IMC Helps Pass Prison Phone Justice Bill in Illinois

ppj Carol&WandjellState Representative Carol Ammons and Wandjell Harvey-Robinson attended the signing of HB6200 on August 22, 2016. The bill will cut in half the cost of phone calls from Illinois prisons.

Thank you to Rep. Ammons and Wandjell for fighting for those incarcerated and their families!

Wandjell lives in Champaign and grew up paying the high costs of these phone calls talking to her two parents who were incarcerated when she was in the third grade. She is today involved with Ripple Effect, a support group for families with a loved one incarcerated. She was actively involved in the campaign to pass HB6200, speaking at two legislative committee hearings and appearing before the press.

“There are thousands of Illinois children whose lives will be dramatically improved by the actions today,” Wandjell said at the bill’s signing.

The new law will take effect January 1, 2018.

The Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice is a project of the Urban-Champaign Independent Media Center, and was also involved in the national campaign that brought the FCC’s decision last year to regulate the entire prison phone industry.

Support the IMC and help us give voice to those incarcerated and their families!

Posted in Human Rights, Prisoners, UC-IMC | Comments Off on IMC Helps Pass Prison Phone Justice Bill in Illinois

Why Traditional School is a Dangerous Place for Black Boys

My son is an A student in his junior year of college and a budding composer and performer with shining confidence. However, that was not always the case. In the 5th grade he came home and said, “Mom, the teacher thinks I’m the bad kid and I don’t think I’m as smart as the other children in class.”

Actually, I wish it had been that clear. What really happened is this: when he was in the 5th grade, he came home and said, “I got frustrated with the girls in my group today.” He explained that he was in a project group with 4 girls and they wouldn’t listen to any of his ideas. When they finally did let him talk for a few minutes, they told him that his idea didn’t make sense and they moved on with their own ideas.

A few days later he came home angry. He said that he was paired with the same group of girls and the teacher wouldn’t let him move to another group.

A few days after that, he came home and said that his teacher doesn’t like him. In hindsight, this is when I should have headed to the school to figure out what was going on. But the first half of the school year had gone so well. We had had a parent teacher conference just a few weeks prior. His teacher was an African American woman who knew our family and she had been clearly impressed by our son’s academic interests. So his stories seemed like normal boy-at-school stories and I wasn’t alarmed…yet.

Over the next few weeks, my son was generally irritated when he’d return home from school. When prodded, he said everything was fine.

And then one day he came home and said, “I don’t think I’m as smart as the other kids in my class.” An alarm finally went off in my head and I planned to walk into his class unannounced the next morning.

My husband and I are a middle class, interracial couple. I’m a Jewish, female engineer and I run a software engineering firm. My husband is a Black man with a PhD in Education and teaches at the University. We’re a communicative family with a keen focus on our children’s education. But it took us three weeks to translate that our son’s behavior had changed and, in that short period of time, he went from being a confident scholar to a disgruntled, insecure learner.

I walked into his class the next morning unannounced and witnessed a scene I’ll never be able to stamp out of my head. There was a young, White student teacher at a table surrounded by 8 kids, one of whom was my son. She had her finger inches away from my son’s face and was yelling at him,“When you want to learn like the rest of the kids you can join us but for now you go sit in the corner.”

I learned later that the student teacher had taken over the class three weeks prior while the homeroom teacher spent most of her days outside of the classroom managing the school-wide science fair.

I interrupted the student teacher and said, “Excuse me. That’s my son. I’ll take him in the hall.” She had a horrified, surprised look on her face and then quickly smiled and said, “You’re his mother? Oh my. Yes, of course.”

In a nutshell, here’s what had transpired. My son’s class was 65% White females. He was one of three Black boys in the class. He was an introspective, bright kid and deliberated excessively before speaking. During the first half of the school year, while the experienced, Black teacher was in charge of the class, the three Black boys were typically put into groups together for camaraderie and given frequent encouragement from the teacher. For example, they had each given presentations in front of the class about topics they were interested in, as did several of the White students. There had been an incident early in the year when our son had felt frustrated because the girls wouldn’t listen to his ideas, and his teacher helped him navigate the situation by having everyone in the group write down three ideas, put them in a pile, and then pull them out one by one for consideration.

When the science fair planning went into full effect, the teacher found herself out of the classroom most of the time, leaving a young student teacher alone to manage the classroom. The student teacher witnessed our son several times trying to get a group of girls to listen to him and she responded to him as if he was a disruptive, aggressive boy who didn’t want to learn. It took her three weeks to damage his self confidence and get him to believe that he was bad and less smart.

Once we figured out what was going on we expected that we could explain it to our son and repair his image of himself. But we couldn’t. He was changed and believed he wasn’t smart.

Because my husband and I have resources and the confidence to take matters in our own hands, we started a year-long school for six sixth-grade black boys, all of whom had had their spirits damaged in traditional school settings. The school was located on the campus of a top tier university. The instructors were college professors and grad students. The curriculum included latin, hip-hop poetry, history as written by African American scholars, martial arts, computer programming, as well as math, english, and science. There were lectures on how society sees Black boys. The boys attended lunch-n-learn sessions on campus and, when they asked questions, they experienced positive response from the college students, which built their confidence. There were three basis strategies that defined the school model.

  1. The learning environment must be comfortable for the learner rather than being based on what makes the instructors comfortable. For example, the students could walk around while the instructor lectured, or lay on the table or jump up and down when they got excited to ask a question.
  2. The students met with their counselor every single morningto uncover any feelings or outcomes from the prior day that could impact their ability to engage.
  3. The students would be called Scholarsand be wrapped in content written by and reflective of Black people.

When I picked my son up from this new school after his fourth day he got in the car with a smile and said, “I think I may be smart when I grow up. Maybe I’m even smart now.”

Because my husband and I are privileged in many ways we were able to take time off work to witness what was going on with him and to start a school to reconstruct the image of our son. But the majority of Black families don’t have the luxury of doing any of this.

My husband has often talked about the phenomena of Black boys losing interest in school (or schools losing the interest of Black boys) in fourth and fifth grade. Families raising Black boys, and other minority students, have to be analytical and strategic throughout their child’s schooling. You have to look for subtle changes in your child. Question typical teaching methods. Look for ways to incorporate Black studies in your child’s education. And push the status quo — work toward changing our traditional schools in ways that will be inclusive and embrace and highlight the scholarship of our non-traditional students.

Lori PLori Patterson is co-founder of Pixo, a software engineering consulting firm established in 1998. She is a Mechanical Engineering graduate from the University of Illinois. Lori can be found at her blog: and on Twitter at @lorigpatterson.


Posted in Community Forum, Education, Women | Comments Off on Why Traditional School is a Dangerous Place for Black Boys

Myths of Unity

An increasingly polarized climate has resulted in this beautiful revolution we call Black Lives Matter we are experiencing today. As both an observer and victim of this increasingly militarized society I’m proud to see us finally unite. However, I’m afraid. I’m afraid because of the toxic seeds being sown within our own walls. I’m afraid that our movement will destroy itself before it even has a chance to grow.

I’ve had the privilege and misfortune to come from a highly diverse background. I was raised by a drug kingpin who bred fear of the police into me from an early age. I was no stranger to wiretaps, unwarranted searches, and brutality as a child. So deeply ingrained was my fear that even today my heart skips a beat when I hear that signature siren.

Fast forward to high school where I found myself working for and rubbing elbows with politicians and leaders of the community. The narrative shifts entirely. Law enforcement officers are upheld as the pinnacle of justice and morality. This is especially true for politicians, who hold as much reverence for law enforcment as the average citizen holds for our armed forces. But speaking as someone who’s brother is in the military, let’s applaud them for their selflessness but not excuse them from their faults.

Now I find myself in 2016 on a college campus with a diverse student body. Higher learning continues to play a crucial role in discovery. Inside as well as outside the classroom we are still trying to discover who we are. Discovering our professional aspirations, our sexuality, and our political views. It’s easy to find characters ranging from the student body politician that seeks incremental justice all the way to the activist seeking to ignite civil unrest. I believe there’s both beauty and power in our wide spectrum of ideologies. But I also believe that what unites us may tear us apart.

The revolutionary minded have become easy targets by the center-left and right wings. The moment traffic is disrupted, flags are waved, or voices are risen then they are labeled “extremist.” What most people don’t understand is that the current state of public discourse is bathed in so much complacency and inaction that it will take a few to get their hands dirty to expose how clean we think we are. I have so much love for my militant minded sisters and brothers because they go into battle knowing that they have a target on their back. I stand behind them rather than making them easier to shoot.

Likewise, I support my agents within the system. These are the fundraisers, doorbell ringers, and suit wearing brothers and sisters who show their support from behind the scenes. We label these individuals as weak or “sympathizers” who would sell us out for a chance to conform. On the contrary, these allies are the ones that often have the most impact from within the system at crucial times. If you truly believe that change can only come from the outside and not from within then it’s because you’ve never had a seat at the table.

Neither pacifism nor civil disobedience is pure in any sense but I do believe in tandem they can dismantle our deeply corrupt institutions. Let’s not be quick to alienate or argue with each other when we aim for the same goals. We may never mobilize around ideologies but let us unify around the principle that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

RicardoBorn in Boston and raised on the south side of Chicago, Ricardo has been a long-time entrepreneur. His first venture was a coffee business in high school. Currently, he manages Neutral Design Studio which provides mobile and web development for small businesses.


Posted in Community Forum, Policing, Voices of Color | Comments Off on Myths of Unity

CU Schools Need to Work Harder to Involve African American Parents

During the month of August, thousands of children will head back to schools in Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana 116 school districts. Many African American families and students are probably anxious about the new school year because of issues they encountered last year such as excessive school discipline, suspensions, poor grades, and negative interactions with school personnel.

For decades, research has shown that inadequate parental involvement in schools may result in a high attrition rate among African American children. Many believe that an effective level of involvement must be maintained by parents for African American children to reap the benefits of the educational process. This is critical if black students are to gain a better sense of empowerment and personal esteem. Consistent efforts must be undertaken by the local schools to establish an environment conducive to constant participation. The establishment of such an environment for schools can be aided by insight into the needs of the parents as well as their children.

J.P. Comer’s research in the 1980s found that, generally, parents in our school systems are the primary players in the daily process of educating children. He found that in disadvantaged urban areas, poor and minority parents are generally unrecognized, unappreciated, often dismissed, and considered by the public school system as having little to offer.

Comer also championed the idea that the parents of children attending schools in urban cities have untapped potential and resources. He felt that socio-economic factors and traditional patterns of interaction frequently mitigate positive exchange between school personnel and their constituents in poor, urban communities because parents tend to distrust schools. As a result, parents avoid contact with school personnel and are characterized as disinterested.

Other research suggests that many school systems operate with indifference toward parents because of the authority and power given to them. School personnel, i.e., principals, teachers, and staff, often erect barriers such as poor communication that leave poor and minority parents out of the educational process, causing parents to limit their involvement in their children’s educational endeavors.

Sadly, in 2016, despite having knowledge about the benefits of parent and family involvement, Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana 116 school districts still have weak connections with the families and communities they serve. In particular, African American families are less able to realize the same levels of achievement and school attendance as other families.

Parental involvement in the educational process requires a great deal of time and effort. This becomes even more difficult if parents have several children in school at different levels of instruction, in different buildings, and if the children are involved in extra-curricular activities.

While educators are aware of the potential of parent involvement for improving children’s school achievement, many do not realize the importance of involving families in meaningful school-family partnerships. Schools need to raise achievement levels of students from poor and minority families, as well as for middle-class students, so that our nation can maintain its competitive edge economically and politically. This means that Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana 116 school districts need to establish clear policies on family involvement and reach out to all parents on a continuing basis, providing personal contact, literature and classes on parenting, literacy training, and parental resource centers.

Parental involvement in schools is important to African Americans because they are often on the periphery of society.  Historically, African Americans have been excluded from the public school decision making process in Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana 116 school districts.  As a result, they often have feelings of alienation and hopelessness.

I’m hopeful that in the 2016-2017 school year, school district personnel in Champaign-Urbana will make parent involvement a priority throughout the and have meaningful dialogue with African American parents in order to strengthen connections with the communities they serve.

Deloris Henry





Dr. Deloris P. Henry is a former school administrator who lives in Champaign. She has devoted her life to social justice, education, and community advocacy work.

Posted in African Americans, Community Forum, Education, Uncategorized, Voices of Color | Comments Off on CU Schools Need to Work Harder to Involve African American Parents

October Surprise: Harold “Killer” Koh to Lecture at UI Law School in Election Week


Harold Hongju Koh

Harold Hongju Koh, Hillary Clinton’s former legal advisor at the State Department  has been invited as an ‘endowed speaker’ at the U.I. College of Law, twelve days prior to the November election. Koh, currently a Yale Law School professor and former Dean, is a close friend of Yale Law School graduates Bill and Hillary Clinton. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and by President Obama, as senior legal advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: he provided legal advice to her during the 2009 coup in Honduras, the 2011 US/NATO attack on Libya, and Obama’s ongoing drone assassinations – as well as damage-control in her email controversy. He won’t say what that advice was, claiming “attorney-client privilege” – despite the Supreme Court ruling against attorney-client confidences between government lawyers and government officials.

An avid advocate of the targeted killing program, “Killer Koh” supports the legality of what he terms “extrajudicial killing” in Pakistan, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries in the US “war on terror,” saying it complies “with all applicable law, including the laws of war,” and citing the ‘principle of proportionality’ in “taking great care in planning and execution to ensure that only ‘legitimate’ objectives are targeted and that collateral damage is kept to a minimum.” In a feeble attempt at transparency, the Obama administration recently released a modest admission that some “116 civilians” may have been victims of U. S. drone attacks – a figure that is not reconcilable with the accounts of eyewitnesses, journalists and human rights researchers, who have documented many thousands of casualties. President Obama said – in a revealing moment of self-reflection – “Turns out I’m really good at killing people … Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine” (from Mark Halperin & John Heilemann, “Double Down: Game Change 2012”).

If Hillary Clinton is elected president, with the advice of Tim Kaine and Killer Koh, she may be even more eager to mass-murder than her predecessor: the number of casualties would likely exceed that of Obama’s kill list, just as his toll today greatly outnumbers G. W. Bush’s.

Late on Friday 5 August, the White House grudgingly complied with an Federal Court order (from an ACLU suit) and released a redacted “President’s Policy Guidance” (PPG) on Obama’s program of targeted killings. The PPG stipulates that “nothing in this PPG shall be construed to prevent the President from exercising his Constitutional authority … to authorize lethal force against an individual who poses a continuing, imminent threat to another country’s persons.” (Killing US citizens requires specific approval by the President). Death lists are drawn up weekly by the ‘nominating committee’ and are reviewed by lawyers of the nominating agencies (CIA, Pentagon, NSC, officials of the State Department and “deputies and principals of the nominating committee”).

Of the seven Middle Eastern countries where drone assassinations take place, “active war zones” – Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan (it’s not clear if Libya is included) – do not require prior approval. With this protocol in place, the White House and the National Security Council are insulated from outside scrutiny, even by Congress. It assumes that the Commander in Chief can do anything s/he wants; it would provide a President Clinton #2, with the approval of hawks Tim Kaine and Harold Koh, immense power and license to kill.

Koh as the (former) State Department lawyer has publicly defended extrajudicial killing as “due process under the Constitution in the age of moral and political degeneration.” In a speech at the Oxford Political Union in 2013 he said, “This Administration has not done enough to be transparent about the legal standards and decision making process … fostering a growing perception that the program [extrajudicial killing] is not lawful and necessary…,” adding that this lack of transparency is counterproductive and has led to the “negative public image” of targeted killing. Does Prof. Koh think the recent exposure of the (heavily redacted) PPG ordered by the Court provides the “transparency” to satisfy critics of the legality of targeted killing?

Although Koh has been described as a prominent advocate of human and civil rights (apparently exclusively of US citizens), he has been an “equal opportunist” as a legal advisor to Reagan, Clinton and Obama administrations – all of whom have violated the human rights of foreign nationals. He hardly represented human and civil rights as a member of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel to the President in the Reagan administration, when that office justified violations of international law, the Charter of United Nations and the US Constitution, in grievous violation of human rights and attempts to destabilize the countries of Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua (attempting to withdraw from the International Court of Justice, which denounced the US for bombing Nicaraguan harbors), Guatemala, Libya, Angola and elsewhere in southern Africa; and when it supported the South African apartheid government against its black population, supported Israel’s invasion and massacres of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and supported illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories – for which the US exercised its veto in the U.N. Security Council, in opposition to sanctions against US. In addition, the Reagan administration and its legal advisors refused to support nuclear test ban treaties, instead proliferating first-strike nuclear weapons, SDI (“star wars”) and MX missiles. Not a record to be proud of for someone serving as legal counsel to the president.

The opportunity extended Harold Koh to lecture potential scholars of political and international law poses the question, Is the University of Illinois College of Law – with its record of sanctions – qualified to educate future lawyers, when it sponsors a person of Harold H. Koh’s character in these politically charged times?

The Nuremberg Military Tribunal in 1947 stated unequivocally that the crimes of the ten civilian Nazi defendants who were convicted of murder and other atrocities, conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity of civilians and nationals of occupied territories, were liable to severe penalty whether or not they had engaged in military action. The Nuremberg judgment still stands in  international law.

A reception to protest Professor Koh’s appearance is planned at the north courtyard of the College of Law before the lecture on the afternoon of October 28.

(Midge O’Brien was an academic professional in U. of I. life science laborotories over twenty years and secretary in the Union of Professional Employees; was an election judge twelve years; a member of Nuclear Freeze, and Prairie Alliance against nuclear power; and an anti-war activist since 1965.  She is a member of the Green Party.)

Posted in Human Rights, International, Justice | Comments Off on October Surprise: Harold “Killer” Koh to Lecture at UI Law School in Election Week

Activists Among Us: Claire Szoke

By Julie Laut

Claire Szoke is an activist among us who has worked tirelessly on behalf of social justice issues for over forty years. She is currently the co-chair of Central Illinois Jobs With Justice, part-time director at the Channing-Murray Foundation, and an active member of the C-U Immigration Forum amongst other volunteer activities. She remains as committed to working for social justice today as she did decades ago as an anti-Vietnam protestor right here in Champaign-Urbana. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Claire through her work on the Social Action Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana Champaign (UUCUC). She was gracious enough to give me a few hours of her time this summer to share some of her past experiences and her thoughts on the current state of social justice action in our community.

2016 08 18 Laut Szoke

The first thing Claire told me when we sat down to lunch to discuss this article was an excellent reminder of how gender discrimination in the workplace has historically undermined women’s access to employment and fair wages. A graduate of the University of Tulsa, Szoke was teaching high school in Danville in 1970 when she became pregnant with her first child. Danville, like many school districts around the country at that time, required female teachers to go on leave after their fifth month of pregnancy. When Szoke protested the policy to her principal, he assured her it was for her own good; he didn’t want her to get knocked down the stairs by rowdy students. Dismissed from Danville, Szoke looked for a teaching position here in town after the birth of her daughter, only to encounter discriminatory policies monitoring mothers’ work well beyond pregnancy. The Champaign school district refused to hire a woman with a child under age one, and Urbana denied employment to mothers with children under two. She could substitute teach, but could not hold a permanent job. In telling this story, Szoke pointed out that her varied work résumé since that period reflects what happened to many other women in similar positions.

But what has not been varied in Szoke’s life has been her positive and active engagement in social justice issues. Claire’s interest in social and political issues began during her high school years in Tulsa in the 1950s, and at the University of Tulsa, and her commitment has only grown throughout the years.

A thread that runs through all of the work Claire has done is a commitment to the belief that all individuals deserve respect and the opportunity to live in a fair and safe society. She protested to end the war in Vietnam and against the invasions in Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003. But her commitment did not wane after the active wars ended. After 1990, Claire worked against what she refers to as the “draconian sanctions” imposed by the United Nations against Iraq, which had a devastating impact on the Iraqi people. Virtually all imports and exports were sanctioned, including food and medical supplies, leading to a collapse of the country’s infrastructure and a huge increase in infant and child mortality. (See Joy Gordon, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraqi Sanctions (Harvard University Press, 2010)). And she speaks with particular passion about the work done by the Champaign-Urbana Ecumenical Committee on Sanctuary (CUECS) to support refugees from countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala who were escaping death squads and civil war. These refugees were denied political asylum because the U.S. government backed the Central American dictatorships. Throughout the 1980s, the movement provided aid to refugees, culminating in churches and synagogues publicly offering “sanctuary” to individuals being moved into the United States through an underground network of religious organizations. This purposeful flaunting of the law was a way to draw the community’s attention to the need for policy changes. See Linda Rabben, Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History (University of Washington Press, 2016).

2016 08 18 Laut 1

Szoke sees a direct connection between the sanctuary movement of the 1980s and immigration issues today, in particular the crisis created by the on-going Syrian war. As such, she continues to work on behalf of refugees through the C-U Immigration Forum, which seeks comprehensive immigration reform. The organization works with immigrants in the community with legal help, addresses individual needs, provides translation services, and conducts workshops such as “Know Your Rights.” She has more recently become involved in inter-faith action such as the C-U Friends Assisting Immigrants and Refugees (FAIR), which formed in the wake of Governor Rauner’s November 2015 announcement refusing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Illinois.

Claire also remains an active member of the Channing-Murray Foundation, a self-described “radically inclusive” organization that has brought people from all different backgrounds together over social justice issues for decades. She is especially proud of Channing-Murray’s commitment to involvement with the campus community and history as a space dedicated to social justice action and the affirmation of diversity in our community.

It is easy to get discouraged about the lack of progress on many fronts despite decades of work by dedicated activists like Szoke. The Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that the violence of racism remains a potent problem in the United States despite a too often celebratory narrative of civil rights accomplishments. Labor unions are under attack throughout the country with legislative initiatives undermining workers’ rights and threatening labor’s power while the wealth gap continues to grow. The failure to achieve gender equity continues to undercut the social, political, and economic power of half of the population. And comprehensive immigration reform seems far out of reach in this volatile political environment. But talk with Claire for just a few minutes and any discouragement you might feel about lack of progress will turn into renewed determination to work toward a more humane and equitable society.

2016 02 25 Julie Laut

Julie Laut recently completed her Ph.D. in history at UIUC.





Posted in Immigration, International, Refugees, Women | Comments Off on Activists Among Us: Claire Szoke

The World According to the News-Gazette

In Champaign-Urbana, the News-Gazette is in the business of selling a commodity, the “news.” That’s the way “corporate media” necessarily work in a capitalist economy. Where media are government-run, the government subsidizes, that is, pays the costs.

What determines matters is the bottom line.

Selling a commodity and calling it “news”

So, what does the newspaper product look like? What are its selling points? The News-Gazette consists of articles and ads organized into sections. Section A (news, including editorials, opinion columns, and letters to the editor). Section B (local news, including opinion columns). Section C (sports). Other sections appear at intervals during the week – health and family – and on Sundays – entertainment, business.

Dig deeper. Just because it looks like a newspaper, and uses certain journalistic  conventions does not mean that it contains much news. Conventions like starting a story with a lead paragraph, progressively narrowing down and adding more and more detail.

But rather than assuming it is a newspaper because it ‘reads’ like one, think about how it is laid out. Think about what it leaves out as well as what it puts in.

The first, or news, section typically runs two or three local stories on the front page, and a couple of national or international stories on page 3. A non-news feature, “A Salute to Those Who Served,” runs invariably on page A-1.

On page 3, the paper has largely given up on comprehensive national coverage, but runs a roundup in the right-hand column, “Around the US.” “Dad fatally hurts zoo flamingo.” “Infant dies after being left in SUV.” ”Student stabs couple, bites face.” “Dolphin snatches woman’s iPad.” “Priest sentenced for sex tourism.” “Mother, boyfriend put child in dryer.”

Next comes an editorial page, expanded to a Commentary section on Sundays. For more than 75 years, the paper’s editorial line has been rightwing, consistently on the wrong side of history, as I documented in the June Public i.

“If it bleeds, it leads” —  the single largest number of news stories by a single reporter is crime stories

Section two, local news, includes a few local and state stories, but focuses especially on crime. The single largest number of news stories by one reporter is crime stories. Crime is all over the News-Gazette. Besides the bylined crime stories, there are the crime stoppers articles – including their annual fundraiser featured on the society page — and police blotter write-ups. And don’t forget the mugshots, and surveillance camera stills. There is also the too-weird-to-be-true stories. The pupply cooked alive in the oven. The guy who tortured his girlfriend’s cat. ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ is the paper’s motto, and not only the News-Gazette’s. All manner of crime except white collar crime, which is conspicuously absent.

Crime in the News-Gazette is slanted. Crime reporting is unrepresentative of actual crimes committed, as I discussed at length in the April, 2016 Public i. Crime coverage slops over from local news to the front page. A murder trial gets detailed front-page coverage. The story the day after when the suspect is found not guilty runs in the second section. This happened twice in less than a month in late 2015.

Crime in the News-Gazette is geared to generate fear. It is implicitly about us good folks versus the ‘bad guys’ out there, and it plainly shows the ‘bad guys’ are primarily Black. In short, the News-Gazette applies the tried-and-true methods that Roger Ailes used to create Fox News’ “fear factory.

Section three is sports. With its logo, “Consistently recognized among the nation’s best sports sections,” the paper clearly signals that it is the most important section. The largest number of pages, and the smallest amount of hard news content.

For years it has been about making lemonade out of lemons. ‘Giving it the ol’ college try’ is the sports section’s narrative, its story line. Consider: nearly every sports story can be written in one verb tense, the conditional. “With a few tweaks, Illini could contend on biggest stage” (April 4, 2015, my emphasis).

This is not to knock sports generally, not to knock Illinois in particular.  Yet when you are so intent on making lemonade, you risk failing to call a lemon a lemon. The paper was almost the last news source to report, for example, on UI student athlete complaints concerning trainers and abusive coaches in 2015. In other words, as journalism it failed.

What else the paper says nearly nothing about is money in sports, except coaches’ salaries. It looks no more deeply into the economic realities of market-driven sports, and who profits than it probes outsized private sector CEO salaries. Rather than reporting on the intrinsic tension between education and sports, the paper  argues that Illinois should admit every NCAA-eligible player, admissions standards be damned (Loren Tate on Al Kurtz show, WEFT, August 10, 2016).

Instead, the paper delivers locker room chatter, inside baseball, and lots and lots of box scores that we readers can relate to. Almost none of it newsworthy. And all of it packaged in shiny, morsel-sized featurettes. After each football game: “What happened,” “What It Means,” “What’s Next.” “Pigskin Predictions” (“top 50 countdown of preseason football rankings”). “Welcome Matt” (“sports editor Matt Daniels gets your morning kick-started with what to expect this week from The News-Gazette”).

“Sportsification”– the friendly takeover of the news sections by the sports section

The world according to the News-Gazette changes somewhat over time while remaining basically the same. Since 2014, for example, the paper has selected new editors and publisher.

The chief change has been “sportsification,” the friendly takeover of the news sections by the sports section. Newly appointed executive editor Jim Rossow had been sports editor since 1996. Newly-named news editor Jeff D’Alessio covered UI men’s basketball 1994-2001. He then went on to the Sporting News 2000-2002, Florida Today sports editor 2002-2004, Atlanta Journal-Constitution 2004-2008, including as deputy sports editor, then back to the Sporting News 2008-2014, before returning to Champaign.

Back when he was sports editor in 2008, Rossow came up with “12 days (and stories) of Christmas,”12 of his favorite [sports] stories that ran in the past five years.” Flashforward to 2015, and now-editor Rossow commissioned his stable of reporters for “12 stories of Christmas 2015,” including “The Power of PJs” and “Nun traded fisticuffs for happy habit.”

Sportsification at the News-Gazette has meant spreading the sports section’s gimmicky featurettes to the rest of the paper instead of reporting more news and doing it better. For his 2015 “50 Ways to Engage Our Readers,” Rossow “asked everyone to come up with their own feature.”

In the last two years at the News-Gazette, this make-work scheme has generated a slew of featurettes including the following. “The Health Reporter Is In.” “Ask Mimi.” “A Salute To Those Who Served.” “Spotlighting Service.” “Teacher of the Week.” “What’s in a name?” “Where Am I?” “Who lives here?” “Clergy Corner” (“What’s the one hymn that gives pastors goose bumps whenever their choir belts it out?”).

Several are simply lists, or more accurately, “listicles” reminiscent of Rossow’s “50 Ways.” D’Alessio’s “Big Ten.” “Go Figure” (“A numerical look at headlines”). “By the Numbers.” “Frank’s Five.” “The Future Five.” “Just 1 Question.”

Featurettes” — virtually devoid of news value — are placeholders for news never delivered

Such human interest, reader-oriented featurettes have infected papers nationally desperate to shore up their bottom line. At best, they are human interest stories. At worst, they are tabloid features, replete with the focus of tabloid journalism on crime, sex, and celebrities. But what is gained in revenue is lost in news.

Eight years ago Chicago Jewish billionnaire Sam Zell bought the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Orlando Sentinel. Zell spoke to nervous Sentinel staffers in 2008.

Zell: “My attitude on journalism is very simple. I want to make enough money so I can afford you. It’s really that simple. Okay? You need to, in effect, help me by being a journalist that focuses on what our readers want and therefore, generates more revenue.”

Sentinel photographer Sara Fajardo: “But what readers want are puppy dogs, and I mean, we also need to inform the community…”

Zell: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t – you know, you’re giving me the classic, what I would call journalistic arrogance of deciding that puppies don’t count. Hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq. Okay? Fuck you.”

I think that’s pretty clear.

For featurettes are in fact ‘space wasters.’ Devoid of news value, they mostly take up space. They are placeholders for news never delivered.

Taking up space, grabbing our attention, these space wasting featurettes convey the world according to the News-Gazette more clearly, more explicitly than more straightforward news stories. The intention is that we identify with, feel good about ourselves and our Lake Wobegon community in the cornfields, that we feel trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And buy the paper.

This is the world according to the News-Gazette.

Featurettes increasingly swamp “hard” news, they drive actual news out. Still more disturbing, these “soft” news featurettes tend to reproduce the status quo, already conservative, rather than reporting news that challenges readers, pushes them out of their comfort zones.

By definition, featurettes do not present or discuss issues. Featurettes avoid talking about politics. Politics is evacuated explicitly, but politics is still present implicitly. The ideological work that featurettes perform is to uphold the status quo. But this is done indirectly and dishonestly.

On the front page, for example, “A Salute to Those Who Served” implicitly devalues those who did not by simply excluding them. Vets fought in wars; implicitly, the featurette is pro-military, pro-war. In the News-Gazette‘s world, war critics, antiwar protestors, and conscientious objectors, are all by definition non-persons. They literally do not count; they are airbrushed out.

This is not to knock the military. Some wars need to be fought. But Vietnam? Iraq? Those are debatable… so let’s have a discussion, a debate. But the News-Gazette refuses to present more than one side. It has never met a war it didn’t like, so end of story. With “A Salute to Those Who Served” the paper disserves the broader community. And in the process, it contributes to the gradual corrosion of our increasingly militaristic, militarized society and body politic.

Another featurette, “Clergy Corner,” is to date Christian only. Islam, Judaism — to name only the other major monotheisms – apparently do not qualify.

How exactly do they get us to buy what they are selling?

Human interest stories are supposed to make us feel good. We are also meant to feel other things. The cheap thrill of recognition. Titillation. The voyeurism of dirty laundry.

These treacly human interest bromides make us feel good,.. well, many of us. We identify with it. We literally identify individuals we know. ‘His/her name in the paper!’ So there is the cheap thrill of recognition.

We are also meant to feel other things, which is where the crime coverage fits in. Titillation – sex crime charges against a Champaign police officer of the year. And voyeurism.  And especially the dirty laundry.

“I make my living off the evening news

Just give me something

Something I can use

People love it when you lose

They love dirty laundry” (Local Yocal online comment)

This is the underside of their Republican right respectability.

The News-Gazette is selling us a bill of goods. It is smug, self-satisfied, and not accountable, because money-making featurettes trump reporting the news. The paper does not cover the news in any depth, let alone do investigative reporting. Instead, it makes money by reflecting back to its loyal subscribers the world it and they already live in, the comfort zone they inhabit, plus another, different, private-made-public world they voyeuristically peer into from the outside.

It all comes down to selling its readers on the world according to the News-Gazette. In selling us this bill of goods it calls “news,” the paper is conning us. No wonder they’re smirking all the way to the bank.

I, for one, don’t buy it.

Would we be better off without the News-Gazette?


This question is sometimes asked, especially by those who have just read yet another editorial that makes us cringe.

The usual response is ‘I read it for the local news.’ By this people apparently mean what could be termed “surface stories,” that is, what is going on in the local schools, city councils, county board, and the like. Although less willing to admit it, many also get a guilty pleasure, a low-level voyeuristic thrill from reading the obits, letters to the editor, and the often lurid crime stories with their accompanying mugshots.

By ‘local news’ folks do not mean investigative journalism, that is, extensive, in-depth coverage of local business, the university, and news analysis of local wheeling and dealing, of what really went on at the last city council/county board meeting, and the like. For that you have to read between the lines of a story, plus online reader comments, and any subsequent letters to the editor.

Arguably, therefore, the News-Gazette is no better on local news than it is on state news  (spotty), national news (including sensationalistic page A-3 blurbs), and international news (hit or miss, except “terrorism”).

At this point in the discussion, either the News-Gazette, or one of its defenders, will respond that ‘if the paper were owned by a newspaper chain, rather than locally-owned, then there would be much less, and less knowledgeable, local news coverage.’ Although often made, this point is largely a self-serving myth, repeated especially by the News-Gazette For it is rarely, if ever, backed up or substantiated versus simply asserted.

First of all, there was a local paper owned by a national chain during its last years. People did not complain about the lack of local news in the Urbana Courier.

Second, the Courier had been running in the red in the years before it folded in 1979, but the  News-Gazette also operated at a loss in the five or so years after 2008.

Third, by ‘locally’ or ‘family-owned,’ people are referring to the paper’s byzantine for- profit/not-for-profit tax status. The for-profit paper is technically owned by a non-profit foundation set up when Marajen Stevick Chinigo died. The News-Gazette claims this ‘far-sighted’ move safeguards the paper from a corporate takeover.

What the paper does not tell you is that it is also a financially astute mechanism to maximize tax advantages, meaning it pays lower taxes. The News-Gazette is not operating illegally, but like that other locally-based for-profit/non-profit — Carle Foundation Hospital/Carle Clinic/Health Alliance – it is definitely pushing the envelope.

So, would we be better off without it? If you say no, keep it, then you are also saying that it is OK for the News-Gazette to have a news monopoly, and for that to be Faux-News Champaign.

2014 05 21 cell meeting for Roediger 3

David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department

Posted in News-Gazette | Comments Off on The World According to the News-Gazette

Statement on the Upcoming Ballot Referendum on “Public Facilities”

Statement delivered by Build Programs, Not Jails before the County Board on August 18, 2016. 

Signs posted outside County board meeting of Aug. 18, 2016

Signs posted outside County board meeting of Aug. 18, 2016

Last week [on Tuesday, August 9, 2016] the County Board’s Committee of the Whole voted in favor of placing a referendum on the November ballot for a ¼ percent sales tax to pay for “public facilities” purposes. We fully recognize that the county has pressing maintenance needs, particularly in regard to the county’s public nursing home.  We also recognize that the use of these funds will be determined on an ongoing basis by the sitting County Board.  However, based on the Facilities Action Plan that was presented as background to the referendum, by far the largest portion of immediate spending will be for jail building. This is unacceptable.  Apart from directing too much money toward jail construction, we reject the proposal the Board is recommending on four other grounds:

1.       A decision on constructing or renovating jail space  should be made in the context of considering how to decrease the number of people incarcerated, and only after that is addressed should jail construction be included in a proposal on facilities and maintenance.  Given the serious incarceration debate that has taken place in our community, any attempt to address issues of jail construction must be considered as part of a political process which examines the criminal justice system as a whole and includes participation by the community. We must pay special attention to including the Black community, which has been most seriously impacted by incarceration.

2.      The Facilities Action Plan neglects virtually any measures that would keep people out of jail or reduce jail numbers. While the jail is labeled as an immediate priority and is put in Group A, the only proposal to reduce the incarcerated population is for a Behavioral Health Services Facilities, which is in Group C: “Projects in this group are conceptual only. They require further study relative to the construction and operational costs to be incurred as well as funding strategies.” As an important alternative to incarceration and the absence of behavioral health services in our county, this project should be a top priority in the critical group, not at the bottom of the list.

3.      The presentation of the Facilities Action Plan claimed that between closing the Downtown Jail and new construction at the Satellite Jail there would be a considerable decrease in the overall jail capacity, whereas in fact it is only a 10% decrease from 313 to 282 (additionally, not all cells in the downtown jail are currently available for use).  The presentation also said the plans for the jail reflected a 40% decrease in cost compared to the 2015 Sheriff’s Office Master Plan, not recognizing how outrageously expensive that plan was.

4.      The referendum proposal was presented in the context of the Facilities Action Plan, which outlined priorities and allocations of funding. However, when members of the public attempted to criticize that plan, we were told the plan meant nothing, that the next board would develop the actual plan. This appears to be a conscious deception calculated to obscure the essence of the board’s intention and to cover up the excessive funding to be directed to the jail.

Likely the debate over jail construction has been the most hotly contested political issue in this county in decades. Incarceration is unnecessary for the majority of people who are arrested, and can further disrupt people’s lives, especially for low-income individuals.  However, the county board’s referendum is a quick-fix solution aimed at ignoring the problems and solutions that the community has brought to this board for the last four and a half years.  We reject this plan and hope that the county will come forward with a solution to these problems that breaks with the history of excessive reliance on incarceration to solve social problems, and which contributes to eliminating the racial disparity that has become a persistent feature of our county jail.  It is time for a new direction.

Posted in Justice, Prisoners | Comments Off on Statement on the Upcoming Ballot Referendum on “Public Facilities”

Oct. 8 FOIA Fest

A workshop on how to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests will be hosted by State Representative Carol Ammons. Come learn how to file a FOIA for public documents. Let the sun shine in!

Saturday, October 8, 6-9pm at the Channing Murray Foundation (1209 W Oregon St, Urbana).

With Andrew Scheinman (who ran anti-Carle campaign), and Brian Dolinar, (of the Public i).

Join your fellow students and/or Champaign-Urbana neighbors for an informative discussion about one of the most noteworthy pieces of legislation of the past century. Signed into law on July 4, 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Freedom of Information Act allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government. The event will include a presentation on the history and legalities of the FOIA, a panel discussion about how FOIAs have been used in local campaigns, and how to file a FOIA.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Oct. 8 FOIA Fest

We Don’t Need a New Jail, We Need Abolition

Speaking to the Champaign County Board on Tuesday, August 9th, local Black organizer/activist, Kadeem Fuller made a much needed case for the abolition of jails, prisons, and white supremacy. The following is a transcript of his speech. 

Tonight I sit before the people of Champaign County and declare we have been set up. Once again members of our local government have attempted to set in motion a project that will doom the most vulnerable among this county’s population. Once again this county board is conspiring with oppressors of the people, men with badges, in an attempt to revitalize the draconian tactics of the War on Crime masked as a simple proposal for a safer Champaign County. Put simply this County board is attempting to sign a deal against the people of this county. This ridiculous proposal attempts to justify the construction of a jail project estimated to be 10 to 15 million dollars. This proposal places the jail project in Group A which is the highest priority category while interestingly enough places the creation of a Behavioral Health Services Facility in Group C, which is the lowest priority level.kiwane-banner

Although the proposal also mentions maintenance of the nursing home it is important to remember that the jail construction project is 65 percent of the entire proposal budget. This proposal is nothing more than an attempt to sneak a new jail into this county.

In the proposal it states that Group A projects are considered critically important and there are no other feasible alternative solutions. We have seen time and time again the results of incarceration. Broken homes and torn relationships, babies growing up without fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. We have seen within Black communities both locally and nationally the slaughtering of dreams, both potential and realized. We have no more room for incarceration, we have no more room for despair. We have no more room for jail cells where jobs, schools and other resources should be.

Over the last few decades much research has been conducted detailing alternatives for incarceration: methods ranging from revolutionary restorative justice to reform in policy. There are several alternatives to incarceration.

In fact, mental health services, similar to the facility this proposal places in Group C, could indeed be seen as an alternative to incarceration. It is clear this county board do not concern themselves with alternatives to oppression. In June this county board listened to several family members of people who died in the Champaign County jail. These family members suggested a detox center and a pretrial program as alternatives to the harshness of incarceration, yet neither are mentioned in this new jail proposal. These people came and shared their hearts, tears and grief to this county board and you all turned your head to them.

The proposal also stated that this jail project would address concerns of both corrections staff and community members. My question is how? How can you meet the concerns of both the oppressed and the oppressor, of both tyranny and resistance, of both a corrupt and repressive government with the calls of liberation from the people? It simply cannot be done.

I ask you what makes you all think we need a new jail? This county jails takes lives. In this county Black people represent 13 percent of the population but represent over 60 percent of those in jail. What’s more, from July 1, 2015 to June 2016, 29 deaths were reported to the Illinois Department of Corrections, with Champaign County placing second on the list with three.

45-year-old Toya Frazier found dead December 1, 2015 in the Champaign County Jail.

59-year-old Paul Clifton died on Easter Sunday after collapsing in the Champaign County Jail.

48-year-old Veronica Horstead found dead on June 10, 2016 in the Champaign County Jail.

We do not need a new jail.

What we need is justice for the people that have died in custody in the Champaign County Jail. What we need is the abolition of jails and prisons in this county, state, nation, and world. What we need is an end to anti-Black racism and white supremacy in this county, state, nation, and world.

A new jail will not solve the neglect that incarcerated people face in this county. Only the toppling of prisons and jails can do that. I condemn this heinous attempt for a new jail and I condemn the people who support it. It will not stand. All power to the people!

Kadeem FullerKadeem Fuller is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Champaign-Urbana and Black Students for Revolution at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 


Posted in African Americans, Voices of Color | Comments Off on We Don’t Need a New Jail, We Need Abolition