Kilgore

There’s an ugly scene unfolding in Illinois right now. The local paper in Champaign-Urbana, The News Gazette, published three attack pieces on James Kilgore, each one calling into question his character and the wisdom of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana (UICU) to hire Kilgore as a lecturer.

Kilgore is a respected researcher, writer, educator and criminal justice activist. He is also a former political insurgent who took up arms against federal authorities.

In the early seventies, Kilgore was part of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) (of Patty Hearst infamy). He has been open about having felony convictions resulting from his political activities. Kilgore was on the run from 1975, living in Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa until his arrest in 2002 in Cape Town. He saved the Feds the troublesome extradition process by voluntarily returning to the U.S., making a plea bargain, and pleading guilty to charges pertaining to the possession of explosives (in 1975) and passport fraud. Kilgore served 6 years in a California prison and upon his release in 2009 moved to Illinois to be with his wife, who is on the faculty of UICU. Since 2010, Kilgore has been a temporary faculty member at UIUC, teaching classes in Global Studies, Urban Planning and the College of Fine and Applied Arts.

These are the facts of the case. Jim Dey writing for The News Gazette in a Feb 9th OpEd piece In Plain Sight covers these facts. Dey’s tone is one of passive wonderment as to what UI might be thinking. The opinion piece is peppered with accounts of SLA violence from before Kilgore’s involvement. In Dey’s estimation, all the ideological mistakes of the fringe (and, yes, very damaging) SLA movement are all Kilgore. If only Dey had spent the same amount of time looking into Kilgore’s contributions in the interim four decades. It’s as if Dey and The News Gazette do not believe in change or maturation. If this is the case, then I call into question the commitment of author and outlet to the complexity of reporting and to journalism neutrality.

Kilgore is much more than his past indiscretions. As an aside, I know a person who used to be on the FBI most wanted list. This person’s charges were trumped up and when this person came out of living underground for 13 years faced no prison time. This person is one of the most politically aware, active and socially critical individuals I know.

There’s much more to Kilgore’s story than the character assassination as laid out by Dey. I believe it is motivated by a will to limit Kilgore’s very effective activism against a proposed new jail in Champaign-Urbana. Kilgore has proven himself a very adept strategist and activist leader in the town. Kilgore was instrumental in the fight. He has shared the successful tactics of the campaign with anti-prison groups across the nation.

News Gazette publisher John Foreman clearly has Kilgore in his sights. In the second OpEd piece (Feb 16th), Foreman perhaps a little miffed that Dey’s piece hadn’t wildly inflamed opinion enough) threw a hissy fit about the silence of Kilgore and UICU. What did Foreman expect? Answering to bully-boy tactics is not what Kilgore needed to do here. After all, The News Gazette had seemingly made up its mind about Kilgore a long time ago.

In his attempt to discredit UICU and question its priorities, Foreman opens his opinion piece by brushing aside a case of gross racism and sexism launched by a small (and troubled) group of students upon UICU Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Foreman mocks UICU’s attempts to deal with sexism and racism proving he’s more interested in cranking his newspaper’s controversy-du-jour than he is in taking a balanced view at all issues effecting his hometown community.

One week later, on the 23rd February, Foreman gave a platform to Dennis A. Kimme, the president of Kimme & Associates Inc., the firm that was trying to win the bid to build Champaign-Urbana’s new jail. Kimme is bitter about Kilgore’s attitude and expresses dismay that Kilgore would question the ability of Kimme’s company to assess the need for prison beds while trying to win a multimillion dollar contract to build those same beds! Of course, Kilgore and those opposed to a new jail would question motives.

Kimme’s contract bid failed on its own merits.

As if The News Gazette hadn’t already staked out its patently political position in text, it sent Jim Dey onto a talk show with it’s affiliate radio station to “discuss” the matter. Don’t bother listening to it. Host Jim Turpin is in cahoots with Dey as they proudly salute one another for their moral outrage.

I find it interesting that the UICU student newspaper has responded to this *controversy* with the statement: “The Daily Illini chose not to report on Kilgore’s status as a former felon because we did not believe that his status was news. Kilgore’s status as an instructor was no different than any other instructor.”

On April 9, the University Provost, in a private meeting, informed Kilgore that UICU would not approve any future contracts to employ him and declined to give him any explanation whatsoever as to why, how and by whom this decision had been made.

Fortunately, there is a community in Champaign-Urbana that sees the issue as more nuanced and is willing to look at the Kilgore of 2014 as well as the Kilgore of the early 1970’s.

A petition to UICU Chancellor Phyllis Wise has been circulated and already received the goal of 1,000 signatures. It reads:

We the undersigned scholars, legal professionals, activists and concerned individuals believe that the University of Illinois gave in to political pressure and refused to approve future employment contracts for James Kilgore on the basis of his background and sensationalist media coverage, rather than on his job performance.

Kilgore does not shy away from his past. He has answered to the full extent of the law his past acts and he has served time for them.

The SLA was committed to the overthrow of the federal government with planned attacks on police and federal buildings. They were of an era; one in which the violence of insurgency paled in insignificance compared to the violence waged in Vietnam. The SLA funded themselves largely through bank heists. SLA tactics were extreme, there is no doubt. The SLA cause achieved little. The SLA made grave mistakes. The SLA wasn’t the only homegrown group devoted to insurgency within U.S. borders.

Of all these activities, Kilgore was involved in one that led to a fatality. On April 28, 1975, SLA members including Kilgore robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer was shot add killed during the robbery. Kilgore’s comrade fired the shot. Kilgore, it is reported, was furious that a gun was discharged. There’s talk of a light trigger, but still, take a gun into a bank and you should only predict unpredictability.

In a March 22 Chicago Sun-Times article, the university responded to UICU’s unceremonious dumping of Kilgore with a supportive statement from Associate Provost Robin Kaler:

He does a great job. He’s very well-respected among students. He served his time in prison. He is very remorseful. He didn’t do the shooting. He is a good example of someone who has been rehabilitated, if you believe in second chances and redemption, he’s someone who helps prove that’s the human thing to do. A child of the victim said he has served his time and should be allowed to go on with his life.

The American Association of University Professors echoed Kaler’s thoughts in their own official statement on the matter.

The News Gazette‘s OpEd series misses the point. It’s none-to-subtle rightwing attack against the classic bogeyman, against the non-patriot, argues that academia provides a profitable hiding ground for those that enacted political direct actions many decades ago. Think of the kids!?

What is at stake here is academic freedom.

More-so, we must ask do we want to believe in the ability for individuals, ANY INDIVIDUAL, to change, to improve, to educate and give back? The wording of the petition in support of Kilgore frames this perfectly:

Refusing to approve Kilgore’s employment contracts has serious implications for the 15 million Americans who have felony convictions and face a constant battle to access employment.

 Get angry. Sign the petition. Follow James’ valuable work. Don’t let the boo-boys scare you.

Image: PM Press

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