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Grand Rapids Power Structure: Part X – Movements for Reform or Movements for Collective Liberation?

July 16, 2018

Over the past few months we have been investigating the Grand Rapids Power Structure, beginning with a discussion about its framework 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. 

Five weeks ago, we looked at the next level of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, the local government, in Part V, and four weeks ago we investigated the role and function of the media, within Grand Rapids and how it serves power in Part VI

Three weeks we began to look at how various institutions act as a buffer for systems of power against systemic change, first looking at institutions of higher learning in Part VII and in Part VIII we looked at how Religious Institutions act as a buffer against systemic change in Grand Rapids.

Last week, we looked at how Non-Profits play a role in acting as a buffer for systems of power and against systemic change, in Part IX

Today, in Part X, we will look at which groups are working to just reform the current system of power in Grand Rapids and which are working to dismantle it and create new, autonomous forms of self-governance and collective liberation.

Reformism in Grand Rapids

There is a whole litany of groups working on issues from a reformist perspective in Grand Rapids. Many of these groups are advocating for electoral reform or supporting particular politics through  the electoral process. While I think that voting can be a useful tactic in bringing about some form of social change, historically it has not created the kind of changes necessary for systemic and structural transformation.

And yet, we see a number of groups mobilized around elections and voting in Grand Rapids, those endorsing ballot initiatives, those endorsing individual candidates and those adopting what are often referred to as progressive political values. And while individuals within those groups may have a deeper critique of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, most of these groups will spend a great deal of energy and resources that will NOT, in any significant way, challenge the current system of power in this area.

Voting can be seen as a form of hard reduction, but it is often not a source of transformative justice or collective liberation. This should be clear in West Michigan, considering how much influence that the Grand Rapids Power Structure has on influencing public policy and buying candidates in Parts II, III and IV. It is not really possible to compete with organized money, unless you have organized people who are willing to take risks and engage in transformative politics.

Last week, we discussed the limitations of the non-profit sector, with their reliance on foundation funding, often foundations run by those within the Grand Rapids Power Structure, plus their are the limitations of what non-profits can do politically. Grand Rapids has hundreds of non-profits, even those that claim to engage in grassroots justice work. However, those non-profits still operate within a reformist framework and do not threaten the current power structure in Grand Rapids.

Then there are groups that exit, which are not non-profits, yet often act like one. These groups engage in reformist politics, by attempting to work within the boundaries, which the system of power has determined to be legitimate and respectable.

Take for instance, the group GR Homes for All. This is a group that adopts the principle that having a home is a right and not just for those who can afford one. However, the politics of the group, which is primarily led by those who have secure housing, works around the margins to make change. GR Homes for All, recently got the Grand Rapids City Commission to adopt a rental application fee process, which doesn’t punish those applying to rent in the Grand Rapids market. This is beneficial for those who rent, but it doesn’t challenge the sector that has the real power in the housing market, namely landlords, property management companies and the real estate industry in Grand Rapids. Until the housing justice movement is led by those who are most vulnerable, those who are being priced out of the housing market and those who are most impacted by gentrification, then any efforts the group engages in will not result in challenging those with the most power.

Another example of a group involved in a more reformist approach to critical issues is the Grand Rapids Water Protectors. This group, in many ways, grew out of the movement working in solidarity with the indigenous struggle at Standing Rock in 2016 & 2017. It was rooted in the idea that all water is sacred and that anything – oil pipelines, fracking – that was a threat to water should be resisted.

The Grand Rapids Water Protectors does do some good educational work around water issues and is involved in the campaign to shut down Line 5, the Enbridge Oil Pipeline, that runs through Michigan. However, the group does not advocate for direct action to shut down Line 5 and hasn’t really engaged in other forms of resistance in the Grand Rapids area, especially the kind of resistance that would threaten the local power structure. Like many of these groups, the Grand Rapids Water Protectors has the potential to use direct action and transformative politics as a means to achieve its goals, but that has not been the case so far.

Movements that Challenge Power in Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids does have a rich history of people and movements being involved in direct action, the kind of action that challenges power. There are the examples of the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike, the Socialists who resisted during WWI in Grand Rapids, the Central American Solidarity Movement, the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement to the various forms of black resistance to White Supremacy over the years, as has been documented in Todd Robinson’s book, A City Within a City. 

There have also been movements that challenged US imperialism during the Vietnam War and the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with anarchist and autonomous environmental groups in recent decades in Grand Rapids. And while these movements come and go, they have offered a glimpse of the potential for lasting resistance and a challenge to reformism in the area. Even though these movements didn’t “win,” they were a real threat to the business as usual approach to politics and they engaged in direct action as the primary tactic used in their varying strategies.

However, the most substantial resistance to power in Grand Rapids in recent decades has been from communities of color. The indigenous community, the black community and the latino/latinx communities come to mind, in terms of those who have posed the largest threat to the system of power in Grand Rapids.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the black community, which challenged forced busing, fought to maintain their own community schools and those who resisted police brutality, housing injustice and unemployment are a few examples of the kind of resistance that was threatening to the Grand Rapids Power Structure. 

Maybe one of the best examples of a group/movement that not only challenges the existing power structure in Grand Rapids, but engages in transformative politics that seeks to achieve collective liberation, is Movimiento Cosecha GR.

Movimiento Cosecha GR is a chapter of a national immigrant-led movement that seeks to win respect, dignity and permanent protection for all immigrants. Movimiento Cosecha GR is not a non-profit and it does not seek to reform immigration policy, rather they work to create justice for the immigrant community.

Cosecha GR has its own power analysis, which it often presents during trainings and introductions for people who come to their meetings. Cosecha GR’s theory of change evolved out of the efforts to reform immigration policy since the 1980s, where politicians and political parties kept using immigrants and the Latino/Latinx community in order to get votes, while never transforming immigration policy.

One example that Movimiento Cosecha GR gives was in 2005-2006, when legislation was put forward by Congressman Sensenbrenner that would further criminalize those that were undocumented and anyone who would assist them. This proposed legislation was was met by massive mobilizations across the country from the Latino/Latinx community. In Grand Rapids, some 10,000 people marched in the streets to protest the proposed legislation. Then the Democratic Party was able to convince the immigrant community to support Barack Obama in the 2008 election, with the promise that comprehensive immigration reform would occur.

The Latino/Latinx community voted big for the Democrats, yet no real movement was happening around immigration. Instead, the immigrant community began to take matters into their own hands, particularly young immigrants to forced the Obama administration to adopt a policy for undocumented youth, who are generally referred to as Dreamers. Not satisfied with the some political promises, these same immigrant youth then began to demand protection for their parents and extended family members, since they too deserved to stay in this country. This is the context in which Movimiento Cosecha was born, out of a political struggle that realized the immigrant demands were not going to be met until they began to force politicians to meet their demands. It’s what Cosecha GR refers to as, “we don’t dance with politicians”……..meaning we don’t play the cozying up to politicians in order to ask for political favors.

Therefore, Movimiento Cosecha GR uses popular education and direct action tactics to mobilize immigrants and allies to win dignity, respect and permanent protection for all immigrants. They use short term and long term campaigns, such as boycotts, strikes, marches and other forms of direct action to achieve their goals.

What the group in Grand Rapids has done in the past 18 months has been impressive, in terms of how many people have been mobilized, how many actions they have engaged in and how it has received attention from the local power structure. The local law enforcement agencies, particularly the GRPD, have responded with increased monitoring, the targeting of some organizers, intimidation and an attempt to control the larger mobilizations over the past 18 months.

Movimiento Cosecha GR has engaged thousands of people through the boycotts and strike they have organized during May Day, with workers refusing to go to work and families keeping their kids out of school, to the Wal-Mart boycott and the Turkey boycott last year.

Current Movimiento Cosecha GR is involved in a statewide campaign to get drivers licenses for all and the end the contract that Kent County has with ICE. The action that Movimiento Cosecha GR organized (along with GR Rapid Response to ICE) on June 28th, was a clear demonstration of their effectiveness and how the system of power feels threatened by what they are doing. 

Movimiento Cosecha GR also practices transformative politics and collective liberation because they; 1) are a movement led by immigrants, 2) they utilize direct action as the primary strategy for change, and 3) they don’t cozy up to politicians or dance with political parties, instead they force systems of power to accept their demands. If we are to challenge the Grand Rapids Power Structure, this is the kinds of transformative politics we need to engage in. We all can learn from Movimiento Cosecha GR.

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