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What would it look like to have life without the GRPD in Grand Rapids?

June 15, 2020

In the past week, Together We Are Safe, along with partner groups Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE, have initiated a Defund the GRPD campaign.

As of this writing we have had 1,200 people send letters to Grand Rapids City officials, thus demonstrating that Defunding the GRPD has significant support as a political goal. 

Of course, it is important to note that the Defund the GRPD campaign consists of three major components:

  • First, to do away funding the GRPD, which in 2019 received $54 million, roughly 37% of the City’s budget
  • Second, by defunding we mean the abolition of the GRPD, which is fundamentally different than a reformist position
  • Third, redirecting an equivalent amount of Grand Rapids taxpayer that goes to the GRPD, to fund those most affected by GRPD intimidation, harassment and violence, where those most affected would make the decisions about how this money would be used. 

While there has been significant support for the Defund the GRPD campaign in the first week, there are also plenty of people who have trouble imagining a world without the GRPD. This is understandable, since none of us have ever experienced Grand Rapids without the police. So what would Grand Rapids look like without the GRPD and what needs to happen in order to achieve that goal?

Those of us who have been promoting the Defund the GRPD campaign are not naive and we recognize how hard it will be to not have the GRPD. However, we also believe in radical praxis and radical imagination.

Together We Are Safe already encourages people to not call the GRPD when there is a conflict or a problem in the community. They distribute a two-page document that provides reasons why not to call the GRPD and then provides other valuable resources in the community that would more effectively respond to the conflicts in our community. When the GRPD becomes involved in conflicts, it only increases the possibility that the conflict will escalate.

So what are alternatives to having heavily armed cops in our neighborhoods, which often result in a disproportionately large number of black and brown residents going to jail?

One major alternative is an integral part of the Defund the GRPD campaign, which is the divestment/investment component. If the $54 million a year were to go to uplift residents most impacted by the harm the GRPD does, imagine how much those residents/neighborhoods could benefit from that kind of funding. With $54 million infused into communities harmed by the GRPD, the result would almost certainly result in reducing conflict and crime, thus reducing the need to have cops.

However, a divestment/investment strategy is not enough. In Zach Morris’s book, We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just and Inclusive Communities, he acknowledges that we live in a failed state. What Morris means by a failed state, is that too many people do not have their basic human needs met – housing, health care, food, transportation, child care, employment/wages. The result is the Prison Industrial Complex, the War on Drugs, Gentrification, a health care system based on profits over human needs, a dysfunctional transportation system and employment that is based on exploitation. One powerful example of how the failed state impacts black people, is this statement from Prison Abolition group Critical Resistance.

What We Keep Us Safe advocates, in the face of a failed state, is a care-based strategy for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment. In addition, the book:

“We Keep Us Safe is a blueprint of how to hold people accountable while still holding them in community. The result reinstates full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized so they can participate fully in life, in society, and in the fabric of our democracy.”

In addition to ideas and examples provided in We Keep Us Safe, there are other very practical ways that people can practice community safety. One solid resource is an anti-racist neighborhood watch manual that was developed by people in Portland Oregon. This 31 page manual provides great practical resources and application around community safety, specifically that are anti-racist. In some ways, this manual builds on the work of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which was essentially about responding to the ongoing police harassment and violence directed at black communities across the country.

Another great resource, which was produced by the Women of Color group, INCITE!, is a 121-page toolkit that focuses on why calling the police is especially problematic for women of color and trans people of color. This toolkit also covers the following areas: 

  • Gender Policing
  • Immigration Enforcement
  • Cops in Schools
  • Policing Sex Work
  • The War on Drugs
  • Police Violence and Domestic Violence
  • Law Enforcement Violence and Disaster

A second major section of the toolkit, provides great examples of practicing community safety from several organizations. This toolkit is a must read and resource for people who want to practice community safety, plus it is a great resource to help us all radically imagine how life could be without the cops.

Lastly, I think it is worth quoting from the final page of the book, We Keep Us Safe:

“Real safety happens when we bridge the divides and build relationships with each other, overcoming suspicion and distrust. Real safety comes from strategic, smart investment – meaning resources directed towards our stability and well-being. Real safety addresses harms that the current system is failing to tackle, and holds people accountable for those harms while still holding them in community. Real safety results from reinstating full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized, so they can participate fully in society. If we are able to transform our old system and create a culture of caring and healing in its place, we may have an actual shot at creating real democracy for the first time.”

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