Categories
Commentary Saudade

What Happened When I Tried to Start a Newspaper in Central Illinois

Freedom of the press is in serious trouble when a handful of self-appointed gatekeepers can so easily banish a news publication from store and library shelves.

In the summer of 2012, I briefly returned to Charleston, Illinois (where I had attended college) to help set up a monthly print newspaper. It failed spectacularly. The unexpected resistance I encountered taught me hard lessons about the limits of free speech and journalism.

Starting a newspaper is not easy. It takes hard work, travel, time, and financial resources. Still, it can be successful and rewarding with a receptive audience. Central Illinois is highly rural and conservative in temperament. Neighbors might be content to gossip on their front porches, but they’d rather not see the latest scandal plastered in the headlines.

For most of my life I had a naïve understanding of the role of the press. I imagined most newspapers shied away from controversy for any number of reasons, ranging from placating advertisers, adherence to a particular political or social agenda, or simply out of a lack of desire or resources to track down hard stories. I never thought pushback from self-appointed gatekeepers played a role.

Now I understand the blowback some of these news outlets face for reporting controversial events can be intense and make it difficult to conduct business.

Categories
Historic America

The Lynching of Adolphus Monroe

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

In the nineteenth century, “lynch law” reigned. The most infamous incident in Coles County occurred in the early morning hours of Friday, February 16, 1856 when convicted murderer Adolphus Monroe was lynched by a mob of angry citizens.

In October 1855, Adolphus got into a drunken altercation with his father-in-law, Nathan Ellington (who was the first county clerk), and gunned him down. Ellington and his wife, Fannie, strongly disapproved of their daughter Nancy’s marriage to Adolphus, who had a reputation for drinking.

Ellington confronted Adolphus about mistreating Nancy, and according to local historian Nancy Easter-Shick, Ellington struck Adolphus with his cane. Adolphus drew a small smoothbore pistol, shot him twice, and the two antagonists continued their mortal struggle on the floor. Adolphus was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged on February 15, 1856.

Categories
Commentary

What is Totalitarianism? Part II

If the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? Maintaining a free society requires knowing these warning signs.

In Part I, we defined totalitarianism as state-orchestrated control over all public and private life by an ideologically-driven political organization. In the words of the father of Italian fascism, Giovanni Gentile, the totalitarian state seeks “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.”

While this control is most obvious and pronounced under a dictatorship, democratic republics are not immune. A legislature may vote in favor of a totalitarian state just as easily as a dictator may impose one.

This is totalitarianism in theory, but what is it in practice?

Categories
Commentary

What is Totalitarianism? Part I

If the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? Maintaining a free society requires knowing these warning signs.

“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Benito Mussolini

Public anxiety over loss of civil rights and civil liberties in the United States has become increasingly common. According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans say it is very important that the rights and freedoms of all people are respected, but only 41 percent believe that describes the country very well or somewhat well. Concerns about “authoritarianism” and lack of respect for democracy are openly expressed.

But if the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? The trouble with diagnosing our condition is that most people are unaware of what totalitarianism actually is. Even among the most politically astute, there is little consideration for the possibility that a state in the process of becoming totalitarian might lack the most brutal and outward signs of oppressive regimes portrayed in popular culture.

Because of our rather simplistic frame of reference (picture black and white images of National Socialist Germany or the Soviet Union) we recognize a country as either being in the advanced stages of totalitarianism or not at all. But just because a state maintains the trappings of democracy, for instance, that does not preclude it from being totalitarian.

Categories
Historic America Photography

They Called Her Moses

A humble gravestone marks the final resting place of abolitionist, wartime spy, and social activist Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) in Fort Hill Cemetery, 19 Fort Street in Auburn, New York. Born Araminta Ross, a slave in Maryland, Harriet escaped to the free states in 1849, where she helped hundreds more escape slavery through the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as a scout and spy for the Union Army. After the war, she advocated for women’s suffrage. She died of pneumonia in 1913 at the age of 90 or 91.

Categories
Commentary Historic America

Police Departments do not Have a 400-Year History of Anti-Black Racism

  • Modern police and police departments didn’t exist in the American colonies or the United States from 1619 to (at the earliest) 1838, a span of approximately 219 years.
  • Modern uniformed police departments were first established in Northern cities in free states and were based on British policing models, not Southern slave patrols.
  • Modern policing has nothing in common with slave patrols; their purpose, methods, and the legal rights and protections for the people involved are completely different.

Over the past few weeks, activists and pundits have made unbelievably inaccurate and outrageous historical claims about law enforcement in the United States. These assertions aren’t new, but they have entered the mainstream in a way we haven’t seen before. Fact-checking be damned. For instance, in an article not labeled as an opinion piece, USA Today writer Wenei Philimon claimed “Police departments have a 400-year history of racism”. This blanket assertion is supported with so little evidence or specificity, it wouldn’t receive a passing grade in a high school history class. 

“Dating back to the 1600s, the U.S., then a British colony, used a watchmen system, where citizens of towns and cities would patrol their communities to prevent burglaries, arson and maintain order. As the slave population increased in the U.S., slave patrols were formed in South Carolina and expanded to other Southern states, according to Sally Hadden, a history professor at Western Michigan University who researches slave patrols,” Philimon, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism, writes.

Already, the inaccuracies are glaring. The colonies that would become the United States were not entirely British in the 1600s, but were originally formed by several European countries. France, Sweden, Netherlands, and Spain all made claims on this territory (New Netherland, including what would become New York City, didn’t fall completely under British control until 1674). Each colony was governed by its own laws and methods of maintaining order.

But even if we take this writer’s version of events at face value, what does preventing burglaries, arson and maintaining order have to do with racism, anyway? Never mind. Philimon glosses over the first 100 years of her 400-year timeline and goes directly to slave patrols.

“Slave patrols lay at the roots of the nation’s law enforcement excesses, historians say [Philimon only cites one historian who says this], helping launch centuries of violent and racist behavior toward black Americans,” she claims. This pernicious myth has been repeated in several academic books and articles and even at the National Law Enforcement Museum, although there is no direct link between slave patrols and modern police forces, especially (and most obviously) in the North.

Categories
Commentary

Community Policing Can Work

Problems with policing in the United States are real, but fantastic ideas like abolishing police will make everyone less safe.

In the wake of protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality, activists, pundits, and politicians have floated various ideas to curb violent or potentially violent interactions with police, many of which are, for lack of a better term, unrealistic. De-funding police, abolishing police departments, and not arresting nonviolent offenders are among the most wild suggestions. The predictable consequences of these ideas would be much higher crime rates, unsafe neighborhoods, vigilante justice, or a proliferation of private security firms only accountable to their employers.

When I was running for mayor of Rockford, Illinois, I advocated a return to community-oriented policing, and I think that combined with better and more frequent training and demilitarization can solve a lot of the issues with police brutality. Rockford was a large Midwestern city struggling with a post-industrial environment. It had a high crime rate. Gang violence, robbery, and drug trafficking were common. Relations between police and the local community, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, were strained. An incident in 2009 in which a police officer shot and killed a young black man named Mark Anthony Barmore in the basement of a church further eroded relations.

I haven’t lived in Rockford for several years, so maybe things have changed, but back then the mayor would play lip service to community policing every once in a while and bicycle patrols would appear downtown for a few weeks. It was kind of like playing whack-a-mole. By focusing on one area, it was difficult to respond to crime in other areas. Rockford’s problem was not too many police, but too few. It was impossible for its centralized police force to effectively cover such a large area. Response times to a call could be as long as 40 minutes.