Jon Daniel (center), whose parody Twitter account set off one of the oddest political scandals in Peoria history, at a press conference on Thursday, June 13. Photo by the author
One of the mantras of journalism is that you should never become part of the story, but what happens when those in power target you specifically because you’re a journalist? That’s what happened to me when the cops, at the behest of Peoria, Illinois, mayor Jim Ardis, raided my friends’ home over a parody Twitter account written in the voice of a druggy, pussy-licking version of the city’s chief executive.
The police were wrong, of course, in assuming that they had the legal authority to bust into a private residence, interrogate the occupants, and seize their possessions—and hopefully, a lawsuit my friend Jon Daniel filed with the help of the local ACLU will make the city pay for its overreach. But according to a source inside City Hall, the officials who aggressively pursued Daniel, the creator of the account, were also wrong in a much more mundane way: They thought I was behind @peoriamayor and assumed I worked for the local paper, the Journal Star.
I interned at the Journal Star for a year and a half, but I haven’t written a word for the paper since late 2012, and my website clearly states that I was living in Minnesota until a few months ago. That the authorities couldn’t figure that out just underscores how technologically maladroit and Mayberry-esque this town’s authorities have been throughout this whole “Twittergate” affair. At one point, some city officials and cops thought they could call Twitter to have @peoriamayor shut down, so it’s no surprise that they apparently couldn’t be bothered to google my name and find out who I was and whom I work for.
The story of @peoriamayor has been a saga of pettiness and confusion. Over the past few months, the city’s interim corporate counsel Sonni Williams threatened Twitter with a lawsuit if the social network didn’t shut down the parody account, the police combed through statutes looking for a crime that they could pin on its creator, and three search warrants were filed so Daniel's house could be raided and searched. Now, facing a lawsuit led by the fearsome attorneys at the ACLU, the city will likely have to settle out of court or face a humiliating defeat before a judge and jury—all because months ago the mayor of this city of 119,000 thought that I was pretending to be him and talking about doing drugs and hiring prostitutes.
In an email that was released because of a Freedom of Information Act request, Ardis asked his subordinates what “JS reporter” lived with Daniel, and a police official said he didn’t know. If the source in City Hall is correct, Ardis was convinced that reporter was me, and likely thought that by exposing me as the foul-mouthed fiend behind @peoriamayor he’d ruin my reputation as a journalist and that of the Journal Star in the process.
Instead, Ardis found his own reputation amplified and destroyed, to the extent that “Twitter Incident” is now a prominent section on his Wikipedia page. With some help from my stories here at VICE and the pushing of the issue by the Journal Star, the tale of the raid went viral. People from across the country emailed Ardis and other city leaders calling for them to resign (and other, more vile, suggestions). Citizens from across the political landscape—cop-hating lefties, Radley Balko libertarians, First Amendment humpers, and Tea Party Constitution-wavers—called Ardis’s actions an affront to basic rights.
This wave of negative publicity may have helped convinced Steve Settingsgaard, Peoria’s embattled chief of police, to resign last month. Unfortunately, though, the national attention hasn’t been a boon to Jake Elliott, a roommate of Daniel’s who is still dealing with a pot possession charge because the cops found a few bags of weed during the raid. Like a lot of situations that involve the cops using shaky legal language to bust people for supposed crimes, it’s often some poor son of a bitch on the sidelines who ends up getting the sharp end of the justice system’s stick. In this case, that’s Elliott, a Survivor nut who runs a pop-culture podcast and nearly lost the job he’s held for the last 14 years as a result of this mess.
Not that the mayor is apologetic for any of this. During the press conference yesterday announcing Daniel’s lawsuit against the city, word came that Ardis would hold a press conference himself to address the pending litigation. Hours later, in a conference room at City Hall, a throng of reporters listened to the mayor’s prepared statement, which included the assertion that Daniel’s tweets were so offensive that no media outlet had or would run them. (Ardis is wrong about that—VICE ran several of Daniel’s tweets, as did the Journal Star.) He also, amazingly, read some of the tweets out loud in front of the assembled press. “I’m up all night woke up with pussy on my breath and blood shot eyes and we got people talking about live tweeting,” Ardis read, before adding that he was considering legal action against the person behind the account and implied he’d sue Twitter for defamation.
Mayor Jim Ardis's press conference yesterday
All along the mayor has battled this debacle and the attention it’s heaped on our city with an odd combination of bravado and silence. He’s rarely spoken publicly about this—he didn’t take questions at his press conference and no city official would return my request for comment for this story—but when he has addressed it, he blames the media for everything and claims, amazingly, it was his First Amendment rights that were violated.
Naturally, this has led to more humiliating articles showing up in national news outlets. “There’s no evidence that anyone on Twitter believed the account to be Ardis’ official handle,” wrote an unusually sarcastic Chicago Tribune. “The postings were often riddled with grammatical errors and misspelled words, perhaps making it difficult for anyone to believe they had been composed by someone with a professional communications staff.”
I’d feel bad about the negative coverage my hometown of Peoria has gotten about all this, and after watching Ardis choke over those tweets yesterday I almost feel like sympathizing with him—but then I remember how we felt the night this all started. Daniel got into an argument with his roommate, who was upset he was picked up from work over this shit, we all thought the cops were going to start tracking us, and Daniel and his roommates felt completely powerless. The police action felt completely arbitrary, and we weren’t sure what’d they do next—it’s terrifying when something you did (or, in my case, didn’t do) as a joke gets the cops knocking at your door. You start to wonder if your paranoid-of-the-government friends might be on to something.
I know by writing this I’m stirring the pot even further, but at this point it doesn’t feel like I have much to lose. And honestly, I feel strangely protected by the attention all this has gotten. If that’s not the power of the press, I don’t know what is.