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A People’s History of Grand Rapids

April 6, 2020

What follows is a draft of an introduction to a book I am currently working on, A People’s History of Grand Rapids. The images used here were made by GVSU students in Brett Colley’s printmaking class.

It was Thursday, June 28, 2018 at 8:30am. Over 200 people packed the Kent County Commission chambers to address the commission and demand that they end their contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The room was filled with tension, as members of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department  scrambled to get more officers to come in case things would get out of hand. You could also see from the look on the faces of several Kent County Commissioners that they didn’t really know what to do at that moment.

The commission went through their agenda fairly quickly, which was followed by public comment. Once the Chairman of the commission had verbalized that they would be opening up public comment, people began to stand and get in line near the podium. The first speaker was Rev. Justo Gonzalez, pastor of Rios de Agua church in Wyoming, Michigan, which had just two months before this day, had declared his church to be a sanctuary for undocumented and under-documented immigrants.

Someone else, who was not with the group protesting the ICE contract started to go to the podium, but Karla, one of the volunteer organizers with Movimiento Cosecha GR, stopped him and said, “We are all here to speak about ending the ICE contract, so please take a seat and let us talk.”

The irony of what happened is that the person who wanted to speak about something completely unrelated to ending the county’s contract with ICE, was a member of the Grand Rapids power structure, John Kennedy. To make matters even more interesting, Karla, who independently cleaned homes for a living, was the person who cleaned John Kennedy’s home and Kennedy did not even recognize her.

Shorty after this little bit of drama, everybody stood up and started chanting, “End the Contract” and “ICE out of Kent County.” Within the next 60 seconds, the Chairman got up and left the room, along with most of the other 18 commissioners. At the same time, about a dozen people, some holding a large banner, got up in the area where the commissioner sat and took over the space and continuing to chant.

After a few more minutes of raucous chanting, people began lining up at the podium to speak their truth and demand an end to the contract with ICE, despite the fact that most commissioners had left. Most of those who spoke were from the affected immigrant community, talking about how they lived in constant fear of being arrested, detained and deported. Some spoke in English and others spoke in Spanish. There was also a Latinx professor at one of the local universities who provided a short history lesson on US immigration policy, with an emphasis on how people from Latin American have been coming into the US in large numbers for several decades because of the US-back counterinsurgency wars in Central America, along with trade policies that benefited corporations and displaced local communities.

After an hour of listening to people’s testimonies and demands to end the contract with ICE, the protest continued outside, where the crowd then marched to one of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices that was a mere block away from the county building. Once people arrived at the ICE office, several people who had been planning to do civil disobedience that day, linked arms and stood in front of the ICE office, blocking the entrance to the building.

Members of the Grand Rapids Police Department had arrived by this time, but didn’t do anything to prevent people from blocking the entrance of the ICE office. Undeterred by what was happening, the protest then moved back towards downtown, along Ottawa street and once they arrived at Michigan street, the seven who had planned to do civil disobedience, sat down in the intersection of Ottawa and Michigan.

Within minutes, all seven of those who participated in the direct action, were arrested and placed in GRPD cruisers and taken to the Kent County Jail, the very same jail that had the contract with ICE since 2012.

This was just the beginning of the a campaign to End the Contract, a campaign that was being organized by the immigrant-led movement, Movimiento Cosecha GR, and an ally group called GR Rapid Response to ICE.

This story is just one of the many examples of social movements that have emerged to challenge systems of power and oppression in the Grand Rapids area, since the days in the early part of the 19th Century when settler colonialists began to displace indigenous people and taken their land.

Part of the work I have been doing since I founded the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID), has been to teach popular education classes, including one on the history of US social movements. I have used as a primary text, Howard Zinn’s classic book, A People’s History of the United States. When Zinn died in 2010, someone who I worked with one day suggested to me, “you should do a people’s history of Grand Rapids.” I didn’t even have to give it a second thought, so I responded by saying, “that is an amazing idea.”

A People’s History of Grand Rapids

Since that fateful day in 2010, I have been editing an online site called, the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. I have been doing research and reading all of the other books that have been written about the second largest city in Michigan, Grand Rapids. In 2011, we were asked by the LGBT Resource Center at Grand Valley State University to produce a documentary on the history of the LGBTQ community in Grand Rapids, a documentary that ended up being 1 hour and 42 minutes long, featuring 75 interviews and lots of archival material that people shared with us for the film.

A People’s History of Grand Rapids follows a similar model that Zinn’s book does. This book provides a chronological history that presents history through the perspectives and experiences of people and movements that have been marginalized in this community. Like Zinn’s book, I try to provide proper context for what was happening at the time these individuals or movements were organizing since the early part of the 19th century, including a critique of the systems of power and oppression they were dealing with.

In Howard Zinn’s semi-autobiographical book, You Can’t Be Neutral on A Moving Train, he talks about how he came to write A People’s History of the United States. Zinn talked about the time he spent teaching at Spelman College in the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. The radical historian also talked about how he encouraged his students to not just study history, but also the importance of being part of history.

Zinn himself was part of the movement to end the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, along with many other powerful social movements right up until his death in 2010. I, myself, have been actively a part of numerous social movements since the early 1980s, when I moved to Grand Rapids. I do not write about this history in Grand Rapids, as someone standing on the sidelines, but as someone who has taken an active role in movements like the Central American Solidarity Movement, the Sanctuary Movement, the Anti-Nuclear Movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-globalization movement and the immigrant justice movement, just to name a few.

I write this history about social movements in Grand Rapids, to both celebrate and to lift up the people and movements that make A People’s History of Grand Rapids. I also write this history with a critique of those in power who have oppressed and exploited people, the very same systems of power for whom individuals and social movements have been fighting against over the past two centuries.

Therefore, A People’s History of Grand Rapids, is not complete history of Grand Rapids. This book seeks to inform and elucidate the rich history of social movements in Grand Rapids, a history that too many of us are unfamiliar with. This history is in sharp contrast to the official history that we are taught, a history which is celebrated and canonized by the very structures that have contributed to the oppression and exploitation of so many in the geographical area we call West Michigan.

I also write A People’s History of Grand Rapids in order to communicate with those who are exploring or new to social movements. I want to communicate that Grand Rapids does have a rich history of social movements, movements that too many people are either unaware of or movements that we do not talk about in our current struggles for collective liberation. It is vital that we all recognize that there have been so many powerful social movements in the past, movements which our current efforts are built upon. We all need to know, as Angela Davis has taught us, that the Abolitionist Movement influenced the early Suffrage Movement and the radical Labor Movement, just as the Black Freedom Movement, often referred to as the Civil Rights Movement, influenced the American Indian Movement, or how the anti-Vietnam War Movement influenced the early LGBTQ Movement and how the Environmental Justice Movement has influenced the Climate Justice Movement.

Lastly, A People’s History of Grand Rapids is about what the Zapatistas name as, La Guerra en contra de el Ovido, the War Against Forgetting. The systems of power and oppression in Grand Rapids don’t want us to know this history and will do whatever they can to suppress it or co-opt it. These same systems of power and oppression in Grand Rapids also ant us to forget this history. They don’t want us to know that Grand Rapids was built on Settler Colonialism, they don’t want us to know that all the wealth in this city was created by laborers, they don’t want us to know that Grand Rapids practices a very sophisticated version of Managerial Racism and they don’t want us to know that social movements and direct action have always been the most effective means of fighting oppression.

There is a popular phrase that people use in Grand Rapids, called West Michigan Nice. West Michigan Nice is a sarcastic reference to the fact that while people and institutions might appear to be polite. In reality, they often look down upon you with contempt or treat you in a very paternalistic fashion, whether you are an African American, Indigenous, part of the LGBTQ community, a Muslim, an immigrant or a member of the working class community. In additional to the paternalism that is often displayed within the various manifestations of West Michigan Nice, what these systems of power and oppression offer those most marginalized are charity or the notion that whatever problems we are experiencing, is the result of our own flaws or faults.

A People’s History of Grand Rapids seeks to be a counter to this narrative and to provide people with a sense of hope and conviction that it is possible to organize for radical change and for collective liberation in a city that has been dominated by White Supremacy and the primacy of entrepreneurial capitalism.

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