need to. It seems this summer’s 41st annual Midwest Harvest Fest will have to be organized around the same cause that Ben organized the first one. Its target, Dana Beal, has, 40 years later, again been arrested in Wisconsin. Beal once more is stuck in jail without bond. Somebody there needs to organize a protest. Wisconsin activists unite, do it for Dana, do it for Ben.

Ben Masel in his trademark shirt hangs out with Medical Marijuana Barbie. Photo: Bob Ramsey

Don E Wirtshafter is an Athens, Ohio activist/Attorney who has been a participant in several of Ben Masel's many arrests.