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Authorities address arrest of protesters: ‘You are permitted to demonstrate, but you must do it peacefully’

WINNEBAGO COUNTY (WREX) — Winnebago County officials held a news conference Saturday afternoon to address the arrest of protesters on Friday and Saturday.

Since Friday, about 15 people have been arrested during protests against police brutality and racism. Many of them were charged with misdemeanors, while some face more serious charges like mob action, aggravated battery to a police officer, and obstructing a police officer.

The protesters have been gathering since late May after George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. His death sparked outrage, unrest and calls for change across the nation and the world.

In June, hundreds of people marched in the streets of Rockford, blocking busy intersections, stopping traffic, and continuing to hold what they call nonviolent but disruptive demonstrations.

The group also said it would continue to march during public events, including at City Market every Friday. But this past Friday, organizers of the family friendly event canceled the market out of what they said was concern and caution because of the protests.

The protest group, now loosely associated with Rockford Youth Abolitionists and the May 30th Alliance, still marched down State Street on Friday evening, blocking State Street.

Around 7 p.m. Friday night, Rockford Police arrested nine protesters. On Saturday morning after a Back the Blue rally was held, more protesters were taken in custody after police asked them to leave and they did not.

Police Chief Dan O'Shea, Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana, and State's Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross say officials have provided safe venues for the protesters to get their messages across, but that it's time for a different discourse.

"I believe residents and businesses in Rockford deserve much better. They deserve to have the right to drive down the roads and conduct business and not have to worry about people coming in trying to yell and scream and cause chaos," O'Shea says of the disruption.

Sheriff Caruana said, "You have the right to protest. We aren't disputing that. But when it becomes unlawful, we'll engage."

It was Hite Ross who took most of the questions about why charges were being pressed now, when the group has been conducting similar demonstrations for not weeks, but months now. She says her office has discretion.

"You are not going to block road ways for no purpose. You wanted to express yourself several weeks ago we allowed you to do that but we have moved on from that. We have been giving you warning that you will not be allowed to do that anymore. They were given a warning to disperse by law enforcement and they did not do that."

She continued, "My message is very clear. You are permitted to demonstrate, but you must do it peacefully. You cant not threaten or impede or obstruct traffic and motorists who are just trying to go about their business. Again, law enforcement are here to work with you but it takes two to work together."

Most of the protesters have bonded out of the Winnebago County Jail. Some of them, however, are still in custody.

All three of the officials say they have tried to engage and speak with the group, but have not heard back.

13 WREX has full coverage of the charges, as well as the Back the Blue rally that took place on Saturday. Tune in to 13 News at 6 for full coverage.

Audrey Moon

Audrey is the news director at 13 WREX. She’s a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and joined the team at 13 WREX in 2014.

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