ROCKFORD, Ill. — The anger spread almost as quickly as the news after an unarmed black man was fatally shot by two white police officers inside a northern Illinois church-run day care filled with children.
Competing stories about how 23-year-old Mark Anthony Barmore died last month have reopened racial wounds in the struggling city of Rockford, sparking outrage that has resonated for weeks — and not just about whether the shooting was justified.
Barmore’s death has become a symbol of unequal opportunities in this manufacturing town of about 160,000, where blacks lag far behind whites in jobs, education and income. The meandering Rock River divides the town largely along racial lines — whites on the east and blacks on the west, where aging and shuttered buildings line streets.
“It was really unsettling, because you’re supposed to rely on police to protect you,” black resident Maryann King, 41, said of Barmore’s death. “It’s really put division in the community. People are mad.”
Barmore, a lifelong Rockford resident, was spotted Aug. 24 by patrol officers Oda Poole and Stan North outside the Kingdom Authority International Ministries Church he occasionally attended. Wanted for questioning in a domestic dispute, Barmore ducked into the adjoining House of Grace Daycare and Preschool. Police followed.
Authorities say the officers and Barmore struggled over a police gun, leading both officers to shoot. Witnesses, however, including the Rev. Melvin Brown’s wife and teenage daughter, say Barmore came out of a storage closet where he had hidden and surrendered, but police shot him anyway in front of young children.
Barmore died at the scene of a gunshot wound to the neck and several to the back, said Winnebago County coroner Sue Fiduccia, who declined to give details citing pending tests.
Reaction was swift. Residents, outraged that the shooting happened in church and that both officers had previously used deadly force, held rallies. National NAACP representatives traveled to the city about 90 miles northwest of Chicago to demand federal standards of police use of force. A Cook County task force was called to investigate. Department of Justice mediators were dispatched to quell unrest.
The anger was palpable weeks later as rally-goers wore T-shirts with a picture of Police Chief Chet Epperson that read, “Death is only a phone call away.”
Some believed a church in a more affluent neighborhood would be treated differently.
“It was in the ’hood,” said resident Sonia Brown, 42, who is black. “Had it been anywhere else, there would have been a stakeout and they would have brought in a negotiator.”
Epperson declined to be interviewed. A police spokeswoman declined to discuss details, citing a pending investigation. The officers, who declined to comment, were placed on paid administrative leave.
“They’re both shaken up,” said police union attorney Tim O’Neil, who said the community shouldn’t rush to judgment. “They’re human beings and they realize that a human being lost his life in this incident.”
North, 47, a 22-year Rockford police veteran, shot someone in 2003. Poole, 37, who also won a 2007 medal of honor for saving children from a burning building, had shot three people, one fatally, in his five years with Rockford. Grand juries found all incidents justified.
Former Rockford resident Jason Andrews, 33, who lived on the west side, created an “Officer North and Poole Support” Facebook page with more than 3,000 members.
“They were being unfairly portrayed and not getting a fair shake,” said Andrews, who is white. He organized a march of about 1,000 people last Saturday to show support for the city’s officers.
Carrying signs that read “We support the police” and “I support Stan and Oda,” the marchers burst into applause when they passed by the police department’s headquarters. Later, the wives of the officers involved in the shooting thanked the crowd for its support.
Barmore’s death is about more than police, say activists. Protesters think city leaders could redevelop the west side and bring jobs.
“It started with the Barmore shooting,” Sonia Brown said. “We expect justice, not only for him, but for ourselves also.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the city, calling attention to an unemployment rate that topped 15 percent in July — the state’s highest — and has hit minorities even harder.
The unemployment rate among whites in Illinois was 5.7 percent in 2008, compared with 12.1 percent among blacks, according to the latest state statistics. The median income for a white household in Rockford is nearly $42,000, compared with around $23,000 for a black household.
“The facts are that if you’re an African American male in Rockford, you’re more likely to get arrested than graduate from high school,” said Mayor Larry Morrissey, who is white.
Barmore was a troubled youth who grew up poor, became a ward of the state, dropped out of school, had parents in jail and then went to prison himself for a battery conviction.
His father, Anthony Stevens, has felt overwhelmed, particularly as he recalled seeing the lifeless body of his son — a father and aspiring rapper.
“If you have seen what I have seen,” he said, “they slaughtered him like a pig.”
But many say Barmore’s death can be a catalyst for change.
“It brought us together,” said Rockford retiree Brazz Scott, 69. “We took a good look at ourselves; we’ve been dragging our feet.”
City leaders hope that change will help keep peace while investigators determine whether the officers acted properly.
“The Barmore incident has challenged the community and exposed a lot of the underlying frustrations,” Morrissey said. “It ignited the passions and frustrations … it brought them to the surface.”
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