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It took the County Board until almost midnight on Tuesday to pass the RFP for a needs assessment concerning the county jail. This is a first step in their grand plans to spend $20 million (likely more) on building new cells at the satellite jail. The five and a half hour meeting kicked off with an hour of public participation during which a parade of individuals stood at the podium urging the Board to re-think its approach to addressing "public safety" by building more jail beds. Three themes recurred during these inputs: 1) the overwhelmingly disproportionate presence of African Americans in the jails (more than 60% in a county that is 12% Black) 2) the lack of public voice in the decision-making process, particularly on the Board's all-white Jail Space Improvement Planning team which wields the bulk of authority on the jail issue 3) that there are many, many better ways to spend $20 million dollars in Champaign County than to build new jail facilities.
The Illicit Ordinance 683
As the meeting wended its way through its five and a half hour journey it became apparent that most of the public comments would be ignored. No one among the Board members raised the fact that the money for the jail would be coming from an illegitimate maneuver by the Board to appropriate the $4.5 million in annual revenues from the public safety tax. Passed by the voters in 1998, the tax was designed as a temporary measure to fund a specific set of projects. Any renewal of the tax was supposed to go to the voters. Never mind that, s aid the Board. in 2003, the Board illicitly (if not illegally) changed the wording of the ordinance the voters had approved by passing Ordinance 683 at one of their meetings.. 683 allowed future public safety tax money to go to any construction for "law enforcement" purposes without approval by the voters. In effect, this created a bottomless pit of money for the police, the county sheriff and everyone else involved in "law enforcement". How many social services have such a guarantee? Members of the public have repeatedly reminded the Board of their shameful actions in passing 683 but apparently the cries of citizens are voices in the wilderness to those determined to waste taxpayers' money on shiny, state -of -the -art lockups.
The State’s Attorney Speaks of Tokenism
The high point of the night, however, (or perhaps I should say, the low point) came with the embarrassingly ignorant remarks of Board member Stan James and state's attorney Julia Reitz regarding the "race" issue. James repeatedly noted that he found it "offensive" that "race" kept being raised, that he served everyone in the county. Reitz echoed James' opinions, also finding herself "offended" by the intimation that she, as a white person, couldn't be trusted to serve all the county regardless of race. When Board member Carol Ammons proposed a minority presence on the decision-making body, Reitz denounced this as ineffective "tokenism." This brought screams of derision and disbelief from the audience, prompting chairperson Tom Betz to threaten to have the sheriffs clear the room. Finally the Board agreed to add one person of color on their team, but their true "colors" had already been shown.
Colorblindness in the County Board
For local people concerned with social and racial justice, this meeting was but another reminder of the backward attitudes we must confront in the efforts to prevent more African-Americans from joining the ranks of the 2.3 million people already incarcerated in this country. In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes of the "colorblindness" of this period, how many whites pretend that race doesn't matter to them, that they don't see color. When people of color (or other whites for that matter) bring obvious racial disparities to their attention (such as racial profiling in police stops in our cities) they act "offended" as if they are the victims in this process. Let me provide Julia Reitz and Stan James with some examples of who the real victims are here, who actually has the right to be offended: African-American youth being pepper sprayed and choked for jaywalking (Brandon Ward), African-American youth being beaten mercilessly for reckless driving (Calvin Miller), African-American youth being shot to death for no reason (Kiwane Carrington). So let me apologize in advance to James and Reitz because we are going to keep bringing these racial injustices into the public eye and that’s going to hurt their feelings. What a shame.