ROCKFORD Demonstrators will conduct their weeklyprotests of racial injustice at Rockford City Market again this year even as an expanded market footprint will make it more difficult to deliver their message to visitors.
Gone this year are dedicated protest zones that officials say demonstrators ignored last year. And the streets where protesters marched a year ago will now be inside an expanded City Market areafilled with vendors, displaysand activities.
Market and city officials say the demonstrators' aggressive tactics are meant to agitate, disturb and disrupt a market where about 55 vendors many of them women and minorities plan to work in an effort to establish or expand businesses. In addition to the pandemic, officials blame the demonstrators and their clashes with police last summer for lowmarket attendance in 2020.
Leslie Rolfe, who has been at the forefront of dozens of marches and orchestrated a 224-day and counting continuing protest outside Rockford City Hall,says protesters didnot aimto disrupt the market. But he said they ultimately became disruptive because of the response of market organizers to their presence and heavy-handedpolice tactics which he says were cheered by some "racist" onlookers.
More: Rockford City Market adds new vendors, activities and larger area for its 12th season
Rolfe said his goal is to force residents to confront issues of police brutality, massincarceration and racial discrimination.
"Wearen'tthepeoplewho arelimitingthe people coming inand out of City Market," Rolfe said."The 'City Market Protest' isn'tcalled the 'City Market Boycott'or 'Sabotage City Market.'
"Even last year, when we were on the crosswalk, anybodygoingintoCity Market could go and support thevendors or support the entrepreneurs and people trying to make new businesses. It's completely within your abilities to walk into City Market, find the vendor you were looking for, get yourself something to eat, pay themmoney andfind out if you like the food."
Rolfe saidthe City Market footprint was expanded this year in an effort to quiet protesters, pushing them to the fringes of the event.
But officials say the expanded footprint approved by Rockford City Council was designed to accommodate social distancing amid the pandemic. The expansion was originally sought months ago at a time when they could not know whatreopening phase Illinois and Rockford would be in.
It is also meant to better include nearby businesses in the City Market, activating the areas around them and creating a street festival atmosphere.
Joe Marino Park, once designated a protest area, is now set aside for Rockford Park District programs.
As State Street becomes part of the market grounds from North Wyman Street to North First Street, the areas where protesters once marched will be filled withvendors, activities, large displays and special events, even stretching across the bridge.
Madison Street will be lined with outdoor caf style seating along withfood and drink vendors.
Part music festival, part farmer's market and part retail event, the Rock River Development Partnership'sCity Market was a surprise hit when it opened more than a decade ago.
It drew thousands of people and breathed new life into what was once a desolate downtown. It helped attract new downtown residents, spawned new businesses and created a weekly summerritual in the heart of the city.
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City Market drewa record 111,160 visits in 2019. Attendance dropped to a quarter of that last year amid the pandemic and at-times confrontational demonstrations.
"Our goal has always been to drive traffic to the surrounding businesses," said Cathy McDermott, executive director of the Rock River Development Partnership. "That has happened quite well, I think, but having them actually be out on the streets andsidewalks, part of the outdoor festival atmosphere, was really our goal this year."
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said a protest zone was established last season to safely accommodate demonstrators, but "they chose not to utilize it."
McNamara says after the brutal slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, the city has worked to institute reforms to protect the rights of residents, prevent excessive uses of force, treat those in mental health crisis with compassion and hold police and residents accountable.
Read this: Rockford considers $3.4 million for police body cameras
McNamara said protesters who seemingly began by fightingfor changenow seem to "have placed a greater emphasis on being disruptive and are primarily concerned with local celebrity and self-attention."
"They continue to harass and even threaten employees at the city when the employees are entering and exiting City Hall or when they are just out doing their jobs, like cleaning up garbage, and their vulgar language theyve placed on the sidewalks and the City Hall building," McNamara said."Theyve followed staff and surrounded their vehicles. They continue to block the sidewalks, which is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.They continue to place items on light poles which is clearly against our ordinance, even when we have provided them an alternative location for memorials.They shout into bullhorns and blare sirens at all hours of the day."
Related: 6 ways Rockford could reform policing
During a May 7 news conference to introduce the 12th season of the City Market and announce the expanded footprint, Rolfebanged on the windows outside the Indoor City Market and shouted about recent incidents of what he views as police brutality.
Authorities arrested Rolfe Thursday nearly a week later charging him with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. They say Rolfe followed, harassed and shouted obscenities at a Rockford city official after the news conference.
Deputy Chief Kurt Whisenand said the Rockford Police Department will protect anyone exercising theirFirst Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. But Whisenand said police must intervene if demonstrations endanger the public or violate the law.
Whisenand said police will work to accommodate protesters, allowing them space to deliver their message within "sight and sound" of the City Market. Since the City Market has a city-issued permit however, what transpires inside the footprint will be up to City Market organizers almost as if it were onprivate property.
"We always err on the side of the First Amendment," Whisenand said."We 100% are there to protect anybodys First Amendment rights. Thereare limits to that.Youcan'tcreate a publicsafetyrisk."
Jeff Kolkey: email@example.com; @jeffkolkey
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Protesters: Changes to the Rockford City Market are meant to stymie their message - Rockford Register Star
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