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Grand Rapids Power Structure Part V: Local Government

June 11, 2018

In the past few weeks, we have been looking at the Grand Rapids Power Structure. In Part I, we provided a framework for the local power structure in Part I, the most powerful family in Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family in Part II and in Part III we looked at other members of the most powerful members of the private sector. In Part IV, we looked at the private sector organizations that have power and which individuals sit on the boards of those organizations. 

As we mentioned in Part I, there is a hierarchy of power, which starts with Economic Power, followed by Political Power and then State Power. In this article, we look at local government in the role it plays within the Grand Rapids Power Structure. 

There are numerous functions that local government plays in supporting the Grand Rapids Power Structure. One primary function of local government (city and county), in supporting the area power structure, is to make sure that there is no significant threat to the existing power structure by members of civil society. Local governments practice defending the existing power structure by 1) making decisions, passing ordinances and creating budgets that will not threaten the existing systems of power; 2) limiting the level of direct democracy by civil society, and; 3) using force and fear to make sure that civil society does not challenge the existing power structure.

Promoting Business as Usual

While the Grand Rapids City Commission likes to present themselves as being progressive, they primarily function as conduit to maintain and defend the existing power structure. The Kent County Commission doesn’t present themselves as progressive, in the same way as Grand Rapids does, but they function pretty much the same, in that they also are a conduit to maintain and defend the existing power structure.

Both the City and the County governments support the economic policy of “growth,” which ultimately means they defend the system of capitalism, which primarily rewards those who already have tremendous wealth and punishes those who do not. Growth, for the local governments, means providing massive taxpayer subsidies to the business community, especially to development projects, which primarily support those with tremendous wealth.

Look at all the development projects in and around Grand Rapids and you can easily see who benefits. These economic decisions will also disproportionately benefit those who are white, thus perpetuating institutionalized racism. Those who get the massive taxpayer subsidies are white and those who are displaced by development projects are disproportionately people of color

Economic Growth has also meant a focus on using public funds to develop downtown Grand Rapids, through organizations like the now disbanded group Grand Action, projects like ArtPrize and the expansion of what members of the GR Power Structure identifies as tourism.” One additional example of how local government defends the power structure, is the recently released financial documents on the failed proposal to bring Amazon to the area. The total “incentives” being offered to Amazon from Grand Rapids and Kent County we over $1.5 billion dollars.

Limiting Direct Democracy

If people have ever attended City or County Commission meetings, they know that most of the decisions made at these meetings have already happened. Most agenda items are simply a formality, but the public is granted an opportunity to voice their concerns, which are heard by commissioners without any real feedback. Occasionally, there are public hearings, but ultimately the power to determine issues that merit a public hearing are still decided by commissioners at the city and county level. In other words, the public does not get to vote directly on major issues that impact the city/county.

Some will say that this is what representative democracy is and that it is the best we can hope for. Regardless of where one stands on the form of government that currently exists, the fact remains that the rest of us are limited in what we can do, if we play by the rules.

Take for example the issue of policing. A full one third of the City of Grand Rapids budget is devoted to policing. At the county level, a significant amount of the budget is set aside for the Sheriff’s Department, which includes the operation of the Kent County Jail. We know that the function of local law enforcement is primarily designed to police communities of color, to protect private property and to defend the interests of those with economic and political power. The amount of money, taxpayers money, that goes into local law enforcement is not something the public gets to vote on. The City and County Commissioners make those decisions and we are told to accept such outcomes.

Another “opportunity” the public has in local government is to sit on committees that have some say in what gets decided economically and politically in Grand Rapids and Kent County. However, the majority of those who sit on these boards are either individuals from the local power structure, representatives of the groups that make up part of the power structure, or people from the non-profit sector, which too often rely on funding from those with power.    

For example, look at the list of people who make up the current Downtown Development Authority. Some are elected officials, but most of those listed are people either work for organizations directly tied to the Grand Rapids Power Structure, those who run businesses or those in the non-profit sector that often act as a buffer between those in power and the rest of us. 

One last example of how electoral democracy at the city and county level is how candidates are funded. In many ways, it is no different than candidates running for state and federal office, where people with deep pockets often determine electoral outcomes.

Take Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. People who are part of the local power structure, people like Peter Secchia, JC Huizenga, Kate Wolters, Scott Brew, Bill Bowling, Robert Woodhouse, Sam Cummings, Doug DeVos, Steve Van Andel, Scott Bowen, Dan Bowen, Sharon Bowen, Mark Breon, Friends of West Michigan Business, Ray Kisor, Mark Murray, Scott Wierda, Thomas Cronkright, Josh May, Lawrence Duthler, Arnold Mikon, Mark Sellers, Realtors Political Action Committee, GR Firefighters Union, GR Police Officers Labor Council all contributed between $500 and $5000 to Bliss’s campaign in 2016, according to Campaign Finance records through Kent County. Even since then, some of the very same names have contributed to the Mayor’s re-election, which is documented in the July 2017 campaign finance document.

While it is true that people who are not part of the local power structure also contributed to the Mayor’s campaign in 2016, they gave a significantly less amount. The deep pockets in this community use their campaign contributions to buy access and influence in the decisions that local politicians make. Campaign Financing by the rich is just a basic dynamic in how power functions.

Policing decent, Protecting Power

The third way that local government uses its power to defend the interests of those who have the real power in Grand Rapids and Kent County is by attacking those who dissent. There are a few ways in which this happens. First, those who dissent are often socially marginalized as radicals, haters or those who just like to complain all the time. Sometimes those marginalized are individuals and sometimes they are organizations of social movements that seek to make structural or system changes in the area. Marginalizing these people/groups is an effective tactic, specifically because it sends a message to the general public about what is “appropriate behavior” in the eyes of those with power in this community.

A second tactic used to police dissent is to intimidate, harass and punish those who would dare challenge power. Sometimes this happens as clearly as when student activists were intimidated by the GRPD, who came to their homes to threaten them because of their public support for The Rapid Bus Driver union, which was seeking to negotiate a more just contract. 

This kind of harassment and intimidation is mostly targeted at communities of color, particularly the black and Latinx communities. Local law enforcement spends a disproportionate amount of time policing communities of color, which is clearly reflected in the disproportionate amount of people of color who are in the Kent County Jail. Those who are most negatively impacted by the Grand Rapids Power Structure are victims of the prison industrial complex, by being in prison, in jail, on parole or on probation. This, of course, is by design.

An example of the policing of communities of color is the local police relationship to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All local police departments and the Kent County Sheriff’s department stop and arrest people from the immigrant community who are undocumented, which often results in their being arrested and detained in the Kent County Jail. The Kent County Jail, which is overseen by the Kent County Commission, has a contract with ICE to put a hold on immigrants who are undocumented. This practice of targeting immigrants is increasing, it breaks up families and causes tremendous harm for thousands of people in the area.

On last way that those who dissent against the local power structure are attacked is the reality of living within a system of neo-liberal capitalism. Those who dissent, organize and protest the local power structure are themselves are barely able to support themselves. Whether it is the reality of student debt, poverty, the cost of housing and health care, the majority of the population in Kent County is one paycheck away from being evicted or foreclosing on their mortgage. Neo-Liberal capitalism is so debilitating, that those who are dissenting are often in crisis because the economic system – the same system that benefits the Grand Rapids Power Structure – punishes them for dissenting. Indeed, even those who don’t dissent, can clearly see that if they chose to dissent, a similar fate will await them if they get out of line and chose to challenge power.

Grand Rapids was founded on Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy and Capitalism. The Kent County and Grand Rapids governments do not and will not seriously challenge these dynamics. These local government structures will provide some minimal rights, just enough to convince people that the way things function currently are not that awful. In fact, we are convinced that things are pretty good.

Next week, in Part VI of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, we will look at the function of media in defending and perpetuating the current systems of power.

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