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New York artist paints area murals encouraging voting

A New York artist, now based in Kuwait, stopped in Eau Claire this week to add a splash of color to two downtown businesses.

Clark Stoeckley, 37, created two murals with a simple message that reads “VOTE.” A 10- by 10-foot mural was painted on the side of Details on Water Street, and a 15- by 15-foot mural was painted on the side of Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlor, facing Farwell Street. Stoeckley started the artwork on Tuesday and wrapped up Thursday afternoon.

“The walls were primed before I got there, and they had ladders waiting for me,” Stoeckley said. “There was a lot of encouragement and positivity.”

Stoeckley’s piece is designed to look like famous artwork that spells out “love,” with the “o” tilted on its side.

“The idea originated my freshman year of college,” he explained. “It was to appropriate a famous piece of art and give it a new meaning.”

Stoeckley said he has painted this mural more than a dozen times on the sides of buildings in 2006, 2007 and 2008, picking so-called battleground states to display them.

“I painted it across the country, often without permission. I’ve painted them through the Midwest and all the way down to Florida,” he said. “It is nonpartisan work. It is encouraging all people to vote. Voting is where you begin; it’s not where you stop. It encourages you to get involved in other activism.”

Stoeckley said he retired the project after the November 2008 election.

For the past four years, Stoeckley has taught graphic design at the American University of Kuwait, typically living there more than nine months of the year. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed down international travel, Stoeckley and his wife traveled to her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, where he has spent most of this year waiting for permission to return overseas.

Being in the Midwest, near battleground states, made Stoeckley decide to resurrect his “VOTE” murals.

“It’s like riding a bicycle. I was able to jump right back into it,” he said. “The one at Ramone’s is unlike any I’ve done before, in using colors inside colors.”

Jo Ellen Burke, president of the Eau Claire Public Arts Council, was excited when Stoeckley approached her group about painting the murals in town.

Burke said her group was able to secure agreements with the two businesses to allow murals on their walls.

“We provided the materials and ladders. He provided his paint, and he did it for free,” she said.

The murals are quite visible, she added.

“Ramone’s is a nice location,” Burke said. “People are curious and ask about the details. People say it’s about time we advocate for voting.”

Burke liked the simple message behind the mural, saying it will stay up through early 2021.

“We believe in engaging our citizens,” she said. “We felt it was so appropriate at this time.”

While Stoeckley was painting, volunteers from Chippewa Valley Votes were at a tent next to the mural.

“Once people learn about voting absentee, they learn it’s really simple and secure,” Burke said.

The Eau Claire Public Arts Council continues to seek agreements with area businesses to allow murals on their buildings.

“We want to be good stewards,” Burke said.

Doctor who survived COVID-19 bewildered by public disregard

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Dr. Michael Saag spends much of his time treating patients fighting for their lives and working with colleagues who are overwhelmed and exhausted by the relentless battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

But he enters a different world when he walks out the door of his Alabama clinic: one where many don’t wear masks, keep their distance from others or even seem aware of the intense struggle being waged against a virus that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives nationwide and made so many — including the doctor — seriously ill.

The disconnect is devastating.

“It’s a mixture of emotions, from anger to being demoralized to bewilderment to frustration,” Saag said.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have increased an average of more than 1,500 a day over the past week in Alabama, bringing the total to more than 62,100 since the pandemic began in March. At least 1,230 people have died and health officials say fewer than 15% of the state’s intensive care beds are available for new patients. Some hospitals are completely out of room.

It’s not just an Alabama problem. About 250 miles from Birmingham, Dr. Chad Dowell warns that his hospital in tiny Indianola, Mississippi, is filling up and so are others, making it difficult to locate beds for the sickest patients even as people debate on social media whether the pandemic is real.

Inside the hospital at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, doctors and nurses in protective gear rush from one emergency to another. They struggle to comfort heartbroken visitors forced to say goodbye to dying relatives long distance via cellphone, Saag said, all while coping with the stress of whether they’ll be infected next.

The sharp increase in confirmed virus cases in Alabama has coincided with the reopening of restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms, sports leagues and churches that were all closed down when the virus first hit. Although most have opened at a diminished capacity and with restrictions in place, many patrons haven’t been following recommended precautions.

In metro Birmingham, where Saag lives, it has been common to see fewer than half the people inside stores wearing masks. The doctor said he got particularly dispirited recently after stopping by a restaurant on the way home from work to pick up a takeout order of sushi. There were as many as 60 people inside, he said.

“Myself and one other person were the only two people wearing masks. And everybody else, not only were they not wearing masks, they were congregating together,” he said. “And they look at me like I’m some sort of pariah wearing a mask.”

In response, Gov. Kay Ivey this week ordered all Alabama residents 6 and older to wear masks when in public and within 6 feet (2 meters) of someone who is not a relative. Cast against a pandemic that has become increasingly political, the move drew both praise as a potentially life-saving step and harsh criticism from those who called it an unnecessary affront to freedom.

Saag said he hopes the order helps, but it all depends on compliance. Ivey herself said the rule will be hard to enforce, and some police and sheriff’s offices have said they won’t even try.

During the initial outbreak, doctors and nurses were hailed as heroes in the fight against COVID-19. Some say they now feel more like cannon fodder in a war that has become increasingly divisive.

“People continue to regard the virus as a political scheme or conspiracy theory. People continue to ignore recommended guidelines on how to help slow the virus’ spread. People continue to complain about wearing a mask. We’ve got to do better as a community,” Dowell, the Mississippi doctor, wrote in a Facebook message released by South Sunflower County hospital.

For Saag, the fight is personal. In early March, both he and his adult son came down with the virus after a trip to Manhattan when the epidemic was raging there. First came a cough, followed by fever, a headache, body aches and what Saag called “fuzzy thinking,” or an inability to concentrate.

“The mornings I’d feel fine, thought I was done with it. And then every night it would come right back as if it was just starting all over again,” he said. “The hardest part of the night was that feeling of shortness of breath and not knowing if it’s going to get worse.”

During eight suffocating nights, Saag wasn’t sure whether he’d survive without a ventilator. It never came to that. He is now fully recovered and feels closer than ever to the people he treats.

“When I talk to a patient and I say, ‘Hey, I’ve had it too,’ it’s like we’re connected in a way that I really, honestly haven’t felt with patients ever before — and I’ve been doing this 40 years,” Saag said.

Outside the examination room, Saag has participated in news conferences and done media interviews to encourage basic public health practices, but he knows many people just aren’t listening.

He said it is disheartening to see a widespread disregard for safety measures and worries about Alabama’s future at a time when the virus is posing more of a threat than ever.

“I’m just thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness. We’re going to be in trouble very soon,’” Saag said.

AP top story
Remembering John Lewis, rights icon and `American hero'

WASHINGTON — People paid great heed to John Lewis for much of his life in the civil rights movement. But at the very beginning — when he was just a kid wanting to be a minister someday — his audience didn’t care much for what he had to say.

A son of Alabama sharecroppers, the young Lewis first preached moral righteousness to his family’s chickens. His place in the vanguard of the 1960s campaign for Black equality had its roots in that hardscrabble Alabama farm and all those clucks.

Lewis, who died Friday at age 80, was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington, and spoke shortly before the group’s leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to a vast sea of people.

If that speech marked a turning point in the civil rights era — or at least the most famous moment — the struggle was far from over. Two more hard years passed before truncheon-wielding state troopers beat Lewis bloody and fractured his skull as he led 600 protesters over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Searing TV images of that brutality helped to galvanize national opposition to racial oppression and embolden leaders in Washington to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later.

“The American public had already seen so much of this sort of thing, countless images of beatings and dogs and cursing and hoses,” Lewis wrote in his memoirs. “But something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before.”

That bridge became a touchstone in Lewis’ life. He returned there often during his decades in Congress representing the Atlanta area, bringing lawmakers from both parties to see where “Bloody Sunday” went down.

More brutality would loom in his life’s last chapter. He wept watching the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. “I kept saying to myself: How many more? How many young Black men will be murdered?” he said last month.

Yet he declared, or at least dared to hope: “We’re one people, we’re one family. We all live in the same house, not just the American house but the world house.”

Lewis earned bipartisan respect in Washington, where some called him the “conscience of Congress.” His humble manner contrasted with the puffed chests on Capitol Hill. But as a liberal on the losing side of many issues, he lacked the influence he’d summoned at the segregated lunch counters of his youth, or later, within the Democratic Party, as a steadfast voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

He was a guiding voice for a young Illinois senator who became the first Black president.

“I told him that I stood on his shoulders,” Obama wrote in a statement marking Lewis’s death. “When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”

Lewis was a 23-year-old firebrand, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, when he joined King and four other civil rights leaders at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to plan and announce the Washington demonstration. The others were Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the interracial Congress of Racial Equality; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.

At the National Mall months later, he had a speaking slot before King and toned down his intended remarks, bowing to pressure that “incensed” him.

“I wanted it to have an air of militancy,” Lewis said.

He dropped a reference to leading a “scorched earth” campaign across the South, like Civil War Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. (“John, that doesn’t sound like you,” he recalled King telling him.) He scaled back criticism of President John Kennedy’s civil rights record.

It was a potent speech nonetheless. He vowed: “By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy.”

His words were soon and for all time overshadowed by the speech of King. “He changed us forever,” Lewis said of King’s oratory that day.

But the change the movement sought would take many more sacrifices.

After months of training in nonviolent protest, demonstrators led by Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams began a march of more than 50 miles from Selma to Alabama’s capital in Montgomery. They didn’t get far: On March 7, 1965, a phalanx of police blocked their exit from the Selma bridge. Authorities swung truncheons, fired tear gas and charged on horseback, sending many to the hospital. The nation was horrified.

“This was a face-off in the most vivid terms between a dignified, composed, completely nonviolent multitude of silent protesters and the truly malevolent force of a heavily armed, hateful battalion of troopers,” Lewis wrote. “The sight of them rolling over us like human tanks was something that had never been seen before. People just couldn’t believe this was happening, not in America.”

King swiftly returned to the scene with a multitude, and the march to Montgomery was made whole before the end of the month.

Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, outside Troy, in Alabama’s Pike County. He attended segregated public schools and was denied a library card because of his race, but he read books and newspapers avidly, and could rattle off obscure historical facts even in his later years.

He was a teenager when he first heard King, then a young minister from Atlanta, preach on the radio. They met after Lewis wrote him seeking support to become the first Black student at his local college. He ultimately attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University instead, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Soon, the young man King nicknamed “the boy from Troy” was organizing sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters and volunteering as a Freedom Rider, enduring beatings and arrests while challenging segregation around the South. Lewis helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize this effort, led the group from 1963 to 1966 and kept pursuing civil rights work and voter registration drives for years thereafter.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis to lead ACTION, a federal volunteer agency, in 1977. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, and then won a seat in Congress in 1986.

Humble and unfailingly friendly, Lewis was revered on Capitol Hill. When Democrats controlled the House, he tried to keep them unified as his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post. The opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was a key victory. But as one of the most liberal members of Congress, spending much of his career in the minority, he often lost policy battles, from his effort to stop the Iraq War to his defense of young immigrants.

Lewis also met bipartisan success in Congress in 2006 when he led efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court invalidated much of the law in 2013, and it became once again what it was in his youth, a work in progress.

Lewis initially endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, but belatedly backed Obama when it became clear he had more Black support. After Obama’s swearing-in, he signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis that reflected much more than his endorsement, writing “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” Later, they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the attack.

And when Obama was succeeded by a president who sought to dismantle much of his legacy, Lewis made no effort to hide his pain.

Lewis refused to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration, saying he didn’t consider him a “legitimate president” because Russians had conspired to get him elected. When Trump later complained about immigrants from “s---hole countries,” Lewis declared, “I think he is a racist ... we have to try to stand up and speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.”

Trump ordered flags at half-staff at the White House and all federal public buildings and grounds, including embassies abroad and all military posts and naval stations, throughout the day Saturday.

“Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family,” Trump said via Twitter.

Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman. At 78, he told a rally he’d do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.

“There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free,” Lewis said. “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us,” he shouted. “I will go to the border. I’ll get arrested again. If necessary, I’m prepared to go to jail.”

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial diversity of the crowds protesting racism and police brutality gave him encouragement in his last weeks even as the unrest exposed anguished division that would not be overcome in his lifetime.

“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds and thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets to speak up, to speak out,” he said on “CBS This Morning.”

He urged protesters seeking justice in Floyd’s killing and the authorities confronting them to be nonviolent, because “there’s something cleansing, something wholesome, about being peaceful and orderly.”

Lewis announced in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

“I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said at the time.

Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.

If the Voting Rights Act that Lewis cherished was a work in progress, so was America, Lewis observed as he spoke once again from the Lincoln Memorial, a half-century after the March on Washington.

“Fifty years later we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay,” he said that day in August 2013. “Those signs that said ‘white’ and ’colored are gone. And you won’t see them anymore except in a museum, in a book, on a video.

“But there are still invisible signs buried in the hearts in humankind that form a gulf between us. Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation.”

Then came the cheers and applause. This time he was no warm-up act for a giant of history. This was his moment, and there was not a cluck to be heard.