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GRIID End of the Year in Review: Part I – Reporting on Social Movements in Grand Rapids

December 26, 2019

Social Movements in the greater Grand Rapids area have continued to develop and flourish in many ways. One movement in particular, the immigrant justice movement, has continued to fight against state violence and build a movement to fight for the undocumented community.

Movimiento Cosehca GR continued to build capacity amongst the immigrant community and to engage allies to work in solidarity with them. GR Rapid Response to ICE has continued to work closely with Cosecha GR in a variety of ways, and specifically in the fight against ICE violence in Kent County.

2019 began with an action at the Kent County Commission meeting, where immigrant activists and allies were continuing their call for end end to the contract with ICE. 

Kent County’s contract with ICE had been receiving national news near the end of 2018,  when the GRPD called ICE on Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a former US Marine. The arrest of Ramos-Gomez was an embarrassment for the GRPD and for the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, both of whom have been collaborating with ICE to arrest and detain immigrants in Kent County.

However, in late January, after ongoing pressure from Movimiento Cosecha GR, GR Rapid Response to ICE, the ACLU and MIRC, the Kent County Sheriff announced that they would now be requiring ICE to obtain a judicial warrant in order for the Kent County Jail to put a hold on immigrants being detained. This announcement was clearly a victory for the immigrant justice movement, since Kent County and the Sheriff’s Department would never have had to make these kinds of decisions without the campaign to End the Contract with ICE, a campaign that began in June of 2018. 

The City of Grand Rapids also came under greater scrutiny because of the GRPDs role in the Jilmar Ramos-Gomez campaign. The ALCU and MIRC demanded transparency on the arrest of Ramos-Gomez, seeking to find out the role that the GRPD played in this case. 

Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE then began to pressure the Grand Rapids City Commission on the GRPD’s collaboration with ICE and to make several clear demands at a commission meeting in early February. 

Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE then escalated their efforts with the City of Grand Rapids during a February 26th commission meeting, effectively shutting it down over the GRPD’s role in the Jilmar Ramos-Gomze case. Both groups were calling for the City to fire Captain Kurt VanderKooi, the GRPD’s ICE liaison and the officer who called ICE on Jilmar Ramos Gomez. 

The GRPD union pushed back on this pressure from immigrant justice groups and released a statement on February 28th on how city officials were cowering before immigration activists. 

At the same time that the cops were complaining of immigrant activists, the GRPD was coming under greater scrutiny, because of specific acts of violence against black and brown residents. This violence was receiving a great deal of attention from the news media and on social media, but it also led to an effort amongst several groups in the immigrant justice community and the African American community to come together to make even more demands from the city. These demands were laid out in press conference held near the end of March

In late April the City of Grand Rapids reinstated Captain Kurt VanderKooi, after the officer had been put on administrative leave in late February. The ACLU and MIRC submitted a FOIA request on the role that VanderKooi played and GRIID reported on those findings in late April. The FOIA documents revealed more details on the GRPD’s collaboration with ICE and it exposed the GRPD’s role in monitoring Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE.

On May 1st, Cosecha GR organized another successful march to mobilize people to demand driver’s licenses for all in Michigan. The City of Grand Rapids tried to force Cosecha to obtain a permit for their march, but Cosecha held firm in their commitment to not dance with politicians.

The City of Grand Rapids continued to ignore immigration activists demands, so the groups released a statement in response to the City’s failure to act. The statement was sent in mid-May, the day before the Civilians Appeals board voted to reverse the GRPD’s decision to reinstate Captain VanderKooi.

All across the US there was growing involvement from the Jewish community to confront ICE oppression, with actions happening in several cities. In July, the Jewish Community organized an anti-ICE action in Grand Rapids, specifically at one of the ICE offices on Ottawa NW. Later that month, GR Rapid Response to ICE organized another action at the same ICE office, specifically to draw attention to how ICE was separating families in Kent County. 

In early August, the Democratic Presidential candidates held a debate in Detroit and immigration activists from all over the state came to Detroit to confront the candidates on US immigration policy. Several people were arrested for blockading the tunnel between the US and Canada, while other activist interrupted the candidate debate with powerful immigrant justice messages

In late August, another action was organized at the Kent County Jail, to demand an end to the ICE contract and to expose the Kent County Sheriff’s Department in their continued collaboration with ICE. That same day, ICE released a statement saying that they would not be renewing their contract with Kent County. Too much bad press had been created in the past 13 months, because of the work of Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE. The Kent County Sheriff’s Department did release a statement about how they would continue to cooperate with ICE, even though ICE did not want to renew their contract. 

In mid-September, GR Rapid Response to ICE organized a demonstration at the GRPD headquarters, as a response to the City’s decision to only give Captain VanderKooi a 20 hour suspension in his role in the arrest and detention of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez. 

Movimiento Cosecha GR continued its campaign to get driver’s licenses for all in Michigan and organized an action in late October to pressure the City to formally support the statewide campaign. 

The following week, Movimiento Cosecha celebrated their role in getting state lawmakers to introduce new legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license at a press conference

Grand Rapids for education Justice

In late July, we posted a story about local education activists who had submitted a FOIA request with the Grand Rapids Public Schools. The activists talked about how the GRPS had been dragging their feet on the request, which raised serious questions about what the school district was hiding.

These activists were actually part of a new movement in Grand Rapids, calling themselves Grand Rapids for Education Justice (GREJ). This new group went public when they held a press conference before a school board meeting in early October

The GREJ continued to make waves at subsequent school board meetings, one in early November. Several school board members were dismissive of the group, so GREJ created a video response to the school board’s inaction on demands they laid out in early October. 

In late November, the GREJ released another video statement, this time challenging the curriculum that will be used at the new Hospitality and Tourism Academy, which is essentially a school designed to train students to work in the service sector. 

The GREJ group is still relatively new, but already they have forced a larger community conversation around the role of public education in the age of Neo-Liberal education policies, policies that are being pushed at the federal level by Betsy DeVos.

There certain have been other organized efforts for social justice in Grand Rapids, including some organizing around climate justice, but the movements cited above are the only ones that have been consistent and have had an impact locally.

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