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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 01:33 pm

CWLP's culture of hostility

Noose-hanging incidents signal need for change in boys-will-be-boys attitude

Mayor Tim Davlin speaks with Mike Williams at Aug. 5 rally.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE
As far as government workers in Springfield go, Mike Williams has been surprisingly candid. He has described the gamut of emotions raised in him when he returned from vacation to find a noose hanging near his shared workstation at City Water, Light and Power’s water purification facility in late July. And he has described a culture at the city-owned utility company that doesn’t necessarily discourage displays of hostility aimed at black workers.
Since going public with the news, Williams says some fellow workers have gone so far as accuse him of being a racist and a racial opportunist. The perception, as some fellow water workers have put it to him, is this: “I’ve been walking around waiting for something to happen so I could sue the city — that means I’ve been walking for two-and-a-half years,” Williams says.

“That’s not true,” he stated at a recent Springfield city council meeting that followed a rally held in his support. “I’m not that person.”

Williams’ claims of a hostile work environment are bolstered by one CWLP employee who spoke to Illinois Times on the condition that their name not be printed. Part of the problem, the worker says, is that CWLP fosters “a very unprofessional [workplace] environment,” where a boys-will-be-boys attitude prevails and locker room high jinks and name-calling are commonplace.

“It’s like high school all over again,” the worker says. And as is often the case at private high schools, many CWLP workers come from prominent well-connected political families, including the two men allegedly involved in Williams’ noose.

According to several sources familiar with the situation, Kevin Conway, the brother of Mayor Tim Davlin’s ex-wife, Nancy, allegedly made the noose. It was subsequently hung, allegedly, by Gregory Selinger, nephew to city personnel director Larry Selinger and former Ward 9 Ald. Tom Selinger.
Mike Williams
PHOTO BY Ginny lee

Williams, founder of the organization Unity for Our Community and organizer of Springfield’s annual Juneteenth celebration, himself is no political lightweight. But, explains the employee: “Mike is a powerful man, but they wanted to show him white power. They wanted to send a message: There’s more of us, we have political power, and you’re lucky to be here.”

Williams has also stated that the noose hanging was not the first time he faced racism while on the job. For a crowd gathered for a press conference at Union Baptist church last week, Williams described a 2006 incident in which a white co-worker nearly drowned. Williams said their supervisor reacted to the news by saying “he should’ve sent the brother down there,” referring to Williams.

Davlin, last week responding to a series of recent racially-motivated incidents in the city, including a second alleged noose hanging, said: “We have to realize the hatred must stop.”

According to the CWLP worker who spoke with IT, such behavior won’t cease unless the guilty parties are “hit in the pocket” and fired.

“Somebody who is going to put a noose on somebody’s desk is way beyond the point of understanding dialogue,” says the employee, who nevertheless remains optimistic that the culture at CWLP can change.

“There’s hope, but it’s not in coffee and doughnuts and a seminar. Justice has a way of making people feel better.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com
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