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What we can learn from the 1967 riot/uprising in Grand Rapids and how it compares to what is happening in 2020

June 21, 2020

It has been 3 weeks since the uprising against the most recent police murder of Black people began. Protests around the world, around the country and in Grand Rapids are continuing in all kinds of ways.

Maybe now is a good time to step back and look at history and see what we can learn from previous uprisings and how they compare to what is happening now. In Grand Rapids, there was a three day riot/uprising in July of 1967, a riot/uprising that one could argue that was very similar to what we are seeing in 2020. Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between the riot/uprising of 1967 in Grand Rapids and the current uprising, both of which have been led by Black people.

In both the 1967 riot/uprising and the 2020 riot/uprising, the main spark for people taking to the streets was directly connected to police targeting Black people. We know that the May 30, 2020 protests in downtown Grand Rapids were centered around the recent police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In 1967, the spark was the GRPD harassment of several Black youth who were stopped by the police in July of that year.

One source says that the officers may have used excessive force in dealing with the Black youth, according to an eyewitness account.

News reports on the first day of the uprising never mention the police abuse. Instead the headlines read that, “gangs threaten a riot” and “S. Division beset by young mob.” In fact, most of the Grand Rapids Press coverage focused on the property damage and police arrests, but never on the motives of those who took action.

However, in both cases, it wasn’t just the police murder of Black people or the GRPD harassment of Black youth, it was the larger context of White Supremacy and Structural racism that have plagued Grand Rapids for over a century, as it relates to the Black community. For a larger context, I would suggest that people read Randal Jelks’ book African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids and A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by Todd Robinson.

However, the 1967 riot did not occur in a vacuum. The African American community had been exploited and denied equality for decades in Grand Rapids. We know that housing segregation was systemic, with the financial red-lining of blacks and organized white resistance to Blacks moving into their neighborhood. 

We know from reports conducted by the Grand Rapids chapter of the Urban League, that housing an unemployment conditions were appalling, based on reports from 1940 and 1947.

The civil rights movement in Grand Rapids responded to these forms of white supremacy and institutionalized racism in a variety of ways. We know that blacks organized a march a week after the racist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, that left four blacks girls dead. 

Black students were also resisting institutionalized racism and school segregation in the 1960s, which culminated in what was referred to as the Mustache Affair in 1966

Thus, the riot in the summer of 1967 was just waiting to happen, considering the harsh realities that the Black community was facing in Grand Rapids. The same could be said about why so many people took to the streets on May 30th, 2020, in downtown Grand Rapids. based on a list of recent incidents where the GRPD harassed, threatened, terrorized and beat Black people in Grand Rapids

A second similarity between 1967 and 2020 in Grand Rapids was how the local commercial news media responded to the riots/uprisings. We have written about the local news coverage of the 1967 riot. Here is a story we did 5 years ago, which looks specifically at how the Grand Rapids Press reported on the riot in 1967. 

We have also come across some channel 8 archival stories from the 1967 riot, with a posting of the video footage you can watch here that includes reporting from Detroit, which was rioting at the same time.

In addition, we posted another story about the how the channel 8 reporting centered white voices and white perspectives and ignored black voices and the black point of view.

We also have a posting that looks at some of the archival photos from the 1967 riot, photos that were taken on behalf of the Grand Rapids Press. These photos tell a certain story from a certain perspective, what we call the White Gaze. 

We also wrote an analysis of the local commercial news coverage of the during the first five days of coverage from May 30 through June 3rd, where the coverage also marginalizes the struggle for Black freedom and centered too many non-Black voices. 

A third comparison would be how white people responded to the riots/uprisings of 1967 and 2020. In 1967, based on Grand Rapids Press reports White residents of surrounding communities, when asked about their response to the uprising, stated the following:

A woman from Ionia said, “We heard they were coming here on Tuesday. We all had our guns ready if we had to.” Another White woman in Lowell was quoted as saying, “I think it is terrible. They are destroying their own property – hurting their own cause.” A resident of Saranac stated, “It is a terrible thing to say, too, but authorities should open fire on them, do something drastic to wake them up.” A man from Holland agreed with serious force being used against those rioting. He stated, “The troops should have orders to stop them anyway necessary.”

In addition to the racist comments from surrounding communities, several White Grand Rapidians contacted the GRPD to volunteer to assist in putting down the uprising and several White residents were arrested near the area of the riot because they had concealed weapons.

Lastly, those in power commissioned a study that was issued months later, entitled, Anatomy of a Riot. The report not only documents what took place from the perspective of those in power, it offers “solutions” to prevent future uprisings from taking place. On page 34 of the report, there is a list of problems that need to be addressed. Everyone of these problems that are listed focus on behavior or are framed in such a way as to ignore any systemic forms of racism and White Supremacy. In other words, the report was just another attempt to offer just enough of a reformist response without ever having to challenge or dismantle the system of White Supremacy.

In 2020, there is still significant resistance from white people who do not want to examine or confront the system of White Supremacy in Grand Rapids. However, there have been white people who have begun to deal with White Supremacy, by participating in the ongoing protests since May 30, by calling for a defunding of the GRPD and by directly supporting the Black grassroots organizers that are centering the message of Black Lives Matter in Grand Rapids.

A fourth area of comparison is looking how the City of Grand Rapids has responded to both the 1967 riot/uprising and the one happening right now. In both cases the City of Grand Rapids instituted a curfew. In 1967, the GRPD locked down an large area of the southeast part of Grand Rapids, where the riot/uprising had begun, based on the map you can see here on the right. The City of Grand Rapids also called in the Michigan National Guard in both instances, thus further militarizing the state response to the riot/uprising.

At the first meeting after the 1967 riot/uprising, the Grand Rapids City Commission passed a resolution, which praised the police department and any business or individual that “cooperated” with the cops. In 2020, the City of Grand Rapids has had a fairly similar response, where the GRPD has been praised, where the “rioters” were condemned and where the City officials acted in disbelief, as if they never thought that this would happen in Grand Rapids.

This type of disbelief and denial also existed in 1967. In a Grand Rapids People’s History article, it states: 

At a meeting on July 12, 1967, the head of the Grand Rapids Urban League, Paul I Phillips, communicated to Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police that according to the national Urban League office, Grand Rapids was on a “dangerous list” of cities with racial tensions. Despite the comments from the Urban League, Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Chief of Police “positively denied that riots were possible in the city.”

A fifth comparison between 1967 and 2020 is that there was property destruction in both riots.uprisings. In both cases, the destruction was primarily targeting white owned businesses and institutions that reflect white power, like the GRPD headquarters, the court house, etc. In 1967, since the location was different, some white businesses were targeted and the property of white landlords.

Lastly, it is important that we think about what happens next and whether or not a significant social movement can grow out of the rage and frustration of Black people to systemic oppression.

Paul I Phillips, the former director of the Grand Rapids Urban League, whom we mentioned earlier, continued to write and assess the condition of the Black community after the 1967 riot/uprising. In 1976, Phillips wrote a 2-page document with some of the following observations under the heading of unemployment:

For Whites, a recession, for Blacks, a depression. Unemployment among blacks is double that among whites.

Phillips goes on to note that median income for black families in 1974 was $7,802 and for white families $13,830, nearly double.

The next observation is rather instructive, since he refers to the 1970s policies as “benign neglect,” with the depression of 1974-75 as “effectively undermining the economic gains made by blacks in the 1960’s. In response to this dynamic, Phillips writes that “an increasing number of black families are doubling up and pooling meager resources.”

He ends his notes with the statement, “this preferential treatment of blacks and other minorities must not be permitted to continue.”

Earlier in the document Phillips cites an unemployed black person who says, “Maybe America has forgotten how smoke smells. Maybe we need a refresher course.” This comment is particularly instructive, since Phillips did not cite anyone else in the 2-page document. 

The importance of this assessment from Paul I Phillips should not be lost on us today. The injustices that the Black community faces in Grand Rapids today, are not much different than they were in the 1960s or 70s. Todd Robinson calls the form of racism in Grand Rapids, managerial racism, which is an instructive way of naming how Grand Rapids practices White Supremacy. Managerial racism is alive and well in Grand Rapids  and unless there are significant steps to radically alter this reality, Grand Rapids will always be subject to future riots/uprisings. 

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