My Little Town

Rockford, Illinois

Simon and Garfunkel sang a song I can’t seem to get out of my head lately. It’s titled “My Little Town”. The song paints a picture of lower middle class frustration climaxing to a chorus of “nothin’ but the dead and dyin’ back in my little town”. The song became a personal soundtrack of disbelief and sadness as I watched racial tensions here in my little town of Rockford, Illinois grow after the announcement of a scheduled NAACP march this last weekend. The march was planned to protest the shooting of an unarmed black man by two of the city’s police officers, both of whom are white.

Competing stories and witness accounts differ but here is the common story:

Lifelong resident, Mark Barmore was spotted August 24 by patrol officers Oda Poole and Stan North outside the Kingdom Authority International Ministries Church he occasionally attended. Wanted for questioning in a domestic dispute, Barmore ducked into the adjoining House of Grace Daycare and Preschool. Police followed him into the church with their weapons drawn.

This is the point where witness accounts and police statements stop meshing. Witnesses say that Barmore came out of a storage room with his hands up and was shot by the police  once and three more times when he was on the ground. Rockford authorities claim Barmore reached for one of their weapons when they shot him once, and then again three times.

All accounts admit that the shooting took place in plain view of the daycare children. Barmore died on the scene of a gunshot wound to his neck and several to his back, according to the Winnebago county coroner, Sue Fiducia.

Since the incident racial tensions in the town of 160,000 residents have only worsened. The same Rock river that divides the city between rich and poor, black and white, is also defining the line on this issue. It seems half the people believe this is just another incident of white police showing disregard and contention for black citizens. The other half believes that Barmore was a lost cause and his death was his own fault because he ran from the police. Both sides are passionate and both sides have taken to the streets in demonstration.

This is a matter very close to my heart and very personal for me as I am a white woman who grew up on the mostly black west side of Rockford, Illinois. One cannot pretend race does not exist when it has played such a role in one’s life.

When my parents moved to Rockford in the seventies they were thrilled to find the huge old house they still live in on Rockford’s west side. A large, lower middle class family could make a decent life for themselves with an affordable mortgage and schools within walking distance. As children, our friends were all black and it wasn’t until we were a little older that we realised we were the minority in our neighborhood. Of course, people were always quick to condemn the neighborhood or the old houses and run-down cars that lined the streets.

I remember several incidents in my childhood that only served to strengthen and cement my position on my side of the river. When I was child, my younger brother and I were watching two men assemble furniture our parents had ordered when one of them asked us “you kids get any trouble from the niggers around here?” We quietly said “no”, but I remember clearly the look we gave each other. It was not the look of children or amusement or annoyance. It was a look to tell one another that we understood that this man was wrong and blatantly ignorant. We were young, but we knew even then that people like him existed.

I remember being accepted into a special school and attending classes with all white students. I remember not having many friends to my house for the typical slumber party or movie night because many of their mothers had misgivings about their children staying in my neihborhood. I recall one girl, who lived across the street from a golf course, asking me if I heard “gun shots all night”. I told her no, did she have golf balls going through her windows all night? I had visions of golf carts rolling past ranch homes while men in hideous plaid pants wreaked havoc.

Humor became my favorite weapon of defense. Once I was actually asked by someone “if blacks don’t commit more crime than whites why does the west side have more shootings?” I told him “we have more shootings because people from the east side come over here and cause trouble.” I believe I was an eight year old at the time.

I heard jokes from my peers that they were attending school in the ghetto and I watched the divide between black and white widen in Rockford. I watched as those with opportunities grew up and left. I watched as those without hope simply remained where they were.

Businesses came and quickly left. We, the west-siders, got used to traveling to the other side of town to buy anything other than convenience store amenities. We had no chain restaurants or stores. Our parks were decidedly ill-maintained and unsafe. The houses on our streets were old and dilapidated; some with boarded-up windows. I always thought it was such a shame that someone would prefer a clapboard, cookie cutter house on a winding street over these beautiful 1900 Victorian-style homes.

When Paul Simon goes on in the song to sing about youth in these towns “twitching like the finger on a trigger of a gun” I am bound to think of the faces of my childhood. It is hard to fathom that Rockford, only 75 miles west of Chicago, is so full of people who have never even been down I90; have never even left their hometown. As slumlords from the suburbs buy cheap houses here and rent them out in disrepair or jobs come and go people on the west side learn there is no such thing as permanence. Lives of inconsistency and nomadic existence become commonplace, to the point that on the west side we don’t ask “where do you live?’ We ask “where do you stay?”

After attending school  in Chicago I moved back to Rockford and I knew I would live on the west side of town. I attended a neighborhood watch meeting and listened as twenty white voices in the room argued about the causes of violence and crime around them. When asked what he felt the answer was, Rockford Police Officer, there as a guest speaker,  suggested sterilization. He opined that if we were able to get “these people” to stop having children we could prevent crime here. I felt like a child hearing the word “nigger” again for the first time. Where was my brother to give me that look; the one that meant an understanding of hate in the world?

At the same meeting we discussed an unsolved murder that took place just a few blocks from my house. Someone asked about it and the officer, as well as the head of the neighborhood watch, insisted that James Roberson, the victim, was a known drug dealer. His death was no loss. It broke my heart to hear this because I grew up with James. He played with us. We rode bikes together. He was my brother’s best friend. We loved him.

The tragedy here is not necessarily that he was murdered, sad in and of itself, but the true crime is that the city failed this boy. The community failed him the way they failed the latest victim of gun violence, Mark Barmore. Barmore had an extensive criminal record of violent crimes.  The truly sad and disgusting issue here is that, if you are a black man in Rockford, the city has pretty much written your story for you. Even Rockford’s own white mayor, Larry Morrissey, is quoted saying “The facts are that if you’re an African-American male in Rockford, you’re more likely to get arrested than graduate from high school.”

The data speaks for itself. According to the latest state statistics the unemployment rate among whites in Illinois was 5.7 percent in 2008, compared with 12.1 percent among black. The median income for a white household in Rockford is nearly $42,000, compared with around $23,000 for a black household.

The NAACP planned a march in Rockford this weekend. The plans were met with the same criticism and deprecating comments that have followed this case since the end of August. Many people here feel that supporting justice for Mark Barmore is taking away support for the police. Many feel that Barmore’s fatal mistake was running away from the police. Had he not, he would not  be dead.

Running away from the police is not punishable by death, at least not here in Illinois and a man who is shot in the back was more than likely not posing an immediate threat to his shooter. The NAACP listed three reasons for their march and three reasons for their involvement in this case. They planned to march for: justice for Mark Barmore, counseling for the children who witnessed the shooting and a federal “use of force” standard for police officers.

Many feel that getting justice for Barmore means finding against the police. Why do we have to choose? Every single citizen, every single human being has the right to justice. It does not matter their history. It does not matter the act. Justice must be served and in this case that justice is a thorough federal investigation into the shooting. Justice should serve not only victims and criminals but also the police. Wouldn’t a federal “use of force” standard better empower police to do their jobs without fear of retaliation or discipline?

In the end, the march was cancelled because of weather. NAACP members who drove to Rockford from Kentucky still met at Barmore’s church and members of the community came together to cement their bond in the belief that this city belongs to all citizens, regardless of their skin color.

In my little town, life is all a matter of perspective. In Rockford, Illinois the Rock River not only divides the old and the new but it draws the line on how far one can see and how limited one’s perspective truly can be. The town is truly kindling waiting for a spark. This time the flames of intolerance will not be put out by a river.

SARA MANN is a Chicago-based flight attendant for a major airline and lives in her  hometown of Rockford, Il. She can be reached at sara.mann@hotmail.com

SARA MANN is a Chicago-based flight attendant for a major airline and lives in her  hometown of Rockford, Il. She can be reached at sara.mann@hotmail.com

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