N Main, Flashing Lights, and Conflict in the Rustbelt

Rockford, Illinois, is a small place. The population has been in decline for the last couple of years. It is the quintessential Rustbelt city and my home. I begin my runs at sunset with only an audiobook for accompaniment. My route takes me from my childhood home in the Rockford neighborhood of Edgewater up N Main to Loves Park and then back around on the bike path back home. I have been walking these streets and bike paths for years of my life. There is a comic store in Loves Park that I spent a lot of time in high school. I still buy my comics from there.

My run takes me up North Main past Village Green where my mom wanted my brother to work, and past the old Blockbuster. Back when I was in elementary school, I remember hearing a story about a kid who got hit by a car and died when crossing North Main. Despite this, it is one of the nicer roads on the West Side. Small bars, restaurants, and gas stations line the sides. One of my favorite places globally, SkateCo, is along this strip. As I cross the railroad tracks, I see two Ford Explorers with their red and blue lights flashing. Just another day. There’s a lot of abandoned storefronts as I jog or walk depending on my energy along N Main. There used to be a factory near the Rosecrance building. I remember after Charlottesville, someone had clambered up the building and done some graffiti that read “Death to Fascism” or something along those lines. It was covered up later. I’m pretty sure some anarchists are living somewhere on the Northside as I often find graffiti that reads “Fuck 12” or anarchy “As.” Though it seems the anarchists have been less busy recently.

I try to push myself hard on my runs, but I end up slowing down and taking in the same sights after a while. My route continues along North Main past FasMart convenience store, Kikifers Beauty Supply store (a well-known Black-owned business), and DoughBoys Donuts. A couple of years ago, a cop was engaged in a gun battle with someone at FasFuel. He was acquitted for the attempted murder of a police officer, but he’s been sentenced to be in jail for 27 years. None of the cops are facing any time, obviously. DoughBoys used to be one of my favorite places to sit, chill and reminisce as the traffic on N Main slides by although I haven’t done that since the pandemic started.

In some ways, the politically combative nature of American society is evident throughout my run. The police harass people which sometimes results in gun battles. There’s anarchist graffiti on the walls as cars with confederate flags and “don’t tread on me” or “back the blue” bumper stickers ride by. Everyone wants to fight. That’s the history of American society. The history of America is a history of class and racial conflict, especially in Rockford, where the contradictions seem to be especially heightened. On this August evening, as I run along the Rock River, things seem serene. Despite this, the little I observe on my runs are signs of the ever-present conflict that explodes into another round of political violence. The resurgent presence of conflict is just another part of American life now.

I think that often the perception that there are “different Americas” pushed by certain pundits is one of the most ludicrous things in the world. These accounts usually come from people who are privileged or naive enough to be able to ignore the conflict right before their eyes. American society is not simply divided into red and blue states. It is far more complicated. If it was as simple as geography dividing the good liberals from the evil reactionaries, where does that leave Rockford? American history is a history of conflict, ignoring it because of geography makes absolutely no sense. You cannot escape the histories of the land despite the goals of pundits to portray America as a simple division between good people in the cities and bad people in rural areas. Furthermore, the land that the city of Rockford and all of the United States is built on is stolen from indigenous peoples. At least in the Rockford area, the Sauk and the Fox people driven away after the Blackhawk War are no longer present. They do not remain here. Only the strip mall on N Main. The conflict is not gone, though.

The North Towne mall is the happening spot if happening means a Mexican restaurant, a biker bar, a pawn shop where my brother buys swords, and a few other brand locations and a bank. Again, the desolation is palpable. We can’t forget the liquor store. The emptiness of the parking lots in North Towne is a real look into the gnashing maw that is proletarian life under capitalism in a post-industrial area like Rockford.

Racial capitalism forces us apart from one another. That is one of the worst parts. It does not seem like there is any hope of a better world for people in Rockford or the broader country. The politicians don’t offer it. The schools do not offer it. The pandemic has only exacerbated despair, violence, and poverty.

Despite this, the resurgence of conflict gives me hope. I think the fairest example of the resurgence of this conflict was the broader movements for Black lives and to abolish the police in Rockford over most of 2020 though it has continued into 2021. I remember running through Martin Park in June of 2020 past a van with “Fuck the Police” sign in the window. It was incredible to me that it was in Loves Park. The riots and protests in this city were incredibly combative. Racists came from out of town to fight the protestors in Downtown while the police were strapped up in SWAT gear. City officials were terrified of the non-violent protests. I don’t think that conflict has disappeared. It just lies beneath the surface. Conflict indicates that nihilism and apathy isn’t the only trend in a place like Rockford. People are willing to fight. Hopefully, they are willing to fight for the right things.

Rockford is particularly interesting in this regard. The city has gotten increasingly less white over the last 20 years. More Black people from Chicago have moved here as the rents in the city continue to rise and there have been more Mexican folks living here than ever before. To reflect the changing times, the local city government has hosted Juneteenth events and other such things to prove their commitment to diversity. Despite this, the violence of the police and poverty continue to persist especially. In 2020, Rockford was rated one of the worst cities for Black people in the United States in the website 24/7 Wall Street. The nominal poverty rate is 22% according to Census.gov which is well above the state’s and nation’s poverty rate. There were 2 police shootings in 2021 and many other acts of police violence reported and unreported. The conditions for most people in the city have not been improving at all. Despite demographic changes, the only consistent thing in Rockford is desolation, violence, and conflict. Rockford is a good example to understand the declining nature of American society and how that is tied to the inherent truths that built this country. In particular, this Midwestern city represents the zeitgeist of the United States. The anarchist and BLM graffiti on the pole as the truck with iii% insignia and the police roll past. The gentrification downtown which contrasts with the desolation that is the Northwest, Southeast and West Sides. Rockford is supposedly improving according to the city officials but in my walks, it is clear that the only thing that is improving is the willingness of people in our society to fight one another in order to either preserve or transform the current state of things.

I think the importance of growing up and living in Rockford is that I have no misconceptions about the violence and contradictions within American society. Anything and everything is on display. I think that post-industrial Midwestern cities such as Rockford which lack the glitz and glam of the newly built-up centers of capital in the metropolis, it is more clear about the realities of capitalism.

I think that cities like Rockford despite desolation and alienation offer a certain sense of hope. The profound lack of meaningful capital means that in the wastelands, new forms of life can begin to take hold and new forms of social organization will emerge. I do not romanticize these areas but I do think that the models offered by groups like Cooperation Jackson to create a solidarity economy are intriguing starts. In addition to this though, I think that the deep divisions within these areas are more pronounced in terms that are clearly different from cities where it is divided by wealthy technocrats and the working poor. The conflict in these areas stems from the conflicts between white and black people, the police, the Amazon warehouses where people work for starvation wages, and the small businesses seeking to transform downtown Rockford into a playground for the rich.

These divisions are more clear and less obscured than cities. I think that the proximity of people to one another where in cities, these people often exist in completely separate worlds. Obviously, there is no absolute way to describe this but I do think the smaller scale means it makes it harder for the oppressors to dial down the everyday social conflict that exists within American society. I see confederate flags every day in Rockford. That is a good thing because it means I have no illusions about American racism.

I don’t have any definite answers. Every walk around my neighborhood has me asking for new questions, however. I think there are some things that we can say for certain about a walk through this Midwestern city. American society by nature is combative, conflictual, and violent. There is no way to avoid this. It has always been this way and it always will be until it is entirely remade. Through my walks I have come to understand that Human beings have to understand our own realities through engaging in constant material analysis of the world. Academics seek to fit the world into boxes. Organic intellectuals must seek to break the boxes by grounding ourselves in what is real and material. We can do this by jogging around our neighborhoods. Every segment of American society will take part in the coming conflict. The idea that some areas are too far gone or cannot be transformed socially is foolish. People with goals of progress or social change or whatever you want to call it have to understand that to change American society, we have to engage with every geographic context in which people exist. I will continue to run around my neighborhood wherever I live. I’d encourage you to do the same if you are physically able. If we can grasp reality, we can grasp social change

L McGowan-Arnold
Contributor at The Commoner | + posts

Luke is another 20-something floating around in the American Wasteland. A recent Haverford College grad, he studied political science and black studies with a focus on black political theory. He is interested in writing and speculating about racial capitalism, the decline of American society, youth culture, DIY music, traveling and everything else. He also makes music under his moniker Huey, The Cosmonaut. He's passionate about space cowboys, martial arts, hard cider and audiobooks.

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