One Year Later: Documenting Our Place In History
Demonstrations against police brutality began a year ago this week in Rockford – they started as protests against George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and continued in response to an encounter between police and protesters that turned violent May 30th, 2020.
For part two of our series “One Year Later,” WNIJ’s Susan Stephens sat down with Rockford Register Star photographer Scott Yates. Yates had experience with large, dangerous protests before he moved to Rockford – he covered the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. So he was prepared when a peaceful march in Rockford took a turn when it reached Police District One.
“The evening was very unpredictable,” Yates said about the long night of May 30, 2020. “I quickly recognized some of the same feelings and same scenarios around me that I witnessed in Charlottesville. And that made me uncomfortable. But I was prepared at that point for inevitability, for firearms to be discharged, for tear gas. And I knew I was there to document history. My Spidey-sense and journalistic sensibilities kicked in; I knew it was important to be there. And I knew I could only stay there if I stayed safe. So there were some tactical issues that I used to stay safe, but stay there. And we were able to really document some of the most egregious violence that happened that night.”
Some protesters threw rocks through windows, some spray-painted buildings and signs, there were cars on the lawn of the police station -- police responded.
Yates and his colleague Kevin Haas were tag-teaming the scene as the night grew darker and the police/protester interactions more intense.
“We're still on the lawn of police district one headquarters and police had used some crowd dispersal gas to get most of the people out,” Yates said. But as folks were leaving the scene, there was one group who were trying to reach their car and the police had forcibly prevented them from leaving in their car. And it was not pretty. It looked like a football team sacking a quarterback, and it looked like the police were the football team, sacking a quarterback for each of the folks they were taking into custody. And that's just an action that we don't see every day here in Rockford. Fast forwarding to now, that core group of demonstrators has staged an over-200 day sit-in outside of Rockford City Hall that persists to this day.”
Yates’ photos from that night are available on the Rockford Register Star’s website. There’s one that really evokes the back and forth, the push and pull, between the police and demonstrators.
“You'll learn to read the crowd very quickly in those scenarios,” Yates explained. “And so I was able to determine almost exactly when those clashes would take place. And I would just sneak into the core group of people to document the action. And so the moment that stuck out to me, the photograph that stuck out to me the most, is of a police man, arms raised holding a baton, and he's about to bring it down on a protester so that they can take them into custody. And so it was a closer, a wide angle shot actually of a big line of police and a big line of demonstrators coming together, right in the center of the image. And the image is dark, not exactly tack sharp, though the streetlights are down low. So it's not the best image that has ever been made. But it's the best image of the feeling of being there that night, the chaos, the violence and the emotions of that evening.”
In a year that also included documenting the COVID crisis and a divisive presidential race, Yates says there are a handful of his photos that epitomize the unrest that unfolded in Rockford’s streets and beyond: “Definitely May 30. Police and protesters colliding in a cloud of tear gas, the marches through large, busy streets and in town, while laying on your belly for eight minutes and 26 seconds. That's got to be one of them. During one of those incidents, the person kneeling on the handcuffed man in the middle of the crowd had his hands raised in the black power salute. And that just floored me when I realized what I had.
“Community journalists aren't used to seeing historical moments happen in their own backyard. But tolerance for social injustice rightfully is non-existent anymore. And Rockford is stepping up to the plate and keeping the conversation alive.”