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What about Reparations for the Boston Square neighborhood?

January 8, 2020

(What follows is a letter I sent to the GR Planning Commission in response to the DeVos-created AmplifyGR proposal.)

I am writing to you today to urge you to not approve the development proposal from AmplifyGR. My objections to the AmplifyGR 9-acre proposal for the Boston Square neighborhood are as follows:

First, do we really want to allow the most powerful family in West Michigan, the DeVos family, dictating development projects in neighborhoods throughout this city? So few people can spend more than $10 million to purchase the land they did in the Boston Square neighborhood. They purchased this land in 2015, but residents of that neighborhood did not find out about it until they went public with the non-profit they created in 2017, AmplifyGR. For all their talk about this proposal being led by community input, the DeVos-created AmplifyGR staff fail to acknowledge that the community had no say in their land grab in 2015. This is an important point I believe, since it means that the acquisition of $10 million worth of property in the Boston Square neighborhood puts the DeVos family in a position of power over the residents of that neighborhood. There is no equity or justice when one family can own this much property and then claim that they want to do right by the residents of the Boston Square neighborhood.

Second, another important point about the DeVos family is that they are worth billions. Their collective net worth is not easy to determine, but based on public documentation their collective worth is an estimate $10 billion. Of course, much of their family wealth was created through the Amway Corporation, which recruits individuals with a get rich quick message that is really nothing more than a pyramid scheme, where a few people at the top get rich off the work of others. See Stephen Butterfield’s book, Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise.

Third, the DeVos family also uses their wealth to influence public policy, at the federal, state and local level, primarily by contributing to candidates who will further their policy agenda in Kent County, in Lansing and in DC. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the DeVos family has contributed over $100 million to politicians since 1999. The politicians that the DeVos family has contributed to have consistently done the following:

  • Keep minimum wages well below what people can actually live off of.
  • Undermine and attack labor unions.
  • Making tax laws to favor the super rich, while punishing working class families.
  • Making Michigan a Right to Work State.
  • Supporting politicians that voted for the deregulation of industries like banking.
  • Supporting politicians who voted for bailing out Wall Street.
  • Getting school districts to no longer be financially responsible for public teacher pensions. They are attempting to do the same to public sector/government employees in the State of Michigan right now.
  • Pressuring local municipalities to provide massive subsidies to developers, which is means transfer public money over to companies like Rockford Construction.
  • Pushing for the privatization of public services.
  • Attacking public education in favor of Charter and other Private School systems.

All of this is to say that the billionaire class, like the DeVos family, has contributed significantly to creating a massive wealth gap in Grand Rapids. Now, they want to come to a neighborhood that has experienced tremendous poverty and disinvestment, which the DeVos family contributed to, all so they can play the savior role.

I understand what it is like to live in a neighborhood that has experienced disinvestment and structural racism. I lived in the Forgotten Corner Neighborhood on the near Southeast side of Grand Rapids for 27 years. I saw what happen to my neighborhood that has now been completely gentrified. The residents of the Boston Square neighborhood deserve to have better and affordable housing. The residents of the Boston Square neighborhood deserve to live in a community that is free of crime and free of predatory landlords. The residents of the Boston Square neighborhood could have all of that and more.

Reparations

Instead, I would propose something that would give the residents of the Boston Square neighborhood what they deserve AND remove the DeVos family from having any influence over the future of that neighborhood. The $10 million that DeVos/Rockford Construction has spent on land in the Boston Square area could be given directly to the people who live in that neighborhood, in a Community Land Trust or however the people who live there decide. In addition, the DeVos family could give an additional $20 million to the residents of the Boston Square neighborhood, money that has been taken out of the neighborhood over decades by the very same policies that the DeVos family has benefitted from. What I am suggesting is that the DeVos family pay reparations ($30 million) for the financial harm they have caused in neighborhoods like the Boston Square neighborhood. This would not only give those residents complete and total control over their future, it would fulfill an element of justice for communities who have historically been disenfranchised by white collar theft and institutionalized racism. Once the reparations are paid, AmplifyGR could dissolve, especially since the residents of the Boston Square neighborhood won’t have any need for such an entity.

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