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A History Teacher & Documentarian Creates A Narrative Video Series About Rockford Protests

Nicholas Stange’s American History class is just starting a unit on the Civil Rights Movement. But before they dive into history, they’re supposed to examine similar current events so they can follow the thread back. It’s to help the students fully grasp the topic at hand.

Stange, a teacher at Harlem High School in Machesney Park, said that wasn’t too difficult this year. During their discussions about calls for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, he showed his students black-and-white photos he took at Rockford protests following George Floyd’s murder.

“We have seen some former students [at the protests],” he said. “When that happens, you feel a sense of responsibility to make sure they're okay. So it kind of becomes like a parenting thing at those moments.”

Over 1,000 Rockford residents peacefully marched on May 30. But the night ended with Rockford Police unleashing tear gas on a crowd outside police headquarters after a few people threw rocks at the building. Stange shot video throughout the summer at demonstrations against police brutality held outside Rockford’s City Market -- demonstrations which erupted into violent confrontations where protesters were arrested.

“There's a picture of the cop pointing literally a gun in my face,” he said. “And then that's when it changed. I knew this is crazy.”

This isn’t Stange’s first time picking up a camera to chronicle serious subjects. He’s one of the teachers behind the award-winning student documentary series “The Harlem Veteran Project.”

But his “WE DEMAND” videos aren’t just to document the moment. The videos juxtapose images of Rockford protesters with Civil Rights leaders being beaten. They overlay footage of a “Back The Blue” rally with a speech from segregationist former Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Stange wants his new project to help enact the change he believes Rockford needs, especially in policing.

“I also felt that it was important to get another narrative out there," he said, "because I feel, especially in Rockford, a lot of times the one narrative is going to be the police narrative because they have the resources and access.” 

The city recently approved a contract for police body cams, but many activists are still highly skeptical of the promises of transparency.

“They don't release the footage of the young man, Tyris Jones [who was shot], they released footage of the other shooting that happened a few weeks ago of Jose Gonzales, but they're not going to release the dashcam footage of a police chase that led to a car crash that killed people,” said Stange. “Like, why are we picking and choosing here?”

The Harlem High School teacher, who is white, said he wants to highlight other activists with his work, like the May 30th Alliance. Stange isn’t affiliated with the group but with its permission uses video from the group’s Facebook page in his series.

The “WE DEMAND” series has also forced him to confront the ethical issues involved with recording violent police confrontations. Some have criticized the series for showing graphic footage of protesters punched and pepper-sprayed without content warnings or blurring faces.

Others say the images are too traumatizing for the people who experienced the violence and could allow law enforcement to use the videos as evidence for arrests. They ask if people need any more graphic examples of injustice.

“I understand that it’s stressful for them," he said,  "and I think what I need to do a better job of is maybe putting a warning [at the beginning].” 

Stange’s going to continue to shoot videos this summer at demonstrations. He said, this time, he’s going to record more like a documentary, with a clear timeline of the events and less focus on “chaos” if it unfolds.

He said he hasn’t promoted the videos in his classes, but knows some former students who worked on the Harlem Veteran Project have seen them.

He doesn’t think he’s going to change the minds of those who don’t believe racism is alive in Rockford. But, even though they’re tough to watch, Stange said he thinks it’s good to get videos like his in front of people -- people who know racial injustice and police brutality are issues in America, but not necessarily in their hometown.