Courtwatch Corner: By Reason of Insanity








On January 4, 2019, Dominique Smith was sentenced to 25 years in prison for robbing someone of a frozen pizza and six dollars at gunpoint, but no one was hurt. The next day, in a separate case, a man who killed his cousin was also sentenced to 25 years. Dominique had no record, not even for minor traffic offenses, and he was only 18 years old when he committed the crime. But Dominique had a greater burden to bear: he was mentally ill.

Courts and the law attempt to override the fact of mental illness, leaving the only out as the plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. This has become increasingly unpopular with the public, and legally requires not just “mental illness” but the proven inability to know that your crime was wrong at the time, a much higher bar. Its use has declined to one-quarter of one percent of all felony cases, or one in 400 cases. Continue reading

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Think Heliocentrically, Act Locally

We are building solar at all scales.

Scott R. Tess, Urbana’s Environmental Sustainability Manager

The Big Picture

Solar power from photovoltaic (PV) panels has been around for a long time now, and the technology is definitely ready for prime time. Here, as in many places, solar power is being rolled out at many scales from industrial-sized arrays, through individual homes, and gadgets (See Andy Robinson’s article in the June, 2017 Public i.)

Our area will soon be home to what is probably the largest concentration of solar power generation in the state of Illinois. New large-scale arrays are coming at the University of Illinois (55 acres), Parkland College, the Urbana Landfill(41 acres), and the largest PV array in the state (1200 acres!), coming near Sidney. For comparison, these resources together likely will generate considerably more electricity than the Abbot Power Plant at the University of Illinois, and something like a quarter of the capacity of the Clinton nuclear plant. Continue reading

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Securitization in the Heartland: For-Profit Immigration Detention

Opponents to the new detention facility are well represented at the hearing

Dwight, IL, Population 4200.

On March 11 the Dwight Village Board voted to move forward with the construction of a privately owned $20 million ICE detention facility on the edge of the town, which is 75 miles north of Champaign-Urbana. The tense meeting, moved to the high school gym to accommodate the crowd of 300, bristled with police brought in from nearby towns to control possible chaos. Three of us from CU FAIR (Champaign-Urbana Friends and Allies of Immigrants and Refugees) joined others from Peoria, Chicago and Indianapolis to express concern during the public forum. For two hours opponents questioned the use of detention for civil offenses, the place of private prisons in the justice system and the impact on families. A few supporters emphasized what appeared to be preordained talking points in arguing that outsiders should have no voice on this decision that could bring in much-needed local jobs and that immigration was a complex issue best left to D.C. decision makers. Continue reading

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What Can We Learn from the Yellow Vests?

Yellow Vest protesters marching on the Champs Élysées in Paris

The last Saturday in March marked “Act XX” for the the Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests protests, the 20th consecutive weekend citizens have marched in the tens of thousands and occupied traffic roundabouts across France. Since hundreds of thousands mobilized out of the blue on November 17 to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s new gasoline tax, justified as combating global warming, the movement has forced the government into multiple concessions and a virtual stop to its neoliberal reform program, inspired imitators far and wide, and provoked debate on the Left and across the political spectrum, in France and abroad, as to its nature and prospects. Protesters in Belgium, the UK, Germany and Hungary have donned the dramatic garb for their own purposes, not to mention in Algeria and Iraq (Tunisians wore red vests instead). Both Hungarian authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Egyptian strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are reported to have temporarily banned the retail sale of such garments, to forestall their use by regime opponents. So the yellow vest has clearly emerged as the icon of new kind of protest. But what are its politics? Or, perhaps the more important question: what does the appearance and persistence of this movement say about the political moment? Continue reading

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Vietnam Today: Did Anyone “Win” the Vietnam War?

US Bombs Dropped on Vietnam

Going to college during the Vietnam War transformed my life. Because of my sheltered upbringing, I was rudely awakened. I learned the meaning of imperialism, and with that the lack of justice at home in a class- and race-based hierarchical society. It was a time of worldwide uprisings and I began to study Third World liberation movements. My first big demonstration was in 1967 just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, when I tried to help the Yippies levitate the Pentagon. I marched almost every weekend during my junior and senior years at Boston University, either locally or in the massive demonstrations in DC. And I continued marching at San Francisco State University, where I went to graduate school. So even though I did not fight in the Vietnam War or even know that much about the country, these formative experiences based on the US war in Vietnam set the direction of my life.

For some years I have had a vague notion that I really should go to Vietnam, since it had played such an important role in my life, although indirectly. Now that I am retired and privileged to have a decent pension and savings, I recently had the chance to make the trip. I went with fourteen other folks from the US, UK, France, and South Africa through the National Geographic Society on a two-week tour from north to south. Continue reading

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Illinois Prison Phone Rates Are Lowest Following Grassroots Activism

“There were a lot of times my sons tried calling me,” recalled Annette Taylor, who regularly receives calls from her two sons in prison, “but there was no money on the account.” Those were some of the “hardest calls,” she said. “I would worry something was wrong.”

Families of those incarcerated have long complained about the high cost of phone calls from prison. A national campaign in 2015 pressured the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene, but the agency’s regulations have since been reversed by the Trump administration.

In Illinois, the price of prison phone calls was just drastically reduced, making it much easier for Taylor and others like her to stay in contact with their loved ones. Just a few years ago, Illinois had the most inflated rates in the country. According to a renegotiated contract, the cost of a call from prison is now just under a penny a minute. Illinois is now the state with the lowest costs in the country. Continue reading

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The Nelson Sisters: “On their Way Up”

From left to right: Eunice Nelson Rivers, Debrae Phillips Lomax, Estelle Nelson Merrifield, and Angela Rivers.

Early African American settlers from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri who relocated to the outskirts of Champaign County and became farmers and teamsters, ultimately moved to Champaign as early as 1863, built churches (Bethel A.M.E. and Salem Baptist) and railroads, became business owners in the twin cities, served their country in two world wars, and attended and worked for the University. Most notably, they offered educational, religious, and material support to Black college students when the University could (would) not enforce desegregation on campus. Families such as the Andersons, the Earnests, the Lees, the McCurdys, the Nelsons, the Phillips, the Popes, and the Scotts are among the earliest and most prominent Bethel families, who socialized within the supportive confines of racial bonds, several becoming united by marriage. One such case is that of Joseph F. Nelson, a deputy sheriff (in charge of prison keys) in the early 1900s for Champaign County, who married Stella Anderson, daughter of Angeline Scott.

The Nelson sisters—Eleanor Nelson Conrad, Estelle Nelson Merrifield, Hester Nelson Suggs (now deceased), and Eunice Nelson Rivers—actively contributed memories and lived experiences to my research on African Americans in Champaign-Urbana—what archives and libraries could never offer. Aiming to record their racial work and to enlighten the University on the self-supporting (and long-standing) civic work of African Americans, the Nelson sisters became my mentors, willing to instruct me, even outside racial boundaries; in turn, I was willing to be instructed, and inhabit their homes, church, and neighborhood. Memories, even if frail or incomplete (not in their case), can challenge and rectify official records: the sisters interrogated narratives of unproblematic access to white spaces locally. They demonstrated that when Black settlers finally established themselves in Champaign at the turn of the century, wishing to connect with the campus culture, they encountered a University that privileged white men and a city seldom receptive and often openly hostile to their visibility.

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For a World Without Borders

Speech by Tariq Khan at the UIUC Ayuda Rally at Anniversary Plaza, November 29, 2018. UIUC Ayuda was a student group/campaign to raise awareness about and material support for the Central American caravans made up of people seeking asylum.

I want to begin with some words from the Palestinian intellectual Steven Salaita. Last summer while people were discussing the Muslim ban and the evil U.S. practice of kidnapping children from their parents at the border, Professor Salaita wrote:

“The border on either side of the United States isn’t natural topography; it’s a foreign imposition sanctified by theft and ethnic cleansing. The border bisects dozens of nations that long predate the United States and do not recognize its authority. Many of the people traveling from South and Central America are Indigenous and thus operating within their own hemispheric milieu. The separation of families and the Muslim ban demolish any pretense of sovereignty by preventing Native nations from applying their own policies on refuge and migration. Beware the type of resistance that legitimizes the United States as steward of its borders and the international territories they constrict.”

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Women Workers on the March: UNITE HERE Hotel Workers Strike

Currently women workers are leading the march of labor in this country. Although it is lost amid the headlines of the #MeToo movement, this movement’s call for an end to sexual harassment and assault is at its core a demand for safe and equitable workplaces.

But while #MeToo has garnered the most media coverage, it is not the only cause that has women workers marching.

Starting last February, teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Colorado went on strike for better wages, smaller class sizes, and adequate resources for their classrooms.

In September, hotel workers represented by the labor union UNITE HERE in Chicago went out on strike. By October, they were joined by hotel workers in eight other U.S. cities, from Boston to Honolulu, in the largest strike of hotel workers in U.S. history.

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Remembering Willeta Donaldson

Willeta Donaldson

Urbana has lost one of its most distinguished citizens, Willeta Mae Hassell Donaldson. She passed away on February 2. Willeta, who worked at the University of Illinois in the Office of Admissions and the School of Social Work, also served on the city of Urbana’s Human Rights Commission, sometimes as chair. But her most lasting contribution to our community was, without doubt, her pushing the Urbana School District to desegregate its schools.

In 1963, the state of Illinois’ legislature amended the school code “prohibiting school boards from erecting, purchasing, or acquiring buildings for school purposes that would promote segregation based on color, race, or nationality.” While segregation was not a problem in Urbana’s high school or junior high (now called middle school), it was an issue when it came to the elementary schools. Almost all of the African American residents in the North End went to J. W. Hays school, since renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. A coincidence of factors—including an influx of African American children from Southern states, where they had not been well prepared for schooling, a dissertation by a U of I student showing that Hays students were underperforming compared with students in the other schools, and the above change in the Illinois school code—led a number of African Americans to demand that the school board desegregate Urbana’s schools. Among those people were Willeta and her husband Carlos Donaldson, Paul and Shirley Hursey, Evelyn Underwood, and Jo Ann Jackson. They became known as the Ellis Six because they all lived on that street in the North End. It was Willeta who made the presentation for desegregation to the school board.

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