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By Anatta Oknokwo
“Allahu Akbar!” Mack Trimble, Jr. enthusiastically calls his fellow inmates to prayer. Soon the chapel of Jackson State Prison will hum with the melodic recitation of the Holy Qur’an as the community of Muslim males prostrate before their Creator—a Creator that seemed so distant in the cacophony of crime and poverty that shaped their lives in the free world. Now, in the confines of incarceration, God seems just as inescapable as the correctional facility itself. He is The Creator, The Inspirer of Faith, and alas, the Source of Peace that many young minorities from troubled backgrounds have been searching for: Allah.
But while the chapels of penitentiaries around the United States permeate with Islamic praises; another “chapel” has not been so welcoming. The echoes of Craig Hicks’ firearm still seem to echo quite fervently with the undertones of Islamophobia. The Chapel Hill shooting, resulting in the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, three Muslim students in North Carolina symbolizes a much deeper issue: fear.
It becomes increasingly difficult to utter, “Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest)!” when you’ve been informed that the Paris gunmen reportedly yelled out the same phrase as they proceeded to execute twelve Charlie Hebdo associates in retaliation to published illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
And why wouldn’t you be hesitant to conduct outward expressions of Islamic faith? Western media has successfully managed to interweave the Abrahamic religion of peace and surrender with the infamous likes of Al Qaeda, Boko Haram; and ISIS so that the words “Muslim” and “Terrorist” become interchangeable in the Western psyche.
But if terrorism is defined as “the exploitation of fear,” then wouldn’t the Western media with its guerrilla tactics of fear-mongering fit the description?
Thanks to the sensationalized media, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram; and ISIS have become the “faces of Islam” much to the Muslim world’s irritation. Islamic super villains like Osama bin Laden and Jihadi John saturate much of western coverage, leaving little to no voice for the 1.6 billion adherents to Islam. Bias at its finest. And with media being the non-Muslim’s only insight into the Islamic faith it’s little wonder that mosques are being burned in the south.
The idiot box dupes the masses into believing that Islam is somehow a dangerous and violent philosophy that threatens the family structure, livelihood; and safety of Western society—a philosophy that stands in sharp contrast with inmates across the United States.
“Islam [instilled] in me discipline. It helped me mold a positive attitude about myself that I’ve always had in me, but I didn’t [know] I had before…Islam was a shining light in my life,” inmate Mack Trimble, Jr. attests.
Many other Muslim converts serving time share his esteem of Islam.
“Whenever I go to the mosque or Jumma service it always makes me stop and [think]: ‘Is this right or is this wrong?’ It’s the best thing for me. Stay outta trouble,” says Abdul Ali Rabu, another inmate convert at Jackson State Prison.
Inmates, upon release, may find the anti-Islamic sentiment in the free world to be one obstacle too many in conjunction with the stigma of being an ex-convict seeking re-entrance into society.
“The real question is: how many continue to practice their faith on the outside? And then I fear its not a very high percentage,” laments Paul Rogers, former President of American Correctional Chaplains Associations.
This poses a real issue for the Black parolee who has abandoned his former street culture of turf rivalry, gang retaliation, and criminality. To embrace Islam is to embrace the concept of reversion: returning to God’s natural laws of self-discipline, ritual prayer, and ideals of modesty. If the inmate enters into a free world that is unwelcoming to the very faith that reformed him during incarceration then what basis does he have to distance himself from recidivism?
“Sixty percent come back to prison within the first two years of their release,” Rogers lays out the grim statistics of how inmates are cycled through the penal system.
The probability of a terrorist act being carried out by a Muslim parolee is far and in-between. Muslim parolees, like any other civilian reintroduced into society, are concerned with family, securing employment, and building an independent and dignified life for themselves. It makes little sense to perpetrate a violent act against the communities and the country that they call home.
One of the main things that non-Muslims in Western society need to process is that Muslims, like the next man, are collectively rational people whose mentality does not mirror the actions of extremist groups.
“We really struggle with extremism from the religious point of view in other groups more than we do in the Islamic community,” says Imam AJ Sabree, Director of Reentry Services at Georgia Department of Corrections.
The Muslim inmate, upon release, has the new challenge of upholding the deen, (or faith)of Islam. The inmate and Islam: both misunderstood. Both stigmatized.
Anatta Oknokwo is majoring in Broadcast Journalism and is the incoming President of UIUC’s Prison Justice Project.
Protesters burn an EU flag during an anti-austerity demonstration in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Practically since the moment of its victory in the January 25 elections, Greece’s Syriza party has been locked in a struggle with the “troika,” the triumvirate of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, over the terms of its bailout repayment. At every interim payment due date—the latest deadline is looming at press time—hysterical predictions ring out about the collapse of the Greek banking system and even the Greek economy, and the demise of the European Union due to a “Grexit,” or Greek exit from the Euro zone. Syriza swept to power on the strength of broad support for its promise to negotiate an end to the crushing austerity program, which has produced mass unemployment and widespread suffering in the country since the first rescue package was issued five years ago. But European financial and political leaders, with German capital and Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s government as their backbone, will not budge on their insistence on full repayment, no matter how much social pain it may cause.
A protester waves an EU flag at a pro-EU demonstration in Athens.
The Greek situation represents a crossroads for the European Union. Skepticism about the very idea of an alliance that is greater than the sum of its national parts continues to grow, as evidenced by the sharp rise in anti-EU parties across the bloc. This was just highlighted by the strong showing of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party in the June Danish elections. The United Kingdom’s newly reelected Conservative government, pressed by the UK Independence Party—which garnered 13% of the May vote, the third-largest share—has promised to negotiate a still looser affiliation with the EU (Great Britain never joined the Euro currency zone) before holding a referendum on continued membership. Member states are dissenting on already agreed-upon common border and refugee policies, and populist leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán openly deride the European model of liberal democracy. Synergy at the level of elites and corporations accompanied by platitudes about peace, unity and well-being cover up broad insecurity about economic survival and identity at the base, especially (but not only) in the southern and newer eastern members. This fear and discontent has been exacerbated by the immigrant crisis, with hundreds of thousands of desperate Africans and Middle Easterners arriving by sea and by land, such as from Turkey through Serbia into Hungary, prompting the recent announcement of the construction of a border fence along the Hungary-Serbia border (also the current EU boundary).
In the eyes of Greece’s creditors, of the EU power elites, but even of the typical citizen of the better-off countries such as Germany—as revealed to me in conversations with otherwise solidly leftist friends—Greeks have been living entirely too well, with an overgrown and overpaid public sector and little payment of taxes, and must now pay the piper. It is true that tax evasion and corruption have been rampant in Greece, but the bulk of the spoils have filtered up to economic and political elites. And of course it is everyday Greeks who are being demanded to undergo increased deprivation so that, in the broken-record formulation of EU leaders, the country “respect its commitments” to pay back the over $400 billion in debt. Unemployment is officially over 25%, easily the highest in the EU; the average wage for those still employed has sunk from 2500 to 800 Euros (about $900) per month; and pensions have been cut 40%, with the troika demanding they be slashed further. It is unclear how the EU austerity plans can yield any kind of recovery—as Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, Greek’s debt burden has risen from 115% of Gross Domestic Product in 2010, when it got the first strings-attached IMF bailout, to over 170% now; and fully 89% of new loans flow right back into the coffers of the creditors, to pay interest (not even principal) on the debt.
A Grexit could arguably provide dramatic relief for Greece’s plight: with control of its own currency and freedom from Euro zone budget rules, the government could print money at will to pump into and stimulate the economy, and the consequent devaluation would make Greek exports cheaper and boost tourism, as tourists’ euros (or dollars, or roubles) would go farther. For these reasons, a sizeable fraction of Syriza favors this option, and a unilateral default. For the EU, however, it would set a destabilizing precedent, and throw fuel on the fire of resistance to the EU. But the troika, by rejecting Greek proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy rather than cutting pensions and public employment further, and maintaining the fiscal fundamentalist requirement of a 4.5% government budget surplus, has backed Syriza into a corner, from which there may be no other way out. For colorful Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, recently pulled back from his role as lead negotiator, and known for blunt statements such as his characterization of the austerity program as “fiscal waterboarding,” abolition of the surplus requirement is a “red line,” a core demand he will not compromise.
Underneath the parameters of budget and debt within which the day-to-day negotiation struggles are conducted lurk the ghosts of history. Greece, which suffered brutal occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II, bristles at being subject to economic veto power by the current German government. Thus when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, EU point man in the negotiations, states that he pities Greece for electing an “irresponsible government,” it smacks of a new deprivation of self-determination. Thus Greece has floated demands for German reparations for the wartime ravages, which the Germans have decried as an irrational distraction and declared off the table. The U.K. and U.S. bear their own historical responsibility, having intervened to defeat the anti-Nazi resistance in the 1946-49 Greek Civil War; the continuing social divisions ultimately led to a military coup and dictatorship between 1967-74. Longtime cultural ties to Russia, which shares Greece’s Orthodox religious heritage, have encouraged rumblings that the Greek government would veto EU sanctions on the Russians for their actions in Ukraine; and Russian President Vladimir Putin has hastened to poke the EU in the eye by indicating an interest in stepping in with financial, and political, support.
Customers queue to use an ATM outside a National Bank of Greece bank branch.
Even President Obama has expressed his dissatisfaction with the troika’s hardline position, stating that “you cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression . . there has to be a growth strategy in order for them to pay off their debts.” Some commentators have envisioned the US leader stepping in to force an agreement, to forestall the possibility of the West’s losing a strategic bridge to the Middle East, though this probably exaggerates the U.S. President’s power, as well as his willingness to cross the banks. And EU negotiators might respond by pointing out Goldman Sachs’s role in using derivatives to cook Greece’s government books, to smooth its entry into the Euro zone in the early 2000s.
Anti-EU graffiti on June 30, 2015 in Athens.
The US media, in relentlessly describing Syriza as a “far-left party,” has bolstered the view that anyone who questions the dogma of austerity and debtors’ fealty is being “irresponsible.” While it is true that the party’s name translates into “Coalition of the Radical Left,” as the Health Minister stated following their election, “today, Syriza is not a left-wing party . . [but] a patriotic party which . . demands the right to live in dignity.” Its dependence on the right-wing anti-austerity Independent Greeks to maintain power precludes any radical transformation. But the hardline position of the EU powers risks pushing Syriza, along with the Spanish Podemos party, Italy’s Five Star Movement and other growing middle-class movements resisting austerity, to more radical disruption. And if the essentially pro-European leaders of such parties become coopted, it risks their membership looking for solutions on the far right, in Greece’s case the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which moved up to third in the January elections.
In the first six months of 2015 the Steven Salaita drama has played out in a number of acts, or scenes, culminating in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) formally censuring Illinois in June. Matt Finkin talks about how his career at Illinois is bookended by the university twice having been censured by the AAUP.
Finkin, who teaches in the law school and also holds an appointment in the prestigious Center for Advanced Study, arrived on campus at the very end of the Koch case, in 1967. Four years earlier, Leo Koch, an assistant professor of biology, had published in the student newspaper a defense of consensual sex between students. This so angered the campus and community that Koch was summarily fired by the university president. For the AAUP, this constituted a violation of due process, and they censured Illinois. It took four years for the university to mend its ways, and in 1967 the ban was lifted. What is ironic is that one key step was to revise the University Statutes, the governing regulations of the university, and make guarantees of academic freedom even stronger than the guidelines followed by the AAUP itself.
Forty eight years later the university has violated its very own statutes, in the case that comes as Finkin prepares to retire, the Steven Salaita affair. In the meantime, Finkin has established himself as the leading authority on academic freedom in the country. After summarily dismissing Prof. Salaita, the AAUP has again formally censured the university on June 13, 2015. Consensual sex in 1960, and tweets opposing Israel’s 2014 Gaza war now. Substantively, there seems to be no real comparison between the two cases: a single letter to the editor on consensual sex versus multitudinous anti-Israeli tweets on a war that killed over 2200 Palestinians, including 550 children, and 71 Israelis, 65 of them soldiers.
Menah Pratt-Clarke was speaking in early April in an engineering and science auditorium on the northernmost border of campus in a sprawling $40 million facility, a gift to the university by Arnold O. Beckman, a UIUC graduate in chemical engineering, who made a fortune inventing and marketing through his Beckman Instruments the pH meter and DU spectrophotometer. Befitting a presentation to a campus mix of faculty, students, administrators, including retirees, and even a few community folks, people sat scattered throughout the hall instead of huddled together like rabbits down in the front. Although she has multiple, mostly courtesy, faculty appointments in several different departments, Pratt-Clarke’s main job is as an associate chancellor, where she heads the office of diversity at $198,279/year. The idea for this lecture series, “Inclusive Illinois,” was hers, and hers was the last of four presentations. She was not supposed to be there; she prefers to work behind the scenes. Instead, she was a last minute replacement for Anita Hill, who at the time of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991, alleged that he had sexually harassed her. Cornel West, a national academic figure at Princeton, had told Illinois at the beginning of March that he would not give an invited talk, declaring that “The case of my dear brother Professor Steven Salaita is a moral scandal of great proportion.” Soon after, in mid-March, Hill declined her Illinois invitation, saying that while she had earlier thought there could be a dialogue about Salaita, she now realized that the “present intense polarity” did not make that possible. Pratt-Clarke said Illinois was “disappointed” in Hill’s decision.
In her presentation, Pratt-Clarke outlined her approach to diversity. She applies as a model, “Transdisciplinary Applied Social Justice,” whatever that is. She began by noting how upon her arrival in Illinois nine years previously, she tried to figure things out, who ran things. She talked about what she called the “Inner Circle” of university decision-makers, especially administrators. Then she realized that as an associate chancellor, she herself was a member of her “Inner Circle.” Despite being an administrator, she maintains, “I’m a scholar-activist.” Still more striking was a remark she made in outlining the chronology of the Salaita affair. Addressing the scandal directly, she asked rhetorically, “how are we to understand the boycott?” She ticked off some administration reactions. But what she did not address is why she and others close to the Chancellor fired Salaita in the first place, instigating thereby the boycott. To ask “how are we to understand the boycott?” gets it bass ackwards. The question is not, “how are we to respond?” The question is “why did we fire him?” Pratt-Clarke, the Chancellor’s de facto chief of staff, was at the epicenter of those deciding the actions to take. Yet she presented it as if the Chancellor’s office was instead reacting to actions others had taken.
Roy Campbell was visibly ill at ease. He looked like Daniel must have felt in the lion’s den. A computer science professor and chair of the Academic Senate, an advisory body to the administration comprised mostly of faculty plus some students, he was clearly outnumbered. The occasion was a panel sponsored by the humanities center on academic freedom and the Salaita case. Campbell was the only anti-Salaita panelist, and there were few, if any, in the audience who shared his views. The event was held in an auditorium “south of Green.” Green Street demarcates the mostly humanities and social science departments south of Green from mostly engineering and science departments north of Green. Leading cultural critic Andrew Ross was beamed in via Skype from NYU. Two other pro-Salaita panelists spoke, including Matt Finkin. Then came Campbell, who defended in his clipped British accent the administration’s dismissal of Salaita. It was not clear why Campbell had even attended; cynics speculated that he had been told by the administration to participate. One highlight of the afternoon occurred when Rick Laugesan, a mathematics professor favoring faculty unionization, asked each of the three panelists whether in firing in Salaita the administration had violated its own statutes, yes or no. Two said yes. Campbell hemmed and hawed, but when Laugesan repeated the question, Campbell almost imperceptibly murmured “yes.”
It pleased the audience, but it may have been a Pyrrhic victory. The afternoon had begun with introductory comments by Dianne Harris, the center director, who then left. She in fact is leaving to go to the University of Utah, where she will join a high-up administrator, who had moved there from Illinois. The former Illinois administrator had been invited by Chancellor Phyllis Wise to apply for the post of Illinois provost, but Wise picked instead Ilesanmi Adesida, the Nigerian dean of engineering, and the administrator went to Utah. Now it is rumored that among other faculty, the half dozen in what would have been Salaita’s department, American Indian Studies, are looking to leave. More broadly, the work of especially humanities and social science faculty has been negated, devalued and discounted, argues Michel Rothberg, head of English. As a department chair remarked to me more than 30 years ago, at Illinois “the humanities really take it on the chin.” In leaving, the humanities center director may be among the first to see the handwriting on the wall.
ONE ROYAL PAIN
Then there have also been university emails released in May and June by local resident Andrew Scheinman, an unlikely player in all this who has emerged seemingly from nowhere. Born in Urbana, Scheinman is a “faculty brat,” whose father taught general engineering. Andrew did a degree at Illinois in biochemistry, and went on to get a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and a law school degree. Now in his mid-50s and a patent attorney, he splits his time between Urbana and New York state.
Scheinman is an outsider’s insider, or insider’s outsider. When he came back to Urbana, he approached people at the university research park, and with his unique skill set offered them his services. They basically responded thanks, but no thanks. Which he did not take kindly to, especially since he felt there were some serious problems that he could help address.
As he should know, Champaign-Urbana is a very closed community. You do not invite your way in, you are invited in, and if you are not getting along by going along, the last thing you want to do to is take a battering ram to the city gates. Scheinman first became involved in the ongoing struggle between Urbana and the locally-based, outsized healthcare company, Carle, over whether or not Carle should pay property taxes. Scheinman was one of the movers behind Concerned Citizens of Urbana (CCU), that mobilized, so far unsuccessfully, to force Carle as a tax-exempt non-profit to pony up its fair share of financial support.
Beginning at the end of 2013, Scheinman turned his attention from Carle’s plans to partner with the university to build a medical school to the university’s efforts to get rid of Salaita. Seeing a connection that many feel only he sees between Carle pledging $100 million for a UIUC medical school, and allegations that Illinois was influenced by outside donors to dump Salaita, Scheinman has engaged in a personal crusade to obtain all the public records he can through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He has filed so many requests, that the university FOIA office has termed him a “frequent filer,” and slowed down sending him documents to a trickle. He has filed complaints with both the university ethics office, and the Illinois attorney general, so far to no avail. He has meticulously collated all the FOIA requests made by everyone over the last year regarding the Salaita case. He has invited volunteers to file their own FOIA requests in concert with him, which he calls “FOIA DDoS.” His “Distributed Denial of Stonewalling” (DDoS) is a tongue-in-cheek reference to “Distributed Denial of Service” (DDoS), the practice of hacktivists, such as Anonymous, to inundate a server and cause it to shut down.
All of this would be moot were it not for the fact that through his tireless, assiduous efforts Scheinman has turned up more information about the Salaita case than anyone else, including Salaita’s lawyers so far, way more than the UI faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) did, and certainly way, way more than the university cares to think about. In the process, he has become one royal pain.
THE PLOT THICKENS
In May and June, Scheinman made three important finds. All along the university has adopted the narrowest possible technical argument, namely, that Salaita’s hire was never completed because the university Board of Trustees (BoT) never approved it. Never mind that all hires come before the Board only in September after already beginning work in August. Never mind that Board approval has historically been pro forma, part of a consent agenda approved in a batch. Nevertheless, the university argues, in a strict reading of contract law, that Salaita did not have a contract. Salaita argues that Board approval was a formality, and that he had the promise of employment, called promissory estoppel in legalese.
Now Scheinman has obtained emails that plainly show that the university administration, too, considered Salaita’s hire a done deal.
Here, Provost Adesida responds emphatically to UI Vice President for Academic Affairs Christopher Pierre’s query.
Second is the whodunit question. Did Chancellor Wise dismiss Salaita? Or was it the BoT, and in particular former chair Chris Kennedy? All along, Wise, and the university, have taken responsibility, or credit – depending on your viewpoint — for the firing. Such a narrative reinforces the principle of “shared governance,” which means in this instance that the campus, not an outside body, makes the decisions.
Scheinman’s email revelations show clearly, however, including the one below from July 22, that the Chancellor, and her office, stood behind Salaita’s hire up until late on July 23, 2014.
By the following afternoon of July 24, however, she had reversed herself. What happened? We know that there was a BoT executive meeting July 24, but not what was said. At 1:56 pm Wise emailed, “… they [the BoT] will be considering carefully whether to approve [Salaita’s hire] in September. Definitely not a given,” as the email below states.
Several months later, however, Wise remembered differently. She told CAFT that “… at the meeting, she and the Trustees had arrived jointly at the conclusions that the Board would not support Dr. Salaita’s appointment and that therefore she should not forward the appointment to them.” We may reasonably conclude that Wise went into the meeting supporting Salaita’s hire, and she came out opposing it. One explanation for Wise’s volte face is, of course, that Kennedy told her at the meeting not to hire Salaita. This is sheer speculation, but there are several who share this view.
One of whom is AAUP-UIUC president Harry Hilton, who stated at the AAUP conference June 13 that voted censure,
Although I have no proof what so ever [sic], it is my firm personal belief that
chair Kennedy’s heavy hand is behind the Salaita non-appointment. I strongly
suspect that chair Kennedy ordered our chancellor Phyllis Wise not to recommend Dr. Salaita’s appointment to the BoT. Eventually upon the chancellor’s recommendation, BoT voted not to approve Dr. Salaita’s tenured appointment offer.
ADMINISTRATION VIOLATES OWN STATUTES
In flip-flopping so quickly during the third week of July, administration critics argue that the Chancellor and others violated the UI Statutes. The Statutes mandate that if she disagreed with the hire, she return it for review to the faculty who had made it in the first place. Wise should have consulted with relevant faculty, rather than outside bodies, such as the BOT, let alone outside individuals like donors.
In his third set of email revelations, Scheinman shows that in fact Wise did consult with faculty. They just happen to be anti-Salaita faculty neither involved in the search nor with any expertise in Salaita’s research areas. Education professor Nick Burbules and Spanish literature professor Joyce Tolliver have been long-time leaders in the Academic Senate, and in its Executive Committee. In theory, Burbules and Tolliver claim to be staunch supporters of “shared faculty governance.” But in practice they collude with the administration to undermine it. They worked tirelessly to thwart a Senate vote — it passed — to accept CAFT’s findings and call for the administration to implement its recommendations.
Scheinman’s emails show that Burbules and Tolliver were in communication with the Chancellor and Provost from the start of the Salaita affair, July 24 if not earlier.
Scheinman, and later the News-Gazette, cited this email as evidence of Wise consulting with Burbules and Tolliver. But they did not mention the immediately previous email in the same thread from Adesida that Wise is commenting on when she says, “Let me add…”
The “buzz saw” is, of course, the “highly charged and negative blow back” on and off-campus concerning the hires of both James Kilgore and Salaita. (The object of a McCarthyite witch hunt by the local News-Gazette and resulting cause célèbre, Kilgore was not reappointed as an adjunct faculty member for fall 2015. Only after a year of protest and deliberation — the Provost’s own hand-picked faculty committee recommended reappointment – was he rehired effective spring 2015.) For the Provost, Salaita’s hire here is a done deal: “He is coming to campus in August to take up his position on campus.” But there is concern to avoid similar situations in the future.
Now, the administration has been working on a background check policy for faculty since at least this time last summer that it has been marketing as an innocent screening device, aimed primarily at applicants with criminal records. This email is important because it explicitly shows that, after Kilgore, at least some in the administration would ideally like to screen out those with criminal backgrounds, plus, after Salaita, those “uncivil” types on the “borders of free speech/hateful speech domain.” Indeed, “This is potentially slippery territory!” No wonder in emailing Burbules and Tolliver the Provost wants to “seek your wise counsel.”
If the university wants to screen out the Kilgore’s and Salaita’s from applying, they are going to have problems. “Incivility” is not a punishable offense under academic freedom guidelines. Faculty speech and permissible behavior on and off-campus are already covered under existing academic freedom and free speech guidelines. Kilgore’s criminal conviction, a serious offense for which he served prison time, is not, however, ipso facto grounds for not giving him a job. A new background check policy, announced last month, smells like a done deal. Despite the administration’s protestations of innocence, the policy all depends on how it is administered, a case of the devil is in the details.
What the university needs is the courage of its own convictions. Salaita’s anti-Israel tweets were imagined to be evidence of a threatening classroom atmosphere. But years of actual classroom evaluations clearly show this to be completely false. Kilgore’s 1970s political views were imagined to be evidence that he would “indoctrinate” students and mold their “impressionable” minds today. But his teaching record indicates nothing of the sort. In short, problems only occur when the university bends to inside and outside politically-motivated pressure to get rid of people.
When the anti-Salaita News-Gazette was shamed into making public the emails regarding consultations between Wise, Adesida, Burbules, and Tolliver that Scheinman had already made public, one person commented, “Mr. Scheinman found UIUC’s equivalent of the Lewinsky blue dress. Professor Burbules can spin it how he wishes.”
Scheinman accused Burbules and Tolliver of a conflict of interest, because they had never previously disclosed their roles consulting with the administration behind the scenes. As a courtesy, he requested their response before posting the incriminating emails. Tolliver never replied, but Burbules rejected Scheinman’s allegation, arguing disingenuously that, yes, he expressed opinions but so “did many other faculty on all sides of the issue.” As if the Chancellor had asked pro-Salaita faculty their opinions as she had asked Tolliver and Burbules.
Unwilling to let it go, Burbules double-downed in a piece for the ever-obliging News-Gazette in which he defended his behind the scenes consulting with the administration. “Admittedly, it is a little embarrassing to see one’s unfiltered thoughts publicized like this [in the now-public emails]. But I stand by everything I wrote.“ To which one person commented, “Keep spinning; you and Tolliver may yet get those cushy admin jobs. “ No administrative job so far, but in addition to his $163,595 salary, Prof. Burbules has received the 2015 Outstanding Faculty Leadership Award, which is worth $2000 in recurring salary plus $2500 for his personal use, and is awarded to that faculty member “who exemplifies the campus commitment to collaborative decision-making.”
Burbules, Tolliver and other faculty, especially those leaders of the Academic Senate and its Executive Committee who share their pro-administration views, without question care deeply about the University. It is just that it is not the university of faculty and students, but rather the anti-Salaita university that they care about, the one that is anti-due process, anti-academic freedom, and anti-faculty governance, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Nick and Joyce are nice people –- so, too, is Phyllis Wise, for that matter – but they are toadies, in the dictionary definition of the term, sycophants. Wanting so much to be among the deciders, to be listened to, they have sided so consistently with the administration, losing all pretense of objectivity, all credibility in the process, that now they are no longer listened to by their peers, and, worse, they are taken for granted by the administration.
What Wise wrote in emails to Burbules and Tolliver explicitly contradicts what she earlier told CAFT. CAFT chair David O’Brien was so upset that he said to Wise, at a meeting of the Senate Executive Committee, “”You had told us you hadn’t met with any faculty and had only limited discussions with the provost. … Now, it turns out that’s not the case.” Responding out of both sides of her mouth simultaneously, Wise averred that in talking with “a few people” about the case, including the Provost, Burbules and Tolliver, that she “wouldn’t consider that consultation,” that she had told CAFT that she “did not consult in the way I pride myself on consulting.” To which Scheinman responded, “If that isn’t a mutilation of the english [sic] language, I don’t know what is.”
WHO IS PHYLLIS M. WANG WISE?
Where is the Chancellor in all this? Phyllis M. Wang Wise is the highest-ranking Asian-American female university administrator in the country. Her parents came to the US from China in 1938. Her mother is a nurse by training. Her father is a neuroscientist with a medical degree and later a Ph.D. in philosophy from Northwestern. Wise was born in 1945 and raised in New York. She attended Swarthmore and graduated in 1967 in biology. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in zoology, but not before the first faculty member she asked to be her advisor, told her that “he did not accept women graduate students because [he said] they were never serious. They always got married and had children.” She has always supported women, especially in education, and emphasizes “her lifelong dedication to mentoring students and junior investigators, particularly women.”
Her research focuses on the role of estrogen on brain functions in postmenopausal women. “She has been particularly interested in whether hormones influence brains of women and men during development, during adulthood and during aging.” She was provost then interim president at the University of Washington, 2005-2011, earning $621,000 in the latter position. Upon her appointment as president, she immediately did a state-wise learning listening tour of state legislators, business leaders, and donors. Her last three years there were not easy ones for the university. State appropriations were cut 50 percent, tuition spiked 28 percent over two years, faculty salaries were frozen, and other schools were trying to hire away the best professors.
She also joined the Nike board in 2009, but “faculty members said they feared her position on the board raised an appearance of conflict of interest,” because the university had a large athletic sponsorship contract with Nike. The university had a committee that had called on the previous president to “put pressure on the company to improve its treatment of workers in poor countries.” In the end, “Wise resolved the firestorm” by donating all her Nike compensation to student scholarships. Wise implemented large budget cuts at Washington, but survived politically sufficiently to be hired as Illinois chancellor in 2011.
Back in the decades when she was growing up, which was a nakedly racist, pre-politically correct era, when Japanese were routinely referred to as “Japs,” the racist Orientalist term “inscrutable” would have been invoked to describe her. Her so-called “management” style, which some critics would term manipulative, has been exquisitely filleted in an article on her “leadership style that some professors and students say is consultative on its surface but ultimately uncompromising.” In firing Salaita, Prof. Robert Warrior, head of American Indian Studies, the department that Salaita was to teach in, sees just one illustration of Wise’s “tendency to bypass professors altogether or to merely pretend to value their opinions.” This “pattern of autocratic decision-making,” was already on display at the University of Washington, and she has brought it with her to Illinois. Warrior describes how it works.
“It’s a noncommittal kind of listening that she’s doing,” he said. “It’s a kind of a pretension of pondering issues that are very hard, when in fact she is waiting to see which way the wind is blowing. I’ve heard many people say, ‘She said she wanted to listen to us, but I’ve never felt so unheard in my life.’ She is there so she can cross off a list that she listened to you.’”
Ask graduate student Stephanie Skoza. On Sept 1, 2014, as the Salaita controversy was building to a crescendo, she and a few other grad students pressed Wise to meet with them. She did so, and they left with the clear understanding that Wise, in exchange for the students ending their protest, would forward Salaita’s appointment to the BoT for approval. “We have discovered that the Chancellor HAS FORWARDED Professor Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees, and they will be voting on his appointment during the Board of Trustees Meeting on September 11th, on the UIUC campus!” Fool me once. Early the following morning, however, a faculty member posted that Wise had no intention whatsoever of doing what she had told the students.
Regret to say that last night's report from students appears premature. Faculty have since met with Wise, & report no change in position.
— Ted Underwood (@Ted_Underwood) September 2, 2014
He was right, and they were wrong. Although it did no good, the students doubled down September 3. “To be clear, any miscommunication that did occur was promulgated by the Chancellor.” Fool me twice.
In 2014 it was revealed that Wise had engaged in “serial plagiarism,” the practice of publishing the same research in more than one journal. In Wise’s case it dated back over 25 years. Wise never responded directly. In 2006, however, after allegations had surfaced regarding a Neuroscience article, Wise published an erratum, “The author wishes to correct a number of serious errors… the paper is written in a way that misleads the readers to think that it is an original article. The author wishes to correct that impression with the following changes in the text of the published paper…”
So, Wise acknowledged the self-plagiarism, but offered nothing like a full apology.
Wise has responded to the Salaita affair, that she herself engendered, with the same pattern of autocratic decision-making, non-consultative consulting, and saying one thing while doing another.
Despite criticism that in “summarily firing” Salaita, she violated his academic freedom, Wise has stated on numerous occasions that she “absolutely supports academic freedom.” Same thing with her August 2014 massmail invoking “civility” as a criterion for Salaita’s hire. She says she has been “misinterpreted,” that she did not intend to make “civility” a code, and she has apologized for any “confusion” her own crystal clear statement “may have caused.” Same with due process. She says she now agrees that in failing to return Salaita’s appointment for faculty reconsideration, she did not follow due process as she should have, and has apologized. She says that she did not consult “as she wished she had, the way she usually does,” and has again apologized. Same with censure. She says that she is “disappointed” that the AAUP censured UIUC, that it did not accept “all that UIUC has done” to avoid the opprobrium of censure.
In every one these cases, Wise has said she was “misinterpreted,” or has apologized for her actions, or both. What she has not done is the one thing that would make a difference: change her mind and reinstate Salaita.
Journalist Mark Danner argues that what is key about the Iraq war scandals over Abu Ghraib and weapons of mass destruction is that “the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. Virtually nothing of great importance remains to be revealed.” He continues,
Ever since Watergate we’ve had a fairly established narrative of scandal. First you have revelation: the press, usually with the help of various leakers within the government, reveals the wrongdoing. Then you have investigation, when the government — the courts, or Congress, or, as with Watergate, both — constructs a painstaking narrative of what exactly happened: an official story, one that society — that the community — can agree on. Then you have expiation, when the judges hand down sentences, the evildoers are punished, and the society returns to a state of grace.
Danner concludes by saying that
What distinguishes our time — the time of September 11 — is the end of this narrative of scandal. With the scandals over weapons of mass destruction and Abu Ghraib, we are stuck at step one. We have had the revelation; we know about the wrongdoing… What we don’t have is any clear admission of — or adjudication of — guilt,… or any punishment. Those high officials responsible are still in office… And we — you and I, members all of the reality-based community — we are left to see, to be forced to see. And this, for all of us, is a corrupting, a maddening, but also an inescapable burden.
This is an almost perfect description of the Wise administration. At UIUC we have the same broken narrative. Revelations of wrongdoing? Yes. Admission of wrongdoing? Yes, sorta. Changes made as a result? No. With the email equivalents of Lewinsky’s blue dress recently revealed, the not-so-Wise administration is in full-dress damage control mode. The administration’s m.o. is stonewall, stonewall some more, and stonewall yet more. The corollary is repeat the same half-truths and discredited claims, namely, support of academic freedom, of diversity. This is not a response, this is Goebbels lite: repeating half-truths and distortions ad nauseum. The institutional culture has become, or has been revealed to be – take your pick – not “what we stand for,” but “we will not stand for anyone to tell us what to do.”
To argue, as the administration does, that censure is only a “bump in the road,” is not only an excuse rather than a reason. It is also a message transmitted loud and clear that faculty and faculty work, especially in the humanities, are “devalued and discounted.” It is clear from the Chancellor’s not-so-veiled threat that campus budget cuts for next year will not be “peanut-buttered” — corporate-speak for spread evenly across all departments. The administration holds the door open for dissident faculty to leave. The power of arrogance, the arrogance of power.
WISE’S RETIREMENT PLAN?
Given who they consult, the Wise administration may well see censure as nothing more than a “bump in the road.” Certainly, Wise has a reputation for not being around, for traveling a good deal, for not attending faculty events. Consulting a tiny inner group of administrators and faithful faculty only compounds the isolation. She may genuinely feel that it is onward and upward, that the UI-Carle medical school is coming along swimmingly, that she will be offered a plum university presidency.
In fact, she may be hedging her bets. Her five-year contract is up in 2016 when she will be 71. At that time, she stands to receive in addition to her current $549,069 salary, a retention bonus of $500,000. She sits on several corporate boards, including two more added in 2014. Nike alone paid her as a board member $237,889 in 2011, and $290,000 in 2013. It was Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s female African-American CEO, and on whose board Wise sits, who stepped in as this year’s commencement speaker. On the local Busey Bank and First Busey Foundation boards, the latter added in 2014, Wise sits alongside other Busey directors on the Economic Development Advisory Group (EDAG) in the UIUC Research Park, which as Chancellor — wearing her university hat — she convenes. EDAG is concerned with, among other things, the new medical school, which clearly gives her the appearance of a conflict of interest. It is a wonder she can keep track of her hats. Wise may have exhausted her cultural and moral capital over the Salaita affair, but in retirement she will continue to accrue economic capital, that is, more money.
Local activist David Green combines together several strands of the ongoing Salaita saga when he comments,
Chancellor Wise so wants her legacy to be the UI-Carle medical school. Instead, she will most certainly be remembered for firing Salaita, triggering in the process a worldwide academic protest (and she may not even be the person responsible). The neoliberal takeover of UIUC has been executed with a fifth column maneuver led by Wise — Gov. Rauner transition team member and presumptive Republican — plus her fellow-traveling administrators and faculty friends.
July 7, 2015
David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department
In June, Champaign Country Associate Judge Richard Klaus was removed from his position by fellow Judges in the Sixth Judicial Circuit. This is the first time in 37 years that these judges have removed a colleague. The reason given was that attorneys and the public in the county had lost confidence in him. Indeed, the Champaign County Bar Association had urged that he not be considered for retention after observing ten years of his performance on the bench. To compound matters, County Chief Judge Difanis, a professed good friend of Klaus, had included him on the list for reconsideration even before the Bar Association had had a chance to offer its recommendations. For that, he was rebuked by the 6th District Chief Justice, Dan Flannell.
I had written an article in the summer 2014 issue of the Public i critical of Judge Klaus. The basis of my criticism was the sentences he imposed in two DUI cases. One involved Kathryn Daly, a Carle nurse and a mother of a 20 month-old son. She and her cousin had been drinking and the John Deere Gator she had been driving tipped over. Her cousin, a passenger, was killed. Despite pleas of her cousin’s parents for lenience, and despite the request of the State’s Attorney for no prison time, Klaus sentenced her to 3 and a half years in prison. A higher court rebuked Klaus for that, and Daley was released from prison early and placed on probation.
The other case involved Willie Craft, a 59 year-old diabetic who was a U of I retiree. Craft had taken his insulin but not eaten in the morning. While driving his truck on Lincoln Avenue, he went into a diabetic coma and killed a U of I student. He too got a 3-and-one-half year sentence for “employing a vehicle as a lethal weapon.” Like Daly, he had no criminal record. Like Daly, he was caring for a minor, a granddaughter he had adopted. Basically, he was sentenced for not eating and going into a coma.
In that summer article I posed the question, “How much longer will people of this county tolerate a [court] system that, with the stated intention of ‘protecting’ the community, refuses to understand that prosecution and imprisonment is not always the best way to deal with terribly tragic accidents, and in the process compounds the suffering of good and caring people and their families?”
But Klaus continued to compound such tragedies. He gave a farmer, Timothy Bretz a six-year sentence after he was involved in a fatal accident. Betz had smoked cannabis two weeks prior and there were still traces of metabolites in his blood. Such metabolites (THC) can remain for a month or more after ingestion. Once again, Klaus exceeded what the prosecution had asked for. After Bretz’s sentencing I wrote another article in the local online magazine Smile Politely (December 2014) in which I concluded that “Klaus must be removed from the bench before he distributes more injudicious misery to other defendants, people who might not be able to afford a skilled criminal lawyer like Daley’s to appeal Klaus’s decisions.”
Yet Klaus struck again. In February he sentenced a Nigerian immigrant, Bidemi Ajobiewe, to six years in prison. Mr. Ajobiewe was working as a mover. His truck skidded on the ice between Danville and C/U and crashed into a car. He too had metabolites but testified that he had smoked cannabis at least a week prior to the accident.
Aside from Klaus’s dismissal, there is one other good piece of news. Unlike alcohol, there were no statutory measurement criteria to presume impairment by cannabis when Klaus was handing down his cruelly excessive sentences to Betz and Ajobiewe. A new bill that has been passed by both houses of the Illinois legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature stipulates that there must be a certain amount of metabolites in a person’s system (15 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, or 25 of saliva) before it can be presumed that impairment by cannabis is a causal factor in an accident. However, the bill would also permit a police officer at the accident scene to make a court admissible judgment of impairment based upon his or her training and experience.
While simply striking cannabis metabolites from DUI statutes would have been preferable in my view, this bill is still a step forward in curtailing the kind of arbitrariness exhibited by Klaus. It is important that the governor sign it.
By Johnny Page
What’s it going to take for us to do something?
To do something besides run our mouths;
Do we have to lose all our children to caskets and cages before we do something?
Do we allow their potential to be cut off or captured or do we do something?
Do we get up off our butts and do something or do we wait on help?
If you say wait, then we’ll be waiting until it’s too late to do something.
We’re at war and I’m not talking overseas, I mean right here at home so do something.
Don’t sit in silence; do something!
Do something about the violence; do something!
Do something about the guns; do something!
Do something about the drugs; do something!
If you’re not part of the solution then you are part of the problem, so do something,
Because even when you do nothing you are doing something,
So do something worth doing.
(Ricky Baldwin is a Senior Field Organizer for SEIU 73, activist with Jobs With Justice, and occasional contributor to Labor Notes, Z Magazine, and Dollars and Sense.)
Part One described multimillionaire Gov. Rauner’s stealth attack on the poor and working people of Illinois, targeting Medicaid, social services, prevailing wages, compensation for injured workers, labor unions, and small towns.
“By coming from great wealth, and choosing time and again to surround himself with people who share a narrow world-view of the super-rich…” – NBC Chicago 5 blogger Mark Anderson
At a candidate forum in December, Rauner proposed lowering the state minimum wage one dollar to the federal minimum $7.25. Under fire a month later, he said he had “misspoken” and advocated raising the federal minimum as long as it was accompanied by “other reforms.” Once in office, Rauner’s first state of the state address attempted to balance drastic cuts to compensation for injured workers, prevailing wage rates, and other worker protections, by raising the state minimum to $10 an hour, adding after a pause, “over seven years,” a clarification which drew unprecedented audible laughter from the Assembly floor.
Even at $10 an hour with year-round full-time hours, which are increasingly hard to come by, a worker would still fall below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four, which is already unrealistically low. Contrary to popular belief, minimum wage jobs are no longer just for high school students, but are filled increasing by older, more educated adults who lost better jobs and who have children of their own. Over half the jobs created since the 2007-08 recession have been low-wage jobs.
Son of a corporate lawyer turned Motorola senior vice president, Rauner joined the equity investment firm Golder Thoma Cressey (GTC) straight out of Harvard business school, soon making partner and changing the name to GTCR. There Rauner made tens of millions directing investments of public pensions, employee retirement plans, university endowments and foundations, reports Carol Felsenthal in the Chicago Magazine. Having cashed in and out, Rauner now proposes illegally freezing public employee pensions and continuing with more market-vulnerable 401k plans. He also made millions from a psychiatric hospital, nursing and funeral homes, debt collection, and cemeteries.
Minimum wage, injured workers compensation, prevailing rates, minimum wage, unions, and social services, all targeted by Gov. Rauner are favorite enemies of the billionaire Koch brothers and their American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the shadowy corporate-backed political brokerage that has attracted low-level controversy for providing “scholarships” to lawmakers for trips with corporate lobbyists, producing templates for corporation-friendly legislation, and other questionable practices ALEC claims are “not lobbying.”
The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity donated $10 million to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign, and ALEC drafted Michigan’s “right-to-work” bill among others. The local “right-to-work” zones idea was developed by the American City and County Exchange (ACCE), a recent off shoot of ALEC, which has been pushing the idea in nearby Kentucky, along with the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a member of ALEC-affiliated State Policy Network. The State Policy Network also runs the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which promotes charter schools and “right-to-work” laws, and is often cited by media outlets such as National Public Radio without describing its affiliation.
Members include “libertarian and conservative think-tanks” in virtually every state, including the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), a longtime recipient of donations from Bruce Rauner and a partner in school and pension “reform” with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. Mayor Emmanuel has also worked with the Governor on school “reform,” that is, closing down public schools in low-income neighborhoods and promoting nonunion charter schools without the same requirements to accept with special needs or behavioral troubles. Gov. Rauner has appointed three former IPI staffers to positions in his administration.
‘He Can’t Be Bought’
Rauner, who owns nine multimillion dollar homes from a Florida villa to a Utah ski resort condo, made $25,672 an hour in 2012, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, and was able to contribute over $3.5 million to candidates since 1998 and $28 million to his own campaign, along with $37 million from donors including the wealthiest man in Illinois, hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin. Rauner’s ads bragged, “He can’t be bought,” but perhaps he is simply among those doing the buying.
Immediately after the election, Rauner developed a $20 million “war chest” to “help” Republican legislators back his agenda, according to Crain’s, with $10 million of his own and the rest from Griffin and “the Koch of conservative politics in Illinois” Schlitz Brewing heir Richard Uilein. Republican state senators and representatives soon learned the meaning of Rauner’s support, according to Capitol Fax, when Rauner met with them to discuss the “war chest” and clarified, “I want ten yes votes,” on his agenda, “not five, not seven, but ten, and anybody who doesn’t give me ten yes votes is going to have a f***ing problem with me.”
His inaugural campaign “fly-around” the state charged $25,000 for a package of four VIP tickets to the swearing-in, a couple dinners, and a concert (instead of the traditional inaugural ball), according to NBC 5 Chicago. Another $25,000 could get two tickets to a “business roundtable,” prompting concern from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s David Melton, who commented, “the ability to buy access with contributions is not a good thing, not a healthy thing.” If Gov. Rauner truly “can’t be bought,” then he at least knows who his base really is, and how to filter out the rest.
While blaming unions for virtually every problem in the state, from budget deficits and high property taxes to poor education and unemployment, Rauner told reporters at the Du Quoin State Fair that he is “not anti-union.” He then proceeded to suggest banning unions from political participation anywhere they have organized workers, alleging falsely that non-members in unionized worksites are “forced” to make “political contributions” to candidates with whom they disagree in violation of “free speech,” among other nonsense. By federal law, union dues cannot be donated to any political candidate or party; only voluntary contributions designated for that purpose can.
The reality behind such attacks is that working people, largely abandoned by both major political parties, have precious few options to compete on a political playing field heavily tilted towards the wealthy. The average Illinoisan, earning less in a year than Rauner paid to join an elite wine club ($140,000), has a fighting chance only by joining forces with other working people in unions. Still, the billionaire Koch brothers alone spent well over twice the combined political contributions of the ten top-spending unions in the 2012 elections, including both disclosed and undisclosed donations, according to Republic Report.
So why, if unions cannot hope to compete in political spending do Rauner and the Koch boys sweat it, one may ask. Only one answer makes sense: money is not the only source of power, on the shop floor or in politics. Wealth and power may influence elections substantially, but votes still count. And there are simply a lot more working people than super-rich – which is where unions come in. Even though over the last ten years 83 percent of the top spenders won US Senate races, and 93 percent in the House, nobody wins a real race without organizing. And by all accounts Rauner’s campaign, like the Koch brothers’ network, was and is extraordinarily well organized. But dramatic examples of underfunded candidates out-organizing far better funded ones are everywhere, including Urbana-Champaign’s own Carol Ammons. The ultimate fate of Rauner’s, and the Koch brothers’, agenda therefore remains to be seen.
I saw a dog riding a skateboard. Rather, I saw a video of a dog riding a skateboard. What’s the big difference? A few weeks ago I saw a mesmerizing movie, Monkey Kingdom, about Macaques in Sri Lanka. Shot as a documentary, it’s edited and narrated like a fiction film with monkeys as actors. I discounted the story, but not the images. Those long-tailed cousins sleeping in trees and dining on maggot larvae were full-price real.
I accepted the underlying premise that photography can represent reality in a trustworthy way. (When in doubt about what to watch on the screen, try nature documentaries — you can always turn down the sound to avoid anthropomorphic excesses.)
Documentaries range greatly in the ways they manipulate material and present themselves as tellers of truth. Many rely heavily on reenactments. We also have fiction films based on true stories that use documentary footage, and digitalization that can make anything imaginary look real on the screen. Do we have the vocabulary needed to note the differences?
A good education in both content and form is available in the subject of Edward Snowden.
In December, an American film-making champion, Oliver Stone, director of JFK, Nixon, and W. will add to his pantheon with the release of Snowden. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Ed Snowden, Zachary Quinto will be Glenn Greenwald, and Melissa Leo will depict documentarian Laura Poitras. Chances are excellent we’ll get a gripping story dramatically told, a thriller, urging the subject from essential but dry to popular and juicy.
Prep for Stone’s Snowden with PBS’s Frontline two-part series by Michael Kirk: United States of Secrets easily accessed on pbs.org. Classic in style, Frontline productions use an unseen adult male narrator who calmly and authoritatively guides viewers, interviewing credible experts. Added effects minimally distract from the goal of being impartial, clear, and informative. Part one of United States of Secrets explains the history of NSA surveillance and whistle-blowing. Part Two details Snowden’s actions and the collusion between the NSA and telecommunications and internet companies. Downing old-school Frontline may feel like taking medicine, but darn, it is good for you and will hold your attention and satisfy curiosity.
Want to go backstage on Ed Snowden’s secret tour from Hawaii to Hong Kong and then Russia? See Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s filmed documentation of Snowden in the first days of his daring decision to reveal NSA’s secret surveillance program in June 2013. Unlike Frontline, her film does not use an invisible narrator. Instead Poitras herself speaks. In a whispery voice she shares the film’s backstory and reads aloud her private emails. Although neither she nor her camera operator openly appear on screen, she lets us overhear her arranging shots for better framing and lighting. We are cut into the deal. Poitras’s direct approach sets up viewers to trust her. Edward Snowden certainly did.
From the outset, Poitras explains how, in a 180 from the usual relationship between filmmaker and subject, Snowden picked her to make a documentary about him. Truly a man of his times (Snowden was born in 1983, the same year as the internet, the year cell phones hit the market) he understands the parlance of our era. He enlists a print journalist to leak the material and shape the story for the mainstream media and a filmmaker to record history in the making.
Snowden, however, says Poitras chose herself for the task by being “selected.” A victim of the secret system he is exposing, Poitras, in Snowden’s view, is the obvious choice to make Citizenfour. Poitras explains: “In 2006 I was placed on a secret watch-list after making a film about the Iraq War. In the following years I was detained and interrogated at the U.S. border dozens of times.” Snowden knew all about her troubles, or so the film suggests with a montage of memos. He tells Poitras her electronic communications are “…in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”
In addition to Poitras and Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, print journalist for The Guardian who gets the scoop, also becomes a main character in Citizenfour, a close-up view of a heroic threesome. The film is an important document produced to record the unveiling of many others. Edward Snowden did not “turn himself in” as some called for if he wanted to secure his role as a whistle-blower instead of a traitor, but he did arrange to have his actions documented on film. Interesting stuff. Citizenfour breaks ground in documentary film history.
Snowden tells Greenwald “I am not the story here.” That may be true in the larger frame, but Snowden is the story of Citizenfour. We watch him for 114 minutes do ordinary things like gel his hair. We peep though a window as he prepares dinner with his girlfriend. We hear tremble in his voice as he warns “We are building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man, yet its directors exempt themselves from accountability.” The film puts a face on the underground paladin and shines a light as he emerges from the shadows. Citizenfour is Snowden sort of turning himself in — on screen, not in person.
When I first learned of NSA’s secret surveillance of U.S. citizens, like many others I dismissively thought, “Well, duh. It is naïve to think any electronic communication is truly private.” I still think that, but watching the films above opened my mind to the depth of deception and our shared vulnerability. We are somewhere we have not ever been before except in dystopian fantasies. Snowden’s actions have led to better safeguards of privacy, and even he writes optimistically in a New York Times op-ed piece (June 5, 2015 A27) but it seems to me since our tax dollars were used to collect our private communications, we ought to get something out of it. Analysts claim the surveillance thwarted nary a terrorist action, so it didn’t keep us safer. Perhaps the government should hire a team of writers to cull through the material and produce some quality entertainment. How about an internet channel devoted to the project?
Poitras calls Citizenfour her third film in a trilogy about “America post-9/11.” Interestingly, none of the films – all worth watching– are set in the United States. All three are portraits of men of action with details that give viewers private tours into complex worlds. The first, My Country, My Country (2006) follows an Iraqi doctor who runs for office in Iraq’s first elections. It’s the film that put Poitras on the NSA watchlist. The Oath (2010), set in Yemen and Guantanamo, tells an amazing story. Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard candidly speaks about his experiences getting into and out of al-Qaeda and his guilt over the imprisonment of another whose case goes to the Supreme Court. It’s fascinating to see the surroundings, hear the stories, and watch the cat and mouse game that goes on between interviewee and interviewer. Put The Oath in your queue.
And if you look out your window and see a dog riding a skateboard, be sure to film it.
On New Year’s night, a Black Lives Matter protest broke out in Savoy after two University of Illinois police officers fired bullets into a carload of African American youth, wounding two people, with one of them shot twice in the back. This was not long after demonstrations erupted in Ferguson, New York, and across the country. A large crowd had spilled out into the parking lot of an apartment complex following a party. After witnessing police shoot at the car, imitating those who saw Mike Brown killed, they put their hands up and yelled, “Don’t shoot.”
When black youth are shooting at one another, it grabs media headlines. But when black youth are shot by police there is not the same level of concern. In fact, the University of Illinois Police Chief Jeff Christensen never admitted that the two young men involved were struck by police bullets, nor has he stated how many bullets police were fired that night. No one in the media has cared to ask. Again, the message sent is that black lives don’t matter.
Chief Christensen said in a press release that it was “fortunate” that police intervened “before anyone was killed.” Yet one person was almost killed―by police bullets. “I almost died,” the young man told me in an interview. Fortunately, he lived to tell his story.*
How Many Bullets?
Police were responding to calls of what sounded like either fireworks or guns being shot off on New Year’s Eve. Savoy does not maintain its own police department and contracts with the Sheriff’s office for patrol. But it was New Year’s night and deputies were busy taking other calls. A Tolono officer, Justin Levingston, from just south of town, was one of the first to arrive on the scene at the Village at Colbert Park apartments.
I have attempted to piece together the incident after filing public records requests, reading press releases, attending a court hearing, and speaking to the two young men involved.
A crowd of approximately 80 youth had assembled in the parking lot after 1 a.m.. A fight broke out between two black teens. One of them pleaded guilty to pulling out a 9 mm pistol to fend off a beating by several individuals who had now joined in. There was a loud shot, whether it was from the fight or elsewhere is not clear. Police claim to have seen the young man they call the “shooter” (although there is apparently no evidence that he fired a gun) run back to a white Suburban. Two U of I police officers, Douglas Beckman and Nathaniel Park, who were carrying AR-15 rifles, aimed at the truck and shot multiple times.
How many bullets police fired is still not known. According to Sheriff’s Deputy Rich Ferriman, there were “several bullet holes all down the passenger side of the white SUV.” Photos afterwards showed the rear and side windows completely shot out.
The young man who was hit twice claims he heard 16 shots fired.
To date, I have been denied police reports written by the two officers who fired shots, Beckman and Park, as well as the Tolono officer who witnessed the entire event. Gunshot residue (GSR) tests were conducted on the two individuals involved, but again I have been denied the results. I attempted to reach UIPD Chief Christensen after the investigation was completed, but my calls went unanswered.
I have investigated other officer-involved shootings―Kiwane Carrington, Toto Kaiyewu, Donnell Clemmons―and this refusal is, in my experience, very unusual.
A Chaotic Scene
As the crowd dispersed that night, others also rushed inside the Suburban―there were four young black women, one of whom was the driver, and another young man who had jumped into the back seat. The “shooter” was on the passenger side, outside of the car. The driver “panicked” and put the car in reverse. Without warning, the two police officers shot indiscriminately into the car with several bystanders in the way.
When police fired into the Suburban, the young man in the back seat laid over two of the girls “in order to protect them.” He remembered glass flying in the car. “They was trying to kill us,” he explained to me. He was struck in the back by two police bullets. When one of the bullets shattered his shoulder blade, his whole right side “went out.” Formerly a high school basketball player, now he doesn’t have full mobility in his right arm.
He recalled lying wounded for several minutes while police retrieved a bulletproof shield to approach him. One of the young women was yelling, “Help, he is about to die!” He would spend the next four days at Carle hospital recovering from surgery to remove the two bullets.
Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!
After the crowd witnessed police unload their rifles into the Suburban, they held an impromptu protest. An unnamed witness saw one of the young women “standing over” her friend “screaming.” It was her screams that had “attracted a large crowd to gather near the area.”
According to U of I police Sgt. Joseph McCullough, “several members of the crowd walked in front of me and other officers while putting their hands in the air and saying, ‘Don’t shoot!’” Others had their phones out “video recording officers’ reactions.”
As UIPD officer Jason Bradley recounted, “The scene was very chaotic.” Another UIPD officer, Anthony Carpenter, gives his account, “There was also a large group of individuals interfering with officers by yelling, video taping, and holding their hands up in the air taunting officers.”
The second young man, the so-called “shooter,” was grazed by bullets in his right arm. After a gun was found in the car, he was charged with aggravated discharge of a weapon, and illegal possession of a firearm without a FOID card. On May 11, he accepted a plea bargain and was given 30 months of probation for simple possession of a gun.
Who Is Officer Beckman?
Two other incidents suggest Officer Beckman has a deep fear of black youth. In 2009, Beckman was one of three officers who shot and killed 23 year-old Toto Kaiyewu, a 23 year-old African American young man who had a history of mental illness.
In 2014, Beckman was outside of my house in Urbana holding a carload of black youth at gunpoint. Beckman claimed the driver led him on a car chase after a traffic stop, although according to his own report the car was “never exceeding 27 mph.” The driver finally stopped at the home of his aunt, who had lent him the car, and lives across the street from me. When I looked out my front door to see what was going on, Beckman was aiming his gun in my direction. Had he fired, I could have been hit by a stray bullet.
There are still many unanswered questions about what happened New Year’s night. At the end of the day, we must ask, did police overreact? Did their involvement help to deescalate or escalate the situation? This is not just a theoretical question, but one of life and death.
This article was originally published at SmilePolitely.com and is reprinted with permission.
*We have intentionally withheld the names of victims of police violence.
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