The Public Square

WILL - The Public Square - December 31, 2004

Jan Kruse of Urbana on shutting down the School of the Americas

My name is Jan Kruse. I am a retired first grade school teacher. I am also a member of AWARE the local Anti War anti Racism Effort.

Why would over 20 people from the Urbana/Champaign community drive hundreds of miles in the middle of November to join 16,000 others to stand in front of a closed, locked and razor wire topped gate in the state of Georgia? The weekend before Thanksgiving this very event did indeed take place.

Just on the other side of this gate and the surrounding barb-wired fence a road leads to a special school. Starting 15 years ago thousands have come to stand vigil at this place. This year my husband, a friend and my 80-year-old father and I made the trip from Illinois.

We drove to the city of Columbus, Georgia and to Fort Benning, which houses this special school for training military personnel from the US, and from other countries in the Americas. The school is known as the School of the Americas. Perhaps you have not heard of it. Many say it is hidden in plain sight. Amnesty International has dedicated a major report recommending that this facility provide appropriate reparations for any violations of human rights training to which the SOA contributed, including criminal prosecution, redress for victims and their families and a public apology.

To quote the Amnesty International report it states "the US army school of Americas offered training and education to Latin American soldiers some of whom went on to commit human rights violations including the 1989 murder in El Salvador of 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The School of America had used manuals that advocated practices such as torture, extortion, kidnapping and execution." SOA graduates include Rios Montt who lead the counterinsurgency campaign, in which hundreds of thousand of indigenous Guatemalan civilians were murdered, tortured and displaced. Recently this facility underwent a name change to The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation. However, those who stands outside the gates at Fort Benning are not convinced anything other than the name has changed. We are still calling it the SOA: School of Assassins.

In light of what we have recently learned about the treatment of detainee in Iraq and Guantanamo I am unconvinced that the US is not still sanctioning the use of torture in regard to those we are holding prisoner in various places around the world.

The group that gathers each year at the gates of Fort Benning are calling for its closing and for holding the school accountable for the past and possible current practices that have been committed by those trained by the US military in our name and with our tax dollars.

Now that you are aware of this facility maybe next year you might consider joining people just like yourself from this community as they converge at the gates of Fort Benning to demand that the gates be opened and the school for torture training inside be forever closed. Torture training is not a moral value.

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WILL - The Public Square - December 17, 2004

Chris Pawlicki of Champaign asks, Why Not Walmart?

Hi, My name is Chris Pawlicki . I am a 42 year old father of two currently working at the University of Illinois Music Library.

Why not Wal-Mart ?

For the consumers in the U.S. who enjoy a bargain, and I include myself in this category, it is perhaps hard to understand why any group of individuals would protest the building of a Wal-Mart in their community. Who doesn't want Low Prices?

Well, for starters, Japan.

In a recent op-ed piece on NPR, Ev Ehrlich, former Under Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration, bemoaned the backwards state of Japanese retailing that "is dominated by thousands of mom and pop stores." These stores, it seems, are protected in Japan by a large store law, that doesn't allow a large retailer to set up shop "next door" to a small business.

To Ehrlich, this is economic madness. Despite the "beautifully wrapped individual pieces of fruit" that these stores sell, Ehrlich sees these mom and pop stores as inefficient relics that "sit on small ,yet incredibily valuable, parcels of urban land."

The answer to this inefficiency? Wal-Mart! According to Ehrlich, a large retailer, like Wal-Mart, would force producers to increase productivity. This, in time, would "drive smaller retailers out of business" and "free up land for better uses."

America made this choice years ago and, now, Ehrlich believes the U.S. government should "assist" Japan in making their decision, using the clout of U.S. trade negotiators to "put all their political and diplomatic support behind a company that can" crack the Japanese market.

Quite aside from the cultural arrogance implicit in Ehrlich's piece (We, obviously, know what's best for the Japanese economy), it seems like a good time to re-think the cost involved in Low Prices.

Having given up our own mom and pop stores for blocks and blocks of megastores and concrete, is there, perhaps, a voice inside that questions that cost of Low Prices? Locally owned and operated. Craftsmanship. Beautifully wrapped.

And, can we hear Mr. Ehrlich's talk of producers being "forced to operate efficiently" and not smile at the sanguine economic euphemism for sweat shop labor? Yes, we get inexpensive clothes at Wal-Mart, but at what cost? Efficient 12-15 hour shifts. Efficient pay scales that keep workers in poverty. Efficient anti-union business practices. Would Wal-Mart be able to maintain their competitive advantage over the mom and pop stores, in fact, if Mr. Ehrlich was forced to substitute "humanely" for "efficiently?"

There's no need to look abroad to experience Wal-Mart's "efficiency." Ask Safeway about the effects of Wal-Mart's efficient non-union labor on their ability to provide a living wage to their employees or ask a Wal-Mart employee about the company's efficient rationing of health care. In the race to the bottom, Wal-Mart is efficiently leading the way.

Personally, I think these costs are too high to support Wal-Mart and I hope Japan does not bow to U.S. pressure to accept the very high costs of Low Prices.

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WILL - The Public Square - December 10, 2004

Joan Villa from White Heath on holiday bargain shopping

This is Joan Villa. I'm a business journalist who has observed retail and consumer trends for two decades. But as a shopper, I love a bargain as much as anyone. Who doesn't get a rush when they pay $12.99 for a name-brand belt that has the original $32 tag still on it?

So on a recent Saturday I set out among scores of other holiday shoppers to find gifts and other irresistible bargains. At one of those chains that advertises big brands at discount prices, a pair of New Balance running shoes jumped out at me. They were stacked on an end-cap with 40 percent off -- in big letters -- the already discounted price of $44.95 - (discount to be taken at register).

Now - let me be clear -- I already have running shoes. But immediately my skin flushed with excitement at the thought I could have NEW running shoes and pay next to nothing for them. Like a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, I began weighing the pros and cons of shoes that would cost me $26.95.

Now New Balance is a pretty high-end brand, and I bought my current pair just six months ago. Those were expensive -- over $100 - so I did a Web search to find the best price, and eventually bought them for about 15 percent off. But here I was in the store -- facing the same brand shoes for one-quarter of the $100 I had recently paid and -- I was feeling vaguely uncomfortable. I couldn't shake two sayings that sprang to mind: You get what you pay for and, If a price seems to good to be true, it probably is.

What accounted for this huge price difference, I wondered? It could be that these shoes are "out of style" or an older model, but to the tune of $75? Is there really that much mark-up in running shoes? Or - another possibility -- have these high-end manufacturers started producing a lower-quality product to meet the needs of discounters and bargain-hunters like me?

Either way, there's a limit to how low a price even I will pay. I moved on to another store where I found a set of three cobalt blue ceramic canisters - the kind with a wooden spoon on the side for ground coffee or flour - for $9.99. Again, I jumped at the box - thinking how good they'd look on my counter -- and then hesitated. Not so long ago, these canisters would cost $40 or more. I would have carefully considered the purchase, and appreciated it a great deal. Now I worry that I'm getting these bargains thanks to the labor of some low-paid Chinese worker, and at the expense of American jobs. In the end, I didn't buy the shoes or the canisters, and my own reaction puzzled me.

Shopping for the holidays should be joyous, but here I was feeling downright queasy among aisles cluttered with Christmas merchandise that I just knew was headed for people who don't need more "stuff." And what isn't sold will be red-tagged for after-holiday clearance, when our consuming feels stale, overindulgent and a little sad like our wilted post-Christmas tree.

Once upon a time, discounts were limited to after Christmas, and rarely before. Now it's no longer unusual to see stores stay open from 5 a.m. to midnight, making the old 12-hour sale look quaint. Has greed replaced giving? Do we feel obligated to "buy" in order to celebrate our most holy season? And even though we are buying and buying, retail year-over-year sales remain sluggish, perhaps due to all the discounting. We're purchasing more but paying less, so retailers' gross sales don't reflect the real impact of all that credit-card swiping. And from the consumer side, price no longer seems connected to worth.

Leaving the store empty-handed, I couldn't help wondering just who benefits when consumers buy more but pay less. Not retailers, not American workers, and in the end I'm afraid, maybe not even us die-hard bargain-hunters.

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WILL - The Public Square - December 03, 2004

Jenny Hill on Urbana’s recent at-large ballot referendum and Kelsey Kellner on the Allerton Park dee

Jenny Hill on Urbana's recent at-large ballot referendum and Kelsey Kellner on the Allerton Park deer hunt. Both are students from the Urbana Middle school enrichment program
Jenny Hill on Urbana's recent at-large ballot referendum and Kelsey Kellner on the Allerton Park deer hunt. Both are students from the Urbana Middle school enrichment program

Hi. My name is Jenny Hill. I am 11 years old and a member of the Urbana Middle School enrichment program.

By now the subject of whether or not to add 2 at-large seats in the city council has already been settled. But was it necessary to vote on it?

This is an issue that turns people of the same political party against each other. Some people feel strongly about different sides of this subject, and they have their own reasons to support them. One example is my parents. They are both democrats, but my dad was in favor of the addition of 2 at-large seats, and my mom was against it. All around my neighborhood (mostly democrats) the signs about this issue were not all alike.

After hearing my parents' opinions, I figured out that the "+2 group" believed that adding 2 at-large seats could help our mayor's position in the city council get stronger. The "no at large group" felt that the mayor didn't give good enough reasons to add these seats because he brought up the subject too quickly.

My own conclusion is that the issue of the 2 at-large seats should not have deserved a place on the 2004 ballot because there are much more urgent issues that our country has to face right now.

Hi, my name is Kelsey Kellner. I am a sixth grade student at Urbana Middle School. Anupama Pilbrow is the author of this commentary.

There are an estimated 383 deer at Allerton Park. Exactly 162 permits are given out to the hunters per season. 24 hunters are allowed in Allerton Park per week. The population of deer doubles about every five years. Let's say that there was a limit (even though there actually is a limit on the number of hunters, but none for the amount of deer that they can take) and that each hunter took three deer, there would be 127 deer left. Should this happen? NO WAY! That is a tremendous decrease in deer.

A few good ideas for decreasing the population of deer without bow hunting, and possibly mutilating, deer would be creating a "force-out", or tranquilizing and then moving the deer to a better location, such as an abandoned forest. With archery you must shoot in curtain places such as the neck; if you neglect to do this then the deer will become mutilated, and could die months later because of infection. Managing deer populations is a necessity, but surely we can do it in a more civilized manner.

Deer do not deserve to suffer, and mutilation is not a humane solution. As Mark Straka stated in a letter to the News-Gazette, "Kids do not need to see a gut shot deer bleed out in the 4-H Camp!

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