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Rep. Bryant: Words ‘twisted’ by Pritzker staff on Confederate Railroad cancellation

Carbondale Southern Illinoisan

Wednesday, July 10, 2019  |  Article  |  By Gabriel Neely-Streit The Southern Illinoisan

Governor (44) , Minorities (66) , State Fair, Fairs

CARBONDALE — A meeting between Southern Illinois state Rep. Terri Bryant and executive staffers of Gov. J.B. Pritzker has yielded more details about the state’s decision to cancel a performance by the band Confederate Railroad at the Du Quoin State Fair, apparently over their use of the name and symbols of the confederacy.

Bryant, R-Murphysboro, met with three executive staffers, including Pritzker Chief of Staff Anne Caprara and Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell, on Monday in Chicago.

“I was informed in no uncertain terms, that the decision to cancel CR (Confederate Railroad) was made by the Pritzker administration, including the two people sitting with me at the table,” Bryant posted on Facebook Monday night. “They affirmed that the decision was not made by Du Quoin Fair officials or by Director Sullivan.”

Since the meeting, the Pritzker administration has also released a statement explaining why it canceled the country-rock band, whose album covers and merchandise sometimes feature Confederate flags.

“This administration’s guiding principle is that the State of Illinois will not use state resources to promote symbols of racism. Symbols of hate cannot and will not represent the values of the Land of Lincoln,” wrote spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh.

Staffers communicated the same reasoning to Bryant on Monday, she said.

However, her attempts to urge Pritzker’s team to reinstate the band, citing freedom of speech concerns, were unsuccessful, she said. And that discussion appears to have fanned the flames of a statewide debate.

As indicated to the political blog Capitol Fax by Pritzker Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Emily Bittner, the governor’s staff was “sorely disappointed” by Bryant’s incorrect recap of the meeting, posted to her Facebook page Monday night.

Bryant, in turn, says Bittner’s account of the meeting “twisted” her words.

According to Bittner, Bryant began the meeting by lecturing two African American staffers on “why the Confederate flag should be acceptable based on ‘heritage.’”

In Bryant’s recollection, she was the one getting lectured, she said.

“There were five people in that room, and everyone’s perception is going to be a little different,” she said. “I did try to tell them the Confederate flag might mean something different south of I-70 than it does in Chicago.”

To be clear, Bryant said, she is not advocating for the Confederate flag.

“I think to many people the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery and of armed insurrection,” Bryant said. “I don’t like the flag, I wouldn’t have it in my home, and I understand that it makes some of my constituents uncomfortable. But I wouldn’t keep someone else from flying at their house.”

Bryant places great value on freedom of expression, she said.

But her refusal to take an anti-flag stance in her Facebook criticism led Bittner to publicly question whether Bryant was using her platform “to publicly exploit themes of division and racism.”

Bryant denies that claim, but said she understands the frustrations of people calling for a boycott of the Du Quoin State Fair, in response to the cancellation.

A Facebook group discussing that possibility now has over 2,800 members. Meanwhile, Bryant’s Facebook post recounting the Pritzker-team meeting has circulated widely.

A Facebook group called #boycottduquoinstatefair has reached more than 2,400 members in four days, drawing national attention as members discuss their frustration with the cancellation and plan their protest. Meanwhile, several Southern Illinois venues are working to book the band for a local makeup show.

“I knew people were mad, but to have 135,000 views in less than 12 hours, I was shocked,” she said.

Bryant does not support a boycott, but like many who plan to protest, she believes the Confederate Railroad decision is hypocritical.

She said as much in her meeting with the Pritzker team.

“I wanted an explanation for the booking of Snoop Dogg in Springfield considering his album cover has a picture of what appears to be a dead President Trump on a slab covered with a flag while Snoop Dogg stands over him in a defiant manner,” Bryant wrote on Facebook after the meeting. “I argued that if Confederate Railroad is canceled, then Snoop Dogg should be canceled, too.”

The rapper is scheduled to perform Aug. 16 at the Springfield State Fair.

His 2017 album “Make America Crip Again," which features the image Bryant mentioned, was classified as “political satire” by Pritzker spokesperson Abudayyeh in a Tuesday statement.

It is “categorically different” from the Confederate flag, Abudayyeh wrote, which is “a symbol of hate, oppression and bloodshed.”

Snoop’s songs contain other material some find offensive, denigrating women and glorifying violence, including against police.

But that’s not comparable to the flag, which “continues to be used as a symbol of racism and oppression, particularly at white supremacist rallies and marches,” the administration later added.

Bryant acknowledged there is a difference between censoring artistic expression and declining to promote it, for instance by refusing to book an artist for a show.

But to her, canceling the band falls in the “censorship” category. And that’s hard to justify.

“Government censorship is a dangerous, slippery slope,” she said. “What is and is not allowed on state property? Will vendors be allowed to sell Confederate flags? What about people who do temporary tattoos at the fair? Or is it just about whoever is in control of the government at the time, how far those First Amendment rights go?"

In the Monday meeting, Deputy Gov. Mitchell indicated those kinds of decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis, Bryant said.

A better way to handle things, she suggested, would be to issue written rules for what is acceptable and not acceptable at state facilities.

And, she added, the governor’s office should have taken responsibility for the cancellation from the beginning, instead of leaving local officials in Southern Illinois to face criticism.

Understanding that she wouldn’t immediately change the governor’s mind on Confederate Railroad, Bryant made a different pitch near the meeting’s end.

“I asked them to realize that the Du Quoin fair could be a bust this year because of the push for a boycott, and if it comes back in the red they should not let that be a reflection on how they support the fair next year,” Bryant said.

The fair has struggled with declining attendance in recent years, leading some Southern Illinoisans to fear its eventual closure.

On that account, she got some positive news.

“They said, ‘We’re going to continue to promote the fair, and the first lady and the governor are going to be there a lot,’” she said.

But a parting remark intended in good spirit became another point of disagreement.

“I said if the governor is going to do the parade you should beef up security because there are angry people out there over this and there are some crazy people,” Bryant told The Southern.

Bryant intended the comments as an indication of the frustration over the issue among Southern Illinoisans, and a reminder of the threat of violence that exists everywhere for public officials.

But when the comment was repeated in the media by Pritzker’s team, it implied she thought all her constituents were crazy.

“I think they have to twist my words because I went up to defend my part of the state and they have to make me look bad to out people,” she said. “They got caught censoring and people are mad so they’re trying to spin it in their direction.”