The controversy revolves around the proposed building of a new prison here. The village of Hopkins Park is a rural town of 800 people located in the overwhelmingly Black township of Pembroke, about 60 miles south of Chicago.
About 50 Pembroke residents attended a stormy township board meeting February 7 to question the prison construction. Many were members of the Pembroke Advocates for Truth (PAT), which was formed to counter a campaign orchestrated in favor of building the 1,800-bed prison facility for female felons.
Louise Campbell-Anthony and Mark Anthony, who raise goats and organic produce, are drafting a position paper called "Reconsider 'Prison Economics' for Pembroke." The paper explains the historic racist "economic and political strangulation of Pembroke." While the development of the prison is seen by PAT members as a threat to their farms, tourism and their "rural way of life," this is much more than a "not-in-my-backyard" effort. The position paper maintains, "Not only is our future economic independence in jeopardy, but our moral integrity and obligation to the welfare of our own African-American people is asked to be compromised."
Campbell-Anthony, a leader of PAT, does not describe prisoners as criminals. "Crime is manufactured by racist American society. They grew the drugs. They created the ghettos. My perspective is that they are the criminals. Prisoners are people who have been captured. This has been our condition since we were brought here from Africa."
Pamela Basu is a farmer and leader of PAT. Basu explained Pembroke Township's residents are the descendants of Blacks who migrated from the South in search of jobs in northern industrial cities like Chicago in the 1940s. Some of them did not take to city life, and while they wanted to go back to farming, they did not want to go back to the Jim Crow South. So many of them founded small agricultural communities like Pembroke Township.
The land in Pembroke Township was not coveted by other farmers because it was thought to be too sandy and marshy. Campbell-Anthony says that over the years "the Black settlers worked the soil and now we have good topsoil."
The plots are small, but well suited to organic farming. Many of the local farmers have received certification from the Organic Crop Improvement Association. The environmental impact of the prison directly threatens the certification of the Basu farm.
She and her husband are founding members of the Pembroke Farmers Cooperative. They own the largest farm in the recently formed co-op, which is made up of nearly 20 farms in the township. "The lights, sewers, and other waste from the prison alone will have disastrous effects on my crops," she said.
Reporting on the February 7 meeting, the Kankakee Daily Journal said, "As residents raised their criticism...the meeting became a forum for taxpayers' protests and questions." The newspaper also reported that "by the end of the evening, mostly due to public demand, Larry Gibbs resigned his position on the township planning board so [Johari] Cole could be appointed by the supervisor." Cole is a leader of PAT who played a prominent role in protesting the prison at the meeting.
Pamela Basu's farm is directly threatened by the prison. Her job as Hopkins Park treasurer has also been in jeopardy as a result of her outspoken opposition to the prison.
Tony Perry, a wealthy real estate developer with close ties to Governor Ryan, orchestrated the Hopkins Park application for the prison. He holds options on the land where the prison is slated to be built and is a paid consultant for Hopkins Park. In a January 12 letter to Hopkins Park mayor David Leggett, Perry threatened to sever relations with the village unless Basu was reprimanded and fired "if she is not of a mind to stop criticism of the project goals and myself."
The village board responded in a meeting that evening by passing a motion to give the mayor authority to fire village employees for "continued poor service and improprieties," and a motion "that no employee make any statements to the press unless authorized by the mayor."
While Basu remains employed by the village, she says she believes the groundwork is being laid for her firing. She continues to speak out and organize against the prison as a private citizen.
The village board's action became the lead story of the February 8 Daily Journal, with the headline "Hopkins Park gags clerk, prison foe" splashed across the front page.
Pembroke Advocates for Truth was formed soon after what was advertised as a public hearing on the prison. But that meeting last fall turned out to be a staged pro-prison rally with hundreds of people bussed in from outside the village to whoop it up for the prison in front of media cameras.
"The Chicago Sun-Times ran a spread on how poor and dilapidated our houses are, with no good farming land, no sources of income, people with outhouses. When we were on a radio call-in show on WVON in Chicago, people said we should be glad to get a prison. We are constantly portrayed as a helpless community that has no hope for anything," explained Campbell-Anthony.
Hopeless and helpless are probably the last words a person would think of when describing the members of the Pembroke Advocates for Truth. At a January PAT meeting in Hopkins Park, five leaders of the group met to map out a strategy to "expose and educate" to stop the prison. All but one person at the meeting farms, in addition to gaining income from outside jobs or small businesses.
The group has put together packets of newspaper clippings, newsletters, items pulled down from the Internet, and other information to bolster their case. They are reaching out to local residents, others fighting urban sprawl, and civil liberties groups. They have gathered 200 signatures on a petition against the prison. And they closely monitor the various planning board and other governmental meetings that they can intervene in to take their case to a wider public. Interest was expressed at the meeting in bringing Rubin "Hurricane" Carter to the area to help with their fight. Carter was released from prison after serving more than 20 years on frame-up charges of murder and is the subject of the currently running Hollywood movie "The Hurricane."
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home