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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Disease and Denial in Prison

This letter was received from Stateville Prison in early April, reporting on conditions there during the COVID-19 crisis.q

I am a student in Northwestern University’s Bachelors program. Like many other students, I also work, though in my case, both my college program and my work take place inside a prison—Stateville. When I am not in my cell or studying, I am on the paint crew. In fact, I painted the Northwestern logo in the school building. Stateville is basically held together by coats of paint, so it’s a never-ending job. The “slap a coat of paint on it and keep going” approach applies here. Take COVID-19.

It’s odd how the news first reported that Stateville and Cook County Jail were national hotspots with COVID contraction rates 20 times the national average. Now you hear absolutely nothing about what’s going on here! Why? They have clamped down tight. They don’t want people to know what’s happening here. I believe the reason is because they don’t want anyone to know how many guys are actually sick here. If they do test, then they will have to report the results. However, if they don’t test, there is nothing to report. Continue reading

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A Socialist Response to COVID-19

A mural in Turin, Italy celebrates Cuban medical help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a recent “Democracy Now!” interview, Noam Chomsky called Cuba a “superpower.” What did he mean? Well, let’s look at health care. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors in the world, 8.4 for every 1000 people. In contrast, the US has 2.6 per 1000.

According to a recent Counterpunch article by Helen Yaffe of Glasgow University, there are 449 polyclinics in Cuba, geographically evenly dispersed, each attending to the needs of 20,000 to 40,000 people and serving as a hub for 15 to 40 family doctors. As opposed to the US, where health care is a business, in Cuba health care is a public good, and everyone gets free care within a single free system which stresses prevention over cure. Cuba’s pharmacology industry produces 70 percent of needed medications, and exports to 50 countries. The country has a highly developed disaster mobilization system, as seen in its exemplary evacuation response to hurricanes. And since it has long experience with infectious diseases, it knows how to close its borders and implement effective quarantines. Finally, Cuba has prioritized medical internationalism, sending 400,000 health care professionals to 164 countries since the 1959 revolution to provide free care, mostly in the past few decades. Before the current pandemic, there were an astonishing 28,000 Cuban health professionals in 59 countries, and more than 2,300 additional doctors and nurses have gone to 24 countries since the outbreak, including even Italy. In an effort to counter this solidarity, the US State Department claims that Cuba’s medical humanitarianism is just a cover for human trafficking, and that these health care professionals are no more than “slaves.” Continue reading

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Mateo’s Story: Connecting with the Twice-Marginalized

Mateo, an interpreter for Unit 4 schools, keeps families informed of food distributions, such as this lunch distribution at Shadow Wood.

If you are a Q’anjob’al speaker in CU, you are probably familiar with the young face of Mateo Sebastian. In videos shared through social media he has helped the local community keep up with information on the virus, school closures, food and rental assistance, and stay-at-home rules. Below he describes his role during the Covid-19 crisis.

From Guatemala to California to CU

I left Guatemala when I was 16. When I got to the Mexican border, I was expecting to meet a relative, but they weren’t able to meet me and I spent three months in a detention center. They asked me about my life, and when I told them that my father had died of TB when I was twelve, they really put me through a lot of medical checks. Luckily, I was OK, and since I was an unaccompanied minor, I was placed with a foster family in California for the next four years. Continue reading

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The Migrants of India Before and During the Covid-19 Crisis

Children often work long hours in the kilns while also trying to finish their schoolwork, watch siblings, and cook for the family.

The global COVID-19 pandemic claims to spare no race, religion, or social class. Yet over and over we see marginalized and vulnerable communities struggling to get the care and shelter they need during this crisis. India, like numerous other countries, enforced a lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, but, sadly, India’s migrant population was once again forgotten. Migrants who had traveled hundreds of miles for work in urban cities found themselves unemployed and stranded on streets and platforms, and desperate to find a way home.

Continue reading

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We Don’t Live in a Food Desert, We Live under Food Apartheid: Interview with Dawn Blackman

“Motherdawn” Blackman

Dawn Mosley Blackman, a Chicago native, moved to Champaign in April, 1993. She is the current steward of the Randolph Street Community Garden and a pastor at the Church of the Brethren. As a military wife she lived in Europe and the Middle East, where she apprenticed with native craftspeople, which led to the founding of Motherlands Multicultural Resource Center and Motherlands Culture Club, located at Church Street Square, in 1995. In the spring of 1999, Motherlands Culture Club was adopted as a ministry by the Church of the Brethren. She is a recipient of a McKinley YWCA award for community service, and was named a 2015 Purpose Prize Fellow by Dawn shares her proud achievements within the local community, including hosting a food pantry at the Champaign Church of the Brethren and coordinating the community gardens, which are affiliated with the church.

We Don’t Live in a Food Desert. We Live under Food Apartheid

“When I was growing up as a child in Chicago, there were a few grocery stores in my neighborhood. I remember there were three or four of them; they were close enough to walk to. They mostly had non-parity foods. One chain would overcharge shoppers in our area; another would send bruised and days-old fruits and vegetables and stale bread from stores in affluent neighborhoods and sell them at full price in our area. In the ’60s and ’70s, families with cars would shop outside of the community in order to get fresh produce, fresh bread, and shelf items that were not damaged, dented, or dusty.” This is how Dawn Blackman remembers accessing food during her childhood in the Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago. However, she continues, “now when I go back there and drive around the neighborhood, there aren’t any full-service grocery stores within walking distance.” Combining memories of past and present Chicago, she argues that “we currently don’t live in a food desert, we live under food apartheid.” Continue reading

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Digital Inequities are Social Inequities

Envisioned and realized by Dr. Will Patterson, the Hip Hop Xpress draws on the model of George Washington Carver’s Jesup wagon, a movable school. The current version, the Double Dutch Boom Bus, is an internet-enabled mobile classroom and sound studio, a means to collect oral histories, a cross-generational catalyst for music sharing and production, and a method to link communities across the state through music, dance, visual arts, and history. Artist John Jennings designed the graphics.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, libraries, and other institutions that aim to serve the public, the disparities among “the public” were highlighted in ways that have long been present, but are frequently ignored. One important gap was access to the internet. When people cannot get online, they are excluded from participating in nearly every daily interaction that we must conduct to live in the current US.

Continue reading

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World Labor Hour Farewell 

Top right: David Johnson in the WRFU studio, looking engaged in his work at the sound mixing board. Bottom right: David Johnson and Gus Wood in the studio, along with two guests featured in a show from 2018.

The airshifters at WRFU 104.5 FM are sad to announce that the end of one of our most beloved programs, the World Labor Hour, is drawing near. Hosted by David Johnson, Bill Gorrell, and Gus Wood, the World Labor Hour has served as a prominent, important voice in challenging the mainstream news narratives around issues of labor and capitalism. Truly, a beacon of independent radio is leaving us. So, join us in congratulating David, Bill, and Gus on a fantastic show! And don’t forget that you can always go back and listen to all of their old shows at

Breaking news: Bob Paleczny and Gus launched Radio Free Labor on July 4 to carry on the legacy, Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm on WEFT Community Radio, 90.1 FM,

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Cover Image for May/June Issue

Essential, Disposable and Replaceable

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Visibility and Vulnerability in the Age of COVID-19

While diseases don’t discriminate, social responses to pandemics do. The disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on African Americans in Chicago, the Navajo in the Southwest and the incarcerated across the country highlights the way marginalization contributes to tragically different outcomes from the same disease. But even in these stories, we are glimpsing only one set of measurements—the infection and death rates. These are horrifying, but the impact of this crisis goes far beyond those who get sick. The politics of what we measure, who we see on the news and whose experience of the disease dominates cultural discussions is not just an intellectual curiosity but a practice that keeps some lives and some struggles invisible. Continue reading

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Blurs and Erases

We find ourselves at an interesting moment. Pivotal, in fact. As we collectively attempt to navigate uncharted waters, I am constantly thinking about how prepared I am. For a large portion of my life, lockdown was my reality. This in no way suggests that our current shelter-in-place order is comparable to the physical lockdown currently being experienced by two million-plus incarcerated men and women across this country, because it’s not. However, there is something that lockdown and shelter-in-place have in common: it forces us, and allows us, to be still. Continue reading

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