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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Rapper Vic Mensa: Chicago’s newest Black Panther?

Posted By on 08.28.18 at 02:35 PM

Vic Mensa helped give away 15,000 free shoes in Englewood on Sunday. - RICK MAJEWSKI/SUN-TIMES
  • Rick Majewski/Sun-Times
  • Vic Mensa helped give away 15,000 free shoes in Englewood on Sunday.

The timing of Vic Mensa's high-profile response this past weekend to a Chicago police sting operation was more than a little serendipitous.

Remnants of the old Black Panther Party gathered in Oakland on the same weekend of the young rapper's "anti-bait truck" event to mourn the recent death of Elbert "Big Man" Howard, one of the organization's founders. This week also marked the 50th anniversary of Bobby Seale's arrest in Chicago for his role in planning the anti-war protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

On Sunday, the 25-year-old Mensa looked ready to assume the Black Panther mantle—and not just because he's got one tattooed on his shoulder accompanied by the words "Free Huey."

Among the many organizations and individuals involved in the giveaway were the New Black Panther Party of Chicago and Fred Hampton Jr., the son of slain Panthers leader Fred Hampton. And over the course of a 15-minute conversation inside a scorching-hot room at the West Englewood Community Center, Mensa quoted Angela Davis and Mao Zedong and dropped the name of Huey Newton. When asked what role he might personally play in police reform in Chicago, he said, "At the end of the day, what we're doing right here is an extension of what we learned from the Black Panther Party, to police the police."

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Governor Rauner vetoes a tax break for Englewood while offering billions to Amazon

Posted By on 08.27.18 at 06:00 AM

The Gary Comer Youth Center helps to develop a former industrial property at 7270 S. Chicago Ave. into an urban farm. - JASMIN SHAH
  • Jasmin Shah
  • The Gary Comer Youth Center helps to develop a former industrial property at 7270 S. Chicago Ave. into an urban farm.

Back in July, Governor Rauner's pals from the National Black Chamber of Commerce gave him a lifetime achievement award for helping foster minority businesses.

I didn't think he deserved the award in the first place. But given Rauner's recent veto of state rep Sonya Harper's urban agricultural zone bill, I say the chamber should snatch it right back.

Because that veto shows the governor has a twisted double standard toward economic development when it comes to helping poor black communities as opposed to rich white ones.

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Why the nationwide strike against ‘modern-day slavery’ may not reach Illinois. And why it's already here.

Posted By on 08.25.18 at 06:00 AM

The barbershop run by inmates at Stateville Correctional Center is one of the few vocational opportunities in IDOC. - FRANK VAISVILAS/SUN-TIMES
  • Frank Vaisvilas/Sun-Times
  • The barbershop run by inmates at Stateville Correctional Center is one of the few vocational opportunities in IDOC.

On August 21, incarcerated people in at least 17 different states launched a 19-day "strike" in response to an April riot at South Carolina's Lee Correctional Institution that left seven inmates dead. Organized by a South Carolina-based group of incarcerated individuals calling themselves Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the strike was rolled out with a list of ten demands challenging conditions of "modern day slavery" at state and federal jails and prisons and immigration detention centers. The demands, circulated on social media and endorsed by more than 150 allied groups, are as follows:

1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.

3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.

4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.

5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.

6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.

7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.

8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.

9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.

10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!
The organizers wrote that the protest would be enacted through peaceful sit-ins, refusals to work, commissary boycotts, hunger strikes, and other nonviolent means of resistance. But it's the strike of prison work that seems to have attracted heightened media attention.

In some states prisoners are required to work difficult or dangerous jobs—such as fighting wildfires, farming, and manufacturing—for little or no pay. In others, private prisons contract with private companies to provide cheap labor. But in Illinois (where there are no private prisons), prison work is actually so scarce that inmates may not be striking against it.

Until the mid-1990s, the Illinois Department of Corrections had a robust vocational training program and on- and off-site job opportunities for inmates. In more recent years, however, prison jobs, apprenticeships, and educational programs have all but disappeared. Most inmates in IDOC now spend more than 20 hours a day confined to their cells—even if they're not technically in solitary confinement or segregation, according to Alan Mills of the Uptown People's Law Center, which regularly represents IDOC inmates in civil rights lawsuits.

"Unlike many states where the problem is prisoners are forced to do jobs that are horrible with very little money, in Illinois prisoners are made to sit in their cells with nothing whatsoever to do," Mills explains. Because of this, jobs are highly coveted among his IDOC clients. Many feel that "even if a job is poorly paid it's an improvement to confinement," Mills says.

Brian Nelson, 53, who works as a prisoners' rights coordinator at UPLC and who was incarcerated at IDOC between 1982 and 2010, agrees that Illinois prisoners are unlikely to be striking specifically against prison work.

"In the 80s, when I first got locked up, there was a lot of jobs, a lot of industries in IDOC, and almost everybody had a job or went to school," Nelson says. He recalls a furniture factory at Stateville; a broom, mattress, and cigarette factory at Menard; street sign and license place manufacturing at Pontiac. Medium-security facilities had telemarketing centers and farms. Then IDOC was hit with a combination of state and federal budget cuts and scandals about leniency toward inmates—most notably salacious video revelations of Richard Speck, convicted for murdering eight women in 1966, using drugs and bragging about having "fun" in prison.

Both Mills and Nelson say the Speck scandal gave IDOC a pretext to crack down and curb jobs and other programs. Just a couple of years before that, the Clinton administration eliminated Pell grants for prisoner higher education through the 1994 crime bill, which also ratcheted up the war on drugs. IDOC made promises about expanding programming for inmates once it removed "troublemakers" from the general population and put them into the newly constructed Tamms "supermax" in 1998, but that never transpired.

Pay for jobs in IDOC kitchens, laundries, law libraries, and facilities maintenance varies. Nelson recalls jobs like gallery sweeping paying $15 per month, and kitchen jobs paying between $25 and $35 per month. The factory jobs were better paid, up to $300 per month.

Nelson spent two years in the late 1990s in a New Mexico prison (part of Illinois's Interstate Compact Agreement to transfer prisoners to other states for security reasons). There he was trained as a tailor and remembers having consistent work and opportunities for free movement. "Everybody out there was given trust until you messed it up," he recalls. He got to keep 30 percent of his paycheck for commissary, a portion of his earnings went into a victims' restitution fund, and another portion was saved on prisoners' behalf "for when you went home." When he came back to IDOC in 1998 he went straight to Tamms, where there was no work at all, and he spent the next 12 years in solitary confinement.

Nelson says he knows about 100 other people who've left IDOC. "Out of all my friends that have been released only three of us have a full-time job. Most are on social security." He says the lack of education and training in prison are to blame, and it causes many formerly incarcerated people to give up hope once they get out.

IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess couldn't confirm the number of inmates currently employed at prison jobs or with partner organizations. In an e-mail, she said the department had not had any reports of "offenders participating in this strike."

In addition to the scarcity of prison work, another impediment to the prison strike in Illinois could be the notoriously harsh repression of prisoner organizing. Mills and Nelson both shared stories of crackdowns on politically and religiously motivated organizing attempts at IDOC. "If more than three prisoners are seen talking together they can be charged with gang activity," Mills says. "They lose their jobs and they'd get sent to solitary."

Mills says members of a Christian group at Menard were charged with "unauthorized organizational activity" for holding a prayer meeting on the prison yard in the early 2000s. At Pontiac in 2013, an inmate who discussed principles of anarchism with someone else was accused of gang activity, sent to months of solitary confinement, and had "good time" (which earns early release) revoked. Nelson recalls the severe punishment of a group of inmates at Pontiac that same year who held a hunger strike against living conditions and indefinite solitary confinement. One of the hunger strikers was cited "for us being outside the prison [in solidarity]," Nelson says. "They took a year good time from him and gave him a year of solitary."

But artist and activist Monica Cosby, who was incarcerated between 1995 and 2015, says the disincentives for organizing and the lack of IDOC reports of coordinated participation in the nationwide strike doesn't mean that inmates aren't actively resisting their conditions. "Our resistance lives in us all day long because we choose to be alive [in women's prison]," she says. "We cook for each other, we celebrate with each other when one of our kids graduates high school, or goes to prom, we cry with each other, we love each other."

In addition to harsh punishment for political organizing Cosby says incarcerated women face retribution for the refusal of guards' sexual overtures. The danger isn't just winding up in solitary confinement or losing a release date, but losing coveted visits with children. "When [correctional officers] come at us and make sexual advances and we say no and know what can happen to us when we say no—that's resistance," Cosby says.

In her experience across Illinois's women's prisons, jobs were also scarce and paid between $15 and $150 per month. Cosby was in a cooking and baking apprenticeship program for about six years and made at most $65 per month, but the program "got destroyed" in the early 2000s. Some jobs may seem like good opportunities but required indignities some inmates didn't want to submit to. "If it was a job I might have been interested in but knew I'd have to be strip-searched to go in or come out, I didn't want to do it," Cosby explains. That kind of resistance—while individual and not apparently organized, still counts, she says. "It's resistance every day."

Cosby thinks many people erroneously think women don't organize in prison, but that in fact the social bonds people form are in themselves a form of organizing. "The fullest relationships I ever had, I had in prison," she says. "There's this massive communication and cooperation, it just doesn't look as dramatic."

She recalled a friend named Victoria taking her own life while she was at Logan—"IDOC killed her by suicide," Cosby says. At first, she recalls, "they wouldn't let us have a funeral or memorial service for her. And when we were allowed to do the service we weren't allowed to say her name."  In response, the women organized to wear something purple—Victoria's favorite color—on a specific day. It was to remember their friend "and to say fuck you to the warden." An action like this is among the many ways people in prison protest on a daily basis, "and it's just as powerful as any other, just as legitimate."

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Friday, August 24, 2018

People of Culture will be taking over the DuSable Museum this weekend

Posted By on 08.24.18 at 06:00 AM

Tunde and Dupe will be hosting the red carpet. - COURTESY EFE IYARE
  • Courtesy Efe Iyare
  • Tunde and Dupe will be hosting the red carpet.

After moving to Chicago from Nigeria in 2014 to pursue a master's in marketing from Roosevelt University, Efe Iyare recalls the culture shock he had. "I realized that there was a huge bias about me being African and what that represented," he says."People had no idea, just based off what they have seen in the media, where I came from or my culture." The experience left him feeling inspired. "I felt obligated to represent [Africa] in my own way. It was my responsibility to show people the true colors and true values that Africa represents," Iyare says. So in 2016, he took to social media and decided to create an Instagram page, Culture Power (@culture_power), "to promote African culture and diversity." Now, two years later, the page has more than 1,200 followers, and Iyare’s efforts to foster cultural competency are growing beyond the Internet. Culture Power will be hosting its first event, People of Culture, this Sunday, August 26, at the DuSable Museum of African American History.

For Iyare, the history and significance of the DuSable Museum to Chicago's black community made it the perfect place for People of Culture. The evening's happenings will be based around music, dance, and fashion. A red carpet will kick off the event, followed by a light dinner and networking session, music performances, and a fashion display; the night will close with a talk.

The occasion will "show success stories and people from the continent who are doing extremely well," Iyare says. A few notable people who will be in attendance are Tanzanian fashion designer Rahel Mwitula Williams, Senegalese businessman Elhadji Gueye, and Ghanian Instagram fitness guru Jehu Graham. There will also be 12 musicians performing, which is very important to Iyare. "They don't necessarily have that audience and platform to promote like rock stars or African-American rappers, so this is the thing that will give them that platform for them to promote their talents," he says.

Iyare hopes that the event will attract not just Africans but those who are interested in learning more about the continent and what its countries have to offer. Anyone who wants to learn about and celebrate the African culture is welcome; tickets are available on the People of Culture website.

The event flyer - COURTESY EFE IYARE
  • Courtesy Efe Iyare
  • The event flyer

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Thursday, August 23, 2018

The owners of the Pierogi Wagon are selling their food truck business—on Craigslist

Posted By on 08.23.18 at 06:00 AM

The Craigslist ad selling the Pierogi Wagon
  • The Craigslist ad selling the Pierogi Wagon

For sale by owner: a big yellow diesel-powered step van. Extras include a Chicago food truck license, a website, several social media accounts with more than 10,000 followers, pierogi-making equipment, training, and access to special recipes for the Polish dumplings.

It's not unusual to see a vehicle for sale on Craigslist. But Damian and Jessica Warzecha's ad is different because the husband-and-wife food entrepreneurs are selling their entire Pierogi Wagon business along with the truck—all for the asking price of $25,000.

The catch? You have to continue running it as Pierogi Wagon. Nothing else.

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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Invisible Institute launches expanded police misconduct database

Posted By on 08.16.18 at 06:00 AM

The new and improved Citizens Police Data Project is an even more powerful tool for tracking Chicago police misconduct - INVISIBLE INSTITUTE
  • Invisible Institute
  • The new and improved Citizens Police Data Project is an even more powerful tool for tracking Chicago police misconduct
An expansive new version of the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP) has been unveiled by south-side journalism production company the Invisible Institute. The database, created by independent journalist Jamie Kalven, was already the largest public repository of Chicago police misconduct records. Now it's quadrupled in size to include more than 240,000 misconduct complaints made against more than 22,000 CPD officers going back to the late 1960s. The database has also been enhanced by the addition of Chicago Police Department use-of-force reports and officer commendation records.

Researchers at the institute are rolling out the new version of the database together with their own analysis of the data. They found that about one-fifth of the officers employed by CPD for a year or more between 2000 and 2016 had ten or more complaints against them, ranging from minor operational violations such as not wearing a seat belt while driving a squad car to accusations of severe beatings and shootings. Officers with ten or more complaints account for two-thirds of the records in CPDP's new database.

As has long been reported, very few complaints against officers are sustained, and even fewer result in any sort of discipline. Institute researchers found that of the nearly 112,000 complaints filed against officers between 2000 and 2016, just over 2 percent were sustained and just over 1 percent ended in an officer being suspended or fired. Complaints were sustained 20 times more frequently when filed by other cops than when filed by civilians. And white civilians' complaints were three times more likely to be sustained than black civilians' complaints.

The majority of complaints originate on the south and west sides—something the previous version of the database already demonstrated. But now it's possible to see the racial and socioeconomic context of the neighborhoods and police districts where allegations against officers are made. It's also possible to see the department's own records about officers' use of force. Though CPDP aggregates tens of thousands of these records, data analyst Andrew Fan (who, full disclosure, assisted with data analysis for one Reader story last year) cautions that this "isn't the last word" on officers' use of force. Institute staff believe that both officers and the department as a whole underreport use-of-force incidents.

Fan's analysis of the use-of-force reports showed that despite the steep decline in the city's black population since 2000, black people have steadily remained about three-quarters of the subjects of officers' use of force. Even in heavily white areas of town, black people are still disproportionately on the receiving end of officers' use of force.  Fan cited Jefferson Park on the far northwest side as an example. There less than 1 percent of the population is black, yet 14 percent of the subjects in officers' use-of-force reports between 2013 and 2015 were black.

The graphics in the new database offer a chance to see where any particular officer falls in relation to the rest of the force when it comes to allegations by civilians, by fellow officers, and use-of-force reports. Officers who are frequently accused together can be analyzed as a group. It's also possible to scroll through an officer's entire career history and see his or her transfers between districts and department awards. Often, Fan notes, the same incident involving the same officer will result in a misconduct complaint from a civilian as well as a commendation from the department.

In its announcement of the database rollout the institute notes additional "alarming trends" gleaned from the database: More than 6 percent of officers were accused of incidents of "physical domestic abuse" between 2000 and 2016. The officers with such accusations on their records also had a 50 percent higher rate of use-of-force complaints than the rest of their peers.

"I think the motives of the Invisible Institute are perfectly transparent," said Chicago police union spokesman Martin Preib when asked for comment about the new database. Preib declined to elaborate on what he thinks those motives are. A Chicago Police Department spokesman didn't return a request for comment. 

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Alderman who joked about the ‘gangsters’ on the City Council to plead guilty to corruption charges

Posted By on 08.15.18 at 01:52 PM

Twentieth Ward alderman Willie Cochran - SANTIAGO COVARRUBIAS/SUN-TIMES
  • Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times
  • Twentieth Ward alderman Willie Cochran

Alderman Willie Cochran said he was joking when he referred to the "gangsters" amont the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus earlier this month. But looking back, maybe he was serious after all. At least in reference to himself.

During a status hearing Wednesday, his lawyer Christopher Grohman said that the 20th Ward alderman intends to plead guilty to corruption charges rather than go to trial, according to the Tribune.

In 2016, the 65-year-old south-side alderman was indicted on charges of bribery and extortion after an investigation found that he had been involved in a pay-to-play scheme and had stolen cash from a charitable-donations fund intended for his ward to pay for his daughter’s college tuition, gambling trips to Indiana, and accessories for his Mercedes.

"We’ve been in negotiations with the government, and we’re hopeful we can resolve this short of trial," Grohman said in court, adding that Cochran won't seek reelection in February.

The statement comes less than a month after Cochran, a retired police officer, mocked a group of activists gathered at the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus's annual fund-raiser at a Loop cocktail lounge.

When members of Black Lives Matter, BYP100, and other groups confronted the City Council members about their support of the Chicago Police Department following the release of body-camera footage of the June 6 police shooting of 24-year-old Maurice Granton Jr., Cochran told the crowd, which included Granton Jr.'s sisters: "They must not know we got gangsters in here."

When the Reader’s Maya Dukmasova asked Cochran about the line the next day, he said it was just a joke.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How this got made: the award-winning 2017 Best of Chicago issue cover

Posted By and on 08.14.18 at 06:00 AM

DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs

The Chicago Reader won three awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia 2018 Awards two weeks ago. Among them was the honorable mention painters Shelby Rodeffer and Julian Baker at Finer Signs—together with former director of photography Danielle A. Scruggs and me, the paper's graphic designer—received for the cover design for our 2017 Best of Chicago issue. The cover depicted a mural on the wall of the Polish-Korean restaurant Kimski in Bridgeport, painted by the Finer Signs team and photographed by Danielle. The process began with a chance meeting. But it was brought to completion by our team.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

The golden age of democracy finally shows up—in the raft of former insiders turned mayoral candidates

Posted By on 08.13.18 at 06:00 AM

The mayor and some of his challengers: (top) Paul Vallas and Lori Lightfoot; (bottom) Dorothy Brown, Garry McCarthy, and Troy LaRaviere - CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • The mayor and some of his challengers: (top) Paul Vallas and Lori Lightfoot; (bottom) Dorothy Brown, Garry McCarthy, and Troy LaRaviere

In my endless search for the bright side of life in Chicago, I think I found some good news in the recent Sun-Times story about, of all things, Mayor Rahm's latest financing scheme.

It's an effort by the mayor to convince us he's discovered a wonderful new financial instrument called "pension fund stabilization bonds" that will magically pay our bills without raising taxes.

Rahm's proposing to borrow the money to meet pension obligations by selling bonds, which will then be repaid over time.

Not sure what's new, or magical, about postponing obligations by borrowing money—and the Sun-Times was rightly skeptical in its headline: "Emanuel exploring pension bonds to minimize the need for future tax hikes."

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Alec Klein, Northwestern professor accused of sexual misconduct, resigns

Posted By on 08.10.18 at 04:53 PM

Alec Klein - NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY
  • Northwestern University
  • Alec Klein
Six months after a group of ten women first came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying, and harassment against Alec Klein, the Northwestern University journalism professor has resigned.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, a university spokesman confirmed Klein's departure and wrote that Klein will no longer "be present on Northwestern’s campus or attend any University events."

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