Keeping it real
Mbanna Kantako is still on the air
Mbanna Kantako is on a roll.
From his rental house just off North Grand Avenue in Enos Park, the 54-year-old blind man talks about the advent of spring and the need to till the soil. He speaks of pollution, the Great Spirit, expectations that people gain responsibility with age and the Boston Marathon bombing, not knowing how many people might be listening via a radio signal that covers just a tiny portion of the city.
“You know the government set this shit up,” he intones. “It’s the government. They the ones that did 9/11. They the ones that did the Oklahoma City bombing. You have every reason not to believe what the government says.”
The program segment Kantako calls Notes On The Devil’s News continues with a tape of Springfield police tasing a pregnant woman in the parking lot, a recent in-broad-daylight incident that police say was justified because the woman had inserted herself into a physical altercation between an officer and her boyfriend while a bystander videotaped everything. Then it’s back to the bombing.
“And you’re going to believe what happened in Boston?” he asks sarcastically at the conclusion of the tasing tape. “You’re out of your damn mind. For real, these devils have issues.”
Moving right along, Kantako delves robotic surgery, which some say is no improvement over work performed by human surgeons and might actually be worse in some circumstances.
“Ain’t no medicine better than the Lord,” Kantako says.
In the space of less than 15 minutes, Kantako covers all of this and more in stream-of-consciousness style. He doesn’t sound a bit winded. He’s been doing this more than quarter-century, and this broadcast last Saturday marks his 8,697th show “from the criminal enterprise that is Springfield, Illinois, located in the criminal enterprise that is the United States.” Or so says Kantako from the far end of your FM dial, much to the consternation of the Federal Communications Commission that wants him to get a license or shut up. The signal reaches barely a mile. By the time you travel south to city hall or the federal building or downtown law firms, it fades considerably. In more ways than one.
“Is he still around?” asks Bruce Stratton, an attorney and former Kantako nemesis who knew the man decades ago when he was still known by his birth name, Dewayne Readus. “I haven’t thought about him for years. Mostly, I remember that he was some kind of activist.”
Back in the day, Kantako was a fixture in the pages of the State Journal-Register and a leading figure in the long-since-demolished John Hay Homes, where the city’s black population was concentrated in a crumbling 600-unit public housing project. He had a zest for organizing, and if he didn’t always get his way, the activist who became a broadcaster certainly made a lot of noise.
Nearly 30 years ago, he pushed for the Springfield School District to bus children from the Hay Homes to school instead of making them walk. He was a controversial figure even within the projects, where he formed the John Hay Tenants Rights Association after resigning from the existing resident council over a spat about the busing issue. Some resident council leaders thought him too radical.
He fought against both sides in the late 1980s when the city, after being sued under the federal Voting Rights Act, reluctantly changed its form of government, establishing 10 wards and replacing commissioners with aldermen to help ensure black representation on the city council. He led marches to protest police brutality. He was a constant at Springfield Housing Authority board meetings when Stratton was board chairman.
“He would have banners and placards,” Stratton recalls. “There was one large one I wish I’d kept. It was a placard with a picture of me dressed up as some sort of banana republic dictator. It was really well done. In many ways, he was kind of the perfect activist and the perfect advocate. He could get a lot of attention and yet he was a really nice guy.”
Engaging. Charming. Pleasant. Not the sort of adjectives one would expect from a man whom Kantako painted as the enemy. But Stratton says that Kantako never got under his skin. He remembers off-the-record conversations outside the limelight when Kantako would outline plans for future protests and ask for thoughts.
“He just infuriated lots of people,” Stratton says. “I wasn’t among them. I liked the guy. I really did.”
Black, poor and blind
For an archetypical angry black man, Mbanna Kantako is a great conversationalist.
He easily recalls his childhood, saying he can remember the car ride up from Memphis where he was born to Springfield when he was less than three years old in the early 1960s. He has five brothers, ten sisters and no clue as to why his family ended up here.
“I think a lot of people really believe in that Lincoln stuff, and I think that might have been why,” he guesses. “Nobody in my family has ever made it clear why they chose Springfield. Maybe someone got paroled here. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it makes a lot of sense to stop here.”
Kantako was nine when he transferred from Springfield public schools to the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired in Jacksonville. He could still see, but just barely, owing to congenital glaucoma. But he knew black from white. His first day at the school for the blind, he befriended a student from Collinsville. Both Cardinals fans, they were swapping baseball cards at bedtime when he heard a staff member outside the room say that his new friend’s father wouldn’t appreciate his son being in the same room with a nigger.
“Nine years old, night time, you know – it was a hell of a thing to think about,” Kantako says. “I think I was about the nicest cat they’d probably ever met the next morning. I didn’t want to piss off nobody. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t run home.”
Kantako became an athlete at the Jacksonville school, setting a national record in the high jump by clearing five-foot-eight-inches with a two-step approach. He also wrestled at 112 pounds. Initially, he professes that there was nothing he liked about being a wrestler, having to spend hours in the gym while his friends goofed off. He is not convincing.
“It really helped me shape my attitude about different things,” he allows. “It had a big influence on me. … There’s a confidence I think it gives you. Once you get a joker in your hands, your hands are like your eyes. You can tell by grabbing a person by the wrist what’s going on – you grab them by the arm, you can tell, once you learn a few techniques. That was, in fact, my way of evening the playing field with the sighted world. OK, you can outrun me, you can definitely outdrive me, but let’s go to the ground. Let’s see what we can do down here.”
After graduation, Kantako returned to Springfield. He studied computers at Lincoln Land Community College, then switched to courses aimed at becoming a probation officer, a short-lived plan that ended, he says, when he was beaten by police and lost his remaining eyesight. He next tried communications, but the classes didn’t make sense.
“I went out there (to Lincoln Land) and they were trying to make me listen to Beethoven and shit,” he says. “I didn’t feel that was very important for me to be learning that stuff. That’s when I drifted away from school.”
He was young, living in the projects and very much sure of himself. He DJ’d at parties and rapped a bit: Reagan economics won’t you stand aside/Because there’s unemployed people trying to stay alive. His first brush with political activism was born from ulterior motive: One of his sisters had promised him $2 if he would attend a neighborhood meeting at the Hay Homes the night before a city council meeting. He doesn’t recall the issue.
“I’ll be honest with you: I went to get $2 so I could get me a beer,” Kantako recalls. “And she wouldn’t give me the $2 until the meeting was over. I was just agreeing with everything to get the meeting over – ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea, that’s a good idea, sounds good to me.’ Finally, one of the older ladies there who was a real good friend of my mom said to me ‘Wayne, you know how to talk on the microphone, you-all go with us.’”
The thirsty young man agreed, having no intention of actually following through, but he was in the audience at the next day’s city council meeting. He says he went because he didn’t want his mother to find out that he hadn’t kept a promise. He didn’t plan on going back.
“I heard the way the mayor was talking to people – Mike Houston, he’s the same mayor today,” Kantako recalls. “He’s crazy. He was just talking down to these people like they was stupid and shit like that, you know. I guess that’s when my time in the gym kind of got to me. In the gym, you just don’t do that. You’ve got someone that’s on your level, bang with him. But he was just tossing up weak people. So I got up and said something to him. He started off the same way with me. So I just said, ‘First of all, I’m not your nigger.’”
For Kantako, it was a point of no return, even if Houston today says that he doesn’t recall ever talking to the man who became the face of black radicalism in Springfield. The mayor, however, does recall the man.
“He was against whatever we were doing,” Houston says.
A proud rabble rouser
Springfield was deeply torn as Kantako turned radical during the Reagan Revolution.
The city gained national attention when a lawsuit filed under the federal Voting Rights Act, the first of its kind north of the Mason-Dixon Line, sought to change the form of government in a town where no black had been elected to the city council for 75 years. The case laid bare backroom dealings in a place where Democratic and Republican leaders agreed on who should run for mayor and how jobs should be filled. Blacks had no chance.
At first, Kantako tried working within the system, running for Democratic precinct committeeman. He lost, and badly. He says the election was rigged.
“I went over to the Democratic headquarters that night, Dick Durbin was there,” Kantako says. “He comes over to me and says ‘Are you ready to play?’ Me, being a little cocky fool, I said, ‘Play? Man, we got the votes. We don’t play with you motherfuckers.’ Shit, I got fifth place.”
After that, Kantako and others who supported his views began picketing polling places, urging blacks to boycott elections and passing out fliers headlined, “Have You Ever Felt More Like A Nigger?” The voting rights lawsuit, he decided, was a “pacification program.” The plaintiffs were educated black males, not anyone who represented the average Springfield black resident. And so Kantako became a thorn, intent on embarrassing the powers that be by any means necessary.
He came to relish city council meetings and led protestors from the Hay Homes to 26 consecutive council meetings, recalls Michael Townsend, a retired University of Illinois Springfield professor of social work.
“It was absolutely amazing that he could get anyone to go down there,” Townsend says. “Trying to organize anyone in public housing is practically an impossible task.”
Townsend recalls Kantako once sitting a four-year-old girl in the front row of a council meeting with a sign reading “Pat Ward Is A Big Fat Slob,” right in front of Ward, who served on the council as the city’s public safety commissioner. Kantako smiles at the memory.
“It became a game with us,” Kantako says. “We would ask (former Mayor Ossie) Langfelder if racism was a mortal or venal sin. … After awhile, it got to be fun to go down there and send the streets commissioner up, make him jump up and slam his shit down on the table. Boy, they would get so mad.”
The point, he says, was to prove that city fathers had clay feet.
“I wanted to show people that they weren’t like the Wizard of Oz – people go down there and they’re like, ‘These guys breathe fire and shit,’” Kantako says. “I wanted to show them that they’re not that tough.”
So far as Kantako was concerned, neither the plaintiffs nor the defendants in the voting rights lawsuit had the best interests of black people in mind and so he skewered both sides. His vitriol for James and Don Craven, the father-and-son legal team that handled the voting-rights case for the plaintiffs, matches his disdain for Houston.
The printer who created the fliers with the n-word had charged a considerable amount, Kantako says, and an old copying machine at the Craven law office represented a chance to save money in the future. A new machine was being delivered, with the vendor offering the Cravens a $100 discount if they turned in the old one, recalls Kantako, who initially supported the lawsuit and was attending meetings with the plaintiffs at the law office. He says that he and his supporters offered to buy the old machine for $100.
“They wouldn’t give us that machine for nothing in the world,” Kantako says. “That’s when the shit hit the fan, right there. I went from East Side activist family man to radical, all that shit. After that copying machine thing, we just broke off from everything.”
Don Craven says he doesn’t remember anything about a copying machine, nor does his father.
“Trust me on that,” Craven says. “But if it was that event that propelled him into his activist-radical days, I am proud to have been a part of it.”
“I can’t read, first of all, so I’m not very enthusiastic about it,” Kantako says. “Half the people I know can’t read, so that was just not viable.”
Given his experience as a DJ, Kantako decided a radio station would be better than a newspaper, so, with Townsend’s help, he got a mail-order transmitter for a few hundred bucks and plugged in. Some money for equipment came from the Catholic church, which had given a grant to the tenants rights association.
They could not have picked a better time than the fall of 1987.
With a substantial percentage of the city’s black population clustered in the Hay Homes, Kantako’s audience was within reach of the tiny transmitter. There were few, if any, radio stations that catered to a black audience, and certainly none that played uncensored songs by Ice T, NWA, Public Enemy and other then-controversial hip-hop groups that spiced messages of defiance with plenty of four-letter words. Over-the-air television with just a few stations was still dominant, and there was no Internet. And so Kantako’s pirate radio station became popular in the projects as much for jams that couldn’t be heard anywhere else as for the political proselytizing.
It wasn’t long before Kantako was in the headlines for a new reason.
Shortly after Kantako took to the airwaves, Springfield police complained to the Federal Communications Commission. They insisted they weren’t motivated by Kantako’s near-constant criticism and use of the word “pigs.” Rather, they were simply passing along complaints from citizens upset by naughty words.
“There were people in the Hay Homes complaining about him,” recalls former police chief Mike Walton, who now works for the Sangamon County sheriff’s office. “It’s his right to broadcast. He just shouldn’t use language that’s not acceptable to children.”
In 1989, police and an FCC official paid a visit and ordered him to unplug. He did, but only for a week. Then he sent a statement to the press and invited reporters to attend the reopening of his radio station.
“Mr. Readus will make a statement to the press and will respond to questions prior to his being taken into police custody,” reads the press release typed on tenants rights association stationary.
After speaking to reporters, Kantako went back on the air and called police, with a tape recorder rolling. Come and arrest me, he told an officer. He was put on hold, then told that local police didn’t have jurisdiction over violations of federal law. So he went to the federal building and tried to surrender himself, but no one was interested in locking him up. He has been daring authorities to arrest him ever since.
“On several occasions, I’ve tried to set them up, but they won’t go for it – ‘Nah, you have a nice day, sir,’” says Kantako, who dropped his birth name in the early 1990s and made it official by having a judge sign paperwork in 2003.
A letter campaign aimed at building support after his first confrontation with the FCC met with mixed results. The NAACP said no thanks, as did Bill Cosby. Noam Chomsky, however, provided advice and wrote a check for $50. The Catholic church held back the final check of a grant awarded to the tenants rights association after expressing concerns about illegal broadcasts.
But Kantako became a darling of the underground, with articles appearing in alternative newspapers as far away as Germany. Major newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sent reporters to Springfield to write about the blind man who defied the FCC and proved an inspiration to other pirate radio broadcasters throughout the nation. Pump Up The Volume, a 1990 movie starring Christian Slater as a high school student who starts his own radio station, fueled interest, and there were mentions of Kantako in Playboy, Spin, Mother Jones and The Utne Reader. He even made mainstream airwaves with a segment on All Things Considered broadcast on National Public Radio. Dozens of people around the country wrote letters voicing support and asking Kantako for advice on how to set up pirate radio stations.
“He started a whole movement that’s never been acknowledged or recognized in Springfield,” Townsend said.
He has proven unstoppable. Federal agents seized his equipment in 2000 after air traffic controllers at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport said that his signals were reaching pilots who could, potentially, believe that Kantako was providing directions. No planes fell from the sky, however, and Kantako has refused to pay fines levied by the FCC.
Interest and controversy has faded with the advent of the Internet. Now, anyone with a laptop can say most anything they want, and the message goes considerably farther than a mile or so. But there are still sprouts of celebrity in unexpected places. In 2011, a Danish hip-hop group with anarchist appeal released Viva Kantako Destroy Sony, an album anchored by a track called “Mbanna Kantako Radio” that features clips from Kantako broadcasts.
While pirate radio might seem a throwback, Kantako isn’t about to quit. Perhaps he is stubborn – he and his wife were, after all, the last people to move out of the Hay Homes before they were demolished in 1997.
Has he made a difference?
That’s hard to measure, Stratton says. It is hard to point out a concrete accomplishment, the former housing authority board chairman says, but Kantako raised awareness about important issues.
“I think he was effective in that,” Stratton allows.
Kantako wouldn’t necessarily disagree. We’re better off than we were 25 years ago, he says – if nothing else, people today cannot hide from the truth, and he hopes that he has helped educate people.
“I think we’re better off because that gives us a chance to get our act together,” he states.
Kantako still gets threatening letters from the FCC, most recently in 2011. But he is most proud of a 2000 restraining order signed by former U.S. District Court Judge Jeanne Scott, who commanded him to get a license or get off the air. He has it framed, hanging at the entrance to his living room.
“It says I will ‘cause immediate and irreparable damage to the United States,’” Kantako says. “I thought that was so cool.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.