Wednesday, August 30, 2006

An Interview with Dr. Kristen School

Interview by Todd Kuzma

Dr. Kristen School is a familiar name to those who follow local news. In 2004, she became the superintendent of the Waltham Elementary School District and inherited a district still reeling from the recent annexation of the Utica School District as well as a school damaged by the April 20 tornado. Since then, she has actively tackled issues like tax increment financing (TIF), developer impact fees, and Ameren's plan to run a new high-voltage power line near several schools.

TK: When did you come to Waltham?

KS: This will be my third year.

TK: So, you started . . .

KS: In ’04.

TK: After the tornado?

: After the tornado.

TK: And after the consolidation?

KS: Yes. We had been in the annexation for one year.

TK: OK. What has the effect of that been on this district and has it had any political implications?

KS: Oh, certainly. Having not been here at the time of the annexation, it’s somewhat difficult to know where people were at, whether they wanted it or didn’t. I know that there were many surveys done, and I know that there is a long history of how it came to be for both the Waltham School District and the Utica School District. Certainly, there are political implications, and I think that some of those will never go away. I don’t mean to slight anybody in any way, and I don’t mean for it to sound very simplistic either, but it was a good decision for the Utica school district, and it was a good decision for the Waltham school district.

It’s going to take a while for us to get to that point where we think as one because it’s still not here. Every once in a while, something comes up that just kind of goes back to when things were separate. I think it’s going to take a while, and I think time, honestly, will be one of the things that just sort of helps to erase that. I don’t think it will ever completely go away, but I am somewhat idealistic in believing that you just have to continue to push forward and get folks on board to doing what’s best for the school district--whatever it’s called, whoever is a part of it, whatever it’s going to look like in the future.

TK: OK. You’ve been fairly active in the discussion about TIF districts and impact fees. How do you think these financial considerations affect Waltham?

KS: As a new superintendent, I can honestly tell you that I had never even heard of TIFs prior to coming to the Waltham School District and taking this position as superintendent. As with lots of things, you may know a little about it, but you do whatever you can to educate yourself. So, I dove right in. The Waltham School District was basically the leader in LaSalle County with the most TIFs. Perhaps we’re not at this point, we might be neck-and-neck with LaSalle and others are creeping in, but that’s not exactly a spot of honor to have as many TIFs in place as we do. I’m grateful that there was foresight and forethought with the Utica TIFs in that there were some plans put in place to quote “make us whole,” although that phrase is very much misleading. To some degree, there was some forethought there and folks looking out for us. The same did not hold true for one of the TIFs in LaSalle, that revolving around JC Whitney, and, again, as I understand it, there were promises made and things just did not end up happening. So, I think it’s always best to make certain that you get everything down in writing.

TK: We’re expecting some population growth in the district in the coming years. So, how will that affect the capacity of the district, and what options do you have for handling that growth?

KS: With regard to TIFs, it’s just been a recent discovery to me the huge impact that TIFs actually have on our bonding capacity, and that, in turn, leads to a limited amount of options that we have for growth. Right now, we are sitting in a position where we have two classrooms that aren’t used every day in this building [Waltham South] and one classroom, possibly two, that aren’t used every single day, every period of the day, in the other building [Waltham North]. If, at any time, we need to split one or two classes, those rooms are gone. They become used rooms. So, the potential for growth is there. It’s creeping in. It’s coming in a house or two here, a house or two there. I don’t mean for this to sound as if it’s a negative thing, but the threat of large subdivisions coming in is here. If something like that happened, it’s a whole different story as to where we would need to go and what kinds of plans we could put in place.

This growth that’s happening on an incremental basis is a scary position to be in because you don’t know how quickly it’s going to come. Nothing ever comes evenly spread across all the grade levels, and, unfortunately, we’re hit with larger pockets in certain grades and so forth. So, we’re almost between a rock and a hard place. The options that have been discussed in the past have been looking at this building, which is the South building, and we’re landlocked. We don’t have any options because of the floodplain. We don’t even have any options, really, to utilize any of the space within our area that we own right at this point in time. So, the growth is going to be what it’s going to be at this particular building. The only option, real option, we have is something occurring at our North building or picking a different site.

Going back to the impact of TIFs and our funding, bonding capacity, it’s all based on a percentage of what your equalized assessed valuation [EAV] is. You, by law, can only ask for 6.9% of what your total EAV is. The problem then comes back to how much it actually costs to build an addition, to build a building, or to purchase land. It’s not as simple as going to the taxpayers and asking for those dollars. You have a maximum ability that you can actually ask for. So, our options are now limited. On top of it, the way that a TIF impacts it, even in a more negative fashion than the obvious 23-year period that we aren’t receiving money or, I should say, our money is being used elsewhere, is that we take 6.9% of our EAV but the TIF portion is taken out. So, you have more spread among less EAV because the TIF portion of it is taken out.

TK: If you wind up having more kids in the district than you can handle in the buildings that currently exist and if you find that you don’t have the ability to bond for enough to add on or build a new building, what are the options then?

KS: I think our community really does not understand the dire situation that we are in because exactly what you described is truly what we are faced with right now. The only options available to us at that point in time would be to look to someone to annex or consolidate with. Given the fact that there are others in a similar boat as us with not having a great deal of space, certainly having financial difficulties, whether it be TIF-related or not TIF-related, it’s going to be a tough thing to do to even find somebody who would be willing to take us. If you throw into that all the TIFs that incorporate our area, we’re not going to be such a great catch either. It’s just not somebody looking to you to annex in with them. They look at your financial situation. They’re going to look at your EAV and all those aspects.

TK: So, if another district that were in a similar financial situation, if you were to annex with them you’re not really improving your overall position.

KS: Correct.

TK: And if you try to annex with a district that has a very good financial position, there’s not much in the deal for them.

KS: Correct.

TK: So, you’re between a rock and a hard place.

KS: Between a rock and a hard place. Exactly.

TK: Tell me a little bit about the power line issue that came up. How did you first hear about that and how did you get involved?

KS: The way that I first learned about it was from the request from Ameren to use our building as a community meeting place. Interestingly enough, they filled out our paperwork, and there hadn’t really been anything in the newspapers or anything of that nature. I mean, we often have requests to use our buildings and they might say that it’s for a community meeting or what have you, but the details of what the meeting was about were never given to us. Not that that would have changed it in any way, but it’s just kind of ironic that this is indeed what the plan was, to have the power lines run in front of the school, and they were holding their informational meeting at the school.

The informational meetings that were held at our facility by Ameren were meetings in which there were invitations extended. It was not just simply an open meeting for anybody to attend. As an entity possibly being impacted by the power lines, the school district was invited to attend on one of their three evenings that they had the meetings. So, I most certainly attended in that regard, and I asked my questions. The Ameren folks took us through what they were proposing, why they were proposing it, gave us informational packets, and so forth and shared with us that if we had any concerns we were to write them down. If they weren’t answered that night, they would get back to us with an answer. Leave our address, our phone number, and so forth. I can tell you at this point, though, I’ve never received a phone call back with any answers to the questions that I had personally, as the superintendent of Waltham School District. I never received any answers to the questions that I wrote down.

TK: Did the school district formally take a position on the power lines?

KS: The Waltham, Wallace, Rutland, and Dimmick school districts all passed the same resolution that objected to the placement of the primary route of power lines in front of the school districts. That is the extent of what the school board and school district did as far as any type of position.

TK: Did the school district have any sort of formal relationship with SHOCK, the citizen’s group?

KS: The school district, no. It is a community group, and it is made up of individuals residing in the four school districts, but as far as a link directly to the school district per se, no.

TK: What are your priorities now for the district in the next several years? What do you see as being your largest challenges?

KS: First and foremost, dealing with the growth and dealing with it in a manner that we are proactive and not finding ourselves in a reactive situation. To some degree, that’s going to dictate some of the future plans. If there were a subdivision planned as had once been proposed, 220 homes something of that nature, that’s our district one more time. As far as finding a place to house them, there would have to be a lot of things to fall in place to make something like that work. I don’t have a good answer for that. That would be an incredibly difficult place for the school district to be in if something large came of that nature unless there was some help from the developers or something of that nature. If it comes on an incremental basis, as I anticipate it will, we’re going to do our best to prepare ahead of time for that, be proactive, not only with our course offerings, but teaching personnel, actual classroom space, materials, and so forth. But that’s going to necessitate some help from our community, and I mean that both from a financial standpoint and support in a number of different ways. I think that is one of the plusses about this community. We truly have caring, involved individuals who are willing to learn about the issues, educate others about the issues, and are willing to volunteer their time. Time and time again, it just comes through like that. So, I feel very good about the community that we have.

The building and the growth issue is probably the most prominent, but that is certainly tied to our financial situation. With the governor’s latest requirement to put a balanced budget in place, I’m anticipating that we’re going to have to write a plan because I just don’t know that there’s going to be any way that we can have a balanced budget at this point. Those are the two main items that I see as our greatest difficulties, greatest hurdles, but there are a number of different, smaller items that they kind of go hand-in-hand with those two main things. As far as any kind of plan or vision, I think that it speaks volumes when you talk to folks in the community how happy they are with the school district and how pleased they are at the education that the kids are receiving. I think that we have some really wonderful things in place, and I want to make sure that we are doing everything we can possibly do to continue in the positive direction that we’re going and not lose the opportunities that we have for kids. That’s a tough thing to do, but that’s what I’m focused on.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Wheelbarrows of Utica

Photos by Todd Kuzma

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Area Quakers Assist Katrina-Damaged Library

by Todd Kuzma

Carol Bartles knew that she wanted to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, and she had heard about a library damaged right across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Over the course of several months, she worked with other members of the Clear Creek Friends Meeting, a Quaker church outside of McNabb, on a plan to assist the library with its recovery efforts. On May 8, Bartles and fellow Clear Creek members Rachel Mershon and Kay Drake arrived in Westwego, Louisiana to put that plan into action.

The Clear Creek Friends Meetinghouse outside of McNabb, Illinois.

Hurricane Katrina created a series of problems for the Westwego Branch Library. The strong winds of the storm caused significant damage to the library’s roof. The building’s interior was relatively unharmed, but that blessing was short-lived. When the supply of water to the building resumed, a check valve in the sprinkler system failed to open, resulting in massive water damage to much of the building. The children’s section was hardest hit, with a loss of approximately 7500 books.

The Westwego Branch Library.

The library is part of the Jefferson Parish Library system. Four of the parish’s sixteen libraries were damaged beyond repair and will not reopen. This means that the Westwego branch will have to serve a much wider area, including the adjoining unincorporated areas of Marreo and Bridge City.

The Clear Creek group planned to help rebuild the library’s children’s section with upgraded furniture and equipment. They also wanted to help draw kids from Marreo and Bridge City to Westwego with a summer reading program. Bartles turned to the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker service organization, for assistance and secured a $5000 grant.

The children's section of the Westwego Branch Library as it looked on May 8, 2006.

Building upon the initial grant, the group contacted other potential donors. The United Way of Illinois Valley provided $2900 to purchase incentives for the summer reading program. The Starved Rock Reading Council gave $300 for the purchase of new books and donated 30 boxes of gently used children’s books for the reading program. Double D Express shipped the books to Westwego at no cost. All of the equipment and furniture suppliers offered substantial discounts.

During their trip to Westwego, Bartles, Mershon, and Drake spoke to approximately 2000 children at nine area elementary schools about the summer reading program. During their presentations, they revealed the incentives that Clear Creek was able to offer the children.

School kids at the Westwego Elementary School awaiting a presentation about the library's summer reading program.

Every child completing the program will receive a transparent backpack with a book. At the end of the summer, all children completing the program will be entered into a drawing. Three winners will each receive a new Schwinn bicycle, specially fitted for them at Bicycle Michael's of New Orleans. Other winners will receive CDs, CD players, and radios.

Lon Dickerson, director of the Jefferson Parish Library System, notes that challenges still lie ahead. Building damage at the Westwego Branch Library is just a small part of an estimated $5 million in damage to libraries across the entire parish. FEMA has committed to only $1 million in assistance so far, and Dickerson has yet to see any of that.

Yet, like many of the recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast, progress is often made one small step at a time. Clear Creek wasn’t able to solve all of the problems facing the Westwego Branch Library, but they helped take a couple of those steps.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Are TIF Districts Bad for Our Communities?

by Todd Kuzma

While local municipalities are embracing the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to attract development, school officials have expressed caution. Now, some of those officials are citing evidence that suggests the use of TIF incentives might actually be counterproductive.

During a recent meeting with Peru Mayor Don Baker, members of the Dimmick School Board referred to a November 2000 report entitled “TIF Districts Hinder Growth.” The report is the work of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. It provides a 3-page summary of a much longer paper published in September 1999 entitled The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development.

The 1999 paper is the work of Richard F. Dye, professor of economics at Lake Forest College, and David F. Merriman, professor of economics at Loyola University of Chicago. The pair examined a sample of 235 municipalities in northeastern Illinois to determine the impact of TIF on growth rates.

WHAT IS A TIF? Once a municipality designates an area as a TIF district, it can use the tax revenues generated by the increase in property values for improvements within the district. For example, if property in a TIF district is generating $1000 more in property tax per year than when the district was established, that $1000 is placed into a special fund to finance public improvements and reimburse certain private development costs. In Illinois, a TIF district can last as long as 23 years.

One of the controversies in the use of TIF incentives is that municipalities in Illinois typically only receive an average of 15% of property tax revenues. School districts average 60% of revenues, and 25% goes to other local taxing bodies such as county government and park, library, and fire protection districts. So, when a TIF is established, all of the property tax revenue increases within the district are diverted from these other bodies for use by the municipality.

As a protection against abuse of the system, Illinois has a “but for” requirement for TIFs. This means that a TIF district has to show that the area “would not reasonably be anticipated to be developed without the adoption” of the TIF.

DYE AND MERRIMAN’S FINDINGS. Dye and Merriman examined the growth rates of 235 communities in northeastern Illinois both before and after the implementation of TIFs. 81 communities had at least one TIF district. 154 communities had none. Before the adoption of TIFs (1980-1984), the 81 communities that later adopted TIFs had an annual property value growth rate of 4.94%. The other communities had a 4.47% growth rate. After the adoption of TIFs (1992-1995), those communities with TIFs had a growth rate of 4.96% or virtually the same as before. However, those communities without TIFs had a growth rate of 7.38%, a significant increase from before.

Dye and Merriman were concerned that the figures might be skewed by various sample selection factors such as location, population, prior growth, and mean income. So, much of their work consisted of a statistical analysis of the data to remove these variables from the results. They found that the negative association between TIF adoption and growth rate was smaller than the raw data suggested, but the effect was still there. The implementation of TIF districts caused a slower rate of property value growth.

Further examination showed that property growth within the TIF districts themselves actually did increase. However, this increase was offset by slower growth outside the district. TIFs stimulate growth in blighted areas at the expense of the larger town.

IMPLICATIONS. The implications of these findings will depend upon the initial reason for implementing the TIF. Dye and Merriman cite four main reasons. First, the TIF can be used to improve a blighted area. If the area would not increase in value without the TIF, schools and other taxing bodies are not truly losing any revenue by implementation of the TIF. The main consideration in this case is the effect on non-TIF portions of the community.

Second, a municipality may wish to use TIF incentives to overcome “market failures” which inhibit development. For example, relocating a business to an area without existing development might have greater start-up costs than moving to an already developed area. Dye and Merriman found that TIFs used for this reason could cause an “inefficient relocation of development.” That is, incentives are used to move development to an area where it will not be as successful. This results in slower growth than development in another area.

Third, a municipality might use TIF incentives to compete with other communities in a bidding war for development. Unfortunately, when this bidding is done against neighboring communities, schools and other taxing bodies lose revenue for development that would happen in the area even without incentives. This use of TIFs is not consistent with the original intent of the TIF legislation.

Fourth, a municipality might use a TIF to reallocate resources from other taxing bodies. Since municipalities only receive an average of 15% of total property tax revenues, establishing a TIF district allows access to the other 85% for municipal improvements. Without a TIF, the cost of establishing new roads, water, sewer, and other infrastructure would be the responsibility of the municipality and/or developer. With a TIF in place, the municipality can pay for such improvements by diverting tax revenue that would otherwise go to schools and other taxing bodies. If this is done for development that would occur even without TIF incentives, the diversion of revenue is not consistent with the intent of the TIF legislation.

Tax Increment Financing is complicated. The state statute establishing and regulating it is long and often difficult to understand. Developers and TIF consultants who are poised to gain financially from its adoption frequently guide the creation of a TIF district. So, it is often difficult for those interested in gaining a balanced understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of Tax Increment Financing to get clear information. Dye and Merriman’s paper, while often dry and academic, is one such source of information.

You can see Illinois’ TIF statute here.
A .pdf of Dye and Merriman’s article “TIF Districts Hinder Growth” can be found here.
A .pdf of Dye and Merriman’s paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development can be found here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

COMMENTARY - A Letter to State Senator Gary Dahl

by Todd Kuzma

Dear Senator Dahl,

You recently wrote a newspaper letter to the editor in which you complained that, “once again Republican lawmakers in the House and the Senate have been entirely removed from the budget discussions.” Welcome to Illinois politics!

Unfortunately, Illinois is one of the most partisan states in the nation. Democrats currently control Springfield and shut Republicans out of the decision-making process. When Republicans were in control, they did likewise. If you have any doubts that this was the case, just ask any Democrat in Springfield what it was like to work with former Senate President Pate Phillip. Of course, it was wrong then, and it is wrong now.

History has shown us that our greatest legislators have been those who can rise above partisanship and work with colleagues across the aisle. Illinois needs such leaders right now. A look at your press clippings since taking office shows that you are often blaming Democrats for various state problems. Such finger-pointing and name-calling does little except to divide the state further. It decreases the chances that Democrats and Republicans can ever work together to serve the people of Illinois.

Your 38th Senate district is also represented by two House members, Careen Gordon and Frank Mautino. Both are Democrats. To best serve this district, the three of you will need to work together. Hopefully, professionalism will win out over petty party politics. This, of course, requires true leadership. Sometimes, it is necessary to forgo the short-term political gain in order to effect the long-term good. Will you show Illinois that you are such a leader? Can you rise above the fray and work to bring us all together? Or will history show you as just one more of the numerous party hacks who toiled away to beat down the other guy and further divide the state?

I invite you to respond, Senator. You can e-mail me at with any comments, and I will post them here, unedited, as a separate blog entry. I hope to hear from you soon.

LaSalle-Peru's Most Famous Resident?

by Todd Kuzma

LASALLE - Who is LaSalle-Peru’s most famous former resident? Is it violinist Maud Powell or zinc magnates FW Matthiessen and Edward Hegeler? Perhaps. However, an argument can be made for Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. While this might not be a household name in the Illinois Valley, DT Suzuki is famous around the world as an author of works about Zen and Buddhism. His work is widely regarded as having been instrumental in spreading Mahayana Buddhism to the West.

Suzuki was born in Kanazawa, Japan in 1870. After graduating from Waseda University, he began his study of Buddhism under Zen monk Soyen Shaku. As Suzuki had earlier learned several modern and ancient languages, Soyen asked Suzuki to translate one of his books into English. This served as Suzuki’s introduction to the world of publishing.

In 1893, Soyen Shaku spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. It was here that he met Dr. Paul Carus. Carus asked for Soyen’s help in translating several Oriental religious texts into English. Soyen instead recommended Suzuki for the task.

From 1897 to 1908, Suzuki lived at 959 Marquette Street in LaSalle and worked with Dr. Paul Carus translating a number of texts for publication in the United States. He also wrote his first book, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, which was published by the Open Court Publishing Company in 1908.

The Ramsey House at 959 Marquette Street as it appears today.

The house at 959 Marquette Street was owned by John Ramsey, an employee of Edward Hegeler. One story that has circulated about the house is that it was a gift from Hegeler to Ramsey in return for Ramsey’s agreement to serve in the Civil War in Hegeler’s place. However, Ramsey’s enlistment form shows that he enlisted on August 12, 1862 while draftees were not permitted to hire substitutes until the Enrollment Act of 1863. Therefore, it was legally impossible for Ramsey to have served in Hegeler’s place. Additionally, Ramsey’s great-grandson, Donald H. Ramsey, wrote in 2002 that Ramsey purchased the 959 Marquette home himself in 1891.

After the Civil War, Ramsey worked at M&H Zinc and later in the Hegeler home, where he was responsible for tending the house’s many fireplaces. Suzuki lived upstairs in Ramsey’s home yet spent much time with Paul Carus and his family in the Hegeler home. In addition to translating and writing, Suzuki did various jobs for Carus including work in Open Court’s editorial department.

After leaving LaSalle in 1908, Suzuki traveled for a year in Europe and then returned to Japan to teach. It was during this time that Suzuki wrote many of the books for which he later became famous. In 1921, he and his wife founded the Eastern Buddhist Society and its journal, The Eastern Buddhist, both of which survive to this day.

Suzuki continued to write and travel. His works became definitive introductions to Buddhism and Zen both at home in Japan and abroad. Famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote that, “Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s works on Zen Buddhism are among the best contributions to the knowledge of living Buddhism that recent decades have produced.”

In 1957 Suzuki returned to the Illinois Valley to attend the Paul Carus Memorial Symposium. Suzuki died in Tokyo on July 12, 1966 at the age of 95. He had remained quite active in his older years even, reassuming the editorship of The Eastern Buddhist in 1965.

That Suzuki has remained an important figure in the study of Zen Buddhism is a testimony to his work. Scholars still travel to LaSalle to see the Ramsey home on Marquette Street and study Suzuki’s writings at the Hegeler-Carus Mansion. The eleven years that Suzuki spent here were an essential part of his scholarly development and have cemented LaSalle’s place in the history of one of the world’s most important religions.

A memorial marker at the Ramsey House.

Selected Bibliography of Suzuki’s English Language Texts:

Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series
Essays in Zen Buddhism: Second Series

Essays in Zen Buddhism: Third Series

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

Japanese Spirituality

Living by Zen

Manual of Zen Buddhism

Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist: The Eastern and Western Way

Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism

Shin Buddhism

The Studies in Zen Buddhism

Swedenborg: Buddha of the North

The Training of the Buddhist Monk

Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture

Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki

The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind

Monday, May 01, 2006

COMMENTARY - Nasty New Games

by Julia Messina

Murder as entertainment has hit the US mainstream and is, among some disturbed minds, an acceptable form of leisure activity these days. How bizarre and how fitting that the game is brought to the attention of the American public just as the heated debate on immigration reform is put before the US Congress and splashed all over every newspaper in the US.

The other day I was reading the online editions of several newspapers when an article on caught my eye. An individual or group, with a registered domain in the U.K. and that prefers to remain anonymous (for what intelligent readers will understand to be self-evident reasons), has produced one of the most disgusting video games of the early 21st century. It’s called Border Patrol, and the object of the game is to kill illegal Mexican immigrants at all costs.

The game opens with images of the three “targets”: a Mexican nationalist, a drug smuggler, and a pregnant Mexican woman, who is referred to as a “Breeder.” They are all running across the Mexican-US border, which is identified by a “Welcome to the US” sign, under which is another sign with the words: “welfare office” next to a directional arrow. The player is then directed to kill as many of the illegals as possible and is encouraged to kill the “Breeder” specifically. The player will earn more points by killing the woman, as she is dragging her children behind her and is obviously pregnant, thus the kill ratio is higher due to the multiple hits with one shot.

This game and others like it that target Blacks, Jews, Catholics and others have desensitized us to human suffering. Back in 1967, Marshall McCluhan wrote about this eventual phenomenon in his groundbreaking book The Medium is the Message (title originally misedited by the publishing house Bantam Books / Random House as The Medium is the Massage). He stated that the medium is the message, because it is the "medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action" (p. 9), and scores of scientific studies that followed over the years have supported his contention. The most important and relevant for today is the research cited in Terror In the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Kennedy School of Government terrorism expert Jessica Stern. In it she connects the dots between the delivery, or “medium,” of the message of fanaticism and “otherness.”

Whether it’s fundamentalist right-wing militia terrorists in the US or fanatical Islamists in the Middle East, the ties that bind them are threefold, powerful, and enduring: they need a grievance that appeals to them and unites them (anything from loss of jobs or control to loss of a loved one); they have to be able to identify an oppressor (Mexican, Black, Jew, Catholic, Irish, Italian, Polish, German, Japanese, etc); they have to be able to create fear of the oppressor in order to turn him into something “other” than human. Ultimately, the combination of those three factors allows and encourages that fear to fester into hatred so that any violence done to the “other” can be justified within one’s own set of personal beliefs that one has come to believe are under assault.

So how do people get messages of hate from their warped minds into the general population? For generations the classic training grounds for both US and foreign militias have been the rural camps used by both to indoctrinate their followers. In the Middle East there are tens of thousands of small schools, called madrassas, where young boys are taught to hate “others” from an early age, while in the US, Klan members and other affiliated groups send their children to camps where they are taught to hate “others” as well. The common denominators between these two extremist groups—and others like them—are that they draw in indoctrinees under a guise of worshipping a spiritual leader, whether it be Muhammad in the Muslim case or Jesus in the Klan case, and they begin their training at a young age.

Extremist groups have modernized and turned to the internet to spread their gospel of hate, attract new indoctrinees, and raise funds to fully realize their visions of the world. It’s a speedy, less labor-intensive method of appealing, converting, and activating potential indoctrinees, and what’s easier than teaching a child to accept and perform an action or espouse an idea than through game-playing? So now we are introduced to Border Patrol, a game where children shoot at cartoony drawings of “others.”

Without even realizing what they are doing, young gamers are: 1-- being exposed to a stated grievance (Mexican illegals are crossing the US border and taking welfare benefits for their illegal selves); 2-- identifying a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group to target for perceived wrongs (in this case Mexicans); 3-- absorbing a fear of the “others” by accepting the insinuation that the drug smugglers will harm someone near and dear to them; the Mexican nationalist will lead a charge to overthrow America; and the Breeder will populate their world with Mexican laborers who will eventually take their jobs from them.

Through repetition and the use of cartoony characters with paint-splattery looking blood, kids disengage themselves from the inhumanity of what they are participating in, and ethnic cleansing becomes a game that is brought to them free-of-charge via the delivery system of the internet, compliments of some anonymous coward with a registered domain in the U.K.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Christians Protest for Peace in Princeton

Meg Foxvog, June Brafman, Samuel Foxvog, Jim Foxvog, Jim Fitz, and Larry Brafman hold signs in front of the Bureau County Courthouse in Princeton on a recent sunny day.

by Todd Kuzma

PRINCETON – Recent public opinion polls show a rapid decline in support for the war in Iraq, but one group has been publicly proclaiming their opposition for over four years. If you pass by the Bureau County Courthouse in downtown Princeton around lunch time on any Wednesday, you are likely to see a small group of people holding signs reading “Honk for Peace,” “Trust God, Not Weapons,” and “Whom Would Jesus Bomb.”

Members of Plow Creek Mennonite Church in Tiskilwa originally organized the peace vigil in January 2002 after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Plow Creek Member Jim Fitz said that they wanted to “confront people with the reality that war is going on and get them to pray for peace, one of the most powerful things we can do.”

The vigil became a weekly event, originally on Tuesdays but moved to Wednesdays to eliminate a conflict with the operation of Plow Creek’s farmers market. Eventually, members of other churches began to participate. These included Willow Springs Mennonite Church in Tiskilwa and Clear Creek Quaker Meeting in McNabb.

While Quakers and Mennonites are traditional “peace churches,” where peace activism is common, the vigil has also attracted folks like June and Larry Brafman of Peru. The Brafmans attend several Catholic churches in the LaSalle-Peru area. “It’s the spiritual, moral thing to do,” explained June Brafman.

Larry Brafman originally heard about the vigil from an internet posting by Plow Creek Member Jim Foxvog. “There it was, ‘Princeton, Illinois, every week, in front of the courthouse.’ ” Brafman recalled of the posting.

Foxvog is a regular at the weekly vigil, often attending with his wife Meg and son Samuel. He reports that the group has generally been well received in Princeton. Passersby offer encouragement or a honk of the horn in response to their “Honk for Peace” sign. However, not all responses are positive. “Sometimes, someone will yell, ‘Get a job!’ And this is when I’m working sixty hour weeks!” Foxvog remarked, chuckling.

Jim Fitz recalled meeting a veteran of the Iraq war who was quite hostile at first, but stayed to talk with the group for a while. “He eventually said that he agreed with our sign that reads, ‘Bring US Troops Home, Bring in the UN,’ ” Fitz said.

Starting such dialog is one of the goals of the vigil. “We want to get them to think about the spiritual beliefs behind the vigil,” explained Jim Foxvog adding that they would like to “break the stereotype that all Christians are right-wing.”

“Peace is pro-life, too,” Larry Brafman added.

Foxvog says that the group tries to keep its message nonpartisan. He noted that while participants all hold their own views, “An ‘Impeach Bush’ sign would be inappropriate.”

Fitz believes that it is also important to show support for the troops, and some of the most memorable responses the vigil has received have been from relatives of those serving in Iraq. “We’ve made relationships with two families that have soldiers in Iraq, and they support our efforts,” Fitz said. A woman with a daughter in Iraq stopped by to tell Fitz, “Keep up what you’re doing,” while another woman whose husband was driving trucks in Iraq wanted to hug everyone in the vigil.

Brafman explained, “We just want to make people think. If they are for the war, maybe they will think about it. A lot of minds have been changed, not necessarily because of us, but we hear a lot more honks.”