Rockford, Illinois News

Rockford protests turn violent, several people arrested

ROCKFORD – Peaceful, yet boisterous protests became destructive Saturday as more than a thousand demonstrators converged on Rockford Police District 1 headquarters.

The events began just before 4 p.m., at Haskell Park, where a crowd of a few dozen quickly became several hundred within the hour. Some held signs honoring George Floyd that bore phrases like “I can’t breathe” and “Say his name,” while the Black Lives Matter slogan was even better represented.

Several speakers addressed the crowd, some tearfully, touching on institutional racism and recent officer-involved deaths of black men and women including Breonna Taylor, of Louisville, and Floyd, who died after white ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes May 25. Chauvin has since been charged with murder.

The protest continued peacefully as the racially diverse crowd marched to City Hall then back across the river to the Winnebago County Justice Center. But tensions rose the closer the crowd came to deputies and the squad cars parked near the front doors. Profanities grew louder, and the police line widened, pushing demonstrators farther from the complex.

They eventually moved west, reaching District 1 at the corner West State and Avon streets amid increasingly spirited chants of  “No justice, no peace,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

A lot of the original Haskell Park marchers had dispersed before the procession reached District 1. Those who remained were met with what appeared to be a different group of protesters who destroyed signs and chucked rocks, wood and water bottles, breaking three large windows. A squad car window was also smashed.

And while the situation remained volatile, not every protester was there to break things. Several people from the Haskell Park gathering attempted to deescalate the situation as debris pelted the building, SWAT arrived, and officers in tactical gear began to emerge, ready to take people into custody.

“This isn’t what we came here for,” one man said. “Don’t give them a reason.”

It didn’t matter. Emotions were high. Property was damaged.

Over a loud speaker, just after 10 p.m., officers threatened to jail anyone who didn’t disperse. Some heeded the warning while about 200 decided to stay. At around 11 o’clock, police hit them with tear gas. The scene dissipated after that.

The destruction continued though. Looters stormed their way into Soto’s Jewelry,  3504 E. State St., and made off with several items. At least one store in an Auburn Street strip mall was hit while North Towne Mall storefront windows were broken.  Nearly 20 businesses reported damage. More than a dozen people have been arrested.

Mayor Tom McNamara, echoing leaders across the nation, praised the local spirit of unity and the peaceful gathering at Haskell Park. He also said the tense climate over the past week cuts deeper than what happened to George Floyd at the hands of reckless, and potentially racist, cops.

“This was not about one individual,” McNamara said. “It was about too many years of systemic injustice that plagues our institutions and our country and is embedded in the fabric of our society. It was about years of people not having their voices truly heard. As much I cannot condone rioting or looting, that is a only symptom. We are going to repeat this cycle if we don’t address the reason for this anger. Although there are better ways to express frustration, we need to understand we have to be better at listening. That starts with me. I am not one to say that I understand what it is like to be a black man in our society. But my heart hurts for the mother of a black son who doesn’t know if he will make it home from school. Or the husband of a black woman who doesn’t know if she is going to come home from work. Or the sister who has to wonder if it is safe for her brother to go out for a jog in his own neighborhood–all for doing nothing more than just living in their God-given skin. This is not something I ever have to worry about. I understand that I have the privilege of not having to worry about things like that because of the color of my skin. It is not a privilege that I earned. And I understand that it is not a privilege that everyone in my community shares.”

A second rally, one to protest alleged brutality among officers in the Rockford Police Department, took place Tuesday night. McNamara said before press time that he and Police Chief Dan O’Shea wished to meet with organizers before the event.

Rockford Youth Activism, the group that planned both events, released a statement on its Facebook page, saying although violence is not its goal, it wants its voice heard.

“We believe that there is a need for disruption of the normal state of things if social change is to occur in this city and across the country,” the group said. “We aren’t going to parade and go home. City officials and community leaders should recognize that as Martin Luther King said, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’”