On our way up to Milwaukee from St. Louis (on Oct 5th) we stopped in Galesburg, Illinois (pop: 31k). One of our hosts in Toledo grew up in Galesburg and said that we needed to stop in his hometown on our tour of Rust Belt cities.
Galesburg has a rich industrial and artistic history. It was the halfway point on the railroad between Chicago and St. Louis, making it a cultural hub. Touring artists would stop and perform in town, and they still do – some of the headlining artists at Chicago’s jazz festivals headline Knox College’s Rootabega Festival in Galesburg. In fact, Galesburg is where the Marx Brothers got their name. More recently Galesburg made national news because the Maytag factory that was the biggest employer in town closed in 2004. Obama made Galesburg the site for a number of his major economic speeches and visited the town eight or nine times during his campaigns for the Senate and the White House.
Before visiting Galesburg, Katie spoke with Dave Bevard, former union president with the machinists and now an organizer with Illinois Federation of Teachers. Dave was a leader with the union throughout the Maytag closure and the attempt of many workers to re-train and find new work. He summed up the decline in town by saying: “Obama didn’t change. NAFTA didn’t go away. Things didn’t get better.”
Through our friend we connected with Walt Mcallister – a local cafe owner who ran for mayor this spring – and stopped in to talk with him and his son Stephen.
Walt explained his campaign and the current politics of the city. The incumbent mayor (who won reelection this spring) is very wealthy and owns the radio station, which plays Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck almost exclusively, and he effectively also controls the newspaper. The mayor outspent Walt’s campaign by tens of thousands of dollars while Walt focused on grassroots, door-to-door outreach in the less well-off areas.
The center of his campaign for mayor was a call for a new community center. The site of the previous community center had been sold to build a new brewpub, with false promises that it would be replaced by a new one. Walt and many in the community wanted to build a new $3 million community center to provide basic services, classes, resources, and space to the community. Seventy percent of the students at the local high school receive free or reduced meals in schools, and a community center would be a place to offer academic support, or even mentoring programs with the seniors in town.
But the town’s conservative power structure was having none of it. Walt says that to a surprising and confusing degree, they fought, lied, cheated, and stole to oppose funding a new community center. One of the mailings that was sent out during the election claimed he was going to “waste taxpayer dollars” on a community center. This attack falls in line with the nationwide right-wing attack on non-monetized commons, which are vital spaces for people of all stripes to meet each other, and for organizing to happen. It also aligns with insidious right-wing rhetoric rhetoric around “taxpayer dollars” that implies that any distributive use of public funds is a theft of the moneyed class for some supposedly undeserved use by poor people.
Katie asked Walt where he gets his values from and he replied, “I’m a born again Christian… a Matthew 5 socialist.” To him the central teachings of Christianity are: give to the poor, sell everything you own, and give to those who ask. They briefly talked about how one of their good friends in town is very kind on a personal level, but deeply conservative, and would interpret those Christian teachings through a hierarchal charity framework, rather than a systemic justice framework.
Walt contends that the mayor and city council keep on getting elected because many town leaders who oppose them work for nonprofits that are dependent on city funding. They are scared to speak out because their organizations will be crippled if funding is pulled for political retaliation. The results in the mayoral campaign fell to a north-south split in Galesburg. Walt won the districts on the south side that tend to be poorer, and the incumbent won the affluent north side.
Walt’s campaign was also fueled by his love for his three kids – 21, 20, and 19 years old – who swear they will leave town as soon as possible. His kids, like many young people and most Knox College grads, can’t imagine a future for themselves in Galesburg – leading to massive brain drain.
Walt’s oldest son, Stephen McAllister, has started an online community newspaper called Unify Galesburg. He started the publication out of frustration at the amount of misinformation spread by corporate and right-wing media, and the vested interests in having people misinformed, divided and squabbling over their little pieces. His aim is to unify people by getting out a common, shared knowledge of whats happening, both positive and negative. He has some great investigative reporting about the heroine crisis in town, which the local paper (owned by the mayor) refused to cover until recently, and a recent piece about neglect at a local home for the developmentally disabled.
Our friend from Galesburg tells us the online news source has stirred up controversy that doesn’t fall on clean liberal-conservative lines. The outlet published a piece, for example, pointing out that the mayor profits from far-right hate speech on his radio station, and noting that members of every minority group in Galesburg have come under attack by it. The mayor’s daughter – a teacher’s union member and Gay-Straight Alliance founder at her high school – then wrote an open letter defending her dad, though it is less than convincing to us: claiming that the radio content will only change if Galesburg’s “demographics” change, and that the real way to unify Galesburg is to “get on his team.”
Stephen is going to graduate from Knox College this spring, and he can’t wait to get out of Galesburg (a fact that breaks his dad’s heart). He said that there aren’t any high-paying jobs, elected officials are living in the past trying to attract manufacturing jobs, and they value the opening of a Burger King over attracting the STEM or clean energy / tech jobs for which many Knox College students study. He’s looking to move “anywhere,” and currently applying for reporting internships in DC.
Walt and Stephen’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election was that support for Trump in Galesburg – which normally votes Democratic unlike the surrounding rural areas – was more of a fluke and a reflection on Clinton, than a real rise in Republican support in the city. President Bill Clinton orchestrated NAFTA, and this colored many former Maytag workers’ views of Hillary Clinton. There have also been challenging racial dynamics in recent times, as one of Galesburg’s main employers now is a prison holding people from Chicago – and families of prisoners have begun moving to the city to be closer to their loved ones. People in town talk in very thinly veiled racist terms about how the city’s problems Chicago’s fault.
After talking with Walt and Stephen we headed over to a divey bar named Duffy’s where one sign outside let us know that inside we could find the “friendliest people in town,” and another sign said “Home of the poor and unknown”. We ordered two PBRs and a bag of popcorn. Sam asked the lady behind the bar if anyone if there had worked for Maytag. She chuckled and said, “Oh, probably half the people in here,” turned to the bar and half-yelled, “Who here used to work for Maytag?” Several hands went up, and we spread out to talk to folks.
Sam talked to a middle-aged white man who had worked at Maytag for seven years. He said that as a union job it paid well, though he didn’t have the highly technically skilled jobs that other workers had. Many of those workers had found other good jobs at plants in the area, but years later he was now working at the bar where we were having a drink. He registered surprisingly little anger about the closure, though he said if Sam had asked him years ago he would’ve had stronger things to say. To Sam’s surprise, he also didn’t think it had much to do with how people voted in November. The local and state governments had tried their best to keep Maytag, he said, and what else could be done beyond that? Though he supposed Clinton’s association with NAFTA didn’t help her any.
Katie sat down with two white men in their 50s who had recently made a mid-life career transition into working as conductors for the BNSF railroad yard in town. They both took a risk leaving their existing jobs to compete with men half their ages, but it was worth the risk for the better pay. Katie asked, “What would you want to tell two east coast liberals? What are we missing?” Without missing a beat, the one man’s reply was, “Stop talking about racism. I don’t see race. I grew up in a black neighborhood.” Conversations we’ve had later in the trip have discussed how organizing the working class around economic interests can have the result of bridging racial divides, perhaps bypassing the struggle of directly engaging on racial analyses – we’re not sure how we feel about this!
After the bar we got delicious hot dogs at a restaurant across the street called Coney Island – Galesburg’s longest running restaurant, open since 1921. The restaurant was opened by German immigrants and is now owned and operated by a Mexican-American family, part of which has been there for decades. The daughter of the family worked at the Maytag plant, and along with many other workers, signed the last refrigerator they built there.
As we drove away from Galesburg, Kate’s advice from Bloomington to not romanticize people clicked. We realized that we won’t be able to chat people up in a bar or a diner and then be able to write the article that perfectly describes and encapsulates the underlying reasons for the 2016 election results and rise in overt white supremacy. It’s just not that simple. People are people, not topic sentences of New York Times articles. This sounds obvious, and on some level we knew this already, but our conversations in Galesburg made it real. We re-committed to continuing to listen, learn, and take time.
Also, new to our reading list is Boom, Bust, Exodus by Chad Broughton that tells the detailed story of industrial decline that happened in Galesburg and other Rust Belt cities – and its impact in Mexican factory towns.