T-shirts, public records, a new album, a book in the works ...
Here's what I'm up to
I’m fixing to take some time off with my family, so this week’s newsletter is more scattered than usual. I have some cool projects in the works! None of them are quite ready yet.
Black metal T-shirts
I’m waiting on quotes from local screen printers for a run of Brutal South T-shirts. I recently got the finalized designs from my artist friend CJ Bones (@builtbybones on Instagram), and based on the feedback I got on the rough drafts, I’m planning to offer all three options for purchase.
Hope y’all like metal.
Public records shenanigans
Multiple public information officers in the state of South Carolina are putting on what my reporter friend Corey Hutchins used to call a full-blown clown show.
As I wrote in the newsletter last week, the S.C. Department of Education is using public-record price gouging to keep people from accessing public documents involving the state superintendent, Molly Spearman.
On June 3, Spearman jumped on the reactionary bandwagon and issued a vague condemnation of “Critical Race Theory” on Facebook and Twitter. Since the state legislature was simultaneously trying to limit classroom discussion of racism via a budget proviso, the genesis of her statement was a matter of public interest.
So I submitted a request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for emails sent or received by Spearman's office this year discussing "Critical Race Theory" or "CRT."
The S.C. Department of Education got back to me with an invoice for $616 (lol), claiming it would take two state employees 8 hours apiece to respond (lololol). After giving them a video tutorial on how to work smarter, not harder, I submitted a second request for emails from a narrower time period (May 20 - June 9), and they sent me a revised invoice for $79.50.
That’s still $79.50 too much, but in the name of public information, I decided to mail in the check anyway.
Yesterday on my lunch break, I put up a GoFundMe to help cover the costs of the redaction fee. I sat down to eat lunch with my kids, and when I checked 30 minutes later, donors had more than covered the cost.
It’s almost as if this is a matter of great public interest! Wild. Thanks to those who donated; you rule. I will share whatever information I get.
Brutalism in the South: The book
I applied for a Lowcountry Quarterly Arts Grant late last year to hire photographers for a book about brutalist architecture in the American South, and I got a grant! I’m chipping away at a book proposal now.
The first chapter I complete will probably be about John Johansen’s cavernous and lovely Orlando Public Library building, which I got to tour with one of the librarians earlier this year.
I’m still in the weeds on research, but several people have reached out to share their excitement. I’ll share this sweet email I received from a Ms. Jean Rosenthal (née Jean Melton Wallace of Spartanburg, S.C.):
I was interested to hear you were writing about Southern Brutalist buildings, among other aspects of life in the South and look forward to reading more of your work. Here's an anecdote you may appreciate -
Half a century ago, probably in 1963 or '64, I was the only "South Carolina girl" who was an undergraduate at Radcliffe/Harvard. I occasionally gave the campus tour for the rare Southern girl interested in a Yankee school. Once, as I walked a high-school student around Harvard, she expressed great interest in the brand-new Carpenter Center for the Arts. "My daddy just LOVES Le Corbusier!" she said.
"Really," I said. “I'm surprised."
"Oh, yes," she continued, with her deep Southern drawl and an uplift at the end of every sentence, "Daddy's in the concrete business."
More public records shenanigans
One of my other FOIA requests has to do with the resumption of public executions in South Carolina. The state is giving condemned people the choice between death by electrocution or firing squad, and I want to know more about the maintenance and upkeep of the 1912 electric chair in the Columbia death chamber.
I’m especially curious after my interview with Fred Leuchter, the self-taught electrician and Holocaust denier who says he sold South Carolina its electric chair helmet in the 1980s.
Well, the S.C. Department of Corrections got back to me yesterday. Here were the first two items in my request:
All records related to the purchase and installation of the current electrocution helmet used in the Broad River Capital Punishment Facility
All receipts and contracts for business conducted between the South Carolina Department of Corrections and Fred A. Leuchter Jr. or Fred A. Leuchter Associates Inc., including but not limited to the years 1979-1993
The department’s FOIA officer wrote back: “The South Carolina Department of Corrections does not have any records responsive to the first two items of your request.”
If that’s true, then it’s concerning that my state can’t establish the provenance of an essential tool in its death chamber.
This was the third and final part of my request:
All receipts and contracts related to the maintenance and inspection of electrocution equipment at the Broad River Capital Punishment Facility since Jan. 1, 2008
All records which are responsive to the third item are exempt from disclosure pursuant to the below listed exemption(s) and/or exclusion(s) …
S.C. Code § 30-4-20(c) Security plans and devices are specifically excluded from the definition of the term “public record.”
I’m no First Amendment lawyer, but if you know one who’d like to challenge this assertion, please get at me.
A very messy album
This has been on the backburner for a while, but I recently culled a decade-plus backlog of home recordings for a new lo-fi album by my band The Camellias. The working title is Words Are Fragile Vessels, which is a line from this song I wrote about (what else?) the intense loneliness of the last year-and-a-half.
I’ll put the new album up on the Camellias Bandcamp page when it’s ready. Our previous albums are available to stream there, too. You might like them if you enjoy Gillian Welch or The Weakerthans. If you like both of them, you are definitely my kind of people.
Peace, love, and concrete,