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Profiting from the legalization of Marijuana in Grand Rapids: The ongoing legacy of the racist War on Drugs

April 18, 2019

In 2014, Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was asked about states there were passing laws to decriminalize the sale of small amounts of marijuana. Her response was:

Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing? So, that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

Michelle Alexander is not against the decriminalization of marijuana. What Alexander, and many other people are concerned about, is who is going to profit from marijuana sales, now that the industry will firmly in the hands of a capitalist system.

Unfortunately, this was not a question asked by a recent MiBiz article, with the headline, Non-locals make up vast majority of medical marijuana biz applicants. 

In the MiBiz article the focus is on whether or not those setting up marijuana-related businesses in Grand Rapids, would be locally owned or companies based in other parts of the state or other parts of the country.

The MiBiz story does provide some useful information, such as where the medical marijuana dispensaries will be located with Grand Rapids. The article includes a useful map (seen here on the right) that shows where the areas of concentration are for the new businesses.

There was also useful information in terms of costs associated with getting a license from the city of Grand Rapids, in order to sell marijuana. One business owner said, they needed to spend $5,000 for an option to buy the building, $5,000 on the city’s application for a provisioning center, and $6,000 for the state’s licensing application, for which they needed to show upwards of $300,000 in available capital. That’s all while they’re awaiting pre-qualification at the state level.

Based on the MiBiz source, one would need to pay $16,000 up front, plus ongoing rental or mortgage costs, and then have up to $300,000 in available capital. The question that should be asked, but wasn’t by the MiBiz reporter, is, who can afford to own a medical marijuana dispensary? The answer is fairly obvious……..white people. We can verify this by looking at some of the known businesses that will be operating medical marijuana dispensaries.

First, there is Healing Tree LCC, which is owned by Leafly and has dispensaries all over Michigan, as well as other states in the US. Leafly is a subsidiary of a much larger company, Privateer Holdings, which owns numerous other businesses within its portfolio.

Another company which stands to make profits from the medical marijuana dispensaries in Grand Rapids is the Bricks & Mortar Group, which prides itself on being an all woman-owned business. The only women that are seen on the Bricks & Mortar site are white women. 

A third company listed in the MiBiz article is Humble Roots LLC. According to the Co-founder’s linkedin page (Ben Migdal), “Humble Roots is a self-funded, vertically integrated, pre-licensed, Michigan cannabis group.Our founders started in the industry in California, Colorado, and Michigan over a decade ago and have expanded into Michigan’s emerging cannabis market. Our team has award winning genetics, flower, and a portfolio of municipally licensed real estate ready for build out. Our primary and immediate goal is to build out our existing cultivation and processing facility into the finest running cannabis facilities in all of Michigan while expanding our retail footprint throughout the state. The Linkedin page for the Humble Roots LLC co-founder also says that he co-founded BPMD Realty LLC, which is an entity utilized by Humble Roots LLC to ensure upkeep and standards for all properties acquired in Michigan.

Now, Ben Migdal doesn’t appear to be white, but he clearly has significant access to capital, in order to start and expand his cannabis enterprise.

The other owners listed in the MiBiz article are Jeff & Tami Vandenberg, co-owners of the Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme bars.

So it appears that most of the owners listed in the MiBiz article are white and all of them have numerous assets and access to an amount of capital that most people could never have access to, especially people of color.

For years now, those who have fought and pushed for the legalization of marijuana have been marginalized groups – communities of color, people with disabilities, AIDS patients and veterans, but these groups do not have access to the capital that white people do, thus making it more difficult for them to benefit from the legalization of marijuana.

The other important point that Michelle Alexander makes in the statement at the beginning of this article is, what are we going to do about “reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

We know that for at least the past 40 years of an official US war on drugs, that black and brown communities have suffered tremendous harm, even with marijuana. Look at the important study done by the ACLU in 2013, entitled The War on Marijuana in Black and White. This report makes it clear that arrests rates are much higher for black and brown communities than they are for white counterparts. Billions of dollars have been spent policing black and brown communities and arresting black and brown youth for marijuana sales or possession. So what reparations work are we going to be involved in that will undo this harm? If the trend is going to be white people disproportionately owning and operating medical marijuana dispensaries, that will not undo the harm done to black and brown communities for decades of drug-related arrests and incarceration.

Think about the millions of dollars lost to black and brown communities because of the years lost in jail or in prison just from drug violations and what that kind of disinvestment in their communities has meant. Looking at the map where there have been applications for medical marijuana dispensaries in Grand Rapids, are the areas where those dispensaries are located now at risk of further gentrification?

These are all important questions to think about and to act on. If we claim to be people who want to promote racial justice and to dismantle the decades of white supremacist drug war policies, then we can not sit on the sidelines content with the fact that the purchasing and consumption of marijuana is now legal.

I wrote to the City of Grand Rapids to find out if the information on all of the medical marijuana dispensaries is public information. As of this writing that information is not fully public, particularly in terms of which entities will own and operate the dispensaries. However, we did learn that this information will be made public sometime the week of April 22nd at this link on the City’s website. Once that information has been posted we will write a follow up story to see which entities are owning and operating the medical marijuana dispensaries, where they are from and what the racial makeup of those who will be profiting from the sale of marijuana.

More GRPD video of police violence gets reaction from the community, the police union and the Friends of GRCops

April 18, 2019

On Tuesday, the GRPD released dashcam and body camera video footage of two recent incidents that have come under scrutiny by many in Grand Rapids, because of police violence. The 11 minutes of footage can be viewed here, although watching the footage could be triggering, since it shows police violence. 

WOOD TV 8 ran a story on Tuesday as well about this new video footage, footage they received after submitted a Freedom of Information Action request. The GRPD refused to make a statement on camera, so WOOD TV 8 referred to the statement the GRPD posted along with the video on their Facebook page from Tuesday at 10:10am.

As is expected, the GRPD statement justifies their use of violence (which they refer to as force), because people were not compliant. Another interesting note is that the GRPD stated they had 10 hours of footage from the vehicle and body cameras for all the officers and cruisers on scene, yet they only released 11 minutes worth. The police did say this is a compilation of the best angles to provide an overview of the arrests.”  Since the GRPD chose to select what footage they would share with the public, one wonders what the other 9 hours and 49 minutes of footage would have revealed. However, apparently representatives of LINC and the NAACP have all 10 hours of the footage. The public should request that both organizations make the footage available to the community.

The channel 8 story did provide responses from the director of the NAACP and LINC, referring to them as “urban leaders.” Both sources talked primarily about the lack of trust between the community and the police.

However, the Friends of GRCops Facebook page, a page that is run by Ed Kettle, had their own take on the WOOD TV 8 story, with the following comments:

The ridiculous merry go round goes round and round. Jeremy and Clee have been front and center in the battle between police and people of color. They never offer any solutions. They pass it off to “city leaders.” Well, city leaders have taken the police department on a wild ride for three years. There have been study groups, neighborhood meetings, and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on consultants. And where are we today?

Police enforce the laws. The vast majority of people of every background just naturally obey those laws. There are ample stories and evidence of unfortunate encounters between police and people of color. No one at GRPD has ever denied that. Instead, they dug deep, complied with every direction sent to the by this city commission and have made substantial changes in how they encounter people in both good and bad situations. But the bottom line is, if a person is told by a police officer to get out of the car, they should get out of the car. Resisting arrest is against the law. There is no Constitutional protection for resisting. Many people within low income groups fear that the system won’t work for them. Then let’s get to work on that. GR has an excellent Legal Aid organization and an equally excellent roster of court appointed lawyers. If there are flaws in that system let’s fix it. The facts remain the same. Shut up. Don’t resist and ask for an attorney.

The other fact is, the clear majority of the people of Grand Rapids support the police. The videos shown on social media and TV are hard to watch. Harder to understand if you’re not a cop or connected in some way. Even still, they support GRPD. Those are the voices, while mostly unheard, that city hall needs to listen to once in a while.

There is an awful lot to unpack in this statement. First, there have been many clear solutions offered by the community for the past several months. Those solutions/demands are as follows:

1. Support Driver’s Licenses for All in the State of Michigan.

2. Fire  police officers who have committed brutality by beating and kicking Black drivers.  Fire Captain Curt VanderKooi who has a long history of discrimination based on race and is not safe for our neighborhoods.

3. Stop all cooperation with ICE and use no city resources to do the work of ICE.  There should be no police role of “ICE liaison.”

4. Release the code of conduct for officers and the track record of each officer’s misconduct report, including complaints against them.  Release the reports of their investigations so that the public can track their accountability processes. Create an accountability reprimand policy for all officers that stand by during instances of beatings or other harm.

5. Create subpoena powers and investigative powers for our Civilian Appeals Board.

6. Give a vote of No Confidence to Acting Chief Kiddle.

7. Create a program whereby GRPD pays for at minimum 5 years of trauma-related therapy especially for any youth interaction deemed inappropriate regarding harassment, profiling, excessive force etc.

8. Regarding the million dollars over five years that the city has set aside to deal with community police relations: appropriate that to the community to keep our neighborhoods safe.

Second, Kettle makes numerous generalizing statements about what cops do and what most of the public does, which is unsubstantiated. Third, the Friends of GRCops rant says that people should just shut up and obey the commands of the police. Such a statement is condescending and suggests that the GRPD should be trusted, despite their track record of abuse, intimidation and harassment. Fourth, these were not “unfortunate encounters,” rather the result of how policing is done in neighborhoods of color. Lastly, Kettle states that it is a fact that most of the people in the city support the GRPD, but never substantiates this. There has never been any evidence presented to suggest that most people support the GRPD and to suggest that is the case is plain false.

The Friends of GRCops was started by Ed Kettle. On Kettle’s website he states, “I am presently working with the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association to build their community and political profile. I formed Friends of GRCops, essentially a social media effort, to help solidify public support for our police officers and to create opportunities for public dialogue.”

The Grand Rapids Police Officers Association reposted Kettle’s comments from the Friends of GRCops page, since Kettle has them as a client. The community and the news media need to pay more attention to these two groups, since they are the ones who have been most vocally opposed to any kind of public scrutiny of GRPD actions against communities of color.

New report shows that nearly half of Michigan residents face financial instability

April 16, 2019

In late March, several regional and state news sources reported that nearly half of Michigan household are facing financial instability. At least this is how some news sources framed the issue.

MiBiz ran the headline, Study: 43% of Michigan residents face financial instability. The newly former Lansing-based news source, Michigan Advance, had a different headline, one that read, Low-wage working households on the rise in Michigan

These articles were the result of a new study put out by the Michigan Association of United Ways, entitled, ALICE in Michigan: A Financial Hardship Study. The 41-page report is based on a methodology for how to measure Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – ALICE. ALICE is essentially a household that is living above the federal poverty level, but still unable to meet their basic needs.

There is a recognition in this new report that nearly half of the households in Michigan are financially struggling. The report includes lots of data, like what you see in the graph above. However, the notion of what individuals and families need to live off of can and should be challenged, since many of the amounts listed above would be inadequate. For example, the housing cost for an individual and a family doesn’t fit the current housing costs in West Michigan.

The new report is an important contribution to our understanding of poverty and income for those living in Michigan. If nearly 50% of the households in Michigan are financially unstable, what does that say about the current economy within a neoliberal capitalist framework? Does this mean that capitalism only works for half the population? I would argue that more than half of the population suffers under the economic system of capitalism, since so many more individuals and families are in debt and at the mercy of the unstable nature of the speculative market.

Another aspect of the news coverage about the ALICE report, is that we primarily get the perspective of those who work in the social services field and those in the United Way. We do get some insight into the realities facing families who are struggling, but their lived experience is not center or explored in depth.

Early on in the report, those who put it together refer to is as a grassroots movement. (see above) To call it a grassroots movement is an inaccurate way of framing the research. While the research is useful, it is not grassroots, since non-profits agencies, in partnership with governments and corporate sponsors are NOT grassroots. If you read the last sentence in the statement below, it makes it clear who the partners are who is omitted. Those who are experiencing poverty and financial instability are not identified as being involved in determining the “strategies for positive change.” Any grassroots movement that addresses social issues must be led by the people who are most affected, which in this case are the individuals, families and communities that are experiencing poverty and other forms of harm under the economic system of capitalism.

The fact that corporations are seen as partners with the United Way, should be a red flag for anyone who really wants to develop strategies that will be beneficial for those currently affected by the economic system. In the same edition of MiBiz that included their article on the ALICE report, another story was headlined, Michigan execs remain optimistic about state economy, job growth

It is imperative that when people talk about the growth of the economy, it does not correlate that what is good for “the economy” is good for the people. If there is anything that we should learn from capitalism, it’s that economic growth primarily means that those at the top, the one percent or the capitalist class, are the ones who will benefit.

West Michigan Policy Forum teams up with the Mackinac Center to push for continued Medicaid work requirements

April 15, 2019

On Friday, the West Michigan Policy Forum posted a link (seen here on the right) to a Detroit News opinion piece, co-authored by a representative from the West Michigan Policy Forum and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

The opinion piece that appeared in the Detroit News was co-authored by former State Representative Jase Bolger and Lindsay Killen, a staffer at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. 

Bolger left political office a few years ago and formed the Tusker Strategies LLC group, which represents groups working on public policy changes in Michigan. According to the Tusker website, the West Michigan Policy Forum (WMPF) appears to be Bolger’s only client. In addition to representing the WMPF, Bolger also joined the board of the Great Lakes Education Project, the entity created by Betsy DeVos to undermine public education across the state. 

Bolger co-wrote the opinion piece with Lindsay Killen, who is the VP for strategic outreach and communications at the Mackinac Center and member of the Board of Policy Advisors at the Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute is another far right think tank that is one of the leading think tanks that denies the existence of Climate Change. Killen also used to work for the Freedom Alliance, managing outreach to organizations for the Sean Hannity Freedom Concerts with Lt.Col. Oliver North.

Considering the reactionary positions and organizations that both Bolger and Killen represent, it is no surprise that they would be pushing for Michigan to maintain work requirements for those who receive Medicaid benefits. The Snyder administration pushed for the same Medicaid work requirements, we he signed a bill asking the federal government for permission to implement work and community engagement requirements for able-bodied adults enrolled in Healthy Michigan. If Governor Whitmer doesn’t reverse that decision, then the work requirements aspect of Medicaid would begin in 2020.

Bolger and Killen think that requiring those on Medicaid to work (if they are able to) is a good thing and they also believe that when people work, “it feeds the human spirit.” I wonder if Jase Bolger or Lindsay Killen has ever had a job that was physically demanding, with little pay and long hours? Not all work “feeds the human spirit.”

In addition, it is interesting that those who support this kind of policy position don’t require the same kind of conditions for corporations and businesses that receive massive subsidies, also known as corporate welfare. Public money subsidized businesses with nearly $30 million simply for the purpose of developing talent so that companies can compete at the global level.

Lastly, it should be noted that if we had a single payer health care policy in the US or a Medicaid for All plan, people would be better off and not have to adopt to more of the austerity measures that policy makers want to impose on them.

Does DGRI endorse the radical politics of the Rad Women images they are displaying all over downtown Grand Rapids?

April 14, 2019

In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month 2019, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) announces a sweeping public art project to recognize and celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States of America.

The above statement was posted in early March from DGRI, the quasi-government entity that includes the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Improvement District and the Monroe North Tax Increment Finance Authority. These groups are represented by most government and business people who have been responsible for the ongoing development of the greater downtown area of Grand Rapids, a development process that has served the interests of the Grand Rapids Power Structure

Thus, the announcement that DGRI would be not only celebrating women’s history month, but celebrating women who are the subjects of the book, Rad American Women A – Z, written by Kate Schatz and Illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, was rather surprising to me, especially considering what many of the women celebrated in the book represent. Indeed, these women were/are engaged in radical politics and radical imagination in such a way that would actually challenge and confront the kinds of activities that DGRI engages in.

Lets take a look at these women and the kinds of work, vision and commitment they collectively have brought to many of the social movements throughout US history. Since the book presents these women alphabetically, let’s provide a summary of their collective herstory alphabetically.

Angela Davis – Angela Davis was a member of the US Communist Party, a revolutionary that went to prison for being part of the Black Power Movement. Davis has been a professor for decades teaching radical theory and history, has written numerous books on black liberation and black radical theory and has been part of the movement to Abolish Prisons. She is an anti-capitalist who is known throughout the world and has been deeply committed to the liberation of black, brown, Indigenous and Palestinian people.

Billie Jean King – The famous US tennis player who not only fought for equal pay for women tennis players, but was one of the first lesbian athletes to publicly challenge  heteronormative politics in the US.

Carol Burnett – Carol Burnett has been an entertainer for decades and challenged the Patriarchy in Hollywood for as long as she has been an entertainer. Carol Burnett has also made us laugh, which in the US can been seen as both subversive and liberating and the same time.

Dolores Huerta – One of the leaders of the United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta not only demonstrated the power of organized workers vs organized wealth, she taught us the power of collective action, of cooperative politics and the power of non-violent direct action.

Ella Baker – Ella Baker was one of the most important organizers in the black freedom struggle, often referred to as the Civil rights Movement. Ella Baker taught a whole generation of young black and brown organizers and was part of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker was one of the most important organizers of the 20th century and believed in the power of direct action to challenge systems of oppression.

Florence Griffith-Joyner – Florence was an Olympic sprinter that amazed us with her speed and her grace. Known as Flo Jo, she wore spectacular running outfits that were matched by her powerful physique.

The Grimke Sisters – Sarah and Angela Grimke were the daughters of slave owners, who rejected their families and went on the become part of the Abolitionist Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the early US Labor Movement. The Grimke sisters saw women’s liberation, black liberation and the liberation of workers as part of the same thread of freedom.

Hazel Scott – Hazel Scott was a jazz and classical pianist, a singer and an actor that performed in the US in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She was the first black female to have her own TV show. However, Scott was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for her politics and was Blacklisted. Like many other black performers in that era, she moved to Paris to continue her career, but eventually moved back to the US in 1967.

Isadora Duncan – Isadora Duncan was a performer who loved to dance. Duncan loved dancing so much that she wanted to teach others, especially children and opened numerous dance schools throughout her career. Duncan hated the commercial aspect of performing, so she committed most of her life to teaching. Isadora was also a feminist, an atheist and drawn to communism in the later part of her life. She moved to Russia in 1921, shortly after the revolution.

Jovita Idar – Jovita Idar was a teacher, a journalist and an organizer, primarily in the Mexican-American and Chicano movements. Idar was originally from Laredo, Texas where she first experienced the way that Mexicans were treated in the US. Idar was part of many groups, including the League of Mexican Women, the Primer Congreso Mexicanista and during the Mexican Revolution went to Mexico to care for the wounded and to protest the US military invasion of northern Mexico.

Kate Bornstein – Kate Bornstein was one of the first persons to challenge the gender binary in the US. They wrote about many topics, but is best know for their work on challenging the gender binary. Bornstein was also a playwright and performance artist who is best know for their book Gender Outlaws.

Lucy Parsons – Lucy Parsons was a radical organizer, anarchist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist. Parsons was a Latinx woman who was married to Albert Parsons, also a radical organizer and one of the four men arrested during the Haymarket riot. Albert was eventually executed, but Lucy kept organizing and speaking out against the evils of capitalism and White Supremacy until she died.

Maya Lin – Maya Lin is a famous artist and architect who is best known for her urban land art. Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and has created urban memorials all across the US, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Nellie Bly – Nellie Bly was a journalist in the early part of the 20th century, famous for making a trip around the world in 72 days. However, Bly’s more important work was her contribution to investigative journalism, especially the journalism she practiced by exposing the brutal practices of mental health institutions and asylums in the US.

Odetta – Odetta Holmes was a singer, actress, guitarist and lyricist who became known as the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” Odetta performed for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Odetta’s music spanned decades and influenced the likes of Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Biaz and Janis Joplin.

Patti Smith – Patti Smith has been an American singer, songwriter and performer for decades and was influential in the early Punk Rock scene in New York City. Patti has played in numerous bands and collaborated with other musicians over the years. She has also done benefit concerts for the anti-war movement, in support of AIDS activism and a number of other social movements over the years.

Queen Bessie Coleman – Queen Bessie Coleman was only 32 when she died. She was the first African American and Native American pilot to get a pilot license in the US.Queen Bessie was also part of an activist community in Florida in the 1920s, a community connected to the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

Rachel Carson – Rachel Carson was a scientist, ecologist and feminist who gave us one of the most important environmental books of the 20th century, Silent Spring. Carson’s research proved that pesticide use was having a negative impact on species, eco-systems and humans.

Sonia Sotomayor – Sonia Sotomayor is a member of the US Supreme Court. Nominated to the court in 2009, Sotomayor became the first Latina to rise to that position.

Temple Grandin – Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science and consultant to the livestock industry. Grandin is also one of the first persons with autism to publicly talk about her lived experience with autism and invented what is now called the “hug box.”

Ursula K. LeGuin – Ursula K. LeGuin is one of the best science fiction writers in US history. LeGuin, was a feminist, who imagined what the world would look like through a feminist and futurist lens. LeGuin practiced radical imagination in her writing and was an outspoken critic on many social issues during her lifetime.

Virginia Apgar – Virginia Apgar was an American obstetrical anesthesiologist and developed a methodology for assessing the health of new born babies, known as the Apgar score.

Wilma Mankiller – Wilma Mankiller was an activist, community developer and the first woman elected to be Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller took part in the occupation of Alcatraz and was influenced by the American Indian Movement. She adopted lots of programs from AIM and developed those programs within her Cherokee community.

Yuri Kochiyama – Yuri Kochiyama was an American activist that was influenced deeply by her parents who were forced into Japanese Internment Camps in the US during WWII. Yuri was a friend of Malcolm X, supported Black separatists, the anti-war movement and later worked for reparations for Japanese American internees.

Zora Neale Hurston – Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most important black writers of the early 20th century. Hurston gave us such works as, Mules and Men; Moses, Man of the Mountain; and Their Eyes were Watching God. Hurston was also an anthropologist who did extensive research on Haitian Voodoo.

One can see that many of these radical women were engaged in important social movements and in abolitionist politics. Imagine what Angela Davis, the Grimke sisters, Lucy Parsons, Dolores Huerta and Ella Baker would have to say about the racist gentrification of Grand Rapids, the police brutality of black and brown communities or the celebration of wealth that is so much of the Grand Rapids community. Imagine what artists and performers like Carol Burnett, Maya Lin, Odetta, Patti Smith and journalist Nellie Bly would have to say about spectacles like ArtPrize. Imagine was feminists like Ursula LeGuin, Rachel Carson, Wilma Mankiller and critic of the gender binary theorist Kate Bernstein would have to say about the homophobia, transphobia and rich, white, male power structure of Grand Rapids.

Lastly, considering that most of these radical women believed in the power of direct action, does this mean that DGRI is endorsing grassroots tactics and movements that are fighting against gentrification, white supremacy, capitalism and state violence that harms black, brown and immigrant communities every day in Grand Rapids? You can’t use the images of radical women and then engage in politics that undermines the very things they fought for.

Senator Stabenow justifies her ongoing support for the Israeli occupation and for the criminalization of BDS

April 12, 2019

Last month, I posted a response I received from Michigan Senator Gary Peters on his vote to continue to support the State of Israel and to vote for criminalizing support for the international Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions campaign, known as BDS. 

Yesterday, I received a similar message from Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow. She writes:

Thank you for contacting me about the Combating Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Act, which was included in the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act (S.1). I appreciate you taking the time to make me aware of your views.

I supported S.1 because it includes legislation to maintain our security partnerships with Jordan and Israel and keeps critical sanctions on officials in Syria that are involved in the slaughter of innocent civilians. 

The Combating BDS Act authorizes states to enact laws related to anti-boycott activity. In Michigan, former Governor Snyder signed two anti-BDS bills into law last year, just before the end of his term.  I do not oppose an individual’s right to boycott, and I understand your concerns about these types of legislation.  

The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act passed the Senate on February 5, 2019; it now awaits action by the House of Representatives.

An interesting choice os words from Senator Stabenow. She refers to the “security partnership” with Israel, but US military aid Israel ($3 Billion a year) has little to do with Israel’s security and more to do with supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The global community through the United Nations has determined for years now that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is illegal. In addition, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land results in the death of Palestinian civilians. According to the 2018 Human Rights Watch report

The Israeli government continued to enforce severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights; restrict the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip; and facilitate the unlawful transfer of Israeli citizens to settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli forces stationed on the Israeli side of the fences separating Gaza and Israel responded to demonstrations for Palestinian rights on the Gaza side with excessive lethal force. Between March 30 and November 19, security forces killed 189 Palestinian demonstrators, including 31 children and 3 medical workers, and wounded more than 5,800 with live fire. 

The Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, provides regular human tights reports, with accompanying maps. Here is what they documented between March 23 and April 5 of 2019. 

From March 23 through April 5 Israeli security forces arrested at least 115 Palestinians, including 7 minors; made at least 178 raids on towns and villages; raided at least 124 homes; and set up at least 176 flying checkpoints.

▪ In the Hebron District, Israeli security forces arrested at least 6 Palestinians; made at least 6 raids on towns and villages and raided at least 8 homes; and set up at least 18 flying checkpoints.

▪ In the Bethlehem District, Israeli security forces arrested at least 10 Palestinians; made at least 5 raids on towns and villages and raided at least 11 homes; and set up at least 5 flying checkpoints.

▪ In the Ramallah District, Israeli security forces arrested at least 41 Palestinians, including 3 minors; made at least 32 raids on towns and villages and raided at least 45 homes; and set up at least 48 flying checkpoints.

▪ In the Nablus District, Israeli security forces arrested at least 15 Palestinians, including 1 minor; made at least 21 raids on towns and villages and raided at least 7 homes; and set up at least 20 flying checkpoints.

▪ In the Jordan Valley, Israeli security forces arrested at least 9 Palestinians; made at least 27 raids on towns and villages and raided at least 11 homes; and set up at least 17 flying checkpoints.

▪ In the northern West Bank, Israeli security forces arrested at least 34 Palestinians, including 3 minor; made at least 87 raids on towns and villages and raided at least 42 homes; and set up at least 68 flying checkpoints.

In addition to completely ignoring Israeli human rights abuses, Senator Stabenow also says, “I do not oppose an individual’s right to boycott.” If this were truly the case, then Senator Stabenow would not have voted for the Combating BDS Act, which criminalizes  the boycotting of Israeli companies or other multinational corporations that are profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Senator Stabenow’s support for Israel and the criminalization of BDS is consistent with her longtime support of US military aid to Israel. Senator Stabenow has voted for US military aid to Israel for as long as she has been a US Senator, beginning in 1998. According to OpenSecrets.org, Senator Stabenow has received a total of $837,576 from  the Pro-Israel Lobby

The Immigrant Justice Movement in Grand Rapids Part II

April 10, 2019

(Editor’s note: I am currently working on a book, tentatively entitled, A People’s History of Grand Rapids, which is related to this article.)

In Part I, we looked at the beginnings of an immigrant justice movement in Grand Rapids, specifically between 2005 and 2016.

The immigrant justice movement evolved significantly after the 2016 election, with the news that the new Trump administration would be escalating repressive measures against undocumented immigrants, with talk of building a wall along the US/Mexican border and adding 15,000 additional ICE agents across the country.

A group of people were invited to a meeting that was being hosted by the CRC’s office of Social Justice just weeks after the 2016 election. Some 40 people were at that meeting to discuss the possibility of doing sanctuary work, along with a whole range of ideas that would provide opportunities for solidarity with the undocumented community. However, there was one thing missing from this meeting……there was no one from the immigrant or the undocumented community.

However, people from this initial gathering continued to meet and form committees. The committee I was a part of, was a group that was looking to intervene when ICE agents were attempting to arrest and detain people.

There was a community forum held in January of 2017, at the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church to talk about what could be done to respond to the anticipated anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of Washington. Some people met to talk about offering sanctuary, while others met to discuss the work of a group calling itself the GR Rapid Response to ICE project.

GR Rapid Response to ICE hosted its first training in February of 2017, with over 100 people attending, which did reflect that many people had a growing concern about the fate of immigrants under the Trump administration. In that same month, a march was organized by the immigrant community to draw attention to their concerns and fears about the increased repression they were feeling. Several thousand people showed up at that march in February, with a banner that read, Un Dia Sin Immigrantes – A Day Without Immigrants.

It was out of this immigrant-led march that Movimiento Coscha GR was born. Some of the organizers from that march traveled to Boston to participate in a training with the Cosecha national and came back determined to organize the immigrant community in Grand Rapids.

Cosecha GR continued its organizing work with other marches and an action at the local ICE office where three people were arrested to expose the bankrupt immigration policies of this country. 

One focus of Cosecha GR has been to use boycotts to address systemic problems around immigration, by making it clear that without immigrants the US economy would come to a stop. The boycott campaign saw several thousand people marching and refusing to buy anything on May 1st, an action at Walmart that exposed the wages of migrant workers and the current Turkey Boycott Campaign.

In October of 2017, there was also a powerful display of solidarity, where Movimiento Cosecha GR had decided to support a contract dispute with the bus drivers union in Grand Rapids and the union in turn supported Cosecha GR and their push to get an Equal Services policy adopted by the City of Grand Rapids, which would prevent city employees from asking people about their legal status. 

Unfortunately, the GRPD lobbied to not be included in the Equal Services policy and the City attorney revised the content to exclude them from the policy, which means the GRPD could ask people what their status is. 

GR Rapid Response to ICE and Movimiento Cosecha GR continued to organize and offer trainings at the beginning of 2018. The first major immigration action took place in January, when Congress was debating whether or not to continue the federal policy known as DACA. People from Grand Rapids went to DC to take part in actions and then organized an action on January 19, where protestors shut down traffic at an intersection by the Grand Rapids Federal Building.

At that January 19 action, police officers did not act when motorists forced their way through the protestors on the street. Movimiento Cosecha GR held a press conference in response to this form of state violence in February. The GRPD showed up to intimidate the immigrant-led group and then waited in the parking lot to make sure that they could talk to the news media that came to the press conference.

Then in March, a church which was working with the group GR Rapid Response to ICE, publicly declared themselves a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

Beginning in early April, Movimiento Cosecha GR began promoting their upcoming days of action, which would begin at the end of April. These four days of action were part of a larger strategy of getting to a seven day strike, where immigrants and allies would demonstrate the kind of economic power they have to force the country to come to terms with the unjust immigration policies that currently permeate the US.

Movimiento Cosecha GR also used these four days of action to kick-off their campaign to get drivers licenses for all in Michigan. On April 30th, the movement participated in an action at the Secretary of State’s office in Wyoming, MI.

On May 1st, an estimated 2,000 people marched in the streets of Grand Rapids to demonstrate the power of immigrants. The GRPD had increased their presence during the march and tried to dictated the route, but movement organizers would not comply, thus demonstrating their commitment to a truly grassroots politics that took its direction from the people most impacted by the unjust immigration policies.

There was an increase in the amount of calls that GR Rapid Response to ICE was getting, which led that group to look into the Kent County Sheriff Department’s relationship with ICE. It was discovered that Kent County had begun a contract with ICE in 2012. As GR Rapid Response to ICE was gearing up to protest the county’s contract with ICE, along with Movimiento Cosecha GR, the US was separating immigrant families near the US border and putting children in cages.

Capitalizing on the national outcry over the treatment of immigrants, GR Rapid Response to ICE and Movimiento Cosecha GR organized an action at the Kent County Commission meeting in late June of 2018, which turned out over 200 people on a Thursday morning. There were several people arrested during that action, but more importantly, that action led to a larger End the Contract campaign, where both Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE were calling for an end to the county’s contract with ICE.

Since the End the Contract campaign began in late June, Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE have participated in over a dozen actions on the contract, including actions at various ICE offices, a march and rally held outside of the Kent County Jail, various actions at the regular Kent County Commission meetings, a No Business with ICE Action Day and even a disruptive action during ArtPrize to draw attention to the fear and terror that immigrants were experiencing in Kent County.

In addition, once the End the Contract campaign had begun, there was the development of  Cosecha Allies trainings, as a way to bring more allies into the movement and to build capacity for the expanding struggle for immigrant justice. This was important, not just for working on the End the Contract campaign, but for the Movimiento Cosecha GR 5 day pilgrimage to Lansing for their drivers licenses for all campaign. 

In early January of 2019Kent County made national news with the revelation that Jimar Ramos-Gomez, a man born in the US, who later served in the US military in Afghanistan, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Shortly after this news went national, the Kent County Sheriff held a press conference, stating that the Sheriff’s Department, “will no longer honor federal immigration holds without an arrest warrant signed by a judge.” 

This was a major victory, which Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE celebrated, because it demonstrated that the End of the Contract campaign was effective, since they believe that the constant pressure put on by both groups resulted in the Sheriff Department’s change in policy

However, it was also discovered during the arrest and detainment of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, that the GRPD was involved. The ACLU and MIRC had called for an investigation of the GRPD’s role in the Jilamr Ramos-Gomez case and in the process obtained numerous documents that clearly demonstrated that the GRPD acted in a racist manner in their collaboration with ICE. 

Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE had already begun to confront the City of Grand Rapids and make demands, but after they looked at the ACLU/MIRC documents they engaged in a larger action in late February of 2019, calling for Captain VanderKooi to be fired.

In addition to pressuring the City of Grand Rapids around immigrant justice issues, Movimiento Cosecha GR has been gearing up for the May 1st action, which again has Drivers Licenses for All as the main theme. For more information on the May 1st action, go to their Facebook event page linked here

Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE continue to do important work in building a strong immigrant justice movement. In many ways this movement has been the longest sustained movement in Grand Rapids, since the anti-Iraq War movement some 15 years ago, and their is no evidence that this movement is going away anytime soon. Hasta La Huelga!