Discover more from Eric Zorn: The Picayune Sentinel
Yes, you should be dismayed that Jason Van Dyke is about to walk free
Blame the trial judge and the Illinois Supreme Court
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1-20-2022 (issue No. 19)
Most of those who wrote in or commented on last week’s main story were supportive of University of Illinois at Chicago Law School professor Jason Kilborn, who remains under fire for having used a redacted version of a racial slur on a final exam in December 2020.
Tuesday’s paywalled issue featured a selection of letters from supporters of the student protesters along with my response to their dissents. I’m grateful that so many of you have signed on to support this independent effort and that the back-and-forth is increasingly robust every week. Become a patron and join the fun!
Today’s PS includes:
An aggrieved explanation why Jason Van Dyke is about to be released
The latest news on human composting
Thoughts on the WBEZ-FM acquisition of the Sun-Times and “Fast Eddie’s” plea to be let out of prison
Mary Schmich reveals her word of 2022
Last week’s winning tweet
The number of people who have stolen/repeated this tweet and passed it off as their own is mind-boggling. But I believe this relatively unheralded version — pushed out by a bot that shares jokes from a Reddit thread — was the first.
In last place in the recent poll was “I'm old, but not ‘warn all my friends I got hacked on Facebook’ old” by @lloydrang, and my sense is that it did so poorly because many members of the electorate don’t understand that when someone uses your name and photos to pose as you and solicit friend requests, you’ve been impersonated, not “hacked.”
Impersonating someone on Facebook is ridiculously easy and doesn’t require password access to your account, just a bit of clipping and pasting. I’m astounded that Facebook isn’t better at cracking down on it. When you’ve been impersonated, your own account is still secure. You don’t need to panic. You just need to post on your wall a notice to ignore friend requests from someone pretending to be you in order to reach your inner circle with ads for sunglasses or other products.
OK, it wasn’t a hilarious tweet. I’ll give you that.
Scroll down to read this week’s nominees or click here to vote in the new poll.
Feeble justice and the too-light sentence for killer cop Jason Van Dyke
The law and common sense demanded that former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke spend longer than three years in prison for pumping 16 shots into Laquan McDonald, and his scheduled release two weeks from today is an affront to justice.
A Cook County jury convicted Van Dyke, now 43, in October 2019 of one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for killing McDonald as McDonald attempted to walk away from him. You’ve probably seen the dismaying dashcam video.
Because second-degree murder can cover such a wide range of circumstances, Illinois law allows for sentences ranging from probation to 20 years in prison. Aggravated battery with a firearm, however, carries a mandatory sentence of six to 30 years.
Trial Judge Vincent Gaughan chose to sentence Van Dyke on the technically lesser charge because, he said from the bench, it was more serious that Van Dyke had committed murder (though in the second degree) than that he’d shot McDonald.
His decision flew in the face of the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling in People v. Lee.
In that case, defendant Ivory Lee had been convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm — just like Van Dyke! — after a fatal altercation. A trial judge had sentenced Lee to 20 years for second-degree murder and, concurrently, to 15 years for aggravated battery with a firearm.
The court majority agreed with Lee’s contention that, since the aggravated battery charge was technically the more serious charge, the lesser offense of second-degree murder should be thrown out and the shorter sentence should apply.
“This court has always held that, under the one-act, one-crime rule, the less serious offense must be vacated,” wrote Justice Thomas Kilbride in the opinion. “It is common sense that the legislature would provide greater punishment for crimes it deems more serious. … (Therefore) the second-degree murder conviction, as the less serious offense, should have been vacated.”
Gaughan cited a dissenting opinion in the case when sentencing Van Dyke on the lesser charge to a prison sentence far more lenient than the 18 to 20 years that prosecutors had asked for. With “good time credit,” he’d be out in just over three years.
(As I noted at the time, prisoners don’t earn “good time” by sewing clothes for the poor, teaching literacy classes, administering haircuts or otherwise performing noble deeds. They earn it by simply not committing new offenses that earn new punishments.)
Attorney General Kwame Raoul and special prosecutor Joseph McMahon quickly asked the Illinois Supreme Court to declare Gaughan’s sentencing decision invalid as a matter of law. But the court’s three Republican justices joined with Democratic Justice Anne Burke to reject the petition without comment.
Anne Burke is married to indicted Ald. Ed Burke, 14th. Make of that what you will.
Included in the court’s order were the opposing views of Justice Thomas Kilbride and Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. “A dissenting opinion is not the law of Illinois. Indeed it is the opposite,” Neville wrote. “Allowing a sentence to stand where it has been challenged as contrary to Supreme Court precedent and contrary to statutory sentencing guidelines would lead to public contempt for and ridicule of our court system as well as nullify our mandate under the Constitution to supervise our court system.”
Organized opponents to Van Dyke’s scheduled release Feb. 3 have called for a 16-day shutdown of public transit in Chicago — one day for each shot Van Dyke fired — and are demanding that U.S. Attorney John R. Lausch Jr. file federal charges against Van Dyke for violating McDonald’s civil rights.
Shutting down the CTA (not that it’s really going to happen) seems likely to inflict the most pain on lower-income people who use trains and buses to get to their jobs, their schools, their stores and their doctors.
And as much as I’d like to see Van Dyke spend more time behind bars, I’m very uneasy about putting him on trial again based on the exact same acts. I realize that, because of the division between the state and federal justice systems, such a prosecution wouldn’t technically amount to double jeopardy for Van Dyke, but it sure would feel like double jeopardy.
What a way to go!
‘Human composting’ bill introduced in Springfield
Chicago Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy last week introduced HB 4552, an amendment to state regulations on cremation that expands the definition of cremation to include “natural organic reduction,” which the bill defines as “accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.”
Human composting, in other words.
The process is based on a method already used for disposing of livestock in which the body is placed in a reusable container along with wood chips, alfalfa, straw wildflowers, leaves or other organic materials that accelerate decomposition as the container rocks or rotates. Heating the container to 131 degrees kills off any dangerous pathogens.
In roughly a month, everything has turned into about two wheelbarrows worth of odorless, nutrient-rich soil that biologists say is “unrecognizable visually, chemically or microbiologically as human remains” and suitable for use in a garden or elsewhere on private property.
The idea may not appeal to you, but the idea of being flooded with toxic formaldehyde and stuck in a box underground or being incinerated into ashy remains upon my demise doesn’t appeal to me. When my time comes, I’ll prefer, if the General Assembly allows it, to return to the natural environment that has sustained and nourished me and all my ancestors. With luck, I will play a small part in sustaining and nourishing future generations.
I want to decay into topsoil where I can return the favor to the flowers, the plants, the bushes and trees that have fed me in so many ways for so long. I want to, almost literally, push up daisies.
Natural organic reduction of human cadavers is already legal in the states of Washington, Colorado and Oregon. And according to Oregon funeral director Elizabeth Fournier, an unofficial spokeswoman for the human composting movement, the idea has purchase in Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine and New York as well as, now, Illinois.
But look out for the religious busybodies. In California, a human composting bill appeared certain to pass after a legislative committee OK’d it by a vote of 19-0 last April. But then, Fournier said, the Catholic Church began raising objections.
“The body is sacred and must be treated with all due dignity and respect,” wrote John Horvat II in “Human Composting: The Ultimate Denial of the Soul,” a column in Crisis Magazine, a conservative Catholic publication. Natural organic reduction “fits into a … worldview where everything is reduced to matter in constant transformation,” he wrote, summarizing the problem that the church has with the idea. “The body is not just a shell or husk that can be cast aside once the soul has departed” because “the body that is buried belongs to the person who will one day be resurrected and will once again enjoy possession of it.”
I will not bother to try to pick apart that absurd theology and try to reconcile it with cremation, which the church allows. But if God can resurrect a body from skeletons or ashes, God could logically do the same with loamy compost, what?
And, for the record, I will argue strenuously against anyone who tries to compel Horvat or anyone else to render himself or his loved ones into a couple of wheelbarrows of useful dirt.
But I won’t stand for the idea that his or anyone else’s religious notions about death, dignity, the soul and respect for corpses should prevent me or those who feel as I do from participating in an ecologically sound rite after death.
This issue is about the freedom of the individual to see dignity and morality in rejoining the circle of life. And the freedom to act on the belief that there can be nothing more sanctified than living on to repay, if only at the microbial level, the planet that gave you so much.
And, anyway, human composting is really not much different than the choice of a “green burial” in a biodegradable box or shroud that is currently allowed in Illinois. Such burials, which don’t use embalming fluids and have a tiny carbon footprint, are available at a handful of cemeteries. But they don’t allow you to end up in your own yard or on a forest floor.
The very religious freedom that Catholics hold so dear demands that the General Assembly pass this bill.
News & Views
News: WBEZ-FM’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times may spell the end of the newspaper’s political endorsements.
View: In the Sun-Times story announcing this significant joining of local media forces, David Roder writes, “Executives said that as a nonprofit, the Sun-Times can no longer endorse political candidates.”
Shortly before the Salt Lake Tribune became the first major daily U.S. newspaper to go nonprofit in late 2019, columnist George Pyle wrote:
Under the IRS code, nonprofits can speak up on matters of public concern. Often, that’s their reason for existence. But they are not allowed to support or oppose candidates for public office. …
Most institutional editorials are a conversation between the newspaper and the reader about someone else. We put before you the argument that they — Congress, Legislature, City Council, police chief, transit agency — should, or should not, do something. …
The endorsement editorial is the one where we urge you, the reader, to take an action only you can take.
If this change comes to pass, it would mark a return to the no-endorsements policy the Sun-Times adhered to from early 2012 until late 2014, when the paper ended the policy with an endorsement of Republican challenger Bruce Rauner over incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. Why? Because the race was “simply too important to the future of Illinois for us to stay silent. … We cannot stand on the sidelines.”
Of course when I say “the paper,” I mean the suits who owned the Sun-Times back then. Readers with only a passing familiarity with the process might think that major endorsements reflect the views of the majority of the reporters and editors or even the majority of the members of the editorial board. But this isn’t necessarily the case.
Endorsement editorials can be useful in how they frame races and reveal deficiencies in candidates, but reporting and commentary that compare candidates but stop short of offering straight up endorsements can be just as useful, if not more useful. And nothing will prevent the new Sun-Times from doing just that sort of journalism and analysis.
Straight-up pick-one endorsements will be out, which will be a loss only when it comes to down-ballot races for lesser offices and judgeships.
Either way, as a reader/listener and a taxpayer, I’m optimistic about the partnership, which looks likely to take effect at the end of the month.
The formal announcement said Chicago Public Media (WBEZ-FM 91.5) and the Sun-Times “will continue to serve their respective audiences, and the newsrooms will operate separately with their own editors and maintain their editorial independence,” though it also says both shops will “broaden their impact by sharing content … across more platforms — broadcast, print, websites, podcasts, newsletters, mobile apps, social media, and community engagement and live events.”
How this synergy will work in practice isn’t clear to me, but the potential is enormous. Both outlets are staffed by tremendously talented journalists, and the combination of talent plus the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Foundation and investor Michael Sacks will make it the most formidable media organization in town.
Former Sun-Times business editor Dan Miller offered a more sobering view in the comments area of Robert Feder’s Daily Herald media blog:
I still don't get it. The Sun-Times is an unprofitable operation, and an infusion of cash from outsiders and "shared content" with WBEZ won't change that (profit and loss) balance sheet. Mr. Sacks and particularly the MacArthur foundation are not known for subsidizing money-losing investments on an on-going basis. Either painful economies lie ahead for the Bright One or Public Media will find it took on a heavy anchor.
The philanthropic investment here is creditable but, for me, annoying. Where were these foundations when my former colleagues at the Tribune were desperately looking for big-money people to save the paper from the clutches of the hedge fund that has now taken over?
News: Former Ald. Ed Vrdolyak’s lawyers say he has Alzheimer’s disease and should be released from prison.
View: It’s inhumane to imprison people experiencing dementia, I don’t care how corrupt or racist they used to be.
I have no particular sympathy for “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, leader of the white opposition to Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s. He pleaded guilty in March 2019 to federal charges that he obstructed an IRS investigation into the $12 million he claimed from the $9.3 billion settlement tobacco companies paid to Illinois in the late 1990s, even though he did no work on the case.
The Tribune reported that Vrodlyak, now 84, “suffers from dementia, and experienced harrowing and emotional turmoil” in prison, according to his lawyers, “including disorientation and uncontrollable crying.”
In an emergency petition in federal court, his attorneys claim that “Vrdolyak’s grasp of reality seems to have been severed.”
Assuming this diagnosis can be independently verified, decency demands that he be released to proper care.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that it’s unconstitutional to execute those with dementia because they lack rational understanding of their crimes. Similar logic should apply to imprisoning those with dementia. Locking them up makes no sense and is unnecessarily costly.
News: Many candidates under consideration for the jobs of head coach and general manager of the Chicago Bears.
View: Make it stop! I’m a fan. I’m eager to read all about the new head coach and the new general manager as soon as the team brass makes a decision. What are their philosophies? What are their track records? Why should anyone believe they won’t be hounded out of town within four years, as the last three coaches have been.
But I refuse to waste even one minute learning about each of the men on the list of potential hires. It’s as pointless and tedious an exercise as familiarizing yourself with potential draft picks, candidates, U.S. Supreme Court nominees. The public has no input into such decisions and will have plenty of time to analyze the picks once they’re made.
And when it comes to head coaches, most of the speculation will be rank guesswork anyway. Their fortunes rise and fall unpredictably. After the 2018 Bears season, Matt Nagy won Coach of the Year honors from the Pro Football Writers Association and Associated Press. After the 2021 season, Nagy was buzzard meat.
Alert me when they hire someone, my sports media brethren. Until then, devote your resources to real stories.
News: New 464 area code comes this Friday to 708 region.
View: Area codes? How quaint. I hardly know anyone’s area code anymore because I hardly know anyone’s phone number anymore. I can’t even tell you my kids’ numbers. My cell has a 312 area code, which feels nice and old school, I guess, but who even notices?
Land of Linkin’
Host Mike Pesca’s fabulous podcast “The Gist” returns Monday after his preposterous parting with Slate last February. In the preview, Pesca says, “The backbone of my show is a strong resistance to doctrine, a firm commitment to challenging preconceptions, a delight in puzzling out contradictions and a glee in unmasking fallaciousness.”
Ostensibly one of the virtues of the online game craze Wordle is that there’s just one puzzle a day and then the puzzle disappears, so you can’t get into one of those addictive trances where you can’t stop playing. Well, Metzger Media has eliminated that virtue by posting links to an archive of every Wordle puzzle plus a Wordle puzzle generator. You’re welcome. By the way, if you’re going to play the Thursday puzzle, join the podcast panel and make “Mince” your opening word. Then we can compare scores in a meaningful way.
By the way, “Being Bad at Wordle Doesn't Mean You're Dumb. Here's Why.”
“9 Times They Probably Should Have Stopped The Presses,” a 2008 compendium from Mental Floss, can now be updated with the story of how last Sunday’s newspapers nationwide featured Parade magazine’s glowing 100th birthday tribute to Betty White, even though she had died 17 days earlier. “Little did (White’s) parents realize their only child would … live to see her 100th birthday,” said the story in the preprinted insert.
No POOPOO. Monica Eng of Axios has lots of examples of “Rejected Illinois vanity plate requests.”
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO and candidate for both governor and mayor Paul Vallas published an op-ed in Tuesday’s Tribune, “Some fast, necessary solutions that would improve the Chicago Police Department and reduce violent crime.” He doesn’t put a price tag on his grab bag of notions, but cost may be no object to those increasingly alarmed by crime. And gee, think he’s planning to run for mayor again?
If you’ve never heard former Cub manager Lee Elia’s profane, splenetic rant as captured on tape by the recently deceased sports reporter Les Grobstein, listen on YouTube. In my audio archives is a fake commercial for the Cubs using much of this audio. I’d like to credit the source if anyone knows it (or wants to own up to it).
The Picayune Sentinel on the air: On Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., WCPT-AM 820 host Joan Esposito and I chat about ideas raised in that day’s issue. The listen-live link is here.
Rick W. I share your dismay at the Tribune’s dismissal of Joe (“Did he get too close to popping someone’s balloon?”) Fournier. The guy is a civic, maybe national, treasure, as close as this generation has come to Jules Feiffer.
Jules Feiffer, with his wild, kinetic style, is a great comparison. The explanation for Fournier’s ouster that Tribune editorial page editor Chris Jones gave to Robert Feder — “We’re just trying now to include a multiplicity of voices (and cartoonists) on the opinion pages.” — isn’t persuasive. Fournier is one of the best liberal cartoonists in the country, and while it might make sense to cut back on the frequency of his appearances in the paper to make room for conservative cartoons, it makes no sense to eliminate his role completely if offering a multiplicity of voices is actually the goal.
Mary Schmich’s word of the year is…
My former colleague Mary Schmich posts column-like thoughts most Tuesdays on Facebook. Here is this week’s offering:
On New Year’s Day in 1994, a month after I turned 40, I sat down in a coffeehouse called Coffee Chicago with a pen and a yellow legal pad and at the top of a lined page wrote “New Year’s Resolutions.”
I stared at the words. What did I want to resolve, to change? Naming a resolution is sometimes the hardest part of making it.
And then I wrote, “Do yoga.”
I stared at the yellow page again. Do yoga? What did that mean? Where would I do yoga? Why did I want to do yoga? What exactly was yoga? There was very little yoga in Chicago then, and it would be another few years before yoga was a full-blown trend. I didn’t know a single soul who did it. The gym was for step and jazzercise and weights; it had no yoga. “Namaste” wasn’t yet the stuff of T-shirts and jokes. Lululemon—yes, children, it’s true!—did not yet exist.
But I’d dabbled with yoga briefly after college in California, thanks to a friend who had given me a little paperback called “Richard Hittleman’s Yoga 28-day Exercise Plan.” It featured a young, long-haired woman in a leotard and promised, right there on the cover, that in four weeks I could unlock “the secrets of a lifetime of health, beauty and profound peace of mind.”
Who wouldn’t want that?
So periodically for a while, I’d come home late at night, usually after two or three drinks, open the book and try to contort myself like the woman in the leotard. This was 1976, however, and the culture was not ready for yoga. The culture wanted to run! Nike was new. Running for the masses was new.
I bought a pair of Nikes and took to running 5, then 8, then 12 miles a day. I forgot about yoga.
Something about it must have lodged in my mind, though, because two decades later in that Chicago coffeehouse, even though I was still running, I knew I needed something new, different, more. To the extent that I understood my impulse to do yoga I knew only that I needed to open up—physically, spiritually, emotionally. The invisible hand guiding my pen that day told me yoga might be the way.
I’d seen a corner storefront studio with a sign that said Wild Onion Yoga several times while driving around so I stopped by and signed up for my first class. The teacher was a guy in dorky bloomer shorts. There were 2 other students. It felt a little weird, but later that day I told a friend about it. “I don’t know what it was,” I remember saying, “and it was even a little boring, but I think it may change my life.”
And it has.
For a couple of years, though I went to class only once every few weeks, I felt I was doing yoga. Then during a period of great distress, I started doing it once a week, sometimes twice, then almost every day. I searched for books and videos and workshops and found a few; yoga had begun to bubble into cultural view. Sting was doing it!
Still, it seemed freakish to a lot of people. It made some of my friends nervous. Had I become Hindu? Buddhist? Was yoga a cult? Was I a servant to a guru? Were there kinky sex practices involved?
No to all of the above. All I could say, though I wasn’t very interested in explaining or defending it, and I definitely wasn’t out to proselytize, was that I really liked it. It was an opportunity to get acquainted with my body and myself in a new way. It was a chance to come into a quiet, uncluttered space with a few other people to move and breathe, sometimes to reflect on the mysteries of life, and to come out feeling a little clearer and steadier, healthier.
I’ve been doing yoga for 27 years now, teaching it for more than 20. I think of it as the only New Year’s resolution I ever kept. It’s also the umbrella resolution for all the others, all those hopeful vows that require constant renewal—resolutions to keep moving, to breathe, to notice, to focus, to be considerate of others, to try not to do harm, to notice where I’m pointlessly gripping and to let it go.
And that leads me to my guiding word of the year. For several years in my Tribune column, I nudged readers to pick a guiding word for the new year. Several people have written me lately to ask if I’d chosen a word for 2022. I hadn’t. I couldn’t find the right one, though any of the previous ones—pause, help, slow—could serve.
And then it hit me: “aparigraha.”
It’s a Sanskrit term that’s translated in various ways: not grasping, not seizing, non-attachment, non-greediness, not taking more than you need, letting go, relaxing your grip. It’s often applied to material possessions but applicable in other ways—to your constructed identities, for example. And it applies to yoga poses and other physical endeavors that as we get older may no longer be useful.
One of the photos with this post is of Vanda Scaravalli, an Italian woman who died in 1999 at the age of 100. I stumbled on her book “Awakening the Spine” in my early yoga days and loved it not because she was still doing big backbends into old age—fun to see, but not right for everyone—but because she had a relaxed view of the practice.
She warned against making yoga esoteric and called it simply “an agreeable appointment with the body.”
She also cautioned “Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose.” I remind myself of that every time I realize that doing some poses I did a quarter of a century ago aren’t a great idea now.
I’m not preaching on behalf of yoga here, just sharing some thoughts on a practice that has helped me greatly for a very long time. Any practice that lets you retreat from the jangle of the world long enough to calm down and return to the jangle more steadily is good.
Some days that practice may just mean reciting a few right words, like “Relax your grip.” — Mary Schmich.
Mark Maxwell, Capitol Bureau chief for WCIA-TV in Springfield, joined the Mincing Rascals panel this week for our new Election 2022 segment, which easily could have taken the whole hour.
Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page.
The new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
Not looking at your phone while watching a TV show is the new reading a book. — @WendyMolyneux
Larry Hagman: Dreams of Jeannie. Larry Hangman: D_ea_s _f _ea_ _ie. — @Darlainky
The ghost that shares the upstairs bathroom with us would like a word. — @theregoesrichie
Establish dominance by replying "You're better than this" on every one of their joke tweets. — @meantomyself
Sometimes in the middle of tweeting and retweeting I ask myself, did a jogger just bounce off my windshield? — @topaz_kell
Canadian bacon is like regular bacon but it’s apologetic about the amount of sodium. — @Shade510
[Assumptions Anonymous meeting] I think we all know why we're here. — @mxmclain
I'm no travel agent, but I can tell you where to go. — @topaz_kell
Medal, mettle, metal and meddle are four reasons why the world hates English. — @UnFitz
Diet Coke: Making people feel better about ordering two Big Macs and a large fry since 1982. — @TheBoydP
Click here to vote in the poll. For instructions and guidelines regarding the poll, click here. Become a paid subscriber to receive most weeks a curated sample of visual tweets that don’t fit the regular poll format.
I first heard “The Bramble and the Rose” at a concert by Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin in 1978, the year they were married. And for a time thought it was simply the best song ever. I no longer think that. In fact I no longer think that “best song ever” is a coherent idea, with all due “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to Rolling Stone magazine.
The blending of the voices here is distinctive and sublime, Ringer’s thorny rasp and McCaslin’s floral tones suggesting brambles and roses. They separated in 1989, and Ringer died in 1992 at age 56. McCaslin, now 75, is battling a Parkinson’s-like disease and no longer sings.
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