Disaster Waiting to Happen: Coal Ash Threatens Illinois’ Only National Scenic River

The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is a swift-running stream that freely meanders from the north to the south through the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area, Kennewick County Park, and Kickapoo State Park in nearby Vermilion County. If you are among those who have paddled, fished, or hiked along the Middle Fork, you know why advocates worked so hard to have it designated both a State and National Scenic River nearly 30 years ago. The river is known for its clear-running waters; high, sandstone bluffs; gravel bottom, punctuated by large boulders and rocks; and a changing gradient with riffles that make it a fun river to run in a kayak or canoe. Together, the Middle Fork and surrounding open space corridor support 57 types of fish; 45 different mammals; and 190 kinds of birds. Twenty-four species are officially identified as threatened or endangered.


Location map of Dynegy Coal Ash Pits. All photos and graphics courtesy Pam Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative

But the state’s only National Scenic River also is home to the now-shuttered Vermilion Power Station and 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash. This coal-fired power plant, now owned by Dynegy Midwest Generation, overlooks the river from its west bank, about 12 miles upstream from Danville. Over 55 years, Dynegy and its predecessors dumped 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash into three pits constructed in the river’s floodplain. That is enough material to cover over 1547 NFL football fields with one foot of ash, or fill the Willis (Sears) tower nearly two times!


Dynegy Vermilion’s three coal ash pits, aerial view

Coal ash is the waste that is left over after burning coal to generate electricity. It contains toxic metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and selenium, which are known to cause birth defects, cancer and neurological damage in humans and wildlife. If Dynegy has its way, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) will approve a plan that will permanently leave the waste in its current location. Eco-Justice Collaborative and Prairie Rivers Network are working on a coordinated campaign calling for the IEPA to require Dynegy to move its coal ash out of the floodplain to a properly-constructed, lined facility on its property, away from the river.

What’s the Threat?

The Old East Pit and North Ash pit are unlined and leaking toxic metals into the groundwater and the river. Class I groundwater quality standards have been exceeded for boron, iron, manganese, sulfate, total dissolved solids, pH and arsenic.

The New East Pit is lined, but was constructed over mine voids, raising concerns over its long-term stability. Most importantly, the meandering river has seriously eroded riverbanks next to these three pits, moving the channel closer and closer to the walls of the impoundments that hold back the toxic waste. In fact, the river has so severely eroded the banks of the newest coal ash pit that Dynegy recently received approval from state and federal agencies to install emergency stream bank stabilization for a distance of 485 feet. Work along the riverbank abutting the New East Ash Pit is underway, but according to information obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, just 10 feet separated the river from the toe of the coal ash embankment at one location.


Failed gabions next to Old East Ash Pit, April 2016

Although Dynegy is currently working to reinforce banks abutting the New East Ash Pit, gabions (wire cages with rock) installed in the early 1980’s along the Old East and North Ash Pits are deteriorating and literally falling into the river. This leaves banks that abut these two coal ash pits vulnerable for a distance of nearly 1/2 mile. At this time, there are no proposals from Dynegy to repair or replace failed stream bank protection measures along the two oldest pits.

A breach of just one of these pits could send millions of cubic yards of toxic ash down the river, much like the 2008 catastrophe in Tennessee, where a dam at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant near Harriman TN failed, and 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash cascaded into the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The breach released a slow-moving wave of toxic sludge into the rivers that smothered about 300 acres of land, snapping trees as if they were twigs and knocking homes off their foundations. More recently, a pipe ruptured under a coal ash pit at a Duke Energy Power Plant near Eden, North Carolina, in 2014, sending 46,000 cubic yards of toxic waste into the Dan River. And just last month, flooding associated with Hurricane Matthew caused a coal ash spill from a pit associated with Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee Power Plant near Goldsboro, North Carolina, releasing coal ash into the Neuse River. Investigations are underway to determine the extent of the damage.

“If a breach of these coal ash pits occurred, and just a little over 1% of Dynegy’s coal ash entered the river, it would be comparable to the volume released in Duke Energy’s 2014 Dan River spill that sent coal ash 70 miles downstream.” – Lan Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative

This toxic waste poses a long-term threat to the river, to the people who depend on it, and to the recreational and economic values that it provides to the region. A spill on the Middle Fork could leave massive cleanup costs to taxpayers, and Illinois’ only National Scenic River and adjacent wildlife and recreation areas would be devastated. Vermilion County and the City of Danville plan to capitalize on the scenic and recreational potential of the river and its economic potential for tourism. More than one million people visit the area each year, providing much-needed opportunities for a region that has experienced de-industrialization and out-migration over the years.


Failed gabions, Old East Ash Pit, April 2016

Dynegy’s Proposed “Fix”

The National Park Service has repeatedly called on Dynegy to move its coal ash out of the floodplain, citing that the presence of this toxic waste is inconsistent with the purpose and intent of a National Scenic River. But Dynegy, whose 2015 gross profits exceeded $1.8 billion, has dismissed the option of removing the coal ash from the floodplain, citing “unfavorable costs.” Instead, the power company has proposed closing the ponds by leaving them in the floodplain and capping them with a PVC liner and 36 inches of dirt. This is the plan that has been submitted to the Illinois EPA for approval.

But even Dynegy admits in its own reports that the coal ash pits could eventually fail. Their “cap and leave” proposal is a short-term solution that will put the liability for this dangerous site directly into the hands of future generations.

What You Can Do

Go to http://ecojusticecollaborative.org and click TAKE ACTION to send a letter to Governor Rauner and IEPA Director Alec Messina that asks them to protect the Middle Fork River and the people of Vermilion County. Tell them you oppose any decision that allows Dynegy to leave its toxic waste in the floodplain, because it would put the river at risk and destroy the resource upon which Vermilion County and the City of Danville are building their future. Also, leaving the pits in place will mean state and county taxpayers will shoulder costs associated with future maintenance, repair, and potential cleanup.

Don’t wait. Do this today!

November 1, 2016

Eco-Justice Collaborative is a Champaign-based non-profit that uses education, advocacy and action to address urgent environmental issues, while integrating their work with ongoing struggles for social and economic justice.


Posted in Environment | Comments Off on Disaster Waiting to Happen: Coal Ash Threatens Illinois’ Only National Scenic River

Activists Among Us: Esther Patt

By Julie Laut

It is easier than ever today to “virtually” act on behalf of social justice issues. Emails come to your inbox and with just a click of a button you can send a robo-letter to your senator or an organization. Social media bombards us with pleas to sign petitions and send donations. New technological tools have played a crucial role in modern social action across the globe, but for some those same tools can too easily offer a certain level of self-satisfaction when in fact the action is safely distanced from the hands-on work of most community activism. Not so for the activists I am meeting for these articles.

Esther Patt embodies in the most fundamental sense the term “activist.” She stands up, she speaks up, she acts. She recalls in detail her first foray into community activism as a UIUC student in 1976 when she led a drive to register approximately 7,000 new student voters. This was no easy task at a time when who could register a voter and under what circumstances was more strictly controlled. She continues to be involved in voter registration today.

Patt started her now 40-year commitment to work on behalf of tenants’ rights just after the 1976 voter registration drive ended. She initially volunteered at the UIUC Tenant Union before working as a paid employee from 1979-2012. Since her retirement four years ago, she continues to work as Director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union. The vast majority of Patt’s hours are spent in direct service to student and community member tenants, helping them understand their rights and responsibilities according to state and local law. Her knowledge of those rights runs deep, due to her work to bring about changes in both the Champaign and Urbana human rights ordinances to include protections against discrimination in housing in the late 1970s, and the comprehensive Urbana Landlord-Tenant Ordinance that passed in early 1994.


Patt’s work to end discrimination in housing continues today in her work to change the Housing Authority of Champaign County (HACC) Board of Commissioners’ policy toward people with conviction records. Unlike the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which only bans persons from public housing who are registered sex offenders or convicted of the manufacture of methamphetamine, HACC policy also excludes public housing applicants who have less than five years since their last drug-related or forcible felony conviction. Patt believes that this discriminatory HACC policy undermines efforts to reduce recidivism by preventing those recently released from jail or prison from finding stable housing or living with family in public housing.

Patt is also a fiercely committed feminist whose most important life-long political issue has been the defense of women’s access to safe and affordable abortions. She believes that any attempt to undermine women’s freedom of choice results in women losing their adult standing, and she criticizes many on the Left for shying away from the abortion issue over the years. She helped establish the now-defunct Abortion Rights Coalition (ARC) in the mid-1970s to fight the cut-off of Medicaid coverage for abortions under the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortions for low-income women except in cases of rape or incest, or to save a mother’s life. Patt, who argues that abortion should not be treated differently than any other medical issue, is proud that Illinois is one of the few states where the ACLU successfully sued on behalf of Planned Parenthood and won court-ordered non-discriminatory public funding of abortion. She also tirelessly has lobbied individual state legislators to commit to pro-abortion stances, including lobbying Dick Durbin, who was anti-choice at the start of his political career but is now a leader of the pro-choice movement in the U.S. Senate, and says she will not vote for any candidate who does not fully support abortion rights.


Writing about Claire Szoke in these pages a few months ago, I learned that to be an activist requires compassion. Her belief that all individuals deserve respect and the opportunity to live in a fair and safe society has led her to protest against war, work toward fair wages, and support sanctuary for refugees and asylum-seekers.

Meeting Esther Patt has taught me that to be an activist requires finding your voice. Near the end of our conversation, Patt spoke passionately about the need to put aside one’s fears in order to stand up and speak out for what you believe in. Too often people are afraid to rock the boat or make others uncomfortable, when in reality most of us are putting little at risk by taking action on political issues. So what if you make a few enemies along the way, she asks. We all learn on the elementary school playground that no matter how hard you try, not everyone is going to like you anyway. You might as well make your voice and your actions count.

Julie Laut lives in Urbana. This is the second in a series of articles highlighting women who have been long-time community activists on behalf of social, economic, racial, and gender justice issues in Urbana-Champaign.

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History Matters: A Look Back at the Champaign County Labor Movement of the 1920s

For the past two years, newspaper headlines across Illinois have carried grim reports of budget impasse and inadequate funding for core state services and institutions, including for our flagship University in Urbana-Champaign.  Unfortunately, such dire reports are nothing new.

“University’s Progress Being Held in Check Because of Lack of Funds”

This headline was published not last week, or last year, but all the way back in 1921.  It was a report in the Twin City Review, a Champaign County labor newspaper that ran for nearly a decade. The reporter went on to explain, “It is sad, indeed, that in the great commonwealth of Illinois, its chief seat of learning must be held back because of the lack of funds…Unionists realize the necessity of higher education, that their children may become better prepared to combat the battles of life.” Four years later, the newspaper ran a story titled “Labor Pleads for Full U. I. Appropriation.” This article described how Illinois labor leaders were lobbying the legislature to fund the University.

They say the more things change…the more they stay the same. At different points during the last century, local residents have had to navigate through economic recessions, depressions, funding cuts and attacks on unions. Throughout this history union members have organized and stood up for a more fair and just economy for Urbana and Champaign.

The local labor newspaper helped foster communication between the different unions and the local community. Much like today’s alternative news outlets such as the Public I, the Twin City Review provided in-depth reporting on issues that mattered to local working people. Such issues were often ignored or scantily covered by the mainstream media. The newspaper focused on stories important to both trade unionists and farmers. It gave unions a forum to share their struggles and successes, build solidarity, and celebrate a shared sense of labor community.

Labor Day Parade and Celebration

One way that the local labor movement built a sense of community during the 1920s was through the annual Labor Day parade and celebration. The parade gave local workers a chance to show off their union pride while hosting a family-oriented event.

In 1921, the Twin City Review ran ads for a “Monster Labor Day.” The Musicians Union promised to bring out the “best in the land” to play some “real classy music.” There would also be free watches and fountain pens for children. The parade route began at West Side Park in Champaign, and then marched down Green Street, ending with a celebration in Crystal Lake Park in Urbana.

The parade lineup included some unions that are still around today, and some that no longer exist in Urbana and Champaign. This reveals both the incredible continuity of local organized labor, as well as how unions have vanished from certain job sectors. The Women’s Label League marched at the front of the parade, followed by the Janitors, the Laborers, Stagehands, Carpenters, Printers, Barbers, Meat Cutters, Letter Carriers, Sheet Metal Workers, Bricklayers, Musicians, Teamsters, Plumbers and Steam Fitters, Machinists, Plasterers, and several railway unions. The Auto Mechanics brought up the end of the parade.

Buy the Union Label

Having the Women’s Label League kick off the Labor Day Parade demonstrates the importance of these women to the local labor movement in the 1920s. During this era, women and people of color were often marginalized or altogether left out of organized labor. The Women’s Labor Union League is an example of how women found ways to make their presence felt in the movement. The purpose of the league was to encourage local retailers to carry union-made products, and then convince consumers to purchase those goods. In 1921, the League held an Oyster Supper to raise funds to support their work.

The women found an ally in the Twin City Review. The paper spent considerable ink on stories and ads aimed at getting readers to “buy the union label.” A union label is an easily identifiable stamp that lets consumers know that workers from a particular union have produced an item. During the 1920s store shelves were filled with goods bearing union labels, from women’s clothing and shoes to batteries and even ice cream. There were so many different labels that the Twin City Review ran a contest, where readers could win cash prizes for correctly identifying the dozens of different union labels that were stamped on local products. Another prize was offered for the best 100-word essay on “Why I should demand the Union Label.”

The proliferation of union-made goods is one tangible difference between our current era and the 1920s labor movement. Today, with the growth of globalized capitalism, many goods are produced overseas or in states with low union density—where both wages and workplace safety standards lag behind unionized regions. It has become increasingly hard to find products stamped with the union label.

The Twin City Review also periodically provided more in-depth coverage of why consumers should consider certain union-made projects. A 1921 column on the Bakers and Confectionary Workers Union warned that non-union bread might be filled with “filler and substitutes.” According to a Bakers Union representative, “Local bread is pure, wholesome and nourishing. Every union bakery in the Twin Cities is sanitary…Every unionist and believer in the trade-at-home slogan should eat more local made bread.” During the early twentieth century concern about food safety was on the rise. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, had brought readers a harrowing glimpse into the often unsavory world of food manufacturing in Chicago’s meatpacking district. As the public clamored for improved food safety standards, the Bakers Union tapped into that concern to frame the importance of their labor in providing wholesome foods for area households.

Unions’ Importance to the Community

The Twin City Review made an effort to explain the tangible importance of union members to their local community. The paper included columns and advertisements aimed at quantifying the impact of union members for Champaign County. One ad published in 1928 declared that the 2,500 local union members represented more than $4.5 million in earning power. The ad also explained that 75 percent of union members owned their homes. Finally, the ad emphasized the union’s role in local philanthropic work with the statement, “Labor is always back of any cause or movement for the betterment of the community.” Ads like this attempted to portray the investment of union members in Urbana-Champaign.

That investment included advocating for a fully funded public university, creating family-oriented public events, urging consumers to buy local, advocating for safer food standards, and building a membership that put down roots in the local community.

By the end of the 1920s, the paper ceased to operate, possibly a casualty of the Great Depression. Although it was short-lived, the Twin City Review gives a glimpse into how the labor movement became woven into the tapestry of community life in Urbana-Champaign.

Stephanie Seawell Fortado has just began work as a lecturer for the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, focusing on providing workshops and extension programming for unions and the general public. She completed her PhD at the University of Illinois, where she studied African American working class and social movement history. She is a past Executive Director of the Illinois Labor History Society, and past President, Treasurer, Bargaining Team and Strike Committee member of the Graduate Employees Organization 6300, of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and former delegate to the Champaign County Labor Council. She is currently a member of newly formed Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition, Local 6546.

Interested in reading more from the Twin City Review? Visit the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library. 



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Hip-Hop and the Black Radical Tradition in CU

i must confess that waltzes
do not move me.
i have no sympathy
for symphonies

i guess i hummed the Blues
too early,
and spent too many midnights
out wailing in the rain.

Assata Shakur – Culture

The tradition of Black music infusing the bloodstreams of radical Black movements extends back to the spirituals our first enslaved ancestors sang as they wished, and fought, for their liberation. This Black musical tradition, that combined both art and struggle, went on to envelop the Black feminisms of artists like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.  It existed within the gospel songs sung in the dynamic “centers” of the Civil Rights Movement—Black churches—as well as the jazz music favored by the Black Power generation of revolutionaries and radical Black students. Today, this tradition lives on through Hip-Hop.

Through Hip-Hop, several generations of activists have now found their own beat to step to on our peoples’ fatigued, yet determined, march towards liberation. Here in Champaign-Urbana, Hip-Hop has contributed positively to the organizing efforts of young Black activists in a number of different ways. This essay will provide a short overview of Hip-Hop’s relationship with local Black activism as well as provide contextual snapshots of several local Black artist-activists who find innovative ways to fuse our culture into our movement.

Please note that I am writing this from the perspective of a participant-observer who, after only spending the past two-and-a-half years in Champaign-Urbana, has had the pleasure of developing close artistic, organizational, and personal relationships with several of the people and community institutions I’ll be briefly profiling. In writing this, I hope to both promote the awesome work being produced by local Black artists, and to send a love note to the community I have found joined here that has helped me to find my own ‘beat’.

My introduction to the local Black Hip-Hop community was through the work of Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths, or SOLHOT, an organization that provides a celebratory and healing space for Black girls. The annual Black Girl Genius Week events that SOLHOT organizes brings together artist-activists from across the local community and the nation, including renowned poet Nikki Finney, to affirm the lives and geniuses of Black girls. The invaluable work of UIUC Education professor Ruth Nicole Brown, known by her students as “Dr. B,” and the rest of the SOLHOT crew has opened my eyes to new possibilities of incorporating Hip-Hop into communal institutions of healing and childhood development.

Through SOLHOT, I met and begun working with a Hip-Hop duo named Mother Nature, comprised of MCs Klevah and T.R.U.T.H. Through their music and activism, this duo exemplifies the Black radical tradition. As founding members of the Champaign-Urbana chapter of Black Lives Matter, these two artists took an active role in struggling for the changes they sought for their community. This past summer, Mother Nature led the organization of two “protest cyphers” in Champaign following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The first took place downtown and included an impromptu march during peak dinner hours, which startled many local white residents. The second was located at Douglass Park and concluded with a public cypher/teach-in on grassroots organizing. These two events brought high school and college students of color together to express their frustration with the intense racism of american society through Hip-Hop.  Furthermore, these artistic forms of protests exposed emerging young activists to communal forms of resistance—lessons that I believe will prove valuable to them in the years to come.

Hip-Hop has helped strengthen the linkages between community and UIUC campus-based activism in many ways. Local poet Shaya Robinson and the North End Breakfast Club, a Black men’s community improvement organization, organize the monthly S.P.E.A.K. Café open mic events. These events, located on UIUC’s campus, bring together both campus and community artists into one space and heavily feature Hip-Hop art forms. Black Students for Revolution, a radical Black student organization at UIUC that I am a part of, joined as a co-sponsor for these events in October. During each of these open mic events, the audience is given updates on the progress of student demands and community issues such as local efforts to curb the spread of mass incarceration. Thus, these spaces serve not only as sites of artistic expression, but also of communal political engagement.

On UIUC’s campus, those of us within Black Students for Revolution have found ways to incorporate Hip-Hop into our organizing work. During the October 24th Student Walkout for a Transformed University, Hip-Hop music played before the event and between speeches to entertain (and possibly educate) the crowd. Throughout our demands-making process, I produced several Hip-Hop instrumentals to serve as the musical backdrop for the online videos promoting the demands. And finally, during a recent invitation to perform on a local radio program at WEFT 90.1 FM, BSFR member and saxophonist Opetoritse Adefolalu, poet Shaya Robinson, MCs CJ Run and Ausar Bradley, and myself among others promoted the upcoming open mic while providing our listeners with a dazzling array of spoken word, musical performances, and freestyle cyphers.

What I have briefly summarized for you here is only a glimpse into the relationship between Hip-Hop and local Black activism in and surrounding Champaign-Urbana. With Hip-Hop’s ability to educate, empower, heal, and radicalize its listeners all at the same time, I am excited to see the new ways that Hip-Hop will be utilized by our artist-activists in the future. For a fuller understanding of this relationship, I encourage you to learn more about the artists I named above and to make an effort to see them perform live. It will not be an experience you will forget.

sunny-tureSunny Ture is a Hip-Hop artist and activist from Evansville, Indiana that organizes with Black Students For Revolution.  At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Sunny is a graduate student researching Black music’s relationship with radical Black social movements.  More information about his organizing work with BSFR can be found at BSFRUIUC.com.


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“Anti-Refugeeism without Refugees” in Eastern Europe

Analysts of post-World War II, post-Holocaust Eastern Europe coined the term “Anti-Semitism without Jews” to characterize the uncanny persistence of prejudice in countries mostly cleansed of any actual Jewish presence. The category of “Jew” took on a symbolic character, incorporating historical prejudices, a deflection of the Communist politics of fear, exclusive national and social identities, and a coded opposition to the rulers. Something similar seems to be happening in this region today, but “the refugee” has been substituted as the symbolic antagonist. The difference is that this new phobia is generated by freely-elected governments, rather than bubbling up spontaneously from below.

Government-funded anti-refugee billboards blanketing the Hungarian landscape.

Government-funded anti-refugee billboards blanketing the Hungarian landscape.

When I arrived in Hungary this summer, the billboards along the highway leading into town from the Budapest airport, typically sporting Italian swimwear ads and announcements of blockbuster pop concerts, had been taken over by bold, blue, impossible-to-ignore calls to vote in an October 2 referendum on the refugee question. Each one demanded “DID YOU KNOW?,” and continued with “facts”—conjured from half-truths, volatile juxtapositions, and popular opinions—such as: “Since the start of the refugee crisis, more than 300 people have died in Europe in terror attacks.” “Since the start of the refugee crisis, the number of assaults on women in Europe has increased drastically.” “Brussels [shorthand for all European Union institutions] wants to settle enough illegal immigrants to populate a whole city in Hungary.”

Government anti-refugee referendum billboard. Text reads: "Let's send a message to Brussels that they'll understand!"

Government anti-refugee referendum billboard. Text reads: “Let’s send a message to Brussels that they’ll understand!”

The referendum was formulated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government to read: “Do you want the European Union, even without the [Hungarian] Parliament’s involvement, to be able to order the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” There is currently no European Union (EU) mandate in place to resettle refugees across all 28 member states. Such a proposal was considered last year during the refugee crisis, when almost a million would-be immigrants, most from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, made their way to Greece and up through the Balkans, through Hungary towards more developed Western and Northern European destinations. (See my article in the October, 2015 Public i.) But in the face of determined opposition led by the so-called “Visegrad Group” of countries (in addition to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia), the proposed regulation was withdrawn; a more limited proposal is under discussion, but is, at a minimum, months away from being enacted.

During that 2015 crisis, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s astonishing open-door response, accepting over a million immigrants in 2015 (this figure includes those who arrived by other routes) provided a negative example for Orbán, and for many Hungarians and other East Europeans who felt they could not afford such generosity. (Merkel herself has faced a backlash within Germany, and subsequently admitted “mistakes” in refugee policy, which has been tightened.) The Hungarian PM, who has intensified his rhetorical and political anti-EU stance over the past several years, sees an opening to increase his European profile. Harnessing widespread resentment towards refugees, he aspires to assemble and lead a conservative nationalist bloc within the EU that opposes not only refugee resettlement but EU bureaucratic and political overreach in general. The fear campaign in the months leading up to the vote last month, backed by unprecedented government propaganda expenditures, follows a well-worn script to distract citizens from widespread economic hardship, and the ruling party’s corruption and ever-escalating consolidation of power in all spheres.

Although 2015 asylum applications to Hungary were actually the highest per capita in Europe (second only to Germany in total), this was due to its location on the new transit route, and to EU rules mandating applications be made in the country of first arrival. Practically none of the refugees wanted to stay in Hungary—they were bound and determined to reach countries where there were more opportunities for work and fellow countrypeople to receive them, primarily Germany and Great Britain. The completion of a fence along the whole of Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia, and stepped-up, robust enforcement of a “zero tolerance” policy, has slowed new entries to a trickle (and spawned criticism by Human Rights Watch and others, including reports of brutality against asylum-seekers). The Hungarian Red Cross estimates the number of refugees in Hungary at between 3500 and 4500 at any one time—less than 0.05% of the population. In the first five months of this year, a mere 76 asylum applications were accepted (as compared with 174,400 for 2015). Thus, in sharp contrast to e.g. Germany, encountering a refugee in Hungary is hardly a common occurrence.

The government’s billboard campaign was quickly countered by the absurdist Two-Tailed Dog Party, which collected enough money from those opposed to the fear campaign for a widespread counter-campaign of billboards and paid posters, as well as stickers put up by volunteers. These messages, with the tagline “Stupid Answer to a Stupid Question” (referring to the referendum question), all featured the official lead-in “DID YOU KNOW?,” followed by more or less ridiculous statements, such as “An average Hungarian will see more UFOs than refugees in his/her lifetime,” “Since the beginning of the migrant crisis, there have been more blue billboards [in Hungary] than immigrants,” “As long as people are worrying about refugees, less needs to be spent on the health care system,” and “In Syria, there’s a war on.” The messages encouraged people to “vote invalid”—that is, to spoil their ballots. The tactical aspect of this was that voting rules require valid votes by at least 50% of eligible voters. The serious opposition, meanwhile, was split between those advocating a boycott, with the same calculation, and a smaller proportion that, for moral and political reasons, pushed a “Yes” vote, to show support for Europe and a pro-refugee stance.

Poster of the Two-Tailed Dog Party opposing the government anti-EU campaign. Hungary receives billions in EU funds every year.

Poster of the Two-Tailed Dog Party opposing the government anti-EU campaign. Hungary receives billions in EU funds every year.

The government’s stretch-run effort shifted from button-pushing rhetoric to blunt force, with new billboards, in the national colors, stating “Let’s not risk it – VOTE NO!” The Two-Tailed Dog Party stickers were widely defaced or ripped down, including in my neighborhood (a fairly prosperous, and fairly right-wing, one in the first district). Over 97% of votes cast on October 2 supported the government position; but the total of valid votes was about 3.3 million, just over 42% of eligible voters—making the referendum a failure, legally. While the opposition trumpeted this as a success, the government cited the almost unanimous support of those who voted as a vindication, and potent ammunition to push the anti-refugee position in EU forums, as well as an anti-refugee amendment to the Hungarian Constitution.

Defaced Two-Tailed Dog Party Poster. The one underneath reads: "You're ripping it down in vain, the same thing is underneath!"

Defaced Two-Tailed Dog Party Poster. The one underneath reads: “You’re ripping it down in vain, the same thing is underneath!”

Orbán is sure to find allies in the other Visegrad countries, at the very least, who have been no less extreme than Hungary in their anti-refugee rhetoric and advocacy. Despite having even fewer actual migrants among them, due to their location off the beaten path of the main transit route, they also refuse quotas, or offer to take Christian refugees only. East Europeans and their leaders alike have been roundly criticized for their uncaring and “backwards” stance towards those fleeing war and suffering. But it behooves Western critics to keep in mind the often less-than-enlightened reactions (Merkel’s excepted) in their own countries, from attacks on refugee shelters in Germany; the misery of camps such as the infamous Jungle near Calais, France, recently and brutally closed; the virulence of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Brexit debate; and the rise of anti-immigrant parties and politicians across Western Europe—not to mention Mr. Trump and his “beautiful wall.” East Europeans, themselves migrants in the millions in the wealthier countries of the EU, are themselves subjected to anti-immigrant rhetoric—Poles were a particular target during the Brexit run-up—and even verbal abuse, beatings and worse: in late August a factory worker in Harlow, England was murdered by a group of local youths for speaking Polish. The picture is hardly black-and-white; as so often, those themselves suffering inequality turn against those even lower on the perceived totem pole.

Two days before the referendum, thousands of Hungarians, bearing signs such as “Do no harm!” and “I was once a refugee” and endorsed by leading writers, singers, film and theater directors and other cultural luminaries, demonstrated in front of Parliament, showing that a more universal humanitarianism is not absent here. They, along with the millions who didn’t cast a valid vote—whether from conviction or passivity—give hope that another (Eastern) Europe is possible.

Pro-refugee demonstration in Budapest on September 30.

Pro-refugee demonstration in Budapest on September 30.

Posted in International, Politics, Refugees | Comments Off on “Anti-Refugeeism without Refugees” in Eastern Europe

Battling ISIS and Other Distractions from the Bigger Picture

Current operations to scrub out Islamic State (ISIS) bases have restored American confidence in state-of-the-art military solutions for complex problems, but unfortunately these battles (and the undefined relationship with Russia, Turkey or the Assad regime in the post-ISIS era) also offer a comfortable distraction from more disturbing questions. Victory in Mosul or Raqqa will encourage Americans to think of ISIS as a vestige of the past that can be easily excised, but it would be better to study ISIS as a preview of emerging forms of non-state organization. ISIS is as much a product of the modern era as the weapons deployed against it.

ISIS Militants Gather in Syria’s Raqqa Province to Attack Kurds

ISIS Militants Gather in Syria’s Raqqa Province to Attack Kurds, early 2016. All images stock ISIS photos.

While ISIS fighters are frequently characterized as delusional interlopers from the past, jihadists are not artifacts from some isolated village untouched by contemporary life; rather, they are solidly entrenched in the global cultural and economic marketplace. In fact, the worldview of these extremists has been formed by global and regional events that have touched them far more than they touched Americans of a similar generation. The Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the leftist opposition throughout the Middle East, world indifference to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims, 9-11 and the subsequent Global War on Terror with its laser focus on eliminating extremists rather than improving human security….these are the events that have undone the nation-state architecture laid upon the region after World War I. The jihadist founders are very much  products of this contemporary unmaking of the world, not inexplicable dissenters from modernity.

Members of these extremist groups also experienced the global economic shifts that have indeed provided opportunities for some, but left many with a disorienting loss of control over their lives and communities. The integration of local, regional and global markets, the recessions of the 1990s and 2008, and the volatility of petroleum prices and oil-dependent government budgets have driven home the realization that individual lives are increasingly subject to international economic developments. Migration to Europe has captured world attention over the past two years, but in the last three decades waves of regional migration from rural to urban, from agriculture to industry, and from constricting to expanding economies have rocked and reshaped the entire world. Humans who must leave behind their families in order to support them are not ignorant of the modern economy, they are all too aware of its intrusion into their lives.


ISIS’s version of the popular video game Call of Duty shows both a sophisticated approach to recruitment and highlights how its the fascination with violence is shared with popular culture in the West.

Culturally, the ISIS crowd is also well exposed to modern life. Unfortunately, they are exposed to the worst of Western exports (slasher films and shooter games top my list) far more thoroughly than they encounter our civil liberties traditions. And the American catastrophe in Iraq and Afghanistan is constantly before them, contributing to the violence we then blame on the region. It is the Americans, in fact, that could be accused of living in an ahistorical bubble. We have been at war in the region since 2001 and yet most Americans cannot find Afghanistan or Iraq on a map or understand why eliminating key jihadist leaders hasn’t crippled the extremist challenge. It is Americans who could more appropriately be accused of being insufficiently globalized.


ISIS social media propaganda. ISIS has not only mastered social media, but their campaigns reveal Western-style approaches to marketing.

And of course the technology of ISIS is undeniably modern. ISIS’s mastery of social media replicated the dynamics of the Arab Spring in a way that even surprised Al Qaeda as it eschewed organizational hierarchies and leaped ahead into the global marketplace of ideas. ISIS has a clearly successful PR and marketing strategy; the ISIS brand is popular not only with supporters from Colorado, Morocco or London, but with self-proclaimed affiliates in Mali, Nigeria or Belgium. The magic of the internet provides easy access to anonymous funding, arms  and a global labor pool of willing recruits, a discovery made also by the multiplying militias across Syria. And finally, having few social or economic investments in traditional military tools will enable ISIS and other groups to make an easy adaptation to cyberwarfare in the future.


Those who join ISIS seek a sense of community and purpose after having lost the sense of identity and belonging that gives order to the social fabric.

While the world has been horrified by the brutality of ISIS, the emotional landscape of ISIS devotees is hardly alien territory to any modern society. Over and over the same themes appear in statements of those who drop out of their old lives and reappear in promotional videos for the new caliphate. As a group they are rarely well-schooled in religion and have little political vision of the world they claim to be building. What attracts them would be pitiful if the outcomes were not so tragic: they seek a sense of community and purpose after having lost the sense of identity and belonging that gives order to the social fabric. They are not holdouts from modernity, they are the objects of modernization: theirs is an existentialist crisis that spans classes and cultures and might be the most universal token of modernity.

The territorial hold of ISIS might indeed be broken after the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, but that won’t eliminate the factors that fed into the ISIS challenge. The increased technological ability of non-state organizations to challenge state systems, the emotional and economic anomie that contributes to the breakdown of traditional social ties, and the barely disguised apprehension about the future are not going to end with the capture of Mosul.

In fact, those same factors are already driving political transformations closer to home. The most negative varieties, such as the rise of international criminal gangs like those recently linked to the wave of homicides in El Salvador, the expansion of drug and human trafficking cartels that exploit distorted notions of “family” loyalty, and the rise of right-wing nativist rhetoric in Europe and in America all feed on the same emotional and cultural anxieties as ISIS. They employ the same technological abilities to create transnational movements and increasingly envision a political future in which the goal is not the capture of the state, but the rejection of the state itself.

ISIS’s ability to terrorize populations and disrupt lives won’t be missed when it is dislodged from Syria and Iraq, but dismissing the ISIS challenge as if it were a confrontation between a modern military and an archaic opponent distracts us from the greater challenge—how to address this definitively modern problem of transnational non-state actors that feed off the discontents of the modern world? Dealing with the demands of Russia, Turkey and the Assad regime appears comfortingly familiar by comparison.

Fourth in a series on the Syrian War

2016 05 13 Janice Jayes

Janice Lee Jayes, Ph.D. teaches Modern Middle East history at Illinois State University. She has worked in Morocco, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, and was a Fulbright scholar in Egypt.


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What Makes Jimmy Run?

The News-Gazette has a long history of extreme right-wing editorial columnists. In the 1940s and 1950s it was Eddie Jaquin. From the late 1980s until his downfall in the late 1990s it was John Hirschfeld, who was also the paper’s CEO and corporate attorney.

Jim Dey follows very much in this line. Opinions page editor Dey, apparently, based on the topics chosen and rhetorical style, writes the lion’s share of the unsigned editorials. He also writes two bylined columns per week that often overlap in subject and style with the daily unsigned editorials.

Jim Dey is very smart. He especially likes playing the ‘pseudo-intellectual’ who is smarter than the intellectual professors.

Sometimes he surprises. He reluctantly agreed with charging a Chicago cop in the killing of Laquan McDonald. Many of the unsigned editorials and bylined columns, however, make many of us cringe. Some are downright sick, twisted. Some of these may be written by others, such as News-Gazette president John Foreman.

Trigger warning: Jim Dey is a con artist.

Trigger warning (some at the News-Gazette may find what comes next to be difficult, disturbing or challenging): Jim Dey is a con artist. He is both con and artist. As a con, he misrepresents issues, and uses slippery rhetoric. Yet he is a true artist: a master of tendentious argument, who skates perilously close to outright lying.

Dey picks at weak points in an argument like a scab until he draws blood. But a weak point by no means refutes ipso facto an entire argument.

One of Dey’s favorite rhetorical tactics is the straw person ploy. He makes stuff up to create a straw target, which he then proceeds to knock the stuffing out of. Another ploy is to simply leave out inconvenient key facts.

Dey is a master at misinformation and disinformation. He makes his readers stupid. Dey is hypocritical. His motto is ‘Take the high road of principle if it serves your ideological end. If not, take the low road.’

Dey can be fun. No, it’s true. Take his ridiculously over-the-top turns of phrase. “Victim classes.” “Grievance departments.” “Authoritarian knuckleheads.” “Liberal bigots.”

Not funny at all is the snake-like, venomous Dey. He takes things personally. He engages in ad hominem attacks continually.

Dey is obsessive. Like a dog chewing on a bone, he can’t let things go. Steven Salaita. James Kilgore. The failed redistricting referendum.

Dey—and the News-Gazette—is defensive. He just has to get the last word in.

Dey has no fully thought-out, consistent ideas that add up to a political philosophy. Limited government, ‘free enterprise’—these are mantras, slogans that he repeats robot-like.

Dey and the News-Gazette are all in for Governor Bruce Rauner’s ‘turn-around-and-go-backwards’ agenda. Right-to-work-for-less zones. Busting public sector unions. The only problem is that they have never shown empirically how exactly these “business-friendly,” aka ‘trickle-down,’ measures will improve the Illinois economy (July 17, 2016).

One group that has spelled out in detail how to solve the budget mess is the bipartisan, nonprofit Center for Budget and Tax Accountability (CBTA) that I discussed in the November, 2015 Public i.

What about free speech? For libertarian-leaning Dey, you would think that he consistently supports free speech. In fact, he is inconsistent, even incoherent. What Dey consistently favors is ‘free speech for me but not for thee,’ a patently hypocritical stance.

The Steven Salaita case is the single best example. Through it all, Dey adamantly refused to acknowledge that Salaita’s was an open-and-shut case of academic freedom and First Amendment rights.

One of those leading the charge in destroying Salaita’s career, Dey later completely contradicted himself in a tightly-argued, carefully-worded column written applauding a free speech legal decision (November 10, 2015). Extrapolating from this case, he argued that the same free speech logic applies to so-called “political correctness” controversies at universities including Missouri, Yale, and North Carolina.

Dey never mentioned Salaita in this column. Yet he can’t defend speech many of us don’t agree with—Christian fundamentalists protesting against Arab Americans—without also defending speech he doesn’t agree with—Salaita’s “profane, anti-Israeli tweets.”

Online commentators were quick to point this out (November 10, 2015). Ratiocination: “Strange that Dey took a rather different position with regard to Steven Salaita’s speech… Hypocrisy, double-standards, incoherence. Jim Dey.” Automan: “Ratiocination busts Dey on a hypocrisy foul. Would you like to enter a plea, Mr. Dey?”

When it comes to free speech and “political correctness,” therefore, Dey ties himself up in illogical knots.

For more than 25 years, “PC” has been a right-wing ideological stick to beat lefties with. Earlier, it was about the curriculum, the canon. Today, it is about speech codes, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and renaming buildings. For a master of deception like Dey, these latter are the gift that keeps on giving.

Dey lacks the courage of his convictions

But Dey lacks the courage of his convictions. Why he, and others like him, slander, slight, and caricature is because otherwise they would have to seriously engage admittedly difficult, hard issues. Racism. Sexism. Inequality.

In an editorial, “Wrong priority,” Dey argued against the Champaign police department paying for a new position “to investigate complaints of police misconduct” (February 25, 1991). Twenty-five years later allegations of police misconduct continue, but his views remain the same.

Writing about racial profiling, he says, “the reality is that it’s not the low-crime, upscale neighborhoods that require attention from law enforcement, but poor neighborhoods that have serious crime problems” (May 26, 2016). Count the racist stereotypes! Poor + black = high crime. Fact of the matter is that where you patrol is where you find folks to stop. Fact is that there are more police calls from white UIUC student neighborhoods, but less patrolling and fewer arrests.

Has Dey, and the News-Gazette, discussed or proposed constructive policing and criminal justice reforms? No. One who has is Norm Stamper, 34-year police veteran and former Seattle police chief during the 1999 World Trade Organization“Battle of Seattle” protests. Stamper calls for structural policing changes, because the whole system is broken. Instead of a few“bad apple” officers, it is the entire “barrel” of police and policing that is rotten.

This brings us to the key question: is racism, and sexism, about a few individual ‘bad apples,’ or is it about systemic, institutionalized prejudices and practices? Will a few reforms suffice, or are fundamental, structural changes necessary? Obviously, Dey and those who agree with him think it’s a couple of ‘bad apples.’

Trigger warning: Jim Dey is a racist

Trigger warning: Jim Dey is a racist, in the dictionary definition of “harboring prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism against members of a different race or ethnic group based on the belief that one’s own race or ethnic group is superior.”

Columns by African-American Studies faculty member Sundiata Cha-Jua cast a clear light on this reformist vs. structural divide. The paper is to be applauded for inviting him to contribute. Yet no columnist has elicited such reader criticism and editorial undermining.

Why this is so, is simple. No band-aid, reformist DINO he, Cha-Jua attacks Dey’s world, the world according to the News-Gazette root-and-branch, focusing laser-like on racism.

Dey reluctantly admits to a few ‘bad apples.’ Cha-Jua—and Norm Stamper—claim the whole ‘barrel’ is rotten.

To be sure, there is a generational, plus a town vs. gown, divide here. In the last 50 years undoubted progress has been made in making American society less racist and less sexist, due notably to the civil rights movement, Voting Rights Act, and increasing gender equality. Equally clearly, the U.S. is still deeply racist and sexist, as the Black Lives Matter movement, the evidence of microaggressions, and the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act all attest.

People on either side of the divide are both right and wrong. Significant progress has been made, and much more progress is necessary.

Yet Dey’s m.o. is to diss people and policies whenever there is an opening, ignore everything else, rinse and repeat. His hyper-partisanship—law and order, ‘free enterprise,’ limited government—trumps constitutional principles and civil liberties.

We expect the fourth estate to deliver the news. What we get is a fifth column in a newspaper wrapper infiltrating, poisoning our psyches with its anti-minority, illiberal, twisted editorializing.

What makes Jimmy run? Prejudice, not principle.

Election 2016

In the Sunday October 2 Commentary section, Dey and the editorial staff ran completely off the rails trumpeting far-right positions throughout. Where they outdid themselves was, however, in endorsing “Nobody for President.” Not ‘vote your conscience,’ but “nobody.” It is the only such newspaper non-endorsement endorsement I have seen. Nationally, not a single major paper has so far endorsed Trump.

Criticism came quickly. In not supporting Clinton, one letter writer said, “You’ve failed your readers” (October 5). Another argued it is “cowardice” not to endorse Clinton, and “a lack of leadership… to refuse to take a stand against…Trump.” “This is the time to set aside your well-known loyalty to the Republican Party and do what’s best for the country” (October 8). “What the editorial board has presented, under the cover of being a reasoned editorial opinion, is a sub-rosa endorsement of Trump… Newspapers all over the nation have swallowed their conservative pride and endorsed the more qualified candidate. The [News Gazette] board has not, and its strategy is either cowardly or hypocritical, or both” (October 12).

Yet this position should come as no surprise to readers of this series on the News Gazette.  Hillary-haters to the end, at the same time they could not damage their undeserved ‘respectable Republican’ posture and go on record for Trump. Individually, president John Foreman publicly endorsed Trump in his November 6 column. I speculate that the majority of the like-minded editorial staff will also vote for Trump. However, I take Dey at his word, and wager that he will vote for nobody, his twisted acumen contorted by his unprincipled principles.

2016 has shown Republicans for what they are. Locally, it reveals that any claim of the News Gazette to be the advocate of good government, conscience of the community, and exemplar of professional journalism is prima facie politically and morally fraudulent, bankrupt.

November 6

2014 05 21 cell meeting for Roediger 3

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



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“Labor Hour” Now on WRFU, the Radio Station of the UCIMC

After 21 years at radio station WEFT, the World Labor Hour radio program has moved its weekly 2-hour program to radio station WRFU (104.5 FM/wrfu.net) in the IMC/downtown Urbana Post Office building.

The World Labor Hour radio program (originally called “The Illinois Labor Journal” and then “The Illinois Labor Hour”) was begun in 1995 by Peter Miller and Bill Gorrell, in response to the lack of coverage—and biased corporate media coverage, when mentioned at all—of the three simultaneous Labor dispute lock-outs at the A. E. Staley, Firestone and Caterpillar factories in Decatur, Illinois during the period of 1992-1995, which gained international attention in the Labor community.

Realizing that Unions and working people in general needed their own media—by, for, and about working people—in order to present the truth and to discuss important issues of the day, that the corporate media does not want to even acknowledge, much less discuss.

In 2001, Peter Miller moved to New Hampshire and David Johnson became a co-Host with Bill Gorrell.

Over the years the World Labor Hour, in addition to Bill and David, have had some excellent fellow hosts, such as Larry Keller, Tom Thomas, Jason Koslowski and Patricia Simpson. From 2015 to the present, the incredible Augustus (Gus) Wood, originally from Atlanta, Georgia, has been a fellow host.

In the last several years The World Labor Hour has expanded its listening audience beyond east-central Illinois to regular listeners in Chicago; St. Louis; New York City; Oakland, California; Seattle; Tampa, Florida; and even to Canada, the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. Not only has the listenership expanded geographically but the topics and controversies that it has covered have broadened as well: from local and national cases of police brutality and militarization to foreign policy and immigration, to rank-and-file democracy struggles inside various Unions.

As Host Bill Gorrell once said, “We are not always pro-Union official, but we are always pro-worker.”

And with that statement the World Labor Hour over the years has not shied away from local Union and community controversies.

The hosts of the World Labor Hour, Bill Gorrell, Gus Wood and David Johnson, are proud and excited to now be part of WRFU, and hope that you will tune in to our program, as well as other programs on WRFU, like “Not Another Sports Show” with Neal Parthun and “The People’s History Hour” with Grant, Neal and Nick.

The World Labor Hour broadcasts/webcasts every Saturday morning from 11 a.m.–1 p.m. Central Time.



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Regulation of Prison Phone Calls Sweeps the Nation

The Justice Department’s recent recommendation to end the use of private facilities for US citizens in federal prisons has been hailed as a victory by reformers, but the widespread privatization of everyday services in prison, like hygiene products, food, laundry and phone calls, continues unchecked. Simple phone calls, something most of us take for granted—when made by an incarcerated person and often paid for by a family member—add up to a $1.2 billion dollar industry.

This summer, two states passed legislation that takes on the gross overcharging for prison phone calls. Illinois passed a bill that cuts in half the cost of phone calls from prison. In New Jersey, a bill caps rates and addresses international calls made by immigrant detainees. These states follow a decision last October by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the entire prison phone industry.

Efforts to reform this industry have been met with much resistance. The FCC’s decision has been fought by the phone companies and law enforcement officials, who won a recent concession.

However, a nationwide network of grassroots organizations, lobbying groups and activist attorneys has been successful because it has given voice to those who are incarcerated and their families, who can best speak to the exploitation and dehumanization that is endemic to mass incarceration in the United States.

Progress and Pushback

On October 22, 2015, the FCC voted to overhaul the prison phone industry, the result of a decade-long struggle waged by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. This effort began in 2000 with a lawsuit filed by Martha Wright, who was tired of paying the expensive bills to talk to her grandson in prison.

In a historic decision, the FCC adopted rates capped at 11 cents a minute for calls from state and federal prisons, and tiered rates for county jails between 14 and 22 cents, depending on the size. They severely limited the number of additional charges that are often added to calls.

Immediately after the ruling, the two leading prison phone companies—Securus and Global Tel Link (GTL)—led the pushback. They were aided by the National Sheriffs’ Association and attorneys general from a handful of states, including Oklahoma, Kansas and Wisconsin. Together, they filed a barrage of legal motions to stay the decision. A stay was granted by the courts.

On August 4, 2016, the FCC made a major concession by releasing revised rates of 13 cents a minute for calls from prison, and 19 to 31 cents from jails. As Carrie Wilkinson responded in Prison Legal News, “the FCC made a strategic but difficult decision to increase the caps to cover phone-related costs allegedly incurred by correctional agencies.”

Although the FCC has made a substantial concession, corporations are still pushing back against the FCC’s modified rates. They have become dependent on the never-ending supply of profits from these calls. It remains to be seen whether the Court of Appeals will grant their objections, or allow the slightly increased rates to go into effect.

Meanwhile, several states have taken action to reduce the costs of prison phone calls. One of the first was Alabama, where as early as 2014 the Public Service Commission intervened to scale down prices over a two-year period in all jails and prisons. In early 2015, anticipating the FCC’s decision, Ohio renegotiated its contract to cut phone rates in prisons by 75 percent.

Food or Phone

In Illinois, a bill was passed this summer with bipartisan support—HB 6200—that will cap all calls from Illinois prisons at seven cents a minute. When it takes effect in January, 2018, what is currently billed as a $4 phone call will cost about two dollars.

Illinois has the highest rate of what are called “site commissions,” with $12 million collected every year from prison phone calls. These commissions, or what some call kickbacks, are paid back to the state by the provider, Securus, for the right to an exclusive contract. These commissions are often said to go to “inmate benefits,” but in Illinois, they cover basic expenses like medication, transportation and guard salaries.

While imposing drastic cutbacks on social service agencies in the state, Gov. Bruce Rauner has portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative on criminal justice issues. Toward this end, he has formed the Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, with the mission of reducing the prison population by 25 percent in 10 years.

HB 6200 was signed into law at a reentry center in North Lawndale, Chicago, as part of a package of five criminal justice reform bills signed that day by the governor. “We need to approach our criminal justice system with more compassion,” Rauner said in a press release. “I want those who did something wrong to face punishment, but we must make sure that the punishment fits the crime. We need to explore new avenues so that we’re balancing punishment with rehabilitation and not needlessly tearing families and lives apart.”

State Representative Carol Ammons (D-Urbana), the champion of HB 6200, attended the signing with 20-year-old Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, whose parents were incarcerated when she was in the third grade. When interviewed by NPR, Ammons told the story of Harvey-Robinson, whose family struggled to pay the phone bills to talk to her parents. “The choice was food or phone,” said Ammons.

Harvey-Robinson had travelled to Washington, D.C., last year to tell her story to the FCC. She testified in Springfield before two legislative committees to pass HB 6200. Back home, in Champaign, Illinois, she participates in Ripple Effect, a support group for families with a loved one who is incarcerated. “There are thousands of Illinois children whose lives will be dramatically improved by the actions today,” she said at the bill’s signing.

A Consistent Complaint

New Jersey was the second state in 2016 to pass legislation addressing the high cost of prison phone calls. The bill, S 1880, caps rates at 11 cents a minute for both prisons and jails in the state, and bans all commissions. Also among the reforms was capping the cost of international calls at 25 cents a minute. Truthout spoke with Karina Wilkinson of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), which partnered with the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic and Latino Justice to pass the bill. The campaign, Wilkinson explained, grew out of speaking with immigrants held in county jails for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Exorbitant phone rates for international calls were a “consistent complaint.”

Even more expensive than regular collect calls, international calls can cost from $18 to $20 for a 15-minute conversation.

Immigrant detainees are “pretty vulnerable,” Wilkinson said, but a handful of those who had been released were willing to speak out. Among them was Pauline Ndzie, held for ICE at the Hudson County jail for five months, who stated in a press release, “My three children had to live without me while I was detained. I usually couldn’t afford to call them more than once a week. It isn’t fair to keep children from talking to their mother because of the high cost of phone calls.”

The coalition tried passing a bill last year that was pocket-vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, but with bipartisan support they passed it the second time around late this summer.

If these reform measures are an indication, larger efforts to end mass incarceration face great obstacles. Advocates say that lawsuits and policy research must be backed up by the stories of those incarcerated and their families.

Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice, home of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a member of the campaign, told Truthout, “It’s been the stories of impacted families like those of Martha Wright and others that have propelled change at the national and local level. It is their right to connect that should matter more than the profit margins of greedy phone companies.”

This article was originally published at Truthout, reprinted with permission.

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In the article I wrote, “To Serve and Protect,” published in the October 2016 issue of the Public i, I stated that rape charges against Urbana Officer Kurt Hjort were given to a special prosecutor because the victim’s husband was a fellow police officer. In actuality, the case was handed over because State’s Attorney Julia Rietz’s husband is/was a retired police officer. I apologize for the error.

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