For the past 40 years, Rockford’s Midtown district has seen more downs than ups. Centered on Seventh Street from First Avenue to Broadway, southeast of the main part of downtown, Midtown—once a bustling commercial and cultural center at the heart of a Swedish neighborhood—was, for far too long, a haven for prostitution and drug use. Readers may recall that an “adult” bookstore on Seventh Street provided the sordid backdrop for the murder of Richard Misslich in 1985, an event that played a major role in my July 2002 column, “Cui Bono?” But Misslich’s murder just scratches the surface of the problems that once plagued the neighborhood.
In recent years, however, Midtown has been making a comeback, through the efforts of a variety of actors—most notably the Midtown District Association, headed by Bill Mohr, and other local organizations, including Zion Development. The massive expansion of the campus of Swedish-American Hospital, located northeast of Midtown, and the city’s simultaneous decision to reroute Charles Street south of the hospital (and to pay for the construction entirely with Midtown TIF district funds, over Bill Mohr’s objection) have made some difference as well. While there are still too many vacant storefronts (especially at the southern end of the strip), restaurants and specialty shops that have opened on the northern end are, for the most part, making a go of it.
One tenant of Seventh Street for over a decade now has been Rockford Urban Ministries (RUM), a program of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church. Founded in 1962, RUM has been run for the past 21 years by Stanley Campbell, a local activist who claims once to have been the youngest member of the Winnebago County chapter of the John Birch Society. His political views changed after a tour of duty in Vietnam (for which he volunteered), and today, Stanley proudly proclaims himself “Rockford’s only paid radical.”
One of the first controversies I remember from when I moved to Rockford ten years ago was a picket, held on the federal Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, across the street from the Chronicles offices. The University Club, a private organization, was debating whether to accept women as members, and Stanley and his fellow picketers (none of whom, as I recall, were members of the University Club) picked King Day to make their opinion heard. (We were, of course, at work that day, and Stanley’s ever-present bullhorn was more than a little distracting.)
Under Stanley’s direction, RUM has organized many programs, including Rockford’s CROP Walk and an outdoor Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, but none has been as controversial as Harm Reduction Outreach, a needle-exchange and condom-distribution program that, for ten years, has been run out of an unmarked building on the southern end of the Seventh Street strip, where Stanley has also made his home and RUM’s office. Critics have blamed the program for the continued presence of drug users and prostitutes in the neighborhood, and Stanley himself frankly admits that many of the used needles that litter the area come from the program’s office. But he adamantly claims that the program does more good than harm, pointing to federal studies that show that such programs reduce the spread of disease.
Most important, in his mind, is the possibility that the program helps to keep individual users and prostitutes alive longer, so that they can change their behavior. Those same federal studies, however, are a little less convincing on this point, but Stanley’s got an answer for that, too: Most “harm reduction” programs, he argues, deliberately shy away from drug counseling (or even from referring users to counseling programs) because they are focused exclusively on stopping the spread of disease. Renamed “THAT Place” when its current director, JBryan Latham (who had run a program by the same name in Rock Island, Illinois), took over, RUM’s program, Stanley argues, uses needles and condoms as “carrots” to get people through the door. Once there—or, rather, once they have been coming through the door for at least three to four months (according to Stanley)—they are given the opportunity to be referred to a counseling program.
If we were to judge solely by the statements of the program’s critics, let alone its supporters, we might be led to conclude that (moral questions aside) the program “works.” Even most of those who have objected to its location on Seventh Street, or complained about the health hazard that dirty needles and used condoms pose to others in the neighborhood, are quick to declare that they “support the program,” that it is “needed,” and that it “does good.”
This unwillingness to criticize the very idea behind the program helps explain why it has, for a decade now, largely sailed under the radar. Until recently, the biggest controversy surrounding the needle exchange may have been when the program began operating out of a mobile unit, and the United Methodist bishop for Northern Illinois came to town to bless the vehicle. By its very nature, that act raised the fundamental moral issue that Stanley and his fellow activists normally (and wisely, for their purposes) avoid: Is it ever right to do good (save or extend lives) by providing people with instruments (needles and condoms) with which they are going to do evil (shoot up and fornicate)?
Surprisingly, when I put the question to Stanley in those terms after he picks me up at the Chronicles offices for an interview over lunch, he doesn’t flinch. I had expected him to argue that the needle exchange is not a question of the ends justifying the means, because the means (in his mind) are themselves good, but instead, he argues that the end does indeed justify the use of means that he personally considers immoral. Those who say that such means should never be used “are saying that you want these people to die.” When I point out that I want these people not to die but to live drug-free and off the streets, he replies that “Just Say No” has been a failure—as if the only alternative to simplistic Republican sloganeering is a program that, whatever its ultimate aim, is giving desperate people a dangerously false sense of security as they continue to engage in physically and spiritually destructive behavior.
The proponents of needle-exchange programs—in Rockford and elsewhere—very carefully frame the debate in medical language, and their opponents are too often unable themselves to recognize that a medical argument (“This may save or extend his life”) does not invalidate or even undercut the moral argument (“This may mean the loss of his soul”). This is the same reason why those who challenge the viral theory of AIDS (whatever the merit of their alternative theories) often arouse such anger even among (or perhaps, especially among) non-physicians: It’s comforting to believe that our infirmities result from a fundamentally external cause to which an external solution can be applied. Acknowledging that our problems are rooted instead in our own behavior requires us to be open to a conversion (religious or otherwise) before we can have any hope of recovery.
Part of what has made Stanley Campbell such a well-known and (often grudgingly) respected figure in Rockford is that, unlike the conservative stereotype of a radical, he does not seem an immoral man. If anything, he suffers from an excessive moralism. Prohibition, he admits, would be his weapon of choice against all addictions—to drugs, to alcohol, to gambling. He’s proud of working for a church that has had a long history of supporting prohibition and temperance. At one point, when I argue that we’re too quick today to classify as “addiction” any abuse of alcohol and to claim that the only solution is abstinence, he asks me, in all seriousness, if I might be talking about myself.
How does such moralism translate into support for what, by any traditional measure, is an immoral program? When I point out that many churches manage to minister to drug addicts and prostitutes without condoning their behavior, he, at first, argues that this program reaches people that the churches cannot reach precisely because they won’t provide them with needles or condoms, but then he segues into a moralistic attack on what he regards as the moralism of institutional Christianity: “The Church, first of all, is selfish. The Church is condemnatory. The Church loves to condemn.” He quickly adds that he means churches in general, not one specific church, but he won’t comment on whether that includes the Methodists who underwrite RUM.
In other words, his hatred for others’ moralism is just the flip-side of his own. We come back, time and again, to the question of whether it might be possible to minister to THAT Place’s clientele without further enabling their destructive behavior, and his answer, always delivered passionately, is invariably the same: “I’m not going to stand on the corner and yell at them and tell them that they’re going to go to Hell, because that’s going to drive them away.”
Scripture, I remind him, provides an alternative to such moralism. John, in his Gospel, relates the story of the scribes and Pharisees bringing the adulteress before Christ, Who tells them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” After making a silly joke about Mary (“Suddenly, a stone flew through the air, and Jesus said, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’”), Stanley triumphantly declares that I have made his point—“They wished to do her harm, and Jesus prevented it.” But the story, I point out, doesn’t end there. What did Christ do once the scribes and Pharisees all left, and the woman remained before him—hand her some sheep intestine and say, “Make sure you’re safe”? No, Stanley admits, quietly and after a pause, “He told her, ‘Go, and sin no more.’”
Still, Stanley insists that the drug users and prostitutes that THAT Place serves are going to persist in their behavior, at least in the short run, and that providing them with needles and condoms is, therefore, a form of “love” that conquers all objections. Even though Stanley opposes drug legalization, Harm Reduction Outreach accepted $70,000 in funding between 2000 and 2002 from the Fund for Drug Policy Reform of the Tides Foundation, a self-proclaimed progressive organization that received $15,751,750 from George Soros’s Open Society Institute from 1997 to 2003. (The Tides Foundation was, by a factor of five, the largest recipient of OSI funds in that period.) Soros, of course, has pumped millions of dollars into drug-legalization efforts in the United States and elsewhere.
The needle-exchange program might have continued for several more years at a low level of controversy, but for two events: first, the decision by RUM and THAT Place to take advantage of the revival on the north end of Seventh Street by moving the needle exchange and the RUM offices (and a fair-trade store that RUM has been running for a few years now) to a building on the corner of Seventh Street and First Avenue; and second, the end of a quarter-century of Democratic control of city hall with the election of Larry Morrissey, an independent, as mayor in April 2004.
The decision to move the needle-exchange program to a more prominent location aroused opposition among merchants and residents along the Seventh Street corridor, who believed that the new location would reverse the progress being made in the neighborhood. Mayor Morrissey, who campaigned in part on reviving downtown, directed his administration to take a closer look at the zoning under which the needle exchange has been operating. In the process, as Mayor Morrissey told Chuck Sweeny of the Rockford Register Star, “Our zoning folks couldn’t find there was ever a request to run a needle exchange. . . . They were just doing it.” Under two successive Democratic administrations, city hall had apparently turned a blind eye for the past decade.
No longer. In early November, the city’s legal department notified THAT Place that they were in violation of the city’s zoning codes and ordinances. When JBryan Latham continued to run the program out of a back door of the new building, the city threatened legal action. This wouldn’t be the first time that JBryan Latham fell afoul of the law: His operation in Rock Island was involuntarily shut down after it failed to file an annual report with the secretary of state’s office.
The program, Stanley assures me, is now shut down until they can find a new location that meets city zoning—or until they can revive the mobile program. That reminds me of a long-standing rumor: that the mobile program was shut down after the former director was busted for selling drugs out of the mobile unit. Not true, says Stanley, though he acknowledges that the former director was let go for personal reasons. Then he volunteers some amazing information: A study found that 95 percent of ex-users who later work at a needle-exchange program become users again.
Doesn’t that, I ask, call into question the effectiveness of such programs? It’s a sobering thought, even for Stanley, who ends our meal uncharacteristically quiet.