By Amy Harwath / For CU-CitizenAccess.org — Some people who are in a dire financial situation may feel that they have no choice but to deal drugs.
But Aaron Ammons was not in a dire situation. And he still dealt drugs.
“I got caught up into the streets, wanting to hang out, be cool, do what everybody else was doing, trying to make money,” he said.
That was over 20 years ago. Now Ammons, 41, a building service worker at the University of Illinois, is drug-free, and he has become a leader in the black community on justice issues.
For nearly two years he has been in the news as an organizer of strong opposition to the potential expansion to the Champaign County satellite jail to replace the current deficient downtown facility. He said his criminal past gives him a unique perspective.
But it took some time for him to get where he is today.
In his early 20’s, he said he had multiple drug-related run-ins with the law and was incarcerated in the Champaign County downtown jail several times in the 1990s. The longest he was in the jail for one felony conviction was three and a half weeks, he said.
Ammons said he grew up in a decent home. Both his parents raised him, though his mother worked a lot. He said he was a normal kid and never really got into trouble with the police. But when he was older, he left Parkland College to go deal on the streets.
“There’s one thing to be on the high horse, but it’s another thing to know how to ride it,” said Reverend Zernial Bogan, who has known Ammons’s family for nearly 40 years. “If you’re on that high horse and you’re not really riding it like you should, you’re gonna fall. And Aaron has learned that. And he has taken the fall – but he hasn’t just laid there; he’s gotten up.”
Ammons, who is African American, recites poetry at SPEAK cafe and has authored two books of poetry: “Journey Through Another Man’s Mind,” and “As I Travel My Creation.” With a stocky build and a natural spoken-word cadence to his voice, he wears African tunics called dashikis as a way, he says, to connect himself back to his African roots.
Ammons recalls that even in the midst of all the drugs, he always liked to read. Books such as “A Long Walk to Freedom,” “Message to the Black Man,” “How to Eat to Live,” “Message in a Bottle,” even while doing drugs, inspired him and made him think in a way he never had before.
The turning point, however, was a tape: a recording of Minister Louis Farrakhan, a black social and religious leader of the controversial Nation of Islam. The tape came to Ammons in the haze of addiction, when he says he was hitting rock bottom.
“As I listened to the tape, I felt like he was berating me and challenging me and having a conversation with only me,” Ammons said. “And I couldn’t shake him.”
One day, after listening to the recording, Ammons says he went back upstairs to get high. But this high was a different experience. His heart began racing. His body was tingling all over. He felt afraid.
He said he dropped down to his knees and prayed.
“OK God, I understand,” he said. “I understand that I cannot do this by myself. And I want you to be the head of all my decisions from this day forward.”
A Life Progression
In 2000, Ammons was working at a gas station, the Lincolnshire Marathon at the corner of Kirby and Mattis.
One morning, the phone rang. When the caller ID showed that it was his manager calling, he thought, “I am not going to work today.” He wasn’t even supposed to work that day. But something made him answer the phone.
His manager could not make it to work that day and needed someone to come in to work. So he did.
Always an avid reader, Ammons was in the middle of the book “The Souls of Black Folk,” by W. B. Dubois. He brought it to work and left it on the counter. People came in and out, without commenting on the book.
But one man did.
He walked in and inquired about the book. Was he reading it for school? the man asked. No, Ammons replied. Just for his own personal benefit. Then the man left.
But he came back.
“Have you ever been interested in helping youth?” the man asked.
“It’s a dream of mine,” Ammons replied.
“Well I’m Dr. Pat Nizzi,” the man said. “I work at Chanute Transition Center. We want you to work with us.”
One week later, Ammons began working at Chanute, a program located in Rantoul, Ill. designed to help youth transition from detention centers to the real world.
Social Justice Advocate
Since then and for the past 11 years, Ammons has been an involved and outspoken member of the Champaign-Urbana Community about not only jail issues, but also education and equal opportunities for African American-owned businesses.
“That’s one of the marks of being able to be a leader, is to be able to take your adversity and actually grow from it,” said Rev. Bogan. “To be able to strengthen yourself from your adversity and not let it pull you down.”
Ammons and his wife, Carol, co-founded the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice in 2003 in response to the Champaign Police department’s attempt to purchase stun guns and tasers. Ammons is a member of the Breakfast Club (a group of black men who get together on Saturdays to discuss the political landscape of Champaign-Urbana), president of Citizens with Convictions (an organization made up of formerly incarcerated individuals who are advocates for the rights of inmates), and vice president of the Service Employees International Union local affiliate.
Ammons’s wife is a member of the Champaign County Board representing District 5 and an active advocate in community social justice issues.
“There are those within the county board who think she leaks information to CU Citizens and stuff like that,” Ammons said.
He added with a laugh, “But I can neither confirm nor deny that.”
“All public information is public information,” his wife said. “Whether they want you to know or not is the other part of the discussion.”
Both Ammons and his wife believe that constructing an add-on to the satellite jail and closing the downtown jail will not bring about true change or social justice. They believe alternatives to incarceration and educational and employment programs are better at fixing a community’s justice system.
However, they said they believe that some members of the county board are set on construction and won’t change their minds, despite opposition.
“The vigor and the passion in which they are proceeding with this proposal — regardless of all of the pushback and the resistance that it’s getting – they’re still pushing forward with this,” Ammons said.
Some members of the County Board, however, don’t see it that way.
“We are moving slowly. We are not in a hurry,” said C. Pius Weibel, County Board Chair and representative from District 7. “We have not done anything quickly. We are inching along. So if they think we’re doing a rushed job: baloney.”
Opposition Through Unity
People dressed in jeans, jackets and hoodies held poster board signs in October with bold, black writing: “Prisons Perpetuate Poverty,” and “Education, not Incarceration.”
Holding a bullhorn, Ammons led a chant during the march:
“You’re Not Alone! The Sheriff’s Got a Drone!”
Outside of the Champaign County satellite jail on Lierman Avenue, another chant was taken up:
“No new jail! No new jail!”
A group of approximately 85 people joined in the ninth annual Unity March held by Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice on October 20. The group marched the mile distance from the downtown jail on Main Street to the satellite jail on Lierman Avenue, holding signs and banners protesting the possible expansion of the Champaign County jail system.
The citizen’s group is a local organization that “seeks to expose and remedy racial and class inequities,” according to its website. Other groups joined in the Unity March, including Citizens with Convictions, the Immigration Forum, Graduate Employees’ Organization, Planner’s Network (a group of students and university faculty who advocate for community development for social justice), Jobs with Justice, and the Breakfast Club. These are groups that are generally concerned with community social justice.
With his past jail experience and political activism, Ammons has become an unofficial figurehead for the citizen movement against county jail construction.
“I believe that people can get the information to help rehabilitate themselves and to change their course of actions while they’re in jail,” Aaron said. “I would like to see that type of programming in there.”
There are some rehab programs offered. One is Moral Reconation Therapy, which is offered to the women in the downtown jail. It is “designed to foster moral development in treatment-resistant clients,” according to an information sheet about the program. It involves counseling that helps “clients” confront the consequences of their behavior.
Both proponents and opponents of jail construction have acknowledged that high unemployment is a reason for the disproportionate amount of African American arrests and incarcerations.
“Unemployment is very high,” said Weibel. “If you’re unemployed, well, it’s easy to get into trouble.”
Low-level drug dealers and users, Ammons said, are most likely dealing or using because of lack of employment. Add a felony conviction and the negative stigma attached to that, and “you almost create this permanent underclass of individuals,” he said.
“My suffering is not a badge of honor for me. But it’s not something I’m ashamed of,” Ammons said. “I use it now to give me insight, an opportunity to reach people who are in similar situations, in ways that other people just cannot.”