Free Speech Fight in Chicago

At an event held in late 2009 by the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago in the suburb of Skokie, Gregory Koger was arrested for voluntarily videotaping a free speech statement made by Sunsara Taylor, a political commentator and writer for Revolution, newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist party. After being asked to speak at the event, Taylor was later disinvited because of her political views. As an act of protest, she read a prepared statement in a public meeting area at the conference which was videotaped by Koger. As he was videotaping, Skokie police grabbed Koger, handcuffed and maced him, then charged him with trespassing.

Recently, Koger was charged with contempt of court by the Cook County State’s Attorney for speaking publicly about his arrest at a forum where he was on a panel with Billy Ayers, Marc Falkoff, and Sunsara Taylor, and for those speaking on his behalf at a website organized by his defense committee. He will be in court Wednesday, April 28, 2010. If found in contempt of court, he will be sent to jail.

Greg and I were pen pals while he was locked up in prison in Pontiac, Illinois. I first met Greg in 2005 through the Books To Prisoners project at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center (www.books2prisoners.org). He wrote to us requesting books to read and I sent him a package of books along with a copy of the Public i, a newspaper I help to publish. He sent me back a letter and we began a correspondence. Among the books I sent him were The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, two books that were influential on me while I was growing up. In his letters, Greg told me about how he grew up poor, his family lost their home when he was 15 years old, and he was forced out on the streets where he had to survive. At age 17, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Along with the letters he sent me, Greg included several articles he had written. Immediately, I realized Greg was exceptionally talented and a powerful writer. He was entirely self-taught and a voracious reader while in prison. Released in December 2006, I like to think of Greg as an early graduate of the Books To Prisoners program. He tells the story of when he walked out of prison, he was the only one of some 20 inmates who had family there to pick him up. There were no re-entry programs offered to him. Greg enrolled at a community college where he excelled in his classes. He applied for a position in the writing center with a recommendation from his English teacher, but never heard back from them, probably because of his felony background.

On two occasions, Greg has been a guest speaker in a freshman writing class I teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One of the sections I teach in my class is on the Prison Industrial Complex, the unprecedented incarceration of 2.3 million people in the United States. Greg is not bitter or vengeful toward those who put him behind bars for much of his youth. He speaks analytically about the six years he was held in segregation, locked in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day, although he is still traumatized by the experience. Many of my students walked up to Greg after class to shake his hand and thank him. Some of them quoted him in their papers. Greg remains hopeful that another world is possible than the current system where economic inequalities reward some and punish others. His rhetoric is not unlike that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said that we need a “radical redistribution of economic power.”

Remarkably, the State’s Attorney has asked a judge to hold Greg in contempt of court for the support his defense committee has organized for him and against the pending charges. She cites the website of his defense committee (http://dropthecharges.net/), although it has not been Greg, but others who have written about the case. It is fitting that this fight for free speech takes place in Chicago, where a peaceable assembly in Haymarket Square over 100 years ago ignited the modern labor movement.

These charges stem from the suppression of free speech by individuals from an organization which calls itself “ethical” and “humanist” but is neither. We have become a society where we can send a person to prison for years, with no benefit to the individual or ourselves.

You can help Greg by sending a letter to the Cook County State’s Attorney at: stateattorney@cookcountygov.com

You can also write the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago at: office@ethicalhuman.org

Greg still free!

Happy to report that a judge did not find Greg in contempt of court and he is still free. BD

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