Interview with Marlon Mitchell from FirstFollowers

The local group FirstFollowers is only two years old, but it is already making in impact in our community.  In this interview Marlon Mitchell talks with Carol Inskeep about their mission and the ambitious range of projects the group is working on.  Marlon Mitchell is the founder and co-director of FirstFollowers. He is currently pursuing his PhD in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana. His work with FirstFollowers inspired him to pursue an Advanced Graduate Certificate in Policy Analysis at Northwestern University, which he recently completed
Who are the FirstFollowers?
Founded in 2015, FirstFollowers is a volunteer-run, mentoring program. “We provide services to individuals that are either returning to the community from incarceration or who have felony convictions. They may be finding barriers and challenges to getting back into school or employment or housing or other issues that many of us in society take for granted. We have plenty of goals but one of them is to just get people encouraged and motivated, and to provide opportunities to move past that felony conviction.” 
“You’re welcome here” – Drop-In Center
A core FirstFollowers program is the Drop-In Center at Bethel AME Church (401 E. Park St., Champaign) which is open Tuesday and Thursday from 1 to 5 p.m. “We provide individual mentoring and assistance with employment searches, acquiring ID, family reconnect, finding education and training opportunities and more.” Mitchell says that the peer mentor model is key to what they do: “The mentors down at FirstFollowers are all volunteers who have been through those challenges. They’ve been through the system. They’ve had that transition back to their community, back to their families, so they fully have a front seat to what that challenge can look like.” Too often stigma and stereotypes keep people with a record isolated. “One of the things we pride ourselves on here at FirstFollowers – we provide an opportunity for a person to feel welcome. It shows a person that you truly care, that you fully understand what they’re going through. And it also provides that opportunity to encourage.”
Build Programs, Not Jails
Mitchell – and others in FirstFollowers – have been vocal opponents of the proposed multi-million dollar Champaign County Jail expansion project. “It blew my mind,” says Mitchell, to see a proposal to invest millions in incarceration instead of education and community programs, “just to see the human capital – the abilities of communities – to see a mass amount of people being snatched out of their communities and to see all the human capital that is lost through mass incarceration. And then to see them come home where there’s nothing that gets them back into the economy for their community or their family. One of the platforms that we really run on…is to build people, not jails; to build up people and not prisons.”
It’s not just about Individual Stories – Understanding Mass Incarceration
Though their work at the Drop-In Center helps many individuals, Mitchell says an important part of the work is “connecting the dots” to understand mass incarceration as a system of social oppression and social control. Me, myself personally, I didn’t know exactly how all this worked,” says Mitchell. “I knew it was a social phenomenon that I saw in my community. I saw it in my own family. It’s something bigger than this, because there are so many black and brown and low income communities that are being ravaged by mass incarceration and by recidivism.” Community organizing is a key part of the work, he says, so that people “understand the history and inter-relation of issues. A system like this is not just built overnight,” and it takes real organizing to “redress that momentum” and “get people on board to connect the dots.” 
FirstFollowers asked the Community: 90% say Access to Employment is Key
Last summer members of FirstFollowers reached out to the community with a survey asking about the barriers and unmet needs of those reentering Champaign Urbana. 90% of people identified the lack of access to good jobs that pay a living wage and provide opportunity as a top issue. 
FirstFollowers has worked on this issue in a number of ways. They’ve reached out to employers, encouraging them to consider the skills and potential of individuals, even if they have a record. Building trust and relationships with employers can create more opportunities. FirstFollowers is especially interested in helping more people move into the trades – skilled work that pays well and provides a career path. 
Mitchell says FirstFollowers mentors also work with people to “build their skill sets.” This may mean helping someone overcome a fear of technology. Mentors use laptops at the Drop-In Center to teach people how to search for jobs, complete applications, and upload resumes. But there may be a more fundamental need to build basic literacy skills. Mitchell likens illiteracy and under-education of people who have been incarcerated to the history of African Americans being shut out of educational opportunities. The goal, says Mitchell, is to help people identify their goals, get the skills and education they need, and then have opportunities to succeed. 
Susan Burton’s new book Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women offers a “Blueprint” for Community Organizing.
Mentors recently read the book Becoming Miss Burton and they shared their reactions to it at a well-attended event at the Independent Media Center in July. Mitchell has had a chance to talk with Susan Burton on a couple occasions. “I had an idea about a reentry program before I even met her,” but Mitchell says she’s given FirstFollowers good advice and a “blueprint for training our mentors and addressing the underlying political issues.” Her reentry work moves beyond “one-off, one person’s experience to building a movement that has a strategic approach” for ending mass incarceration.   
A Roadmap to Local Resources: A Resource Guide to Reentry in Champaign County
FirstFollowers has just begun distributing a clear and concise guide that helps people link to the most important resources they need upon reentry – including current, practical information about how to obtain an ID and where to access housing, health care, food, clothing and other services. (The guide was produced in collaboration with University of Illinois professor Ken Salo and his Urban and Regional Planning class.) They have begun distributing the guide to local social service organizations, libraries, religious institutions, and even to the Champaign County Jail. You can request copies of the guide by contacting FirstFollowers.

They Want to Stay Grounded in the Community

FirstFollowers is committed to this combination of community education, mentoring and political organizing. You’ll see FirstFollowers speaking out against tax dollars being used to expand the jail, giving out back-to-school backpacks at community events, and educating the public on mass incarceration at public events. Mitchell says an important part of the FirstFollowers mission is “getting back into the community, giving back to the community in a positive way, and being an advocate for the community.” 
You can support their work
Come out to hear FirstFollowers September 30th at 4pm at the Champaign Public Library. A focus of the event will be fees and fines in the criminal justice system. You can also check out the FirstFollowers website ( or follow them on Facebook ( to see personal testimonies, photos from their events, resources and links to other information and other reentry programs, or to donate to their work. 
Carol Inskeep is a local librarian and community member.
Posted in Community, Justice, Prisoners | Comments Off on Interview with Marlon Mitchell from FirstFollowers

Israel Anti-Boycott Act a Threat to Free Speech

This article is about a bill introduced in both the U.S. Senate (S.720) and the House of Representatives (H.R.1697). These identical bills are both very complex and very dangerous to our civil liberties.

They would outlaw “requests to impose restrictive trade practices or boycotts by any foreign country…against a country friendly to the United States or against any U.S. person” (2i). They also outlaw “requests to impose restrictive trade practices or boycotts by any international governmental organization against Israel” (2ii). Note the word “requests.” This means advocacy, i.e,, speech.

Historical Background

 This is not a stand-alone bill. It is actually an amendment to the 1979 Export Administration Act. That act placed rules and regulations upon businesses or corporations that are involved in international trade. It was mainly concerned with corporations or individuals selling technology that could be useful to a foreign country’s military or intelligence abilities. A corporation or business that did not follow the rules would be liable to a fine of not more than five times the exports involved, or one million dollars, whichever is greater. But an individual who breaks the rules would be fined up to $250,000 and/or up to a five-year prison term. What the new proposed bill does is take its anti-Israel boycott provisions, and apply them to the criminal penalties of the 1979 bill that dealt more generally with export restrictions. If one only reads the new S.720, one would never realize that that there are such harsh criminal penalties attached to advocacy.

Indeed, Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim contacted some of the bill’s congressional co-sponsors and they had no idea that the bill contained such restrictions on free speech (

A second historical touchstone was the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that began in 2005. This was initiated by Palestinians and became world-wide. It urged governments, businesses, and the U.N. to boycott Israel and its settlements in the occupied territories. It advocated for an economic boycott, but also included the arts and education. Israel and its U.S. supporters have become especially concerned about the support it has gotten on U.S. college campuses, where students have pressured their institutions to divest themselves of Israeli investments. The Illinois legislature has prohibited such divestiture by our state universities.

The third historical touchstone has been two recent actions by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These are specifically referenced in the bill. The bill states that “on March 24, 2016 [the UNHCR] targeted Israel with a commercial boycott, calling for the establishment of a database, such as a ‘blacklist,’ of companies that operate, or have business relations with entities that operate, beyond Israel’s 1949 Armistice lines, including East Jerusalem (Sec 2(3)).” The bill further asserts that “at its 32nd session in March 2017, the UNHCR is considering a resolution pursuant to agenda item 7 to withhold assistance from and prevent trade with territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, stating that businesses that engage in economic activity in those areas could face civil or criminal action.”

Who Is Behind This Act?

The main inspiration for this act came from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It came together with Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland. Cardin has been very close to AIPAC. He and Lindsay Graham (Republican from South Carolina) kicked off the first session of the annual AIPAC policy conference in March 2015. Of all of the groups that lobby Congress on behalf of a foreign government, AIPAC is undoubtedly the most successful. It gives uncritical support to Israeli policy. In terms of influence AIPAC is the foreign policy equivalent of the domestic National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby. It hangs like the sword of Damocles over American elected officials. Offending AIPAC and the Israeli government carries with it the threats of loss of contributions and electoral defeat. It also carries the threat of being branded as anti-Semitic. AIPAC now shows itself willing to sacrifice freedom of speech and association of Americans in its support of Israel. In helping to draft and giving support to these two bills, AIPAC shows itself willing to sacrifice the fundamental right of Americans to freedom of speech. For this reason, on July 17, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to U.S. Senators asking them to oppose S.720.

Those of us living in Illinois should take note that the House version of the bill (H.R.1697) was sponsored by Congressman Peter Roskam from Illinois’s 6th congressional district in the Chicago suburbs. A co-sponsor of the bill is Congressman Rodney Davis of our own 13th Congressional district. The support for the bills in both houses has been bi-partisan.

But, as we said before, it is doubtful that many of the supporters actually know what is in the bill. It suffices that the bill is pro-Israel. When I called into Congressman Davis’s phonathon and stated the name of the bill that I wanted to discuss, the staffer who filters the call for him immediately asked me, in a hopeful voice, “Are you pro-Israel?” I said, “why are you asking me that? That’s not the issue. I am pro-free speech and association.” He then replied “Of course, of course.” Unfortunately, I could not stay on the phone long enough to talk to Representative Davis, if indeed I would have passed the filtering process at all. That’s perhaps a clue as to why Rep. Davis prefers phonathons to actual town hall meetings. I also subsequently received a letter from Congressman Davis assuring me that he was staunchly pro-Israel. No wonder that he refuses to hold town hall meetings!

What We Can Do About It

We in Champaign-Urbana are not strangers to the power of those who would stifle free speech that is critical of Israel and its policies. We have lived through the disgraceful firing of Professor Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American whose angry tweets concerning the use of force against Palestinians not only resulted in his firing from the U of I, but also an international boycott that forced him out of academia entirely. (C/U News-Gazette, 25 July 2017, pp. A1-6.) If he used a swear word in his angry denunciation of bombs raining down on Gaza, it paled beside the gratuitous vulgarity of our present President and his associates in the White House. Given our own local experience with such uncritical pro-Israel lobbying and deprivation of the rights of free speech, it is especially incumbent upon us to let Congressmen Rodney Davis and Peter Roskam, and Senators Ben Cardin, Dick Durbin, and Tammy Duckworth that we will not tolerate the violation of basic rights that are in House Bill 1697 and Senate Bill 7.

Posted in Boycott, Foreign Policy, Israel | Comments Off on Israel Anti-Boycott Act a Threat to Free Speech

“The End of Civilization As We Know It”

The Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association (with several co-sponsors) brought environmentalist Bill McKibben to speak at our annual conference in Chicago on June 24, 2017. It was a terrific presentation, and I will try to relay some of the high points from my notes and discussions.

McKibben is the author of the first book on global warming, and the founder of, a grassroots network now in 188 countries. acts to limit climate change by mobilizing support for alternative renewable energy sources while closing down all fossil fuel energy generation. works to ban fracking, and supports the movements against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. The organization works to cut financial support to the fossil fuel industries, and supports divestment campaigns. supports climate justice, and listening to the communities hit hardest by climate change. Leadership of the movement must come from the people who are on the front lines of resistance, often the indigenous and the poorest people in the world.

The number in the name refers to the safe limit of carbon parts per million in the atmosphere, a number that might have been possible to maintain when the organization was started in 2008. But sadly, we have now passed 400 parts per million. The name was picked because it was understandable in all languages.

Bill McKibben said that in the past he misunderstood what was going on in the national debate on climate change. We had won the scientific argument but lost the fight against established power and money, greed and self-interest of the few at the top. Writing books was therefore not enough, and by the fall of 2009, the network sponsored a Global Day of Action of 5200 demonstrations in 181 countries. He showed some very inspiring slides from that day, taken in various countries around the world.

He said that we don’t have any time left, and we need worldwide action. The fight against the Keystone Pipeline shows that it is possible to stand up and win, and this has had a ripple effect for struggles everywhere. He noted that we stopped Shell from drilling in the Arctic. McKibben said that old people need to get arrested. They have a lot less to lose than young people. He told us that “There is not the slightest thing radical about what we are asking for.” Rather, the radicals are in the oil companies and in Washington, DC.

McKibben told us that this is the first crisis with a time limit, and that we could not have guessed how far and fast climate change would happen. It was recently 129 degrees in Pakistan, and 116 degrees in Oman. These are temperatures at the limit of human survival. We have lost half of the sea ice in the Arctic. An iceberg as large as Delaware will very soon break off in the Antarctic. (It did break off the week of July 12th.)   Bill McKibben noted that at the rate we are going, we can expect 7-8 degrees F rise in the next 100 years, which would mean “the end of civilization as we know it.”

He also said that we could not have guessed how slowly the world would react. Engineers at Exxon knew of the problem in the early 1980s, but it was against corporate self-interest to act on this knowledge. The corporation instead shut down its climate research and started a very successful campaign to deny the science. The US is the climate change outlier in its denial. The rest of the world accepts the science and many efforts are succeeding. The cheapest forms of energy are now sun and wind. Denmark is producing one-half of its power through wind!

One way for individuals to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions is to contribute money to support renewable energy projects such as wind farms, solar power, or biomass energy. Individuals can calculate how much carbon and other greenhouse gases they emit into the atmosphere through air travel or other transportation, and then contribute an appropriate amount to a non-profit organization that will use these funds to support such projects. These contributions are called “carbon offsets,” and it is easy to make these calculations online. Although McKibben said that these carbon offsets are only a drop in the bucket, he uses the organization NativeEnergy for his offsets.

McKibben also advocated support for the indigenous organization Honor the Earth, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Green for All.

When asked about the value of a carbon tax, he said that it might have been useful in the past, but now the problem is too big. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need a public campaign to spread alternative energy.

Al Kagan is the Chair of the International Responsibilities Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association


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The 2018 U.S. Militarized Budget

The 2018 U.S. Militarized Budget

My premise is that the military budget, as proposed by the current administration, is a principal reason for the strangling of our civil society. This article explains why it is unnecessary, why it is promoted, and why it is malignant.

The Proposed Military Budget and its Rationale

There are two components of the Federal budget, one discretionary and the other “mandatory” (essentially fixed). Discretionary spending is about one-third (about $1.2 trillion) of total spending.

The discretionary part of the Trump Federal budget (as with prior budgets) is presently dominated by Pentagon and related expenditures and amounts to about $740 billion, but still must be negotiated. It includes virtually everything the government does outside of such “entitlement” expenditures as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are components of the mandatory budget. Military expenditures include direct military spending and related spending on veterans’ affairs, homeland security, CIA, intelligence, and nuclear weapons research and development. It amounts to an astounding 65%-68% of the federal discretionary budget!

Borrowing words from William Hartung, “You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that perpetual war and the urge to perpetuate yet more of it leaves little room for spending on the environment, diplomacy, alternative energy, housing, or other domestic investments, not to speak of infrastructure repair. Put another way, preparations for, and the pursuit of war, will ensure that any future America is dirtier, sicker, poorer, more rickety, and less safe.”

“With all the military spending and the increase planned by the Trump administration, the danger is that we shall forever be looking for new conflicts to engage in, to finding new enemies to scare our people.” ( the_trillion_dollar_national_security_budget/#more)

Why Are Our Military Expenses So Large?

1) Is the U.S. homeland really in danger from attack from perceived state adversaries: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, …Venezuela?

One should remember here that US military expenditures dwarf those of any other nation, in fact are larger then next eight countries’ military expenditures combined. Russia’s spending is about one-tenth, and China’s about one-third, that of the U.S.. Moreover, Russia has recently announced that it is reducing its military spending by about 25%.

The U.S mainland is surrounded by protective oceans and friendly countries. The only nations that could conceivably attack it are those which possess intercontinental ballistic missles as well as imposing sea and air power, namely our advertised main adversaries Russia and China. Iran and North Korea, now rated so dangerous, lack such capabilities and are unlikely to have them in the near future, for they simply lack technical capacity and resources, the recent ballistic missile tests by North Korea notwithstanding. (However, they could use their diminished deterrent military capabilities were they to be targeted by the U.S.)

But what country would dare attack our nuclearized, high-tech military powerhouse knowing that it would be obliterated by an overwhelming U.S. response if it tried? This would be true even if our military budget were, for example, halved. Russia and China clearly understand this, and hence seek peaceful coexistence with the United States, despite our threatening military provocations at their borders.

2) Another excuse for our military budget is to protect our allies—NATO countries, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea—but there is little indication that those nations are in danger, unless the U.S. initiates or promotes attacks on their neighbors. (Thus, an attack by the U.S. on North Korea might cause Japan and South Korea to be attacked; a U.S. attack on Iran would possibly invoke retaliation against Saudi Arabia and Israel.)

3) Therefore, what seems most evident is that this overwhelming military U.S. capability serves mainly to safeguard our broadly understood “national security” or “national interests.”

What this entails is that “we”, i.e. the U.S. governing circles, shall not readily tolerate competitors to those interests. “We” have to be able to demand that others provide resources that we need, or crave, such as oil. Moreover, we wish to be in control of those resources, physical and economic. It is for this reason that we maintain about 800 military bases around the globe. Efforts to create what is called “global stability” means that we must repel opposition from other nations to these, our aims: We thus cannot admit the sovereignty of nations who do not acquiesce to major U.S. policy objectives.

4) What about having our military prowess in order to fight terrorism? But it is well recognized that we create terrorists who seek vengeance for our destructive actions against their societies. Moreover, terrorism and the demonization of Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans is useful in keeping our war economy humming, servicing Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, etc., and myriad subcontractors. These corporations are the obvious beneficiaries of our war-prone foreign policies. Yet, expensive high-tech weaponry has little effect in preventing the attacks that terrorists can employ.

Of course, we must maintain and enhance our already overwhelming military superiority, because China and Russia (among others) are improving their military capabilities. Thus, the Trump budget proposes $54 billion in new military spending, and $1 trillion over 30 years to improve our nuclear weaponry—possibly for what used to be unthinkable, a first strike against Russia or China.

Who Benefits and Who Suffers?

It is at this point relevant and important to emphasize that the security of the U.S., as conceived by our administrations, does not extend uniformly to our own population! The well-being of most us not only does not benefit from the gargantuan U.S. military/national security budget, but is sabotaged by it. With such a budget, much of what most of our people value will be unattainable.

Finally, and perhaps foremost, one must take into account the moral dimensions of U.S. military behavior. Our military policies, made available by our military expenses, have cast aside core human values, the values of a just and humane society. Our behavior—wars, drone killings, subversions—constitute a grotesque tale of death, maiming, and destruction of other peoples and their societies. We’ve destroyed Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia … , while sustaining war-mongering theocracies, like Saudi Arabia, and repressive expansive governments, like Israel with respect to Palestinians.

Domestically, military expenditures go hand in hand with an increasing militarization here at home. National security regulations undermine freedoms. Nations dominated by militaries and their supporters become murderous and repressive. One only needs to recall how it worked in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hirohito’s Japan.

To summarize, my focus has been to attack grossly excessive military spending, because that determines what resources are available for our nation’s social needs, hence our nation’s internal strength; and whether we can have a truly democratic society, and one that fits peacefully into the world, rather than one which is militarized. The world would be a safer and more prosperous place if the wealth of the U.S. were not depleted by its unnecessary military and intelligence depredations.


This article and Dave Johnson’s article in this issue are derived from presentations at a panel on “The Hidden Costs of War” on June 18, 2017 at the Champaign Public Library.


Morton (Mort) K. Brussel is a UIUC emeritus professor of physics, retired in 1995.  He is  concerned with war, peace and human rights issues, and worries about the sustainability of resources in a growing world economy and problems arising with climate change due to human influences. He has engaged in antiwar protests in France and the United States.


Posted in Economy, Foreign Policy, Middle East, military | Comments Off on The 2018 U.S. Militarized Budget


“War is a racket!” This was a famous quote from retired U.S. Marine Corp General Smedley Butler in 1934. Butler stated that “I spent 33 years in the Marine Corp, most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, Wall Street, and the bankers. … In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.” Butler was also quoted as saying that “War only profits the few and costs the majority dearly.”

According to a 2016 Brown University study, as of 2001, the U.S. Government has spent $4.8 TRILLION so far in Afghanistan and Iraq. Total Department of Defense (DOD) spending for this same period of time is over $10 trillion. Total annual military spending budgeted for 2017 is equal to $582 billion, and was expected to increase to $639 billion in 2018. But a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday, August 7 increased the military budget to $696 billion—almost $60 BILLION MORE than what President Trump requested. 60% of House Democrats voted for this increase.

The DOD budget consumes 80% of the revenue from the individual federal income tax, which in reality is a war tax equal to $3,200 per year for every adult in America.

A large percentage of this war spending goes to various corporations that sell weapons, and other goods and services like spying on American citizens. The exact amount spent is unknown, because the DOD has refused to submit to an audit for the last 16 years, and none of the contracted corporations that received taxpayer money have ever been audited. From the information that has been disclosed, the top five DOD vendor contractors (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics and United Technologies) received about $75 billion in 2012 alone.


The other hidden costs of war are even more obscure than the lack of transparency in the DOD’s budget, and are more long-term. In addition to long-term care for wounded and psychologically traumatized veterans, there is the neglect of deteriorating infrastructure in the U.S., both physical and human.

A study by the Urban Land Institute in 2011 estimated that $2 trillion is needed NOW, to upgrade existing physical infrastructure in the U.S. that is rapidly deteriorating from years of neglect: roads, bridges, dams, levees, water systems, sewer facilities, railroads and airports. Another Flint water crisis is already beginning to happen in East Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore, as well as in smaller cities and rural areas.

The study also states that if federal tax money is not allocated to upgrade this deteriorating infrastructure, the federal gas tax will need to be increased, local and state governments will need to create more toll roads on existing highways, water and sewer bills will increase, property and sales taxes will increase, and corporations will obtain ownership of more public spaces, services and projects – leading to the lower quality of services and higher costs that always result with privatization.

The $2 trillion dollars needed is just for existing infrastructure upgrades. So even more money would be required to bring the U.S. into the 21st century with the building of high speed rail networks as well as the improvement and expansion of solar, wind and other clean energy technologies that Western Europe and China already have.

Besides physical infrastructure there is human and environmental infrastructure that desperately needs to be upgraded and expanded, like environmental cleanup and pollution prevention equipment; full funding of public K-12 schools; making post-high school technical and higher education free for all; a guaranteed minimum income; secure and expanded Social Security and public sector pensions; and the start-up costs for an expanded and improved Medicare for All single payer health care system.

For every $1 billion spent on the military, 12,000 jobs are created. But with the same billion dollars spent, 16,000 clean energy jobs, 18,000 health care jobs or 27,000 education jobs could be created – not to mention the vast number of jobs that would be created for the upgrade of current infrastructure and the creation of 21st century infrastructure.


Apologists for the massive amounts of tax money spent on the military attempt to argue that it is needed to protect the American people and protect the world from terrorism. But according to a 2013 WIN/Gallup International poll conducted in 65 countries which asked the question, “Which country poses the greatest threat to world peace?”, the United States was voted the biggest threat (24% of those polled), with Pakistan a distant second (8%). Obviously the rest of the world doesn’t think that the U.S. Government is conducting wars around the world to protect them from terrorism. In fact, it appears that the perception among world inhabitants is that the U.S. Government is the cause of terrorist acts and is conducting wars of aggression. If this perception is correct, why is the U.S. Government conducting wars abroad, and for whose benefit? Could it be the same special interests that Marine Corps General Butler identified – large corporations, Wall Street investors, and the banking industry? Perhaps the oil and other energy companies as well?

The fact that the so-called “defense” industry (war profiteers) increased profits and stock performance over the last 16 years seems to indicate that. If General Butler’s other statements are true, that he was a racketeer for capitalism and that wars only profit the few and cost the many dearly, then it appears that the so called “War on Terror” that has been conducted the last 16 years is really something else. Like the attempt to control energy resources, geopolitical territory and low wage sweat shop labor costs, and to increase the profits of the war profiteer industry (a.k.a. “defense” contractors).

In other words, protecting and expanding the wealth, privilege, and power of the 1% billionaire class (the few) is costing us (the many) dearly in the loss of life and limb of U.S. soldiers, our tax dollars and the physical and human infrastructure we depend upon to live.

This insanity must stop!

David Johnson hosts the World Labor Hour radio program, which broadcasts and webcasts live worldwide every Saturday morning from 11 AM – 1 PM on WRFU- Radio Free Urbana , 104.5 FM and at


Posted in Economy, Environment, Foreign Policdy, Foreign Policy, labor, Middle East, military | Comments Off on OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND, THE HIDDEN COSTS OF WAR

Administrative Sleight of Hand: Financial Realities at the University of Illinois

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” — Eugene V. Debs

In June 2017, top administrators at the University of Illinois sent an open letter to state legislators, warning them that failure to agree on a 2018 fiscal budget will “drive up construction costs, disrupt teaching, research, and campus life” at the Champaign-Urbana site. This followed the University’s preposterous request for $662.1 million from the state for operating costs for FY2018, a sharp increase from the $40 million requested for FY2016. While on the surface this seems reasonable because of the state revenue (not budget) crisis, these University appeals for increased fiscal support are a manipulative sleight of hand that masks the University’s booming profit with a dishonest narrative of poverty and forced austerity. The financial reality of the University of Illinois is that it has more money than it has ever had before. Between FY2005 and FY2015, tuition and fee revenue increased by a staggering $668 million, or 155.5%, while state funding decreased by only $36 million, or 5.2%, over that same ten-year period. Additionally, the University currently has a $3.2 billion total endowment, and received close to $300 million in state appropriations for FY2015 and FY2016. Even if we exclude other revenue-generating juggernauts like the Big Ten television deal and athletics, the University’s insistence in continuing this false narrative of poverty and austerity is reprehensibly fraudulent. In fact, the University unevenly distributes its grossly exorbitant profits to a small percentage of bureaucratic bloat at the expense of graduate employees, staff, undergraduate students, and tenured and non-tenured faculty. This deliberate monopoly of resources forces us to face ever-increasing material hardships that threaten our health, working conditions, and productivity as workers and scholars.

As UIUC graduate employee Grace Herbert argued in her exemplary April 2016 Public I article, “UIUC is Balancing a False Budget ‘Crisis’ on the Backs of Students and Faculty,” the University’s financial sleight of hand is dependent on its devious expense reporting. The University combines its financial data for Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, and Chicago, thus making it impossible to approximate the distribution, expenses, and revenues for each individual campus. As Herbert points out, the budget reports for each campus are individually structured, but they only report expected expenditures, which allows the University to escape questions and accountability for its regressive resource distribution.

Instead, when we look past the administrative sleight of hand, the University’s recent financial maneuvers delegitimize its scarcity claims and expose its willingness to position graduate employees, tenured and non-tenured faculty, and students as low priority for the institution. Firstly, UIUC continues a media campaign celebrating its “tuition freeze” without providing any concrete details. The reality is that UIUC is only freezing tuition for in-state students, while the most expensive tuition rates, for out-of-state and international students, continue to rise. Because this year’s freshman class is the largest in UIUC history, this ploy will prove the most lucrative for the administration. UIUC signed head football coach Lovie Smith to a six-year, $29 million contract, with another $4 million allocated for his staff. Lastly, the University is planning a $250 million renovation project at the Illini Union, the largest campus renovation in the school’s history. The UIUC administration would not propose such a risky, long-term project if it did not possess an excessive surplus of funds. Consequently, this reprehensible dishonesty demonstrates that the University prioritizes its profit-inducing projects much higher than its actual poverty-stricken teaching assistants, who average $16,360 per year in pay, well below the $22,314 per year recommended cost of living for a graduate employee.

Exorbitant administrative pay is crucial to this sleight-of-hand strategy. Nationwide, public university presidents and chancellor compensation (including base salary, bonuses, severance packages, etc.) rose by 4.3% last year, with the median now at $431,000. The University of Illinois is a primary catalyst for this increase, with Illinois system president Tim Killeen’s $600,000 base salary (with an extra $100,000 in performance bonus) positioning him in the top 20 percent of public university presidents in the United States. Besides Killeen, other administrative salaries are as follows: Chancellor Robert Jones: $649,000; Executive Vice President and Vice President of Academic Affairs Barbara Wilson: $450,000; College of Medicine Dean Kin Li: $650,000; Interim Provost Edward Feser: $330,500; Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson: $320,000; Dean of the College of Education Jim Anderson: $245,843; Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost John P. Wilkin: $249,000; Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela: $230,000; Director of Labor and Employee Relations Leslie N. Arvan: $127,558.12; Vice Provost for Academic Affairs William T. Bernhard: $245,061; Vice Provost of Budget and Resource Planning Paul N Ellinger: $245,000; Vice Provost Elabbas Benmamoun: $230,000; Dean of College of ACES Robert J. Hauser: $319,735; and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Marieke Schoen: $183,530.

This administrative sleight of hand at UIUC not only fattens the top execs’ pockets, but also reduces opportunities for other campus entities on the ground level to preserve or improve working and living conditions. The University Administration directs departments to cut staff and teaching assistants, and asks that they somehow manage overflowing freshmen classes every year. As a result, faculty must overload their work duties with professional tasks such as academic advising, a full-time service that toes the line of violating the job duties set forth for teaching faculty. Academic Advisor and Black Studies scholar Lou Turner was one such casualty last year, as the African American Studies Department chair, Ronald Bailey, unfairly targeted and fired Turner, effectively destabilizing the department and placing the students, graduate assistants, and faculty in jeopardy. Additionally, departments are forced to enact hiring freezes so tenured and non-tenured faculty teaching loads dramatically increase. Academic spaces like Altgeld Hall, Coble Hall, and the English building have multiple workplace safety hazards (mold, asbestos, rats and roaches, and crumbling infrastructure) that require significant renovations; however, departments in those buildings, like the Math Department, are repeatedly told the school has no money for those repairs.

Unfortunately, the new Illinois state budget, passed and celebrated by both Democrats and Republican legislators, cuts higher education by ten percent, further exacerbating the burden of educational costs on the backs of graduate employees and undergraduate students and their families whose means have been increasingly constrained by stagnant wages and the rising cost of living. These hardships mean that working class employees and students will amass crippling debt to address social crises such as food insecurity, healthcare costs, student fees, child care services, and housing instability.

The UIUC administration willingly constructs a fabricated financial crisis on the campus that simultaneously increases its revenue streams and endangers the social realities of workers across Champaign County. As scholars, activists, and concerned citizens, we must hold the University accountable for its fraudulent claims by taking control of the narrative, exposing the UIUC administration for its role in subordinating multiple groups on the campus, and centralizing our struggle, as graduate workers, tenured and non-tenured faculty, staff, and students, to obtain the fair wages and working conditions we deserve as the lifeblood of the university. If we drive the narrative consistently, the administrative sleight of hand fails. Our liberation is at stake.

Gus Wood is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Co-President of the Graduate Employees Organization, a trustee on the Champaign County AFL-CIO Executive Board, Co-Host of the World Labor Hour on WRFU Radio, and an organizer for Black Students for Revolution, North End Breakfast Club, and the Speak Truth Collective.  He studies social movements and political economy in Black urban history and Black labor history.

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GEO’s Fight for Tuition Waivers

By Patrick Kimutis and Bruce Kovanen

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the union representing graduate workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), is continuing a years-long fight to win tens of thousands of dollars of withheld compensation owed to fourteen former international students from the Masters in Computer Science (MCS) program. In January, 2016, a neutral and legally binding arbitration process determined that the University Administration was in violation of the GEO’s contract with the university in withholding this form of compensation from teaching assistants enrolled in the MCS program. According to the GEO’s contract with the university, teaching assistants receive tuition waivers, a form of compensation that waives the costs of tuition in exchange for the labor performed. Because of the high cost of tuition, and the low wages graduate employees receive (the vast majority of graduate employee wages are 30% or more under the university’s published living wage), the tuition waiver is the primary form of compensation.

In 2013, GEO learned that the Department of Computer Science (CS) was enacting a policy to eliminate waiver-generating assistantships for graduate students enrolled in MCS. GEO met with campus administrators, who agreed not to enact the policy. In Fall 2014, incoming MCS graduate students were told that this policy had been enacted; they could not hold assistantships in the CS department, but they could find employment in other campus departments that would come with a tuition waiver. Many of them were highly qualified in other fields and were offered waiver-generating assistantships in other departments; however, those offers were rescinded when CS began demanding that any unit hiring an MCS student pay the CS department the cost of the student’s tuition in cash, rather than just waiving it. In effect, this blacklisted the students from waiver-generating positions, because employing units were unwilling to pay tuition in cash to the CS Department. In many cases, the waiver-generating assistantship was converted to an hourly position, so the MCS assistant was working for drastically reduced compensation, often alongside non-MCS peers doing the same work and receiving a tuition and fee waiver. Hourly employees are denied additional rights like union representation, contributions to health insurance premiums, and other fee waivers.

When MCS graduate students came to GEO and explained the situation, the GEO initiated their grievance procedure, culminating in arbitration in which the federal arbiter sided with the union and found the University Administration in violation of the contract. However, the arbiter left the remedy up to the parties, and the GEO has since been fighting the Administration to reimburse fourteen identified students who performed hourly work that should have been compensated with a tuition waiver. Several of these former students cannot even afford to go back to their home country due to the debt they accrued while being forced to pay tuition to UIUC. All fourteen of the identified students are international, and some had to put their families’ houses up as collateral to finance their time working and studying at UIUC. Their family homes are not safe until the debt is paid.

The Administration, for its part, has not only not paid these students back, but has stonewalled the GEO. Associate University Counsel Craig Hoefer has repeatedly ignored GEO emails and phone calls, delayed meetings pertaining to the grievance, and refused to provide information that would help the union determine if there are additional students who are owed compensation. Craig Hoefer has had documentation from the fourteen affected former students since February 2017, and since that time has refused all of GEO’s attempts to communicate about the case. The Administration’s refusal to provide these students with the compensation they are owed has not only had massively detrimental effects on these individuals’ lives, but also speaks to a broader attempt to devalue graduate labor at the University of Illinois. In the ongoing contract negotiations with the GEO that began in March of this year, the Administration has proposed changes to the tuition waiver language that would open the door for them to impose similar policies on graduate employees across campus. Tuition waivers are a necessary mechanism for making higher education accessible to anyone but the super rich. Almost all graduate students at UIUC are non-residents for tuition purposes; the minimum yearly tuition rate for non-resident and international graduate students is $26,502 with some programs costing nearly $50,000 per year.

Since the election of Trump and the concomitant rise in xenophobia, the UIUC Administration has repeatedly voiced its support for international students, who comprise 44% of the university’s graduate student population. Their actions, however, tell a different story. We’re asking members of the community to email Scott Rice, Campus Legal Counsel, at, and Craig Hoefer, Associate Legal Counsel, at, to ask them why they have been unresponsive to GEO’s calls and emails, and to demand a response. If this bothers you, let them know! You can use a template, posted below, to start your email.

If you’d like to learn more about this issue, please contact the GEO at


Dear Mr. Rice and Mr. Hoefer,

I am writing in support of the GEO’s efforts to secure reimbursement for MCS graduate students affected by a recent arbitration decision. I decry your silence and inaction, and I demand that you respond to the GEO’s repeated attempts to settle the terms of the arbitrator’s decision.



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The Racial Justice Task Force and the slow trudge toward justice in Champaign County

The Champaign County Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF) will be issuing its final report this fall. Those who sought to create this task force, and those working within it, have faced an uphill struggle in trying to get the white community to confront the fact of racism in the criminal justice system.

The proposal to establish a Racial Justice Task Force first came from a wide-ranging 2013 report issued by the Champaign Community Justice Task Force (CJTF), a group of officials, scholars, and activists chaired by then-Urbana City Councilwoman Carol Ammons, the county’s current State Representative. The CJTF issued a call to create an RJTF in order to address the egregious racial disparity in the population of the Champaign County Jail, relative to the general county population. Essentially, African-Americans make up about 13% of the county’s population, and always well over half, sometimes over 70% of the jail population.

While multiple community groups mobilized to pack the County Board meeting room in fall 2015 in support of the RJTF, centrist Democrats on the Board made an effort to shift attention away from criminal justice. While the resolution that passed made no such stipulations, the application for appointment to the RJTF nonetheless requested that applicants indicate their interest in jobs, housing, or an all-purpose heading simply labeled “justice.” Applications were to be reviewed by a five-person panel, of which four members were white. In November, eight local activist organizations wrote an open letter criticizing this process. Applications were slow in coming in, and a group was not convened until February 2016.

Without any funding from the County Board, the RJTF began its work with 23 members (including one alternate), divided fairly evenly between white members and members of color, and took the early step of issuing a mission statement dedicated to criminal justice. The group soon broke up into subcommittees. In September 2016, there were committees addressing policing practices, juvenile justice, community engagement, restorative justice, the legal process, and structural racism. Ignoring the mission statement, this last category initially was intended to encompass employment and housing, and later expanded to include education, implicit bias, and trauma-informed counseling.

Over the course of the last 18 months, the group has met regularly, both in its committees and as a large group. According to Task Force member Sara Balgoyen,”the task force has had many experts in their respective fields (police, courts, juvenile, disproportionate minority contact and more) present evidence–based practices, promising practices, and beliefs for how to reduce racial disparities.”

Task force members have ventured into the community on a handful of occasions: to gather community members’ stories at two events in summer 2016, and, in March 2017, to get feedback on collaborative efforts to analyze county criminal justice data. Other than these forays, though, it’s not clear that the group did much to solicit the views of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people.

The original mandate had the RJTF issuing a final report in July 2017, but the group received permission to extend its work until October. Drafts of committee final reports have been under discussion since July. The legal process committee has focused on fines and fees, penalties that disproportionately burden poor people of color, and new sections were added to the report: one dealing with access to public housing for those with criminal convictions, and one identifying cash bail as a significant cause of racial disparity in the jail. Most of the draft sections are concise, and generally make concrete, common-sense recommendations to address problems related to criminal justice disparities. The deficit in an otherwise solid draft report was the section on structural racism, which ignored criminal justice; however, this section, now only treating “education,” has been cut down from its original length of over 30 pages.

With some additions and subtractions, the RJTF group now stands at around 18, and has a distinct white majority. Attendance at meetings exaggerates this imbalance. This white domination can be witnessed in the meetings, in which white speakers take up an outsized portion of the group’s time. These speakers seem to have set the bulk of the group’s agenda since 2015, and have at times communicated among themselves without including the entire membership. This inadvertent but undeniable silencing of Black voices does, in turn, help to explain the attrition and absence of people of color from a group purportedly formed to address the interests of communities of color.

Alex Evans, a Black member who has stopped attending meetings of a Task Force he describes as “arguably anti-Black,” wrote to me about the racial dynamics of the group.

“On paper it looks as if the RJTF was/is interested in what Black folks have to say, but the reality is that they actively rejected what some Black committee and community members had to say. It was definitely an instance of only accepting the ‘Black perspective’ if it was comfortable to their brand of liberalism… It seemed as though many on the RJTF went into the process searching for racial discrimination, not as a means for providing proof for the County Board, but they searched to validate their experiences and their feelings that things aren’t as bad as some of us claim.”

Along with the sprawling and ineffectual section on structural racism, Evans also took issue with the programs proposed by the restorative justice committee, programs which he said “were suggested to benefit Task Force members’ professional endeavors, not as a means to confront the racial justice issues in the county.”

Ultimately, the work of the Racial Justice Task Force has been worthwhile. At the same time, its history illustrates the pervasive racist dynamics in institutional efforts to confront white supremacism. This remains true despite the good intentions of white liberals, some of whom have made valuable contributions to the Task Force. “The (draft) report ignores the very real racism and indifference utilized to construct it,” says Evans, “while at the same time attempting to rebuke the same racism in Champaign County.” He states, “all many of us are asking is for the current system to be called out, and, more importantly, be held accountable for its daily patterns of inflicting racialized miscarriages of justice.”

Given the difficulty of communicating this simple necessity to a relatively sympathetic, diverse group organized to address the racism of the criminal justice system, it is hard to be optimistic about what will happen when the RJTF final report reaches the far more white and far more skeptical County Board. But this Board is the same body that had to be hounded into creating the RJTF, and the same body that then sought to undermine its mission in the application process. Most importantly, it is the same body that must once again this fall, as in years past, be stopped by public pressure from spending taxpayer dollars to expand the county’s majority-Black jail.





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Illinois Sets Precedent With Bill To Protect Prison Visitation

St. Rep. Carol Ammons and Wandjell Harvey-Robinson

August 23, 2017

Brian Dolinar, Program Director, Independent Media Center 217-621-5827,
Michelle Jett, State Rep. Carol Ammons 217-531-1660,

Urbana, IL – In-person contact visits are now legally guaranteed in Illinois prisons, setting a new bar for preserving the rights and dignity of incarcerated individuals and their families. With the passage of HB2738: Protect Prison Visits Bill, video calling will not replace, but will supplement, in-person visiting.

Introduced by Illinois State Representative Carol Ammons, and supported by the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center (UCIMC), HB2738 also ensures that the cost of video calling is reasonable and affordable. This is the companion bill to 2016’s HB6200: The Family Connections Bill which cut in half the cost of traditional phone calls from prison. Both bills are a product of the partnership between Representative Ammons and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice.

“I am proud to say Illinois is setting a national precedent for regulating this new technology. Strong family connections are a strong factor in reducing recidivism and simply a humane way to treat those serving sentences and their family members,” said State Representative Carol Ammons (D-Urbana).

“We use our eyes to see, but our eyes see more than just figures. With our eyes we can see love, we can see pain, we can see joy. This bill will enable those incarcerated the opportunity to extend their love by reaching out to their families via video chats. Technology is advancing for the communities in the outside world and we cannot forget about the human beings removed from their communities and families. Again, we say thank you,” shared Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, who grew up struggling to stay in contact with her parents who were both incarcerated.

HB2738 was signed into law by Governor Rauner in August and goes into effect January 1, 2018.


UCIMC is a community center based in Urbana, Illinois with a mission to foster the creation and distribution of media and art that emphasizes underrepresented voices and perspectives. We are a member of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, and an anchor member of the Media Action Grassroots Network, housed at Center for Media Justice in Oakland.


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Rodney Davis: Can’t Blame Trump for Charlottesville

In the August 15th Issue of the News-Gazette, our congressional representative Rodney Davis is quoted as saying: “What happened in Charlottesville is no more President Trump’s fault than what happened to me two months ago when a Bernie Sanders supporter shot at me.”

Mr. Davis, Bernie Sanders did not extol violence the way that Trump did when he urged his supporters to beat up protesters at his election rallies. Trump offered to pay their legal fees. Nor did Sanders urge police officers to use gratuitous violence against arrestees the way Trump has. Nor has Sanders disseminated images of himself punching CNN.

Sanders has never promoted racism or anti-Semitism. Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists, said that  that he would build a wall to keep them out, and claimed that he could not receive justice from a judge because the judge was Latino. Trump has tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States and falsely asserted that he saw Muslims cheering in NY when the twin towers were hit in 9/11. He has brought into the White House such Muslim-haters as Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Stephen Miller, Julie Kirchner, and Sebastian Gorka. Bannon was also head of Breitbart News, to which he has just returned, that gives voice to spewers of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim views.

Trump himself was an early denier of the U.S. birth of Barack Obama, our only African American president. He also was quick to call for the reinstitution of the death penalty in New York, to be used against black youths who had been wrongly convicted of  rape. His real estate firm also discriminated against black people. In his absurd claim that three million people (the number of his popular vote loss to Clinton) voted against him illegitimately and his appointment of a presidential commission to search for massive voter fraud nationally, he feeds the attempt by Republicans to disenfranchise minority voters, a way of trying to solidify white dominant power and fundamentally undermining our democratic system.

Through all of the above, and his verbal false equivalencies, similar to your own false equivalency Mr. Davis, Trump has indeed empowered racists, Nazis, fascists, and anti-Semites in our body politic. Shame on you sir!



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