Northbrook has a new scoreboard, but it's hard to tell who's winning

Quixotic Northbrook, Illinois, activist Lee Goodman's latest windmill is hitting back, as Trump backers take his Covid-19 scoreboard as an opportunity to stage their own demonstrations

In early March, 2020, Lee Goodman flew back to Chicago after three weeks in Brownsville, Texas, where he was observing, and opposing, immigration detention centers. It was the last of many such trips, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which his fellow travelers were obviously less concerned about. (Goodman photo)

Lee Goodman probably knows he annoys some people. That’s what it’s like when you think you’re right, but suspect you may be the only one in the room who agrees.

This quality of his may have contributed to a curious reversal of reality, in which he’s being blamed for things that are occurring on a street corner while he’s quietly at home, several blocks away. 

Goodman, a veteran liberal activist, is currently immersed in what is now a relatively minor fracas in his home town of Northbrook, which is the center of most of his fracases over the last few decades.

One notable geographic exception is his predilection for camping with other local activists outside immigrant detention centers in Texas and elsewhere. His group tried to pressure our government, pre-Covid, to end its practice of jailing people who want to move here. 

Goodman has also fought against American wars when they were much more popular than they became later.

But normally, he’s around town. One of my favorites of his local battles took place in 2014, when he insisted his village pay for no-guns signs for people’s doors, which make carrying guns past them illegal, under Illinois law. He didn’t think people should have to ask every visitor if they were packing.

To make his unpopular point that 67 cents per sticker was not too much for the village to pay, he brought a bag full of promotional giveaways to the Northbrook Village Hall podium.

“I got this nifty tote bag that says Northbrook Police Department on it, and I was able to get this letter opener, embossed with the name Northbrook Police Department,” Goodman said. “It also pulls staples. A really nice key chain; it even has a flashlight on it. And a Northbrook Police Department lint remover. Handy to have at home. They also gave me this very nice tape measure.

“It seems that it’s more important to protect people from lint than from guns in Northbrook.”

In a month, Northbrook reversed course and supplied the stickers.

Last Friday, he set in motion another gimmicky demonstration: A downtown Northbrook scoreboard that totes up the number of American Covid-19 deaths, and also shouts, “We’re #1.” “U.S.A.” “Donald J. Trump, President.” As I expected when I first wrote about it, it’s been vandalized. Five times, so far. All, or most, were under the cover of darkness.

Goodman also anticipated vandalism, though he didn’t expect that much. Another thing he didn’t expect was the frequent presence at the site of his scoreboard of raucous Trump supporters, screaming at passersby. He said he expected most people to just glance at the scoreboard as they were driving by the corner of Shermer Road and Walters Avenue for the next 30 days his permit would last.

The Trump backers are, unsurprisingly, usually not wearing protective masks, so more sane people have been giving them a wide berth.

There was at least one noted exception:  an older driver exchanged words with the protesters, and eventually got out of the car, asking something to the effect, “You want a piece of this?” No one got a piece of anybody, but a shared video of the incident, which included an impromptu tug-of-war with a Trump banner, horrified some suburbanites.

This precipitated a couple of dozen emails of complaint read into the record at Tuesday’s Northbrook Village Board meeting.

Some of the emails expressed such angst about the socially-shared incident that one would think the village had lost control of the streets:  “It has spurred outrage, on both sides of the political spectrum. Kids have witnessed adults jumping out of cars and fighting and swearing in the street on Shermer and Walters because of the sign.  Police have had to spend time monitoring the area due to the outright hatred that it has evoked,” wrote Katherine Dolan.  

An excerpt from Laurie Shults’ email: “The covid death count (scoreboard) is disturbing, anger provoking, pitting groups against one another and does not bode well for the community of Northbrook. It does not bring respect for groups, it brings anger and distaste. Some would say that there could be another sign that is congratulations because the deaths are not in the millions which was originally promised!”

Northbrook Village Attorney Steve Elrod gave Tuesday’s Zoomed board meeting audience what he referred to as a “first Amendment primer,” noting that the Supreme Court has long held that “Speech cannot be banned simply because it might offend a hostile mob or even because it might elicit a hostile response.”

Legal niceties aside, blaming the conflicts on the scoreboard or its creator, instead of the people who are overreacting to it, is logically questionable. Trump himself made the case for Goodman’s sign Monday night when he told a rally audience of largely maskless supporters that Covid-19 “affects virtually nobody.” Twice.

Reminders of the numbers of deaths are probably a valuable wakeup call. People have been told hourly to be careful, but they’re often not doing that, because the President of the United States differs.

“The scoreboard has gotten an awful lot of attention, except for what it’s all about, safe and proper precautions and actively demanding our government do a better job on this pandemic,” Goodman said Wednesday. 

“If we as Americans can't say something about a life-or-death issue, why do we claim to retain a representative  democracy?”

Elrod, addressing the points of the many Northbrookers who complained that children were being traumatized by being forced to see a tally of Covid-19 death, said that the Constitution protected freedom of speech no matter who might happen to be treated to it.

I found the whole concept of worrying about what Northbrook children might hear or see about Covid-19 deaths to be a little iffy. Any child who is unaware of that much is probably too young to read the sign anyway.

At the same time that people are complaining about what their kids see about Covid-19, most, if not all, of the Northbrook schools now open, or partially open, have seen Covid-19 infections. This reality did not stop the parent district of Northbrook’s Glenbrook North High School from voting Monday to bring all of its students into the school by early next month.

This was not a subject of discussion at the Northbrook Village Board meeting, because the town’s six school districts run their own ships.

But as Northbrook’s Catherine Caporusso wrote to the village, “As someone who is at high risk for COVID, I strongly support Lee Goodman's sign.  ‘Quarantine fatigue’ is well documented and is rampant in Northbrook.  GBN is about to re-open, and COVID will be inevitably spreading as a result.  The scorecard is an important reminder of how important it is to wear a mask and exercise caution.” Caporusso has multiple sclerosis.

There was much written complaint, due to misunderstanding of Northbrook rules, that Trump’s name on the sign reflected an illegal political ad. That’s not true: if it said nothing but “Vote Biden” in giant letters, it would still have been legal. 

Goodman admits he put Trump’s name on the bottom of his scoreboard to blame him for our #1 status. But doing so may not be too malign. Traditionally, an Illinois politician’s name on the bottom of a sign is familiar. The Daleys, pere and fils, seemed to have their names on everything.

Most of Northbrook’s village board members agreed Tuesday with the people who complained about Goodman’s scoreboard, though none said it should be taken down. 

Trustee Muriel Collison said the scoreboard was disrespectful, and “I find that to be particularly offensive to those who have suffered or have perished.”

She decried Goodman spending time seeking media coverage, calling it “shameful. If he had spent that time … and the time he spent screwing and unscrewing the numbers every day for 20 minutes, if he had spent that time perhaps caring for people who are fighting Covid, or comforting those who have losses from Covid, that would  be time much better spent.”

Trustee Bob Israel said, “Democracy is very messy.

“I hope our community is strong enough … to think for themselves and have the tough discussions with our kids.”

He said he thought the scoreboard encouraged constructive discussions, “and I think (the downtown Northbrook site) is a great venue for doing that.”

Meanwhile, a rumor has been floating around town that a conservative demonstration is planned for Friday evening in Northbrook. It has been described to me variously as in support of police officers or Trump or both. It is, or is not, being planned by students. Planners are, or are not, local. Masks will, or will not, be worn. 

Constructive discussion is, or is not, likely.

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