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A Brief History of how the GRPD responds to protests and dissent

June 1, 2020

Since the demonstration on Saturday, I have seen a awful lot of White people complaining about property destruction in Grand Rapids and using language like peaceful and violent protesters.

These types of reactions are to be expected, especially from people who generally have no idea of what it means to be systematically brutalized and oppressed.

There have been numerous reports on the ground of people talking about the tactics and weapons of the GRPD. This is always important for people to understand, as the GRPD is just like any other police force in the country. What I want to do in this article is to provide a brief overview of how the GRPD has responded to protests and dissent since its founding in 1871.

However, before we look at some examples of how the GRPD has responded to protests and dissent in Grand Rapids, it is important to make clear what the origin and function of police departments are.

First, the origin of policing in the US comes right out of slave patrols, where white men organized for the specific purpose of hunting down and capturing black people who had engaged in self-emancipation from slavery. (see Kristian Williams book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America.) 

Second, the function of policing is primarily about protecting systems of power and maintaining “order,” which is to say that the police will not tolerate any disruption to structural racism, patriarchy, capitalism and environmental destruction. The real crimes, which is structural violence, is protected and maintained, especially when law enforcement agencies prevent people from resisting these crimes. 

Now, people will argue that there are good cops and bad cops, so we can’t lump them all together. However, this is not about individual behavior, but a system or structure of law enforcement, which has historically oppressed black, brown and indigenous people, along with suppressing dissent and protest from a variety of sectors in society, around numerous issues. What follows are some examples of how the GRPD has responded to protests and dissent over the years.

1967 Rebellion in Grand Rapids

Now that the City of Grand Rapids has brought in the National Guard and imposed a curfew, the best example to start with is the 1967 riot/rebellion in Grand Rapids. The last time the National Guard came to GR was in 1967. The city also imposed a curfew on the residents.

The 1967 rebellion in Grand Rapids was sparked by the GRPD, when they pulled over several black youth. The city was under a militarized lockdown for three days. White people were calling for blood and several white people contacted the GRPD offering to bring their guns to stop the black rebellion.

Several months after the 1967 riot, the Grand Rapids City government published a report called, Anatomy of a RiotWe posted an article that provided some analysis of the report by the City of Grand Rapids, which is very instructive, both in terms of the data and the recommendations that make up part of the report. The recommendations were the standard recommendations that focused on “providing opportunities” instead of addressed systemic problems.

1911 Furniture Workers Strike

In April of 1911, thousands of Grand Rapids furniture workers went on strike, demanding better pay, better work conditions and the right to form a union. Who do you think the GRPD protected during this strike, the workers or the furniture barons? 

Jeffrey Kleiman’s important book, Strike! How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, provides some answers to what the GRPD did. Kleiman writes about striking workers who had gathered outside of the Widdicomb factory to confront the owner:

“Finally, thirty club-wielding policemen pushed forward, breaking the crowd up and falling upon one stubborn protester who refused to leave.

Midway through the efforts to disperse the rioters, the police arrested a few men and began to retreat towards the Sixth Street Bridge. Using their prisoners as shields, the policemen fired their weapons into the air until they ran out of ammunition. Hand-to-hand battles ensued and the rioters threatened to overwhelm the police until reinforcements appeared. The fighting continued until the street was filled with madly running and cursing men and women with almost every other face….streaked with blood from an injury or from the injury of another.”

2003 Anti-Iraq War Protests

Before the US invasion and occupation of Iraq had begun in 2003, the GRPD attempted to infiltrate the anti-war movement in Grand Rapids, sending undercover cops, spying on organizers, intimidating people involved and arresting dozens of people who were protesting the brutal US invasion/occupation of Iraq. 

With the assistance of the ACLU, anti-war organizers were able to obtain FOIA documents, which can be found at this link.

1980s Central American Solidarity Movement

There was a pretty lively Central American Solidarity Movement in Grand Rapids during the 1980s, with numerous action direct at Congressman Paul Henry. Rep. Henry consistently voted in support of US military aid the El Salvador and to the Nicaraguan Contra terrorist forces.

People would occupy Congressman Henry’s office in the Federal Building and shut down Michigan Street when the Jesuit priests were murdered in El Salvador. In another action, protesters used Congressman Henry’s phone to call the GRPD to tell them that Crimes Against Humanity were happening at 110 Michigan. The GRPD showed up and dragged the protesters out of Rep. Henry’s office. For the GRPD, it was ok that Congressman Henry and his staff were participating in war crimes, but it was not ok for people to protest such crimes. 

GRPD after Ferguson uprising

The GRPD and the City of Grand Rapids decided that body cameras and racial bias training would be enough to satisfy people after the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. However, there were numerous incidents where the GRPD pulled guns on black youth, arrested and beat black adults, which led to ongoing protest and resistance from the black community in Grand Rapids.

Here are some examples from the past few years, where members of the black community have followed “official channels,” only to be ignored or minimized by the City of Grand Rapids and the GRPD.

“It was a peaceful event”: How media framed Saturday’s event and virtually eliminated any analysis of state violence that targets the Black community

The GRPD, White Supremacy and Community Accountability

Calls for a State of Emergency in Grand Rapids elicits no meaningful response from City Officials

Billed as Community-Police relations “listening tour,” the meeting was a highly managed forum

Chief Rahinsky gets nauseated, but defends police violence against the black community in Grand Rapids

GRPD’s recent detaining of black youth was just following procedure and it was racist

Latest GRPD Press Conference addresses recent police assaults on residents of color: Acting Chief says if people obeyed the police there would be no problems

Later this week, we will post about the recent history of GRPD’s harassment, intimidation and surveillance of Movimiento Cosehca GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE.

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