Indymedia at 20


It was twenty years ago, September 24, 2000, when a dozen people crammed into my apartment on Carle Park. We began dreaming about the Independent Media Center that now graces the heart of Urbana, nurturing new friendships, growing new projects, and flowing with art, music, writing, radio, making, biking, and organizing. When we passed the hat at our first meeting, designating ten percent of everything collected as our “endowment,” we knew we wanted to create long-haul organizing infrastructure for our community. Greg Brown, a developmentally disabled homeless man, had just been strangled by Champaign Police behind a dumpster on White Street—and the News-Gazette just reprinted the police report. Ameren Power Company had left a toxic waste dump at 5th and Hill Streets in Champaign that had caused a circle of cancer in this historically African American neighborhood. Lincoln Mobile Home Park, a peaceful neighborhood that Vietnamese refugees, Latino families, and disabled and poor residents called home, had been  demolished with help from the city to make room for luxury student apartment complexes. From the beginning, our IMC’s focus was on investigating unreported stories, amplifying unheard voices, and reframing the debate with the goal of redistributing power and resources. Continue reading

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The University and its Workers during the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has affected universities all over the country and the world. Different institutions have chosen different approaches, from keeping all courses online and discouraging students from returning (Smith College, Harvard University, etc.) to a full opening of residential services and face-to-face courses (University of Notre Dame, Purdue University). Some of the latter group have had to shift course or impose new restrictions in the face of advancing case numbers. All these decisions have sparked a range of responses from students, faculty, workers, and community members who share public spaces with the students returning to campus towns.  A variety of needs and concerns have been voiced in these discussions.  Often, those who do much of the work of providing residential and dining services to students, cleaning classroom buildings, and staffing offices are the least heard in planning and charting the course of safety in these pandemic times. Continue reading

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COVID-19: Local Responses and Lessons for the Future

The Public i asked Professor Weissman, in light of his involvement with helping doctors with statistics, for his thoughts on the local response to COVID-19 and any lessons learned from it for the future.

First, I think it’s more important to start with the big lessons for right now.

The spread of the virus depends on both the policies of institutions (the state, the University, the county, and, God help us, the US government) and the choices of individuals. Right now, many of us are exhausted with distancing measures and even with masks, so many are starting to revert to comfortable old habits. This is a terrible idea for two reasons: Continue reading

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Governor Pritzker has the Power to Halt All Utility Shutoffs by Signing an Executive Order

Robin Brown’s utilities in Champaign were shut off by Ameren Illinois on September 18, 2020, in the midst of our historical COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about how utility shutoffs affected her, Brown said “I’ve had to give away and separate my children.” Brown had to find an in-person job to bring her family back together. Although she finally had her service restored on October 1 after paying her bill with her first paycheck, she is still struggling to reunite with her children, worried about the COVID risk factors.

In August, the Carbondale municipal government shut off water service for Georgia de la Garza, a board member of the progressive activist organization Our Illinois Revolution, while she was at the height of a COVID fever. Quarantined, de la Garza was also extremely weak, and could not use her shower to help bring her temperature down. After a couple of hours of trying to pay her water bill on Carbondale’s failed online website, and repeatedly calling the city, whose representative refused to take her credit card information over the phone, she reached out for help from a friend who works on the Jackson County Board. In thirty minutes she heard water running from her faucet. “I called my friend to thank her, crying, [and] told her how horrifying it must be for folks who couldn’t pay.” de la Garza said. “It really set me back.” Continue reading

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The Proposed Constitutional Amendment on the Ballot for a “Fair Tax”

Right now, the Illinois State Constitution forbids progressive taxation on income. In other words, it forbids doing what the IRS does on your federal income tax—taxing you at a rate that depends on your income.

On your federal income tax, of course, you are supposed to pay more if you earn more, but on top of that, if you earn more you pay at a higher rate. That is what “tax brackets” are about. The portion of reported income you pay in taxes goes up as you earn more. Illinois, however, is not allowed to do that. The Constitution now says there must be one and the same rate for all, regardless of income—in other words, the Constitution requires a “flat tax.” At the moment everyone in Illinois is supposed to pay 4.95 percent of their reported income, after a small deduction.  Whether you report $5,000 in income after deductions, or $5,000,000, you pay 4.95 percent. Continue reading

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What Educational Values and Beliefs Underpin a Decision to have Armed School Resource Officers?

This article was previously published in Smile Politely

On December 17, 2019, the Urbana Board of Education (BOE) signed an intergovernmental agreement to approve funding of two full-time armed police officers (called School Resource Officers, or SROs)—one at the middle school and one at the high school. The yearly cost to the school district is $321,300.

To date, the BOE has not collected any evidence that this presence returns any value for students. According to Section 8B of the contract, the SRO Program is to be formally evaluated two years after being implemented, and then every year thereafter. Furthermore, the BOE does not have any planned method to formally evaluate the SRO program’s effectiveness. There are no measures for assessing the effectiveness of the program, nor have there been any indicated plans to disseminate findings to the public. Continue reading

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Black Lives Matter in the Middle East

Afro-Iraqis from the Movement for Freedom Party, pictured in 2018

George Floyd’s murder horrified people of the Middle East just as it did many in the US and, just as in America, the outrage that followed exposed cultural fault lines, forced uncomfortable introspection, and was sometimes exploited for political purposes.

Erasure and Exploitation

Throughout the Persian Gulf there are populations of Afro-Arabs who arrived centuries ago, yet are often mistaken for migrants or otherwise discounted. After Floyd’s killing the Persian Gulf local social media was filled with criticism of US racism (Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al Zaidi tweeted support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) “as a fellow victim of US imperialism”), but some wondered how their compatriots could be so oblivious to local racism. In Iraq, more than 400,000 identify as Afro-Iraqis, yet Iraqi education pays little attention to Iraq’s history of African enslavement, or to the Zanj Rebellion of the ninth century, one of the most successful slave revolts in human history. The 2008 election of Barack Obama inspired Afro-Iraqi Jalal Diab to organize the Iraqi Movement for Freedom Party to address discrimination. Diab was assassinated in 2013, but the Floyd killing revived calls for Afro-Iraqis to renew their commitment to ending discrimination. Continue reading

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The Decline of African Languages at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The University of Illinois used to be one of the best universities for learning African languages. Emeritus professor of Linguistics Eyamba Bokamba would always say, “here in Illinois we offer African languages from A to Z, Arabic to Zulu.” Unfortunately, African languages offerings have been declining steadily in the past decade. As an instructor for Wolof and student of Swahili at the U of I, I was concerned and undertook an ethnographic study among students and instructors of Wolof and Swahili at Illinois to understand what led to the decline of African languages such as Lingala, Isizulu, Bambana, etc. I interviewed current Wolof and Swahili students to understand their motivations for taking African language classes. I also interviewed a former African-language instructor and two administrative personnel to understand the structural difficulties faced in keeping African languages. Finally, I observed Swahili classes to gauge student engagement.

Continue reading

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UCIMC 20th Anniversary Events

Celebrating 20 Years!

On September 26, 2020, it will be 20 years since Urbana-Champaign IMC was launched from a living room in Urbana, where a small group began collectivizing equipment and passing the hat for an “endowment.” 20 years later we own and manage a 30,000-square-foot community arts center (which we converted from an old post office building), continue to publish a monthly newspaper (the Public i), house a low power radio station (WRFU Radio Free Urbana), and have long-term relationships with Books to Prisoners and a local Makerspace.

Our building is a venue for emerging artists and a community organizing space. And this year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we started “Sounds like Community” a weekly showcase of artists and organizers.

Due to the pandemic, we had to transform our major anniversary gathering into virtual events!

UCIMC’s 20th Anniversary Kick-Off Event:

Wednesday, September 30th, 7 pm–8:30 pm via zoom

“Independent Media: Where we’ve come from and why we need it more than ever!”
with panelists Sarah Lazare, Tanya Parker, and Sascha Meinrath, and moderator Danielle Chynoweth

Wednesday, September 30th, 7pm-8:30pm via zoom (see after 5pm for the link) or tune your radio to WRFU 104.5 FM (if you live nearby)

Event 2: Wednesday, October 28th, 2020; 7 pm–8:30 pm (Urbana Illinois time zone)
20th Anniversary Panel: “Abolition and Grassroots Organizing” Carol Ammons, James Kilgore, and Malkia Cyril.
Via zoom and on WRFU 104.5FM

Event 3: Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020; 7 pm–8:30 pm (Urbana Illinois time zone)
“Stories from the IMC: A Video Project”: Excerpts from interviews with the people who have been a part of the UC-IMC’s cultural, political and social life.
Via zoom and on WRFU 104.5FM


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Disruptive Shift Changes for UIUC Custodial Staff

Jenni Walkup is a public anthropology MA student at American University who lives in Champaign. She works in education and writes about movements and social change. She’s very good at Bananagrams.

In August, 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Illinois instituted major shift changes for its approximately 300 custodial staff, disrupting the lives of many of its most vital workers. Building service workers were given less than a week’s notice to transition to sometimes drastically new schedules.

For example, Kevin Williams is a single father of a teenage son and a seven-year employee of the Building Services Department. Williams had built his life around working the 4 am early shift. Before leaving campus at 12:30 pm, he had cleaned three floors, scrubbed eight restrooms, and removed 200 gallons of waste. He finished in time to arrive at his second job, peer mentoring, or his third job, providing lawn care, by 1:00 pm. Just this year, Williams earned his dream job: coaching high school basketball in the evenings. Now, with the university eliminating his shift, he has had to quit two jobs and rearrange his life around a new schedule. “It’s like, kick me in the face and then [ask me to] trust fall for [you],” says Williams. Continue reading

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SEIU Statement Regarding the Changes in the Building Services Department at UIUC

Building service workers were already concerned with changing conditions in May, 2019

The University decided in mid-spring that it would reopen for the 2020 fall semester, a decision that would require drastic, “emergency” changes in our department and to the working conditions of SEIU members. Management didn’t notify union leadership until July 15, when it announced the changes during a labor-management phone conference that had been scheduled for other issues. Continue reading

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Chicago Firm Hired to Review Urbana PD has Worrying Police Ties, Offers Disappointing Community Engagement

Aleyah Lewis. Photo by Sarah Nixon

The authors of this article are concerned residents and citizen journalists working towards accountability in government and law enforcement at the local level.

Background: Growing Outcry Around the Arrest of Aleyah Lewis

On June 22, amid a flood of protests from Urbana residents, Mayor Diane Marlin announced that the city would be hiring Hillard Heintze, a “strategic security and corporate investigations consulting firm,” to perform a third-party review of the Urbana Police Department’s violent April 10 arrest of Urbana resident Aleyah Lewis. Taxpayers will foot the bill of $16,575 (with expenses and additional services at $195/hour) charged by the firm to review the incident where Lewis, a victim of domestic violence, and possible witness to an accidental discharge of a firearm, was tackled and beaten by Urbana Police officers. Following the arrest, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Reitz filed charges against Lewis that include aggravated battery to a peace officer and resisting a peace officer. If convicted, Lewis will face a maximum sentence of over a decade in prison. Numerous witness and body camera videos of the arrest are circulating online, and concerned residents have been packing public input at Urbana City Council meetings and mounting ongoing protests, with many calling for all charges stemming from Lewis’ arrest to be dropped, and some calling for the resignation of the police chief and the mayor. A clear and widening rift has been established. On one side are residents and community groups advocating for police reform, who find the charges wrongful and actions taken by officers to be escalatory, racist, and unjustified. On the other side is local leadership, including Mayor Diane Marlin and Police Chief Bryant Seraphin, who have deemed the officers’ actions justified, and State’s Attorney Julia Reitz, who is prosecuting Lewis. Continue reading

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Police Unions: Solidarity and Accountability

Police attack protesters at 1999 FTAA protests in Miami

The Police and Solidarity

There are two major differences between police officers and other workers in both the private and public sector. The first is a truncated sense of solidarity, the second a lack of accountability. Unionized workers in both the public and private sectors feel a strong sense of identity with each other. Perhaps the greatest infraction a union member can commit is to cross the picket line of another union.

The solidarity of police officers is an internal solidarity, which does not extend to other unions. At times, this runs against the interests of civilians they encounter and against the legitimacy of the state. An example is the “blue code of silence,” meaning that officers will not report the abuses of other officers. And, in too many cases, officers lie about the conduct of fellow officers and their own conduct. Innocent people have been framed by this lack of honesty. Other unionists do not have this kind of power over people, nor codes of silence that are similar to the Mafia brotherhood. Continue reading

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Chalk It Up to Protecting Property Over People

In July Michael Long, owner of the Rogue Barber Co. in downtown Champaign, implemented a discriminatory “membership only” policy. The issue came to public attention on July 23, when a female Champaign resident shared screenshots on social media of a series of emails in which Long responded to her request for an appointment for a men’s-style cut for herself. Long’s reply explicitly stated, “we don’t cut women’s hair,” and the woman also noted that Long’s membership agreement included a pledge that one supports the police. Around the same time a comment (now deleted) appeared on Rogue’s official Facebook page, stating, “The shop is a private club or membership now because that’s the only way you can avoid being forced to give haircuts to people you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable with.” It went on to state that “the new membership application asks if you are a member of any violent extremist groups” and listed “antifa” and “BLM” as examples. Continue reading

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Lucy Gray: Fighting Jim Crow

Lucy Blake’s Paris High School yearbook picture

“A brand new J.C. Penney department store began its commercial life here [Champaign-Urbana] last Thursday [April 20, 1961] with a six-person picket line which has also marched every business day since,” reported a short article in The Chicago Defender. Whether Mrs. Lucy Gray was one of those first African American picketers at J.C. Penney, I could not say; though she certainly joined in the public protests at the store’s refusal to hire African Americans for sales or clerical work. Outspoken, dignified, deeply religious, and an idealist, Lucy Jess Blake Gray (January 2, 1914 – September 13, 2013) was born in Paris, Edgar County, Illinois, to a working-class family—to Frank Blake, in her words a mulatto/Negro man, a plumber and bricklayer; and to Bertha Manuel Blake, a white woman, Both were Illinois natives. Continue reading

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The Coronavirus in Europe: A Force that Unites or Divides?

Czech citizens bid a symbolic “farewell to COVID” on the Charles Bridge in Prague, June 30, 2020. Like Hungary, the Czech Republic had much lower rates of infection than did Western Europe

Upon arrival in mid-July, Budapest seemed another world from the oppressive virus anxiety of most of the US: offices and businesses fully open; cafes and restaurants thriving, with no restrictions; few masks or other measures in sight (masks are required on public transportation, in stores and in malls, though with lax enforcement and inconsistent compliance); and movie theaters, outdoor performances and even sports events operational. (Soccer matches, with fans! Although in the long-suffering Hungarian football context, this means crowds of around 5,000—comparable to pre-pandemic ones—rather than the multiples of that that would be filling Europe’s big stadiums, were fans allowed there.) Continue reading

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Facebook, Public Health, and the Weaponization of US Fear

Form absolving the Trump campaign of any responsibility should attendees at his June 20, 2020 MAGA rally fall ill with the COVID virus

In June, the Trump administration announced plans ending health care protections for Americans during a raging pandemic. US leaders snubbed masks and distancing at rallies that required waivers from attendees accepting personal responsibility should they contract COVID-19, encouraging dismissal of public health experts’ advice. As virus rates spiked, Missouri Governor Mike Parson joined states lifting coronavirus regulations, directing residents to return to normalcy. “We all know how to do this now,” Parson stated. “It is up to us to take responsibility for our own actions.”

This echoes what I observe in what I call “panopticonning” Facebook posts. Panopticonning posts normalize unaccountably unjust systems, protecting the powerful by locating risk and responsibility in individuals. Continue reading

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Cover Collage for Summer 2020 issue

Local demonstrations for Black Lives Matter

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How Are Violent Police Held Accountable in Champaign County?

State’s Attorney Julia Rietz

On April 10, Urbana Police officers threw an African American woman, Aleyah Lewis, to the ground and punched her while she was down. She had protested the arrest of a friend. Caught on video, this led many people in the community to demand that the officers be held accountable. The following article that I wrote in this paper in July, 2016 shows how little the police are held accountable in Champaign County.

States’s Attorney Rietz Goes Easy on Violent Police and Jail Officers


On March 30, 2015, there was a ceremony in the Champaign City Building during which Officer Jerad Gale was given the award for being “Officer of the Year.” About a year later, in May, 2016, this same officer pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Piatt County Court. He was sentenced to six months in the Piatt County jail, then 48 months of probation. He also had to register as a sexual predator.

But Gale was a serial offender. He sexually assaulted women in Champaign County as well as Piatt County. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz agreed to a guilty plea in Champaign County that imposed the same sentence as in Piatt County, and agreed that the sentences would be served concurrently. That means that there was no additional penalty for two sexual assaults in Champaign County! How is that for a deal? Continue reading

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Urbana Civilian Police Review Board Under the Spotlight After Violent Arrest

A meeting of the Urbana Civilian Police Review Board

For the past eleven Urbana City Council meetings, residents have lined up to deliver what has amounted to more than a dozen hours of criticism and a seemingly endless stream of misconduct allegations against the Urbana Police Department. Initially sparked by the violent arrest of Urbana resident Aleyah Lewis, which was captured on video by vigilant civilians this April, local calls for action have now been fortified and fueled by the nationwide movement for police accountability in the wake of the George Floyd murder.

Focusing on the Lewis arrest, a common theme recited by many locals is: where does our Civilian Police Review Board stand in this picture? Unfortunately, unless someone who was physically present manages to file a complaint, Urbana Police Chief Bryant Seraphin inevitably claims that the civilian board has no power to review the incident. Continue reading

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