By Jim Hagerty
Before the sun rose Jan. 1, 2017, there was a homicide on the books at the Rockford Police Department. Joshua Jamerson, 34, was the first victim of the year, and missed being the the city’s 28th of 2016 by only a few hours.
Jamerson was shot dead during a New Year’s Eve party at Cliffbreakers on the city’s northwest side.
Last year also saw a rash of armed robberies, gun incidents and other crimes law enforcement is still reeling to control. And while offenders of all races are to blame, one group of local activists wants young men of a specific demographic to set better examples for the next generation of children growing up in Rockford.
Their message is one of peace, yet it is meant to cut deep enough to strike a chord of accountability. The group is called 100 Strong, a grassroots group aimed at leading children in the black community into productive lives, away from those readily available on the streets.
With the slogan, “Each One, Teach One,” it formed in 2016 in response last year’s rash of violence. For organizers, it was time to act because while last year’s crimes were common, those committing them were not.
“Every time you turned on the television, you saw children as young as 12 and 13 getting involved in crime you only thought adults would get involved in,” said Calvin Rhodes of 100 Strong. “So, we called on 100 black men to stand up. We specifically called on black men because we felt (some of the crime) was our problem.”
Realizing crime is a multifaceted issue with generational socioeconomic causes, 100 Strong leaders say the way to the root of those causes starts on the local, individual level.
“For so long, we as black men have not stood up in our neighborhoods, in our community and in our households,” Rhodes said during last Saturday’s 100 Strong Fair at the Orton Keyes Community Center. “We need to get our young, black males something to emulate. We want to show them strong black men, in order for them to become strong, back men.”
Hundreds gathered Saturday for the group’s second annual outreach event that featured food, games, music and fellowship. The inaugural fair was at Concord Commons and was also well attended.
“An event like this instills family values,” Rhodes said. “Because what you have here is family. And one thing we found is that if you don’t know your brother, the more likely you are to raise your hand to him. But if you know a person, the less likely you are to raise a hand to that person. This is a form of socializing, networking and really just loving on each other. So many times in Rockford, we hear about the negative–a shooting here, a killing there, robbing.”
East vs. West
With the clocking ticking on the new guard in city government, ex-Mayor Larry Morrissey’s “Excellence Everywhere” slogan is still resonating with many, namely those entrenched in downtown development and improvements in the public school district. Projects like the reconstruction of South Main Street is set to complement the upcoming Embassy Suites. The UW Health Sports Factory and Morgan Street Bridge are economic tools leaders say will remove hurdles that for decades have pitted the more affluent east side against west side blight that began when Rockford fell from manufacturing prominence in the 1980s.
And it was the east that emerged the new face of the Forest City in the ’90s when East State Street toward I-90 became a cookie-cutter retail suburbia found in thousands of cities across the country recovering from the Rust Belt fallout. The city’s disposable income is east of the Rock River. It is a self-supporting market, while many to the west are barely surviving in public housing as a rental class with no skin in the game.
Activists like Rhodes recognize recent pushes for unity. There has been progress. 100 Strong does not deny the effort. But, the question is not whether to give Rockford an “A” for effort. There’s no time for that. The time is now to come together, a message heard last week as newly elected aldermen and Mayor Tom McNamara were sworn in at City Hall. The next four years will determine if they are up for the challenge.
“Just go down Street Street, and depending on which way you go, it gradually improves, or gradually gets worse,” Rhodes said. “So, they can say there is no more east side versus west side, but my eyes tell me something else.”
In response, Rockford has also seen a growing exodus over the years, not only of those wanting out of the west side, but those bound for anywhere but here. Developers have begun to stop the outflow with a growing downtown housing stock. The shift will be good for some, but gentrification isn’t meant to be all things to all people. Which is why 100 Strong is pushing for true change in the same manner builders are attempting to construct a new city, one some say will resemble a Midwestern Babylon instead of a healthy, vibrant locality.
Pride in ownership
“It is going to take those of us who live on this side of town,” Rhodes said. “We have to take pride of ownership of where we live. It has to start here. Right now, we only have about 40 percent home ownership on the west side. That has to change. That has to become 80 to 90 percent in order for people to have pride in where they stay.”
Although he supports a bustling city for travelers seeking leisure and entertainment, Rhodes would like hotels, markets and other projects to happen in concert with initiatives to help those in need do something other than move from one public housing project to another.
“Before you bring in all these hotels, it would be more beneficial to the people already here if we helped them become homeowners,” he said.
State Rep. Litesa Wallace, D-Rockford, attended Saturday’s fair and said part of her battle in Springfield is for programs along a wide spectrum of vital social services. One of those services is child care. As a former recipient of child care subsidies herself, Wallace knows the need firsthand.
“Before (my son) started kindergarten, I couldn’t afford $1,000 a month for him to go to child care,” Wallace said. “It was child-care subsidies that allowed me to finish school, help me find a job and get on my feet.”
Two years ago, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner made deep slashes to state assistance programs, leaving more than 50,000 children without child care, affecting working families across Illinois.
Wallace, who holds a doctorate degree from Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s from Western Illinois, in April passed a bill out of the House to restore the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) for parents seeking college degrees.
“I’ve also been fighting to make sure there are dollars in place for seniors, the disabled and for social services like LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program).”
The Economic Development for a Growing Economy Tax Credit Program (EDGE), which provides tax incentives to encourage businesses to expand in Illinois, expired in April but Wallace aims to save it. The program helped woo Amazon to Illinois two years ago.
Wallace is also working to raise the state’s hourly minimum wage to $15.
Fellow 100 Strong activist Danny Worley sees great potential here, but sees racial divisions that are not so much about animosity but fear. It is 2017 and white people stay clear of the west side in fear of becoming a victim of crime. Black people tread lightly on the east side to avoid arrest.
“We are all scared of one another,” Worley said. “We are scared of the government. We are scared of the police. Some of us are are scared of our own people. That has to end. It’s over with. This is for the children. What we are doing here is for them.”
More information about 100 Strong is on the group’s Facebook page.