Friday, June 24, 2016

Governor Rauner Comes to Ottawa

Illinois state government is wearing me out.  I find it hard to keep up.  Here’s news from the beginning of June. 

Illinois’ Governor Bruce Rauner came to my hometown the first Monday in June.  He was to speak at city hall at 1:30.  After swimming laps at the YMCA I got the Number #6 sandwich at Jimmy John’s drive through (the veggie) for $5.

“Any chips, pickles, cookies or drinks with that?” They try to sell me the same four items every time, in that exact same order, to which I reply every time;

“No just the sandwich.”  I guess we’re both scripted.

While eating I guided the Buick towards Ottawa City Hall.  There was a big gathering of people there, which I recognized instantly as the Union crowd.  I parked a block away and walked up.  Rocky Raikes greeted me, former BA for the Laborer’s Union and chairman of the Democratic Party.  Kevin Frances came walking up as I did, teacher at Ottawa High School and a union member who endured a nasty strike not many years ago.  Gary Grabowski was there, retired member of the Carpenter’s Union and renowned good guy.  Rick Scott, one of Ottawa’s retired fire chiefs and current county board member, Heather Reardon another teacher now retired who was and apparently is still active in the teacher’s union, Helen Jo, a secretary at DCFS and part of AFSCME, John Knudson former mayor of Marseilles.  YSB staff showed up in force-Kelly Rinker, Jami Valenzuela, Julie Cullinan, Denise (used to be) Rick, and new workers I don’t know.  They don’t belong to a union but their employer, YSB, is one of those not for profit social service agencies that has signed contracts for services they have provided but not been paid for in nearly a year.   I could go on dropping names but in short the crowd was made up of my friends and neighbors.  I’m not good at estimating numbers in crowds but let’s say 200 people showed.

Friday we learned that Ottawa’s Mayor had agreed to host Governor Rauner for a press conference at City Hall on school funding which was to be attended by school superintendents.  I planned to attend to hear what the governor had to say.  There I was at City Hall, but they were not letting us in the building.   As people in suits began leaving, filing past us silently down the sidewalk, not responding to the simple question “where are you going?” we realized the venue was being changed, we were not a welcome audience, and because of that we were clumsily being given the slip.  Social media being what it is someone tweeted us the new location and we walked all of a block through the alley by Berta’s and past Bianchi’s to our old downtown LaSalle County courthouse.  There we covered both the North and South entrances.  Unlike City Hall the courthouse has metal detectors and security guys at the entrances.  It was apparent we weren’t getting in there either.

But the governor had not yet arrived so there was opportunity to do a little hectoring and sign waving upon his arrival which happened.  But we were fooled some. The entourage of big black SUV’s met by Ottawa policeman pulled up to a little used side entrance covered by chain link at the bottom of old iron fire escape stairs.  I’d never seen it used.  But sure enough someone from inside opened a chain link gate for Bruce Rauner and his people.  And there he was, walking across the street from Senate Billiards and disappearing into the courthouse with no hat.  He’s pretty tall.  Skinny too.

Our hard working and nimble Ottawa radio station WCMY 1430 scrambled, moved their equipment, got their reporter to the new site, played his remarks live on air and stored them on website.  You can hear the whole thing here by holding Control and clicking.

 After the governor got into the court house and it was clear the demonstrators, including me, were shut out I walked to my car and listened on the radio as I drove back home, hearing the last of his short speech in my garage.  I prefer reading transcripts of these things because I like written words better than those that hang in the air.   I think writing lasts longer and has more impact.  But that’s just me.  How he got to Ottawa, where he spoke, and the bad things the protestors were able to yell at him in the seconds he walked from his car into and out of the courthouse are much less important than what he said.  So I’m going focus on the words our governor chose for Ottawa to hear.  The only thing that speaks louder than words are actions, and so far there has been so little action in Springfield we only have words to go on.
For one thing, he said “supermajority Democrats” 14 times before I lost count.  Every time he said Democrat he said supermajority.  I was keeping hash marks on a yellow tablet, you know four marks crossed by a fifth, and I’m not certain I got them all.  Often he said “Speaker Madigan and the supermajority Democrats.”  He went on to call the Speaker Madigan and his supermajority democrats “total, utter, complete failures” which is a tad redundant but hey it’s his speech.

Interestingly enough he did not call our local state representative, Andy Skoog, appointed to serve the remainder of Frank Mautino’s term, by name.  He talked about him this way;

“You have a representative here, right here in the Illinois Valley, that is part of the Democrat supermajority and you need to talk to him and tell him to vote for you and not the City of Chicago.   It’s not fair, ladies and gentlemen, for your tax dollars to be used to bail out Chicago.  It’s not fair to YOU.“

He said that or something like it at least seven times, and neither did he mention by name Skoog’s Republican opponent, tea party truck driver Jerry Long, who nearly beat Frank Mautino in his last election.  I have a feeling that contest is the main reason the Governor was in our fair city that Monday afternoon.  Andy Skoog’s seat is targeted by the Republicans, one of a handful the Republicans are trying to win back to erase the “supermajority.”  Super.

The Chicago slur, the reference to bailing them out,  taps a downstate sentiment fairly easy to exploit.  Chicago is that evil place, the black hole of tax dollars, and its government-oh my God.  Let me use Rauner’s words to describe Chicago government.

“Ladies and gentlemen Chicago government is deplorable.  The corruption, cronyism, and self dealing that benefit the Chicago machine and the supermajority Democrats is unbelievable.  Unbelievable.” He says things twice for dramatic effect.   That’s a pretty easy sell downstate, akin to a soft target,   bashing Chicago.  Bashing Chicago.

The meeting was billed as a discussion about public education with school boards and superintendents.  Those people were allowed to sit in the chairs in the courthouse.  As it turns out they were more or less foils for a campaign speech.  There wasn’t a heck of a lot of school talk or discussion taking place.  Not all the superintendents attended.  Maybe they could see it coming.

Regarding education Rauner decried “patronage, cronyism, and waste” in the Chicago Public School (CPS) system and adamantly opposed, promising to veto, any legislation they might pass which gives CPS more money than they had last year.  While he didn’t go into it that day Rauner’s Plan A is for CPS to force it into bankruptcy, shed its commitments to the teacher’s union, completely reorganize and save money.  School starts in August.  That’s a pretty tall order for the next two months.  I’ve not heard a Plan B.  Have you?

I started counting the number of times he dropped the -g from -ing and literally could not make the marks fast enough.  I gave out at 22.  He’s folksy, this rich new governor.  He also says “gol darn”, that euphemism used by old timey devout Christians to avoid takin’ the Lord’s name in vain by sayin’ god damn.  It’s cute in a way, or might be cute if it wasn’t life or death for private agencies and public schools.  While listening to him it seemed like he just couldn’t resist.  He even mentioned his Grandpa, a dairy farmer who lived in a double wide trailer.  Neither he or his Grandpa came from money, Bruce Rauner said.  He worked hard for every penny he’s earned, and he is proud of it. 

“And gol darn it I’m a volunteer.  I’m not takin’ a salary.  I’m doin’ this to give back.  I’m tryin’ to make Illinois prosperous so we can afford the things we want and deserve in this state.”
The Governor specifically pushed two emergency bills, introduced by the Republicans, one to run essential state services up till the November elections and the other to open the schools on time this fall. He needs that legislation because the budget passed by the Democrat supermajority does not allow him to sign portions of the budget, which is typically passed as a package of separate appropriation bills.  I’d not heard it put that way.  You learn something every day if you pay attention.

“This budget is integrated into a knot and you can’t separate it,” he explained.  “So you need to talk to your representative, right here in the Illinois Valley, and urge him to vote against Speaker Madigan and the supermajority Democrats and vote for YOU, not the City of Chicago.” 

He was asked about the situation in Streator, one of our major towns in the Illinois Valley, where the elementary district, which has been running on tax anticipation warrants for the last two years and is desperate for money, is considering scheduling school four days a week to try to make it on their local property tax dollars and state aid.  He reported being very familiar with Streator, called it “a tragedy” and said that it was typical of many school districts in Illinois where the tax base is eroding.  He claimed Streator would get A LOT  MORE MONEY under his emergency bill which takes school districts back to the foundation level established in 2004 before the state began prorating the payments.  He didn’t know how much though.  An aide came to his rescue and said $6,119 per student.  I asked one of my school administrator friends where Streator currently is in relation to that funding level and he simply said “that was twelve years ago.  It’s pretty hard to keep track of where you are.”

Either a union person infiltrated the hand picked audience or a school person raised this question but it was probably the most interesting.  He (or she, it was hard to hear the questions) asked the Governor where he stood in regard to Right to Work laws.  The Governor reacted fairly strongly.

“You know people say I’m anti union and I’m not.  If you want to be in a union fine, go for it.  If you don’t want to be in a union that’s should be all right too.”

(I so would have wanted to ask him about “AF-SCAMMY”, his derogatory term for the public employees union AFSCME, in response to his sudden purported union neutrality stance.)

But back to the Governor's Right to Work response; it’s a head scratcher because what he described pretty much defines Right to Work as a concept.  Yet he went on.

“There is no Right to Work in our agenda.  Zero.  Doesn’t exist.  That’s a fact.   Right to work is in none of our bills.  I’m not pushing Right to Work at all.”
The person posing the questions reacted incredulously, as would the 200 angry union members outside have reacted, saying something to which the Governor said.

“It’s spin.  All spin.  Welcome to my world.”

He said some other things that should be noted.  While railing against the Democrat supermajority’s budget passed with a clearly evident $7 Billion deficit the Governor claimed the budget he presented earlier this spring was balanced.  That’s not accurate.  The Civic Federation, in a report released Tuesday, estimates Rauner’s  budget had an operating deficit of $3.5 Billion.  It does not fully account for the actual cost of essential state services and is based on projected savings that are unlikely to be realized.  Granted his budget is not as bad as the budget bill passed by the Democrats which he vetoed, but it is still phony.

The Illinois constitution requires a balanced budget and so the legislature, with the governor often complicit, has in the past simply inflated revenue lines or obviously undershot expense lines in order to make it appear balanced.  In the year that legislation was passed approving video computer gambling in taverns and restaurants the budget showed a giant dollar amount attributed to that activity.  That despite the fact the software hadn’t been developed and the internet connections were not established.  There was no way in hell that revenue could have been generated in the following 12 months. Yet there it was, in a phony balanced budget.
Both party’s budgets are phony because Illinois’ budget will not work without a tax increase.   That’s been apparent for a year and a half.  Let me say that again.  The budget doesn’t work without a tax increase.  Everybody knows that.  Rauner admits he would support a tax increase, but not if it helps Chicago and its corrupt public schools.  Oh no.  Any budget he would sign must provide for items in his turn around agenda and it can’t help Chicago.  No sir.  At least that is what he said in early June in downstate Ottawa in our courthouse.   Apparently our governor assumes us downstate folk are so provincial we wholeheartedly support him screwing the largest city in our state.  We’ve let eighteen months go by without renewing a tax increase at a level that would have allowed us to pay our bills and provide services to Illinois’ most vulnerable citizens in the meantime.  How deep are we going to dig this hole?  How much longer do we make things worse?

What is Illinois without Chicago?  Do you think perhaps some of Chicago’s tax revenue just might just creep past Route 80 to benefit us?  Do you think it is in our best interest as citizens of Illinois to throw public education and the families it serves in Chicago under the bus?  How dumb does he think we are?  It is one thing for the populace to consider only the well being of your own community, but it is quite another and equally self defeating for the leader of the entire state to pit one region against another. I hate to hear the Governor, the state’s political leader, promoting and exploiting the city/downstate divide that so plagues Illinois.

On the other hand Speaker Madigan and the Democratic supermajority say next to nothing publicly.  Bruce Rauner at least came to town and said things we could mull over.  I haven’t seen Mike Madigan in town since perhaps the 1990’s when he was promoting judicial candidates.  I don’t know where we’re going in Illinois, but I’m tired of words.  I want something to happen.  I want something to happen.  I want something to happen.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Garden Report

My garden is doing well.  I fenced off the peppers from the rabbits with chicken wire.  At first glance that sentence sounds like a recipe; peppers, rabbit and chicken.  It’s not.  Put it in the category of struggling to coexist and live in peace. 
We live by a ravine where rabbits flourish.  In the winter we have rabbit tracks in the snow all over the backyard and every spring baby cottontails show up.  My wife thinks they’re delightful. She coos when she sees them.

“Aww, look at him, little bunny.  I love those bunnies.”

I used to love them more, when they didn’t eat my pepper plants.  Things took a big turn last summer.  My peppers, for years grown freely in the open on a little garden strip I developed on the south side of the garage, appeared munched on.  Some were eaten clean off, others had their stems spared.  Occasionally a newly formed pepper could be found lying in the dirt, the leaves of the plant it clung to having vanished, nothing but a set of stems and a dying pepper.  When I approached the garden rabbits would scurry through the horseradish on their way to the lilacs and beyond.  I first bought chicken wire and put little round cages around the pepper plants, cylinders of chicken wire held down by a tent stake.  They knocked the cages over.  Nothing was safe.  They ignore the tomatoes and cucumbers, the garlic, the horseradish of course, and the asparagus.  But the peppers, oh my God, it was a massacre.
The peppers have become as endangered as the herbs.  Years ago I switched to growing our herbs in pots by my wife’s flowers on the patio steps.  Planting flat leafed Italian parsley, basil, and chives in the open ground was equal to feeding the rabbits.  They wouldn’t last a day.  But the peppers are fairly recent casualties.  Maybe there are more rabbits than before.  Heck maybe the DNA of rabbits from Mexico has made it’s way into our local rabbits, changed their palates, and made them more sophisticated thus increasing their taste for hot peppers.  The world changes you know.  Whatever has happened, my pepper plants are no longer safe.

It came to me that one solution would be renting a coyote or a large hawk.  I Googled service providers who might be able to place a wild animal in my vicinity but came up with nothing.  I saw it as a way to take me out of the equation and let nature, with a little help, take its course.  I don’t see well enough to buy a .22 and shoot the rabbits, imperiling the neighbors, as if I wanted to own a gun and kill things anyway.  I could easily blame predators when a rented coyote wolfed down the rabbits but it would be a lot harder to pass off a motionless bunny dead from a gunshot wound as the victim of someone else. 

“Oh look honey.  Jeez, somebody came into our yard and shot that rabbit.”

Actually, I was done shooting things a long time ago.  As a kid my family, me included, both shot and ate wild rabbits on the farm during the season.  After hunting we skinned and cleaned the rabbits on a wooden fence by the barn, two eight penny nails sticking out of the top board especially for the purpose of impaling the little guys by their hind legs so they hung upside down while we worked on them with a knife. With the right cuts a rabbit skin comes off like a glove.  And it has been decades, maybe four, since I’ve eaten wild rabbit, although it is delicious.  My Mom cooked them slowly in a cast iron pan with onions.  But times and my outlook have changed.  Shooting and killing rabbits, along with butchering and eating them, are behind me I think.
I was avoiding the obvious, an all out fence, because fences are a pain.  I have a narrow little garden that you can reach the middle of from either side.  No need to go tromping through the rows.  It was handy.  When you put up a fence you need to either step over it or install a gate.  And regardless the option you choose a fence puts you inside an enclosed space crowded with the plants while weeding, tending, and harvesting.  I may be clumsier than normal now and I have big feet.  Invariably when I get in there and kneel down to pull weeds I manage to mangle something or other by stepping on it.  Work on the tomatoes, smash the garlic.  Weed the peppers at their peril.  I have 29 pepper plants in a small space.  You have to be nimble and controlled, qualities my rather large body no longer possesses, if it ever did.  I’m a free range kind of guy.  I don’t like to be fenced in, or out.

I grow a variety of hot  peppers:  Habanero, Serrano, Jalapeno, Caribbean hots, Cayenne, and Pequins.  I also grow some mild ones for balance; Poblanos and Anaheims.  I’ve grown them for years.  I make and can my own Jamaican jerk with the Habaneros, and concoct a chili paste with the rest of the peppers.  I grow lemon grass most years and add it to the mix, along with other stuff, giving the chili paste an Asian bent.  Since I’m Irish and the paste is my own recipe I call it Irish Asian.  It has real kick.  My kids like it a lot but it is too hot for many.  The Serrano peppers in particular are great for making green sauce.  Combine salt, Serrano peppers, oven roasted tomatillos, onion, and lime juice and you’ve got a fresh green salsa can’t be beat.  If you get creative you can add peppers to nearly everything, omelets, salads, you name it. 

So I put up the damn fence against my will because of a slowly developed respect for animal life that has extended even to insects.  When we get spiders and wasps in the house I do my best to catch them in a jar and release them outside.  I’ll admit I have been smooshing ants in the house of late.  Ants suffer from a lack of wings.  If they could evolve to fly they might escape death at the hands of humans but all they can do is crawl feverishly fast, making a break for it across the open formica.   They rarely make it to safety.

My son Dean helped me with the fence.  He didn’t see it as a big deal.  We bought chicken wire at Farm and Fleet and steel fence posts.  It went up quickly.  I staked the bottom down with tent pegs in places where the ground might allow bunnies to scoot under the fence.  It took a lot less time and work than I imagined.  Young people are good helpers in that regard because they are oblivious to pre planning considerations and worry.  They just do it.  You can over think those kinds of projects when you have a too much time on your hands.

I also planted marigolds, which people say repel rabbits.  I planted them in spite of being very skeptical about their effectiveness.  I can’t say I know rabbit behavior well but I find it hard to believe a hungry hare would pass up a tender pepper plant because of a short yellow flower.  I wouldn’t, that’s for sure.
So far the pen of imprisoned peppers is doing quite well thank you.  They look constrained though.  I hope it doesn’t affect their psyche, if they have one.  Would you feel hot and spicy looking at the world through chicken wire all day?  As if they could look.  As if they could move in the first place.  I don’t know.  It just seems wrong.

The tomatoes are having a good year, so far that is, judging by the vines that produce the actual tomatoes.  Last year was a wash out.  Too much rain and cool weather early.  I admit that I became discouraged last year and let my garden go.  It seemed hopeless.  The puny outlook for the tomatoes coupled with the much reduced pepper crop did me in.  I neglected everything. Weeds took over.  I let the scapes grow way too big on my garlic plants and left the bulbs in the ground far longer than needed.  I didn’t dig my horseradish.  A trip to Montreal in the summer didn’t help but it was all my fault.  I was a bad gardener.

Every spring I start with high hopes.   A friend brings up his roto tiller sometime prior to Mother’s Day, I add compost, and we churn up the dirt.  We do that twice a year.  In the fall we till when everything is out and then I sow rye grass, which is good for the soil and is great cover, keeping out early spring weeds.  When I cut the rye in the spring, saving the stalks for mulch, I think of how nice it would be to have a little field of it just once, letting the stems yellow and the heads of grain develop.  I don’t know what I would do with a bushel of rye.  I would love to make whiskey out of it would be entirely too much work and time.  So a crop of rye remains a shimmery kind of goal that probably isn’t going to happen.  I try to keep that list as short as I can.  It’s the reverse bucket list, the things you know you probably won’t do.  Who wants to think about that?

This year I’ve resolved to be a better gardener and so far I am.  In addition to the fence I rotated the placement of things, putting the peppers where the tomatoes were and vice versa.  I put up the tomato trellises, rebar grids given to me by my friend Wedge the iron worker, padding the sharp steel ends end with blue foam noodles.   Who I’m protecting is unclear.  Very few kids frequent my garden.  Maybe I’m protecting myself from stumbling into them.  Heck, maybe I’m protecting the rabbits.  That would be ironic.

I tie the tomato vines carefully to the rebar as they grow to give the plant height and keep the fruit off the ground.  So far this year I’ve been especially good, swinging by the garden every morning and doing a few things on my way to the shack rather than trudging, head down with my thermos in hand, straight to my work without giving a thought to the plants not twenty feet off my path.  I have been careful to pinch off the sucker sprouts that grow in the crotch of the vines coming off the main stem.  I also pinch off the early blossoms to get stronger plants before the real action begins later.   I have 15 tomato plants whose output is destined to be both eaten and canned.  I plant one grape tomato for salads and snacks, a number of different kinds of slicers for BLT’s and more, and Romas for canning.  I make a sweet tomato relish with cloves and vinegar from my Mom’s recipe.  She called it chilla sauce.   It makes roast beef taste even better than it is.  If I close my eyes while I eat it I find myself in the past, eating at the kitchen table on the farm.

I cut the scapes off the garlic plants earlier than ever this year, while they were still small and tender.  Just this morning I had a scape and Jalapeno frittata, topped off with a zig zag stripe of Sriracha sauce (I’m flat out of Irish Asian) and a glass of cold milk.  I am guiding the cucumber vines into the garden and off the lawn.  I pull a few weeds every morning.

Dean asked me to plant some eggplant this year so I have four nice plants coming along in a corner.  I think he’s planning to make baba ganoush.  I put the two Brussels sprout plants our friend Sharon gave us next to them.  You can let Brussels sprouts stay in the garden past frost.  We usually have them for Thanksgiving.

It’s a hopeful thing, planting a garden, but you have to sustain that hope throughout the year.  A garden asks for little really; some protection from weeds and herbivores, and water if the rains don’t suffice.  But the plants do the real work on their own.  It’s something of a miracle.  They take nutrients from the dirt, suck up sunlight and water, and in the end give us so much.  All that is required is time, a little attention, and hope.  You can’t lose hope.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali

On the night of June 30, 1975 I was hitchhiking in Algeria.  I had left Algiers, where I  stayed a few days, and was headed to the Tunisian border and ultimately Egypt.  I was getting good rides.  I was on the main road which was taking me through a sparsely populated coastal plain along the Mediterranean.  Villages were small and far apart.  Looking back at my world atlas now I would put myself somewhere between the bigger towns of Azazda and Annaba.  As the sky grew darker traffic thinned.  It was a clear night with no moon and my surroundings seemed safe.  I had walked a distance out of a village where I was dropped and, thinking my travelling was over for the day, was looking for a place to get off the road and pitch my tiny tent when a truck passed me and slowed to pick me up.  I ran after it, my backpack bouncing up and down behind me.  My knees ache now just thinking about it.  I was 24.

The truck was a little Datsun pickup piled high with a square load covered by a tarp.  It looked hopelessly overloaded, sitting way low in the back.  In the truck were an older man and what I guessed was his son or a relative of some kind.  The older man immediately began barking orders in Arabic to the younger one, where to stash my backpack, where to allow me to sit.  I watched closely where they put my pack, in a corner near the cab under the tarp.  You never knew when you might need to grab your stuff and go.  The young man drove and they gave me the passenger seat, with the old man in the middle.  It wasn’t easy to get the truck moving again.  After slipping the clutch and laboring through the gears they finally got it up to speed.  After a time we clipped along nicely through the warm North African night.

They knew not a word of English and I knew next to no Arabic.  Up till then most people I encountered knew at least French, which I could struggle through.  But Arabic was tough to decipher.  I made it a point while hitchhiking to be friendly, ask questions, and show interest in my travelling companions.  It seemed like the right thing to do but it also at times extended the ride.  I asked them what they were hauling.  I kept motioning to the bed of the truck behind us, shrugging, and putting my palms up.  Finally the old man understood.  He laughed and brought a bottle of Algerian pop in a returnable bottle from under the seat.  Pulling a fairly large folding knife from his robe he put the blade under the cap, pried it off using his thumb as a lever, and handed it to me.  I smiled, thanked him profusely, and chugged it.  It was terribly sweet, but I was their guest and I thought it only polite to drink it all.  Besides I was thirsty. He offered me another and I declined.

The old man kept looking at a wrist watch with no band he pulled out of some interior pocket inside his robe and talking excitedly to the young driver.  The kid sped up.  From time to time he would hit a bump, the truck would bottom out on the springs, the old man would yell, and then he would slow down.  Then the old man would protest that he was going too slowly.  He couldn’t win, that kid.

At some point I nodded off.  I was awakened by braking and the feel of something smooth and different under our tires.  We were off the gravel road and onto smooth sand, stopping at a roadside building.  When they switched off the truck I could hear a generator running.  My companions piled out of the truck and motioned for me to follow. 

We entered a dimly lit bar or cafĂ© of some sort.  On a crude stand high on a wall behind the counter was a fairly large black and white TV.  A thick black extension cord snaked across the floor.  The place was lit by the equivalent of Coleman lanterns.  It was jammed with bearded and turbaned Algerians in djellabas, the standard North African robe.  They were anxious for something to begin.  The place was buzzing with talk and anticipation.  I was in the middle of a conservative country area unlike Algiers.  Alcohol was not available, at least not publically.  The crowd was drinking tea, coffee, and that awful Algerian pop that filled the back of our truck.  My companions put an incredibly strong espresso in front of me with lumps of thick white sugar.

A man got on a ladder by the TV and began fiddling with the knobs.  The room grew quiet.  Light appeared on the screen, then static snow.  The man began screaming instructions through a window to another man, who repeated them, screaming apparently to someone else.  I realized there was a man on the roof adjusting an antenna.  Slowly an image began to emerge on the screen.  I looked in amazement.  The fuzzy outline of a black man in a hooded white robe was dancing in the corner of a roped off square.  The picture became clearer.  It was Muhammad Ali. The assembled crowd roared.  I raised my arms above my head.  Men around me began to clap me on the back.

“American!”  They shouted at me above the noise, pointing to Ali.  “And Muslim!”

The place was up for grabs. A man who knew some English made his way towards me and began talking excitedly in my ear.

“We watched him fight George in Kinshasa.  We watched from right here.  It was the rumble.”

He was referring to the “Rumble in the Jungle” eight months earlier in Africa where Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire to complete his comeback by consolidating all the heavyweight titles and becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

“Where are they?”  I had to yell to be heard above the crowd.

“Malaysia.  Kuala Lumpur.”

“Who is he fighting?”

“Joe Bugner.  Englishman.”

We looked up at the TV screen.  Ali, the referee, and Joe Bugner were huddled in the middle of the ring.  Ali was staring coolly at his opponent.  My new friend looked at me and laughed.  It was a big laugh, and a long laugh too, his mouth wide open and ringed by a black beard.  He was missing some teeth.  When he was able to talk again he said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes,

“Ali will kill that European man.  He is our hero!”

I yelled back “Mine too!”
And with that the bell rang and the fight was on.

I thought back to the first Ali fight I followed, when he was still Cassius Clay.  My Dad and I watched the Friday night fights, sponsored by Gillette, on our black and white TV on the farm. You could call us fight fans.  But I never especially identified with the Friday night fighters.  They were no name guys on the screen.  Cassius Clay was different.  He was more than just a fighter.  He was something new.  Especially for a black man.

He was brash and outspoken, a self promoter.  He talked fast and loudly, often in rhyme, and used big words.  But the quality that set him most apart from the small town white world in which I was growing up was that he bragged.  You didn’t brag where I lived.  You didn’t try to appear smart either.  In fact when you got out of line, someone in authority might ask you

“Are you being smart?  Are you trying to be smart with me?”

As if smartness was bad.  I knew it wasn’t.  But appearing smart, or acting as if one was smart, was taboo.  Humility was the quality that mattered.  Bragging was for people with no class, and certainly not for black people.  It took a lot of nerve for a black man to say those things.  That’s what I heard in my community anyway.

Cassius Clay got on TV and said he was pretty.  He said he was the greatest of all time.  He said outrageous things.  And he baited his opponents.  He called Sonny Liston a bear, a slow lumbering dumb bear.  He walked around the streets of New York City with a pot of honey hoping to draw Liston the bear out of his cave and get him to fight.  He threw a bear trap on the lawn of Liston’s house.  He was outrageous, and the media loved it.  Most of white America, including my older brother, wanted to see him get his ass kicked all over the ring.  They liked their black athletes quiet and smiling.  I silently wanted Clay to win.  He was my secret hero.  I wanted all his predications to come true.  I wished him all the success in the world.

On the night he first fought Sonny Liston, in February of 1964, the fight wasn’t on TV.  My brother went to Peoria to a closed circuit showing of the fight in a theater.  Paid good money for the ticket.  My Dad was gone somewhere, maybe a meeting at the Consistory.  Mom was in the kitchen baking.  I laid on the couch in the living room and tuned in the fight on the fancy new stereo in the living room my brother Denny had brought home from Germany when he was in the Army.  Howard Cossell called the fight.
Nobody gave Cassius Clay a chance to win.  Liston was too strong they said.  Clay didn’t punch hard enough.  Somehow I knew Cassius would prevail.  When Liston didn’t answer the bell at the start of the seventh round, sitting instead on a stool in the corner of the ring, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world.  I jumped off the couch and yelled.  I threw my arms in the air.  I knew he would win and he did.  My Mom called out from the kitchen

“What happened?”

“Cassius Clay just showed the world he really is the greatest!”  I yelled back.

“Oh for God sakes David settle down.”

My brother Darwin also went to Peoria for the closed circuit showing of the fight in Lewiston Maine when the newly named Muhammad Ali had been champ for just over a year and was in a rematch with Sonny Liston.  He said later he got there a little late and was just sitting down into his seat and the fight was over.  A “mystery punch” by Ali, that later was shown to be a legitimate hard chopping right cross ended that contest early in the first round.

Ali proved unbeatable in the ring.  He had a talent and a style that has never been equaled.  He moved and danced.  He had a terrific jab.  But that is not what made him great.  Boxers and other athletes can only be so great.  But a public figure who becomes famous enough to gain a platform on which to speak, and uses that platform to affect the greater good achieves true greatness.
Cassius Clay encountered and befriended Malcolm X who helped him convert to the Black Muslim religion. Both men were then followers of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam in America, who sought to make black people in America strong and independent.  Muhammad Ali was a religious man who lived according to Muslim principles. He adhered to those principles so strongly that he seized his career from white handlers and turned it over to the Nation of Islam.  When he was reclassified 1-A by the draft board he refused to serve in a white man’s war on religious grounds.  He was subsequently convicted of a felony and stripped of his titles, unable to box from March of 1967 to October 1970.  By refusing to be drafted into the armed services he sacrificed his best fighting years, and countless dollars, on principle.  His suspension from boxing started when he was 25 and ended when he was 29. 

Muhammad Ali tied the Vietnam War to the black experience in America in such a way that I understood, even as a 16 year old farm kid in Danvers Illinois, both issues immediately for what they were.  He spoke with such a clear voice.  This was not a brash boxer hustling to promote his next fight.  This was a principled American man acting out of conviction.  He could have joined the army and fought exhibition bouts for two years and been hailed as a patriotic American hero.  But he didn’t.  He took the hard way.  He acted on principle and refused to be a part of it.  Listen to what he said about the Vietnam War.

“I ain’t draft dodging.  I ain’t burning no flag.  I’m staying right here.  You want to send me to jail?  Fine, you go right ahead.  I’ve been in jail for 400 years.  I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die.  You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese.  You my opposer when I want freedom.  You my opposer when I want justice.  You my opposer when I want equality.  Want me to go somewhere and fight for you?  You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”

Ali stood firm and appealed his conviction.  In June of 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court in Clay v. United States overturned Ali’s conviction by a unanimous 8-0 decision.  Muhammad Ali resumed his boxing career.  He retired in 1981 with a record of 56-5 after winning the heavyweight title an unprecedented three times.  But boxing was not his biggest contribution to the world.

Muhammad Ali inspired people across America to see their country for what it was.  When I got to college in 1969 as an English major I was fortunate enough to be exposed to material I never knew existed.  I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin and other stories of the black experience in America.  A kid raised on a dairy farm in a community and a school without one black person came to realize the hell that white America foisted on black people in this country through their own eyes and in their own words.

But before I had that education, Muhammad Ali sounded the call.  He pointed the way.  There was something wrong, and he announced it.  I was following the Vietnam War closely on the farm, reading everything I possibly could about it, and when I came to realize that young black men were dying in disproportionate numbers to their white counterparts, his words rang so true.  Early in the war, when blacks made up only 11% of our Vietnam force, black casualties soared to over 20% of the total dead.  Black leaders protested and President Johnson ordered black participation in combat units cut back.  Those black leaders were emboldened by Muhammad Ali’s early and brave stance. 

Muhammad Ali changed history, both in regard to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement in America.  He proved to be not only a true American Hero, but an international hero for oppressed people everywhere.  He represented moral strength in the face of huge adversity.  You could sense his power and presence.

That’s the emotion that came back to me that night in Algeria, wherever I was, in 1975.  Ali didn’t knock Joe Bugner out in Kuala Lumpur but instead won a lopsided decision after 15 rounds.  Every time he landed a punch a packed house of Algerians and one American in that little country town screamed approval.  It felt like he was fighting for us.  All throughout the fight I was dying for a drink.  It’s a cultural thing I guess.   It seemed wrong to celebrate a certain Ali victory without a beer or a whiskey or something.  Actually, I smoked a little kif with some of the young men after the fight which made up for it some.  It was an unforgettable experience, enjoying the camaraderie of men I didn’t know who shared little but had a common bond; the admiration of a celebrated man.
That fight was a warm up for the “Thrilla in Manila” four months later when he beat Joe Frazier for the second and last time.   Had he stopped boxing then, at his peak, he might have escaped his medical fate of Pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome.  But the pull of money and the fame proved to be too strong.  He kept fighting.  Ironically, his public struggles with the illness may yet contribute to the eventual downfall of boxing as we know it, the sport another possible victim of the specter of concussion and senseless brain injury.  Muhammad Ali died Friday and I lost a hero, as did countless others around the world.  I know some men were surely sad in a little town somewhere in Algeria.

Rest in Peace.  And thank you. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

No Justice No Peace

As Sam and I walked past the Federal Building in Chicago I couldn’t help but think of the drama that took place inside during the Hastert sentencing hearing just weeks ago.  The hearings, much anticipated, grabbed the headlines. Our country’s longest standing Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives was exposed as a sex offender.  His victims, then teen age students at Yorkville High School, now adults, testified after all these years in court against their former coach.  The media gave us a glimpse into the secrets of a small town and how they can impact people, both the small and the powerful.  And now it’s all over but the prison sentence, the civil suits, and of course the healing. 

So much goes on in Chicago, in Illinois, and in the world that keeping up on it all is hopeless.  So I was not surprised when I walked to the corner of the plaza into the clutch of people gathering there and found I was unfamiliar with the organization sponsoring the event, their issues, and their campaign to air them. I was there because Sam, a new young friend from church, asked me to go.  I was not unfamiliar with the politics of the group, but I share them.  However it had been a long time since I stood behind those values in the way I was about to that chilly Monday morning.

The organizers had the gear of street protests: the bullhorns, the lightweight portable sound systems, the printed placards, the handwritten signs.  People in high vis green vests were the marshalls, others in blue jackets were designated as spokespersons to talk to the police and media.  The leader gave us instructions before the speeches started.  I knew the drill.  Lay out the day’s events, fire up the crowd, start the march, reach the target, begin the action.  It was nicely organized, calculated, and orderly.  I was glad to be part of it.

The main speaker, a young man about Sam’s age was Tom Gaulke, pastor of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity.  At 31st Street and Lowe Avenue in Bridgeport, his church is a community anchor celebrating its 150th anniversary this November.  Tom is navigating a tiny Evangelical Lutheran Church of America on a path to relevancy and revival. “Much that I imagined about what ministry might look like had radically changed, but the message of grace remains central, and increasingly important to proclaim in a world filled with guilt, crushing expectations, and alienation,” Gaulke said, “ that’s what Jesus would do.”

In 2011, he and partner organizations in Bridgeport formed Bridgeport Alliance, a grassroots group that promotes responsive government and an improved quality of life for Bridgeport residents.  It currently advocates to restore the 31st Street bus line. He’s the board president for Southsiders Organized for Unity And Liberation, and he serves on the board of IIRON, which trains people to participate in civic life through collective action.  Gaulke also has been active in the Moral Mondays campaign that has organized demonstrations against Gov. Rauner’s Illinois proposed budget cuts, which many believe will severely hurt services for the working class and the poor.  That is what brought Tom Gaulke, Sam Barbour, and I together that day.  We are united in the belief the budget that promises to emerge from Governor Rauner’s stubborn political stance has and will hurt the people who need help the most.

“I am here” Tom Gaulke once wrote on his blog “to create a world where those oppressed by abuse or other injustice are freed to speak out against injustice, and find others to join them in speaking out, giving them power - and a world where they can do this in the name of God.”

While still in Federal Plaza we heard from individuals affected by the closure of social service agencies and the slashing of social services.  Students from Illinois’ public colleges pointed out to the crowd that the Governor’s proposed budget allocates only 70% of last year’s dollars (largely unpaid) in the coming fiscal year.  It appears they were bailed out in recent weeks.  In truth they were given short rope.  Future state support under Rauner promises to be cut by 30%.  Medicaid is cut.  Local agencies are already crippled.  We prayed in English, prayed in Spanish, and then we marched.  I carried a placard.  Where we were taking our grievances I didn’t know but I hoped it wasn’t far.  Bad knee you know.

We marched just kitty corner southeast from Federal plaza, blocking traffic for only a short time, to the building at 131 S. Dearborn that houses Citadel, a nebulous financial company unknown to me.  I hoped it was not in the portfolio that was once my 401 k.  (I checked.  It’s not.)  There were perhaps two hundred of us.  I didn’t know why we were stopping there. I walked up to one of the organizers and asked

“What is the significance of this building?  Why are we here?”

“This is where Ken Griffin’s company is.  His office is in there.  We’re hoping he’s in there now.”

“I see.”

I didn’t see at all.  Just as I didn’t know Tom Gaulke neither did I know Ken Griffin.  I Googled him while standing on the sidewalk outside Citadel.  On my phone screen I learned this: born in Florida, age 47, graduated Harvard University, founder and CEO of Citadel since 1990, annual salary $1.7 Billion, net worth $7.3 Billion, Religion Presbyterian Christian.  Those are billions.  With a B. 

After I got home I learned more about him.  He’s rich and powerful, a lot like Illinois’ current governor.  His narrative, according to Wikipedia, goes like this.
In 1986 during his freshman year at Harvard Ken Griffin began reading Forbes magazine and investing.   In his sophomore year, he started a hedge fund focused on convertible bond arbitrage.  The fund was capitalized with $265,000 from friends and family, including money from his grandmother.  He installed a satellite link to his dorm room to acquire real-time market data. The investment strategy he devised helped preserve capital during the stock market crash of 1987.  Griffin’s success enabled him to launch a second fund, and between the two funds he was managing just over $1 million upon graduated from Harvard in 1989 with a degree in economics.

After graduating from Harvard, Frank C. Meyer, an investor and founder of Glenwood Capital LLC, provided Griffin with $1 million to invest.  Griffin exceeded Meyer's expectations and, according to the New York Times Meyer made 70% return on the investment.  In 1990, Griffin founded Citadel in Chicago with $4.6 million.  By 1998, Citadel had grown to a team of more than 100 employees and $1 billion in investment capital.

In September 2004, Fortune magazine ranked Griffin, who was 35 that year, as the eighth richest American under forty in the category of self-made, United States based wealth.  By 2014, Griffin’s net worth was estimated at $5.5 billion. It’s apparently gone up since then.

In 2012, Griffin said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that "This belief that a larger government is what creates prosperity, that a larger government is what creates good is wrong." Griffin makes political contributions and donations to political candidates, parties, and organizations that support his views of limited government.  He donated $2.5 million to Bruce Rauner, Republican candidate for Illinois governor.

In December 2015, Griffin endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and stated that he plans to donate millions to a pro-Rubio super PAC.  Before this endorsement, Griffin had donated to three super PACs supporting Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker for the GOP nomination.  Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin.

And that is how Sam and I and so many others came to stand in front of Citadel.  Because Ken Griffin is the money behind and the voice in the ear of Governor Bruce Rauner, who by withholding money to community agencies has hurt so many in needy neighborhoods and communities in Illinois who rely on government to help them.  The same people Tom Gaulke strives to help through his church in Bridgeport.  Ken Griffin stands with Bruce Rauner.  Sam Barbour and I were standing with Tom Gaulke.

We crowded against the glass doors of 131 S. Dearborn.  It was lunch hour in the loop and as 1:00 p.m. drew closer people who had ventured out of the building for lunch could not re-enter.  Some were getting in from somewhere, probably the parking garage.  But Moral Mondays volunteers sat in the middle of revolving doors with others holding the panels so they could not turn.  Inside other volunteers took positions in front of the elevators.  Three prominent members of Moral Mondays sat in the lobby, chained together, plastic PVC pipe covering their chains.  Protesters supporting the action that day sang songs, chanted, stayed together, and kept their eyes on the cops.  Chicago Police formed behind us and were soon present in the lobby. They were cool and professional.  Preselected protesters were there to be arrested for acts of civil disobedience and the police had an obligation to make those arrests in order to clear the building.  It struck me that both sides played their parts well.

Things began to happen in the lobby.  Workers with power tools were summoned first to cut the PVC sleeves off the arms of the protesters, then to cut through the chains that bound them together.  The police and building maintenance me produced folding panels so that our view was mostly blocked.  Fox News had a videographer and journalist on scene and later provided the most coverage and best news footage.
With his billions Ken Griffin buys art.  Lots of art for lots of money.   As of February 2016[update], Griffin had purchased Willem de Kooning’s 1955 oil painting, Interchanged, for $300 million, and Jackson Pollock’s 1948 painting Number 17A, for $200 million, both from David Geffen.  He likes nice things.  He has a gold replica of one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world in Citadel’s lobby, Winged Victory.  He likes to win and he’s used to doing so.  Victory looks as though it suits him well.

One of the things Ken Griffin does not like is large government.  I think it is fair to conclude that government cramps Ken Griffin and others like him.  From where I sit in the shack I would say their actions indicate they dislike government taking their money as taxes and competing with them in areas like employment, service provision, and policy setting.  And though Illinois has been good to Ken Griffin, I mean he did came here in 1990 and having done business out of Chicago for all those years is now worth $7.3 Billion, give or take a Million, he has taken aim at Illinois’ state government by helping to install his friend and kindred soul Bruce Rauner as governor to act upon that dislike of government by making it smaller.  He believes less government = more good for you and I, but certainly him.

 If you make Illinois more business friendly, their theory goes, by lowering worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance costs, installing right to work laws, holding the line or lowering taxes on corporations and small businesses, everything gets better for everyone.  If the economy is better for Ken Griffin and Bruce Rauner it will be good for us.  That’s the theory.

Back in Bridgeport, the neighborhood Richie Daley left for a condo overlooking Millenium Park, Tom Gaulke and his parishioners are concerned about other things.  They’re trying to find ways to help homeless kids now that the State is not paying the agencies that used to help them.  They’re worried about their neighborhood public schools.  They’re trying to keep gun violence off their streets.  They have lots of worries.  The Bridgeport Alliance wants to restore the 31st Street CTA bus so that their neighbors without cars can get to jobs in other parts of the city.  They are skeptical the theory, you know, of making Ken Griffin richer will translate to better conditions in Bridgeport.  They have other ideas.

For instance, they believe a graduated state income tax, which would produce more revenue by applying a higher tax rate on larger incomes, would raise revenue which Illinois could use to help poor people.  With increased dollars it seemed then possible for government to increase drug treatment for addicts, improve infrastructure like public transportation, fund neighborhood agencies which cared for local kids.  But that was quickly rejected.  That’s Tom Gaulke’s theory and the theory of many.  Tom goes even further to suggest such thinking may be part of a larger plan that commands us to help the needy, feed the hungry, care for our brothers.  Tom finds that in the ancient literature that guides his primary work as a minister.  It’s not a big jump from the money changers in the temple to standing in front of Citadel for Tom Gaulke.

It’s the premise of Moral Mondays.  We have a moral duty to help those less fortunate than us.  The path Illinois has taken for the past 11 months is basically immoral.  Something must change.  Taxing the rich seems feasible.  A graduated income tax got about a week’s play in the media and then it was shelved.

Failing that the coalition proposed a tax on financial trades.  A tax of .002% of the average trade value applied to the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the Chicago Board of options would generate $10 Billion dollars.  With a B.  The CME (Chicago Mercantile) immediately threatened to leave the state.  The proposal found no traction.  Taxing the rich seems logical to the poor and many others.  But it goes nowhere in Illinois.  But then Illinois is now led by the rich.  After all the rich funded Governor Rauner’s successful campaign.

We were standing right in front of them at the clean glass doors and windows of Ken Griffin’s Citadel at 131 S. Wabash and the rich inside, protected by the police, turned their backs on us and put up screens to block our view.  31 protestors were arrested that day.  That was part of the action.  Individuals, many parishioners of churches throughout Illinois, gave themselves up to be arrested to make a political point.  So far it has not resonated.  The stalemate between the rich and the poor goes on.  The rich, as you might guess, are currently winning.

As the arrests began Sam and I left.  Though I’m retired Sam has a new baby at his house and had to get back to Ottawa.  We had sandwiched our trip between his Econ class at Kishwaukee College and his obligations back home as a new Dad.  We didn’t have time to be arrested.  The booking, the bail, the court appearance.  Those arrested were prepared I’m sure.  They knew what they were doing, what the charge would be, how it would affect their record.   Lives are on the line in many ways.  Voices are shouting to be heard.  So far, money is talking louder.

That was May 9.  It is now June 1 and Illinois still has no budget .  The struggle continues.