Constable: Cary history teacher's documentary highlights racial protests
As a member of the class of 1999 at Cary-Grove High School, Nicholas Stange didn't own a camera, and cellphones were used strictly for conversations in those days.
It wasn't until Stange became a history teacher that he discovered his potential as a filmmaker.
Stange's documentary series, "We Demand," captures the protests against systemic racism and police brutality in Rockford during the summer and fall of 2020. It was selected for the prestigious Catalyst Content Festival next week in Duluth, Minnesota -- an honor generally bestowed on people who started their film careers in high school or earlier.
"I worked at Blockbuster a couple years in high school and college," says Stange, 40, who became a fan of movies by noted directors, such as Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. "And my parents, growing up, used to watch movies on a Friday night."
A guard on the varsity basketball team in high school, Stange enrolled in Illinois State University, where he got a degree in history education in 2003. He worked as a substitute teacher until 2005, when he was hired by Harlem High School in Machesney Park near Rockford, where he has taught since.
In 2008, Stange and fellow social studies teacher Jeremy Bois, now principal at the school, won a grant that allowed them to buy a camera and equipment so students could interview military veterans, and learn history as well as production skills.
The Harlem Veteran Project, available on YouTube, has interviewed more than 200 veterans, and is part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. In 2017, the Beloit International Film Festival showed the group's documentary, "The Monster Within," about a veteran coping with post-traumatic stress disorder after coming home from Afghanistan and a Gulf War veteran who developed ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. That documentary, which included work from former students Nick Talan, Grant Hume and Emily Guske, was named "Best Illinois Feature."
The episodes of Stange's latest documentary series, available on the "We Demand" YouTube channel, were developed with fellow teacher Kyra Newnam outside of school. They were spurred by the Rockford protests in May of 2020 following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck suffocating him.
"As a history teacher, I decided, 'Hey, this is something significant,'" says Stange, who brought his Canon camera to take some still photos of the protests that started out peaceful, but later included pepper spray, rock-throwing, arrests and violence. Deciding to shoot some video, Stange left his camera on the black-and-white setting by accident, but later saw the value of his new digital footage looking similar to the film recordings of racial protests in earlier decades.
The documentary tells the story of the May 30th Alliance, a group that protests police-involved shootings and racism, founded by Leslie Rolfe. "I've listened to 13 hours of Leslie on Facebook live," notes Stange, who has multiple harddrives with hours of footage. The May 30 Alliance has been camped outside the Rockford City Hall in a round-the-clock sit-in that started Oct. 3, 2020, to protest the nonfatal shooting of Tyris Jones, an unarmed Black man wanted on felony charges of aggravated domestic battery and aggravated discharge of a firearm. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing, and Jones later was charged with murder.
During the many protests, police have used pepper spray and beanbag guns, and made arrests, and protesters have thrown rocks and disobeyed orders.
"I've had everybody mad at me at some point," says Stange, who lives in Rockford. "I've only had a gun pointed in my face once, and it was by a cop."
Rockford has a long history of racial injustice and protests. In the 1990s, a federal magistrate said the Rockford Public Schools had "raised discrimination to an art form," and ordered the schools to desegregate.
Stange says his history classes talk about events in the news, but maintains that political positions aren't part of his classroom. He says he's more interested in teaching students how to structure arguments regardless of what sides they support.
Stange says he hopes the documentary raises issues and starts discussion.
"To me, it's documenting what is happening. A lot of the content is raw, unapologetic," Stange says. "Whether you agree with their language and tactics, I believe their narrative deserves to be heard. It's this whole idea of creating tension, which creates negotiations, which creates solutions."