Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 03:56 pm
Where do we go from here?
It’s no secret that Springfield is hung up on race. Now at the center of the most recent racial episode, Mike Williams talks about his noose and offers ideas on how to make things better.
After four days off, Mike Williams was relaxed and feeling pretty good when he showed up for his shift at the City Water, Light and Power water treatment plant at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 26.
As with the start of every workday, the 46-year old assistant water works operator entered the main control room shared by about eight employees, was briefed by the person he was relieving from duty, checked in with the senior operator, made his daily rounds and collected water samples.
When he got back to his station, he remembered that time sheets were due that day and he spun around in his chair to grab the form out of his mailbox.
That’s when he saw it. Williams noticed a two- to three-foot-long piece of cord fashioned into a noose, which he describes as a small replica akin to a souvenir, hanging from the material safety data sheets binder which contains information about chemicals used at the plant.
“If I was to wiggle it, I could put it around my neck,” Williams says. “It could definitely be used to kill yourself – or kill someone.”
A call to a colleague Williams knew was at work during the time he was on vacation confirmed that the rope had been hanging there for a couple of days. “Nobody thought this might be offensive?,” Williams asked his friend. “That’s a racist statement to me.”
CWLP general manager Tod Renfrow, water division manager Tom Skelly and, at Williams’ behest, Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson all showed up on the scene, as did Springfield police. In a recent interview with Illinois Times, Williams declined to confirm the identities of the two individuals involved, referring to them as “the noose maker” and “the noose hanger.”
However, IT confirmed independently that the individual who allegedly fashioned the noose was Kevin Conway and the person who allegedly displayed it was Gregory Selinger.
According to the redacted police report, Selinger indicated that he “hung the rope on the wire rack just to get it out of the way” and that he has “no issues or problems” with Williams and that “they all get along.”
Conway told police that after grabbing it from a drawer that he “winded the rope up while just toying with it and then tied it into what he calls a sportsman knot,” similar to one he uses to tie fishing hooks.
Conway added: “There was no racial intent; there is no intent to intimidate or offend anybody and this just got out of hand.”
But clearly there is something in the water at CWLP and it seems like some people have had one glass too many.
Up until that point, Williams’ was the latest in a series of disturbing racially motivated crimes in the capital city. Around the time of Williams’ noose hanging, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus building was vandalized with the f- and n-words, and a man was arrested after accosting a group of teenagers at a supermarket by yelling racial epithets at them.
Then, just hours after the unveiling of a monument to commemorate the 1908 Springfield race riot, another CWLP employee, Bradley Barber, was arrested for hanging yet another noose from a forklift at the utility’s garage on Groth Street.
Taken together — and the mere fact that Springfieldians have resorted to referring to the rope hangings as Noose No. 1 and Noose No. 2 — these events signal the need to confront racism with more than task forces and policy seminars.
Everyone knows that it’s time for Springfield to roll up its sleeves to do the hard work of ending racism. It’s just that nobody knows how.
One form of anti-racism work that could serve as a model for CWLP%u2008and other Springfield organizations is an ongoing effort by the Dominican Sisters of Springfield.
In 2004, after determining that theirs was a racist community, the sisters established an anti-racism team, says Douglas King, a community volunteer chosen to assist with the project.
They used a training program designed by Matteson-based Crossroads Ministries, whose mission is to dismantle systemic racism through training of what are known as transformation teams. King, a 25-year Springfield resident, points out that the program focuses on institutions rather than individuals.
“Institutional racism causes us to be racist,” King says. “If you transform institutions, you’re going to be transforming people, people’s hearts, people’s minds. And once you do those things, ultimately you’re going to change the community that you live in.”
Mike Williams would like to change hearts and minds at CWLP and throughout Springfield. But before he can do that, however, he knows he’ll have to change some peoples’ minds about Mike Williams.
Talk radio show callers have referred to Williams as a felon and he says he’s heard rumors that some local reporters have been digging into his past and phoning his family’s political enemies to dig up dirt.
“I knew that if I did this, it was going to open me up to everything that I’ve ever done,” says Williams, who admits to having used and sold drugs.
But, he welcomes the criticism. “My past is an inspiration to a lot of people. Those things that I’ve done have made me the person that I am now. Not that I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I’ve learned from that.”
Such attacks discourage other minorities, who may be experiencing racism while working for the city of Springfield, from coming forward, he says.
“Why would you want to come forward knowing that nothing is going to be done about it, you’re going to be publicly attacked, and the media are going to dig up everything you’ve done wrong just to destroy your character and destroy you as a person, just to make you look bad?
“Who would want to go through that?”
W illiams has the highest profile of any individual embroiled in the town’s racial brouhahas of recent years.
His involvement in local Democratic politics as well as his leadership in Unity for Our Community, East Side Pride, and One in a Million Inc., which hosts the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration, made him not only a dumb target but also places him in a position to come up with solutions.
As a lifelong Springfield resident, Williams says he wants to see an end to a cycle that’s become all too common in Springfield. In this scenario, nonwhite, non-male Springfield city workers, feeling like they’re the victims of unlawful discrimination, file a civil rights lawsuit against the city, which only breeds more hostility and contempt.
He hopes that other pastors follow the example of the Rev. Wesley Robinson-McNeese and the Rev. Cliff Hayes who recently delivered a joint sermon on racism. Williams is also involved in a new organization known as Springfield Citizens Against Racism (SCAR).
However, immediate change will have to come from the city’s leadership, he says. CWLP general manager Todd Renfrow has ordered mandatory sensitivity training and issued a “no tolerance” letter to workers at the water plant. The warning was copied to Davlin and city corporation counsel Jenifer Johnson.
Those are steps in the right direction, but Williams believes failure to discipline the original noose hanger and noose maker sends the message that such behavior will be tolerated.
“What does anyone have to be afraid of if no one ever gets punished? If you were to punish the first two, Mr. [Bradley] Barber wouldn’t have done the second one,” Williams says.
“Tim and Todd have the chance to do something unprecedented and they’re letting it bypass them,” he says, referring to Davlin and Renfrow.
“They actually have a chance to take another racial situation, as many as have happened in the past, and hardly anything has been done about it. They have a chance to take this one and institute changes at CWLP and the city of Springfield.”
However, Williams won’t say whether he thinks the noose maker and the noose hanger deserve to be fired. “That’s a city decision,” he says. Last week, Sangamon County state’s attorney John Schmidt sent the matter to a grand jury and told Williams that he would receive a subpoena when it was time to testify.
Cultural sensitivity training, he says, should have the same effect as other forms of training employees undergo.
An apt metaphor, he says, is the annual safety seminars about the various chemicals involved with making Springfield’s water drinkable.
“So we know what the chemicals are and what they’ll do. If sensitivity training is conducted next week, then the week after that, all those people have been told what’s insensitive, whether it’s a swastika, a noose, a hood, certain words, certain statements, drawings. Then they’ll know better.”
Contact R.L. Nave at firstname.lastname@example.org