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They are going to do what they want: Grand Rapids, the GRPD and the illusion of Democracy

June 11, 2020

Over the past few years, many of us who have been involved with Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE, have attended many city and county commission meetings. One thing has been clear at those meetings, that despite our collective efforts to demand clear policy changes, the city and county commissioners have refused to not only take us seriously, they have been unwilling to adopt the policy demands we have worked on.

In many ways, these commission meetings are a facade and a shallow form of democracy. I have never left these meetings feeling like the system works. Fortunately, many of us do not put much faith that these systems of power will do what we are asking, but they do respond to lots of public pressure, disruption and direct action.

This brings us to the most recent Digital TownHall on Policing, which was hosted by the City of Grand Rapids on Wednesday. However, before discussing that forum, it is important to provide some context.

The actions of the GRPD have been under constant public scrutiny, especially from the black and latinx communities, for numerous years. The City of Grand Rapids likes to think that they are progressive on community/police relations, but this has not been the experience of many who continue to witness or be the targets of harassment, intimidation and harm at the hands of the GRPD.

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest police brutality, in light of the murders of several black people, the most recent being George Floyd. On May 30, there was a large rally/march in Grand Rapids centering on the lived experience of black lives and police violence. Despite the commercial media coverage and the claims of the City of Grand Rapids, the GRPD has been on the offensive, attempting to limit public dissent, using tear gas, physical force and even bringing in the National Guard at one point. 

Over the past two weeks there have been actions in the streets demanding everything from the demilitarization of the GRPD, greater mechanisms of accountability for the GRPD and a call to abolish the GRPD, specifically through the Defund the GRPD campaign.

In fact, the DeFund the GRPD campaign, which began on Monday, is fast approaching 1,000 signatures. Yesterday, I received the following message from a staff member from Mayor Bliss’s office, stating:

Thank you for your email to Mayor Bliss’ office. We appreciate your engagement as the Mayor does appreciate hearing your thoughts and recommendations. As you can likely imagine, we are hearing from hundreds of people throughout the community about ways to move forward and how best to implement police reform and eliminate systemic racism. I assure you that the Mayor is committed to closely examining each idea and recommendation and then moving forward with meaningful action.

This vague and weak response has been indicative of what many who have been organizing to expose and fight the actions of the GRPD have experienced. On Wednesday, the City of Grand Rapids held a Press Conference in the afternoon, where the City Manager, the Office of Oversight & Accountability, and the Chief of Police, all presented information on what the City is doing to address what they referred to as equity, racial justice and police reforms. 

You can read the list of things that the City said they would be doing, most of which set a rather low bar for any substantive changes. For example, the GRPD will no longer shoot at moving vehicles or engage in the practice of chokeholds. Gee, thanks. This list also includes lots of vague language or language that provides plenty of wiggle room for the GRPD to do whatever they want. For example, one point states, “Require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives, including non-force and less-lethal force options, before resorting to deadly force.” Who exactly gets to determine when deadly force can be used? We have all seen this dynamic before. The police pull their guns, people react, then the police brutalize someone because they “felt threatened,” etc. It all comes down to the word of the GRPD vs the public, and how many times in this dynamic has the GRPD got off without any real consequences?

The Press Conference, along with the pre-determined “changes” were designed to undermine real public input. In fact, the Digital TownHall on Policing began with City Manager Mark Washington providing an overview of these “changes.” Now, people could call in or post comments on the Facebook and Youtube pages, but did people who called really feel like their voice was heard? This was especially the case when people were directly challenging the City and the GRPD about police actions since May 30 or on larger issues, such as the amount of the City’s budget is dedicated to the GRPD or the Defund the GRPD campaign. Everyone from the City, the City Manager, the Office of Oversight & Accountability, and the Chief of Police, all of them had the power to respond to comments, to minimize them, or to ignore them. They even had a slide up saying that the City Charter requires that 32% of the City’s budget be allocated for the GRPD. However, they failed to mention that the City Commission could vote to amend the City Charter on this matter, if they wanted to.

In addition, the City Manager, when responding to the Defund the GRPD position, made the case that the City needed to increase funding for the GRPD because of all of the overtime that cops have been logging. In many ways, this response was a way of giving the public a big middle finger. 

I sat through both the Press Conference and the Digital TownHall on Policing with an empty feeling in my stomach. Once again, people who challenged the system were dismissed, minimized or ignored. However, we have seen this kind of response before, which means that our resistance to the White Supremacist practices of the GRPD and the City of Grand Rapids will need to escalate. There is important work to be done and lots of groups doing the work on the ground. As in any struggle, the question we always ask is, which side are you on? 

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