ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — Leslie Rolfe vowed not to settle for lip service from city officials.
It’s a stance the 28-year-old Rockford man adopted after he watched police in military-style riot gear use pepper spray and tear gas to force protesters away from the District 1 police station after a peaceful protest had turned destructive, unraveling as some threw water bottles, rocks and other objects at police.
Before the night of May 30, however, Rolfe had no intention of standing at the forefront of a movement. Afterward, he had no intention of stopping.
So when Mayor Tom McNamara held a news conference in mid-June at which he promised to hear residents’ concerns through a series of listening sessions and to follow with action, Rolfe delivered a promise of his own.
“If the answer to all of this is people talking to the police chief and the mayor and city officials for 10 minutes for a couple of months, ya’ll fitting to have a long-ass summer of protesting, a long one,” he said in a June 10 Facebook live video.
It was a long summer of protesting.
In the four months since May 30, Rolfe has taken part in roughly 40 demonstrations across the city. He has called for officers to be fired for what he viewed as excessive force on May 30 and subsequent protests and he has said charges against protesters should be dismissed.
“I wanted to make sure that what happened on the 30th, that there was going to be somebody who was going to be there and represent that and speak on the behalf of that,” Rolfe said in an interview over the summer with the Register Star.
Rolfe has emerged as one of the leading voices in the local movement. He’s a dynamic force, often at the front of marches with a megaphone in hand leading chants, or breaking down video of police arrests to challenge their use of force, or playing audio recordings from civil rights-era speeches to connect them to what’s happening today.
He also is perhaps the local movement’s most controversial figure. Detractors say he does more harm than good with his disruptive tactics: blocking traffic, chanting obscenities that demean police, storming into businesses like Walmart, and disturbing the weekly Rockford City Market during an already difficult year. Rolfe was even removed from one of those listening sessions the city held, following it up with Facebook criticism aimed at moderator Ann Thompson-Kelly, a Black alderwoman whom he described with derogatory epithets. The post was later deleted.
Those actions are detrimental and do nothing to push for solutions, said Jan Klass, a board member of the conservative Concerned Citizens for America and a speaker at an Aug. 1 Back the Blue rally.
“I’ve heard that they have blocked off streets at City Market for a while,” Klass said this summer. “It’s not lawful and I don’t think it’s effective.”
Rolfe has been arrested three times during protests on charges that include two counts of Class 4 felony mob action and obstructing an officer. Police have arrested a total of roughly 45 protesters. Despite jail time and looming court dates, Rolfe has remained steadfast.
“Now that I have started I don’t really see a definitive finish line. I don’t like to start something and not see it all the way through,” said Rolfe, a former assistant retail manager who is an aspiring rap artist.
For Rolfe, it’s the consistency of weekly demonstrations that drives home the message and keeps the movement strong. That’s why he dedicated so much of this summer to keeping Black Lives Matter in the public eye.
He has earned the respect of those who see his work to highlight injustices as invaluable.
“He’s not that person that everyone thinks he is. He’s not all ego, he’s learning....I think he’s handled this brilliantly,” said Terry Patterson, who has been a regular participant in this year’s demonstrations.
Rolfe draws inspiration from American Black activists and leaders such as Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Seale and Newton founded the Black Panther Party in the 1960s.
Growing up as an only child on the southeast side of Rockford, Rolfe attended Christian Life from the fourth through sixth grades, but his mother transferred him after he struggled with his academics and behavior.
At Jefferson High School, from which Rolfe graduated, roughly two-thirds of the students are Black or Latino. He said the contrast between the predominantly white private school and classrooms where most students are Black and brown opened his eyes.
“Talking to different people with different backgrounds who may have different ideology about some of the things I’m speaking about made it easy for me to adapt to the person and the situation,” he said.
Along with thousands of Americans across the country, Rolfe left his home to protest police brutality after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
He subsequently joined Rockford Youth Abolitionists, initially named Rockford Youth Activism, and helped organize several protests across the city. Rolfe and others later distinguished themselves from Rockford Youth Abolitionists and created the May 30th Alliance, a separate but supportive group that focuses on advocating for charges against police officers involved in arrests during the protest that night.
An internal Rockford police investigation led by Assistant Deputy Chief Carla Redd reviewed about 120 hours of video from May 30 and more than 90 police reports. It found no wrongdoing by officers.
Demonstrators varied their tactics over the summer. For instance, on Aug. 29, about 40 people gathered at Saturn Park for a picnic and to discuss the arrests of protesters. Rolfe narrated videos of arrests made during demonstrations over the summer and pointed out instances in which he believed excessive force had been used.
Other protests garnered more attention, such as the June 6 demonstration in which protesters marched to the Walmart off East State Street near Bell School Road. Some entered the store chanting “Black Lives Matter” as shoppers and store security observed. The same day demonstrators were met with resistance from a line of police that stood between protesters and Murphy’s Pub on Perryville Road. Both events ended peacefully.
One of the most powerful moments came on a searing June day when protesters lay face down on the hot pavement of East State Street with their hands behind their backs for nearly nine minutes, recalling what happened to Floyd in Minneapolis.
Some protesters were moved to tears as a woman began to cry out for her mother — just as Floyd did in the viral video of his death.
“I just lost it,” said Dayna Schultz, who helped persuade Rolfe and other organizers to go forward with the demonstration.
Tensions mounted as demonstrations went on week after week at City Market.
The tipping point occurred July 31, when City Market was canceled over security concerns. Protesters were arrested for six straight weeks following that night, and Rolfe was ordered to have no contact with Cathy McDermott, executive director of the Rockford City Market.
City Market concluded its season on Sept. 25, but Rolfe says protests will continue. The latest is a sit-in outside City Hall to demand transparency after police shot a man on Friday.
Earlier this summer, Rockford Youth Abolitionists created a list of demands that included body cameras for city police, demilitarization of the department, and a federal investigation into the police-involved shooting deaths of Demetrius Bennet, Logan Bell, Kerry Blake and Michael Sago Jr.
The list has expanded to include a demand for justice for those who claim their rights were violated during arrests outside City Market, Rolfe said.
“The same way we are riding for the people of May 30, I wouldn’t hang any of those other people out to dry, so I think it needs to be justice done for the people who have been arrested for walking on the crosswalk and having to spend essentially four days in jail because they walked on the crosswalk,” Rolfe said.
The city is considering adding body cameras for its officers, a recommendation of its Community Relations Commission, which is also exploring reforms to police use-of-force policies that would emphasize de-escalation and prohibit chokeholds.
Rolfe said he may ease off the protests when he knows the movement has people in place who can make structural changes to institutions within the city.
“Those people (are) coming up with new ideologies and new philosophies that will be at the forefront of shifting where the city is going to be in a year, in five years, in 10 years and 50 years,” Rolfe said.
Source: Rockford Register Star, https://bit.ly/2SEF6YQ
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