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MLive and the 67 riot: perpetuating the dominant narrative while ignoring the current conditions for another uprising

July 20, 2017

Over the past few days, MLive has been running a series of articles about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. Next week is the 50th anniversary of the 3 day riot that took place and MLive has been posting several stories, lots of photos and video about the 1967 riot.

There have been some positive aspects of what MLive reporters have done in this series, especially the interviews with members of the African American community that witnessed the 67 riot or those who have researched it.

However, there are also many problems with the MLive series on the 1967 riot. We want to address what is problematic about the coverage and why their reporting perpetuates a tremendous amount of misinformation about what took place in July of 1967.

No Ownership on the part of the GR Press and its role in the reporting in 1967

It is vitally important for us to think about the events 50 years ago in Grand Rapids, to come to terms with its significance, and how the dominant narratives around the 67 riot impact us today.

The Grand Rapids People’s History Project has assembled all the articles and the editorials from the Grand Rapids Press during the 3-day riot in 1967. The articles are in order of appearance between July 25 and July 27.

One thing that is apparent in the Press headlines is how the riot is framed. The riot is framed as violence and the response from the City of Grand Rapids is presented as keeping the peace. This is to be expected, since the dominant narratives about riots affirms the idea that riots are an attack on the social order of the day.

However, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, riots are the “language of the unheard.” In addition, riots are a response to the structural and daily violence imposed by the systems of capitalism and white supremacy on communities of color. Structural violence is the daily oppression that communities of color experience in the form of poverty, lack of adequate housing, poor health care, lack of educational opportunities and environmental racism.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the GR Press coverage in 1967 presents the violence as being perpetrated by members of the African American community against white business owners, against the cops and against the city officials who are merely trying to “restore order.”

The Grand Rapids Press editorial for July 26, 1967, conveys the message that the riots were the actions of a few and that “the great majority of the Negro community is law-abiding.” The same editorial goes on to say that there “must be no compromising with the forces of disorder.” What the editorial writer is saying is that disorder – African Americans responding to systemic racism – cannot be tolerated and that order – systemic racism and exploitation – must be re-established.

A great deal of the articles in the Grand Rapids Press during those 3 days in 1967 are from the perspective of those in government and the police, with only an occasional point of view being shared by those who decided enough was enough. In two separate editorials on July 27, the Grand Rapids editorial writers praise the State Police for its role in restoring order and condemning Stokely Carmichael for suggesting blacks should engage in guerrilla warfare in US cities across the nation.

Therefore, it is important to see the coverage in the Grand Rapids Press 50 years ago as the dominant narrative of the day and a white supremacist narrative, which says that African Americans, even if they have legitimate grievances, must work within a system that constantly works to oppress and exploit them.

MLive and the continuance of the dominant, white supremacist narrative

Fifty years later and the major daily news source in Grand Rapids is continuing to perpetuate the dominate narrative, which is to say a white supremacist narrative.

The first article in the series is entitled, Grand Rapids 67 riot: when anger, oppression erupted into ‘chaos.’ There are dozens of accompanying photos that solidify the dominant narrative, showing white cops arresting or detaining black suspects.

Several of the African Americans interview for this MLive article do offer some insight into the conditions that the black community were subjected to, but the MLive article also sought to convey the message that things are better now. Things are better now based on what Mayor Bliss is doing with the racial equity initiative, what the Chief of Police is doing with community relations, what data the City Manager has looked at and what an employee of Start Garden has to say about bringing economic development to communities of color. The MLive writer does not investigate any of the claims made by those who believe that things are better now and there is no evidence to support such a claim.

In addition, there is a video that MLive put together, which through the use of archival photos and text essentially affirms what was said in the article. There is some acknowledgement that inequality exists, but that city leaders are “now addressing issues of racial inequity head-on.” Again, no evidence is provided to show how racial inequity is being addressed in concrete terms.

A second article in the series is made up of interviews with five African Americans and two white people who were living in Grand Rapids at the time. I can appreciate the attempt to make these voices public, but there is little historical context to what was shared by these seven people. 

A third article in the MLive series looks at how Division Avenue in Grand Rapids has never recovered from the 1967 riot. A variety of people are interviewed, historians, business people and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police. There is some acknowledgement of white flight and disinvestment in the southeast part of Grand Rapids, but there is no acknowledgement of the current gentrification that is happening in and around the area most impacted by the riot in 67. Instead, employees of DeVos-owned entity Start Garden, “are focused on redeveloping Grand Rapids at the micro level by helping small businesses and startups.”

A fourth article in the series makes the claim that the city is doing what it can to address racial inequity. The MLive article gives voice to Police Chief Rahinsky, City Manager Greg Sundstrom and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. Of the three, Sundstrom is more honest about the challenges, saying that he didn’t think the problems from 1967 are getting any better today. However, both Rahinsky and Bliss make the claim that the city is addressing these problems and is making headway.

What is problematic about Chief Rahnisky’s claims that the City has been aggressive in finding solutions since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is that many in the African American community don’t believe that the city has really done anything to address inequity. In fact, as many in the African American community have been pointing out, the city leadership and the police department continue to downplay the urgency surrounding the numerous and recent incidents of violence by the GRPD. 

In addition, the city has failed to take serious the black community’s word on racial profiling by the GRPD, especially motorists. This became evident recently, since the city paid thousands to conduct a traffic study, wherein the results were a confirmation of what the black community has been saying for years.

The current affordable housing crisis and the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Grand Rapids are also evidence that the city is not any closer to achieving racial and economic equity in the past 50 years. The movement by white people back to the urban core areas of Grand Rapids and the re-investment to those areas not only makes rent higher for thousands, it displaces communities of color at a disproportionately high rate.

The City of Grand Rapids needs to take seriously the platform of the Movement for Black Lives, which has laid out an ambitious and just vision for how to achieve justice, which are laid out here. However, I don’t think people should expect the city to embrace such a vision. What will likely happen is what has always happened is for African Americans to take matters into their own hands and challenge this system of white supremacy and managerial racism in Grand Rapids. How they chose to do it is another matter, but it seems that the current state of emergency might call for another uprising, like in 1967.

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