Tensions escalated during a “Back the Blue” rally held Saturday on the west side of Rockford. In all, 17 protesters were arrested at that and other events over the weekend.
The rally drew hundreds of law enforcement supporters to the Winnebago County Criminal Justice Center. Dozens of counter protesters also gathered to disrupt the rally.
Before the event started, there was already a kind of confrontation between the protestors and police. In part, because protesters weren’t let into the “Back the Blue” rally and it wasn’t clear where they were allowed to go.
Over a loudspeaker, police warned counterprotesters that they would be arrested if they did not leave the parking lot of the Criminal Justice Center. One officer finally clarified that there was an area set up across the street.
Both sides were cordoned off by a plastic netting and had around 20 officers between them.
At the rally, there were signs showing support for officers as well as supportive "Trump" flags. The “Back the Blue” rally was organized by the Concerned Citizens of America of Northern Illinois and the Illinois Family Institute. Many interviewed did not want to provide their last names.
One of the attendants, "Raegan," was wearing a “Blue Lives Matter” hat. She says she came because she felt that most people don’t really think about all the work officers have to do. “I feel like a lot of people need to thank them a lot more,” she said.
Michael Koolidge, a radio host from WROK, emceed the event. The speakers also included State Rep. John Cabello, who is also a Rockford police detective, and former state Rep. Jim Sacia, a retired FBI agent. Koolidge said that their message was clear; “Engage when people ask you a question. All you have to say is, 'We're here to support law enforcement.' That's our message. 'Don't you support law enforcement?'”
Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana spoke briefly to the supporters.
“We are honored to serve you," Caruana said. "We will not ever turn our backs on you folks. We are here to protect you.”
Directly behind where Caruana stood on a makeshift podium, the counterprotesters were chanting from across the street. Protester "Mel" held a Black Lives Matter sign.
"I'm really disheartened to see that there are so many people that support so much injustice that goes on around," she said. "But I'm really relieved and happy and I feel so appreciated to see there are people on our side as well.”
As the rally cleared and counterprotesters started to head toward the District 1 Police Department, protester "Daebreon" said she didn't understand some actions of those who gathered for the "Back the Blue" event.
“It felt like it was a white supremacy rally," she said. "[The ralliers] had a lot of Trump people down there. Anybody can support anybody, but if it's a rally backing the police, why do we need to bring out 'Trump' signs? That's just like me bringing my 'Obama' sign down here. It's not needed. It's not a political thing. It's just a rally against what we feel and what they feel.”
She also said she struggles with the comparison between Black Lives Matter and "Blue Lives Matter."
“'Blue Lives' is a career. It's not a life," she said. "I scream 'Black Lives Matter' because I'm Black. I have a life that matters, but you scream 'Blue Lives Matter.' That's a career. You can easily be a firefighter or anything else you want to be.”
Outside the police station, Leslie Rolfe, who’s led many of the protests in the last two months, said that the Rockford Police Department’s recent arrests don't make sense.
"'We didn't do a single thing different than we have done for the past month,” Rolfe said.
Six protesters were arrested on Saturday and face charges that include mob action and resisting arrest. As of this week, all 17 people arrested over the weekend have been released. But five of the protesters have filed a class action lawsuit against Winnebago County officials over illegal detentions of individuals in the Winnebago County Jail.
- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.