Jim Dey: Kilgore supporters standing by their man
Nothing is so exciting as a cause celebre on a university campus; hence, the denunciations of a "rightwing smear campaign" are ringing loud and clear on the University of Illinois campus.
The UI faculty and administration have been twisting themselves in knots since news broke recently that the university had decided not to renew the contract of James Kilgore, the onetime Symbionese Liberation Army soldier, fugitive, inmate and parolee who turned into a man for all seasons on campus.
There are at least three competing online petition drives urging the UI to reverse its decision, even as Chancellor Phyllis Wise has appointed a faculty committee to review Kilgore's status.
An international petition drive sponsored by change.org has attracted more than 1,600 signatures.
Although Kilgore's local support has been loud and public, those taking up his cause do not yet represent, as a percentage of the UI population, a majority.
A community petition drive started by Stephanie Burch, one of Kilgore's associates from a local prisoner reform group, attracted 250 signatures as of Wednesday morning. Another petition drive, one sponsored by William Sullivan, who serves with Kilgore on the county's jail advisory committee, had 310 names.
Among the signatories on the faculty petition were such faculty and staff luminaries as Cary Nelson, Stephen Kaufman, Robert McChesney, former Democratic congressional candidate David Green, Robert Warrior and Julian Rappaport. Professor Rappaport also serves with Kilgore on the jail advisory committee.
Kilgore's faculty-member wife, Teresa Barnes, also showed support for her spouse by signing the petition.
The numbers fall far short of constituting a significant percentage of the UI faculty, staff and support employees. The chancellor's office report that the UI has 2,458 faculty members — 1,851 tenured or on tenure track and 697 on visiting faculty or instructional status. The UI employs an additional 3,665 as administrative and academic professionals and 4,136 in support staff.
Emotions run high
But the battle over Kilgore is more about emotion than numbers. Ever since The News-Gazette's early February story detailing Kilgore's background, his supporters have openly questioned a report they have, by turns, denounced either as an unfair expose that revealed unflattering details of Kilgore's past or a story that was not news because Kilgore has never denied his colorful background.
Even The Daily Illini, the university's student newspaper, has felt compelled to address the issue, maintaining it knew all about Kilgore's personal history but remained silent.
"The Daily Illini chose not to report on Kilgore's status as a former felon because we did not believe that his status was news. Kilgore's status as an instructor was no different than any other instructor," the DI said in a recent editorial.
Well, perhaps no different than any other faculty members who were members of the SLA, the cultish 1970s revolutionary group whose members assassinated Oakland's school superintendent, severely wounded another school administrator in the same incident and later kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and held her for ransom.
Most of the gang, a collection of young, upper middle-class white men and women led by a black escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze, was killed in a highly publicized shoot-out with the Los Angeles Police. But a second iteration of the SLA, one that included Kilgore, rose from the ashes and went on a bank robbery and bombing spree.
Historical accounts indicate that Kilgore, who was heavily armed, participated in two robberies, one in which a bank customer was shot and killed. Further, Patty Hearst described Kilgore in her memoir "Every Secret Thing" as a skilled thief and bomb-maker who masterminded a series of terror explosions in the San Francisco area under the moniker not of the SLA, but of the New World Liberation Front.
Following Hearst's arrest in 1975, Kilgore began a multi-decade life as a fugitive, stealing the name Charles John Pape from a dead Seattle child. He was arrested in 2002 in South Africa and, after pleading guilty to murder, explosives and passport violation charges in state and federal court in California, served a relatively brief prison sentence.
Paroled in 2009, he joined his faculty wife and went to work as the UI as both a faculty and staff member. Now his supporters claim it's unfair for a person who's served his time not to be retained by the UI because of the fallout from an unflattering news story. Further, some faculty members contend that Kilgore's academic freedom is being violated. The accusations of political persecution get wilder from there.
A Sandusky, Ohio, supporter of Kilgore writes that "firing this man is implicitly supporting fascism."
A Denver, Colo., backer said the universities need convicted felons on their faculty.
"Any educational institutions that DOESN'T have faculty who have direct experience as a victim of the Prison-Industrial-Complex is unworthy of the title 'Educational Institution.'"
"We need to counter the right-wing smear campaign employed by this conservative garbage," writes a man from Portland, Ore.
A retired college professor from Oberlin, Ohio, calls the controversy "a (sic) egregious abuse of power and seemingly cowardly response to pressure from the prison-industrial complex" on the part of the UI.
'An ugly scene'
Pete Brook, who operates the website prisonphotography.org, issued a ringing endorsement of Kilgore, calling him a "respected researcher, writer, educator and criminal justice activist" who is a "former political insurgent who took up arms against federal authorities." He said that Kilgore is a victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy whose members are determined to build a new county jail.
"I believe it is motivated by a will to limit Kilgore's very effective activism against a proposed new jail in Champaign-Urbana. Kilgore has proven himself a very adept strategist and activist leader in (Champaign-Urbana). Kilgore was instrumental in the fight," Brook wrote, summarizing "an ugly scene unfolding in Illinois right now."
For his part, Kilgore has said little about his situation but not remained silent.
"I think this has grave implications for academic freedom, and I think it has grave implications for the employment prospects for people who have criminal backgrounds, felony convictions in particular," he said.
However, Kilgore is a prolific writer, penning novels and articles that give his perspective on what he considers to be an unfair criminal justice system and the people who run it. Recounting in a February article a conversation he had regarding the county jail situation with Sheriff Dan Walsh, Kilgore made no attempt to sugarcoat his feelings.
"At the end of the meeting, (Walsh) reached out to shake my hand, and I accepted. I thought about washing that hand as soon as I got home but I didn't," he wrote.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 217-351-5369.