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Social Movements and Political Moments: Recognizing the political openings in Grand Rapids and Beyond

July 7, 2020

It is understandable right now for people to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. This frustration can be felt on the national level, with the federal government’s complicity in so much harm and corruption. You can see it at the state level, with a GOP-dominated legislature attacking the Governor and attempting to re-establish the primacy of capital and the private sector.

In Grand Rapids, the pandemic has exposed the deep levels of inequity and racism, with so many Black and latnix families struggling to survive, with high rates of unemployment and lack of access to affordable health care and housing. The disparities have become even more evident since the uprising that began on May 30th, when thousands of people descended on downtown Grand Rapids to protest the public lynching of George Floyd.

However, since May 30th, there are a great deal more opportunities to have serious conversation about structural racism, about exploitation, reparations and other economic priorities. Who would have thought that just a few months ago, that Grand Rapids would be having a serious conversation about Defunding the GRPD, about school funding cuts, about undocumented immigrants and about the power structure in this community?

As someone who has invested a great deal of time studying the history of Grand Rapids and social movements, it is my contention that the main reason that we are able to have serious conversation about systemic issues, is because of all the groundwork that has been laid by various social movements in this community.

There are tremendous political, economic, social and cultural openings right now, in this moment, that we have not seen in recent years. Good community organizers, those doing work on the ground and around critical issues will tell you, that we need to seize this moment and build on it for the work ahead.

Black Lives Matter has forced us to look at how White Supremacy permeates our culture, our politics and our economy. This work, which has led to a call for a national Defund the Police, campaign, is rooted in the importance of coming to terms with the history and practice of policing in the US. The work of indigenous activists in recent years, whether we are talking about Standing Rock or the recent resistance to Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore, has been due to the work that First Nation’s people have done to get the rest of us to think about White Settler Colonialism and genocidal policies in the US.

I just think it is important for us to think about this current political moment and to recognize that it is a direct result of the long standing social movements from the 19th century Abolitionist movement to Black Lives Matter, from the American Indian Movement to NoDAPL, from the United Farm Workers movement to Movimiento Cosecha, and from the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike in Grand Rapids to the current push for social justice, equity and participatory democracy. This is a critical moment in Grand Rapids right now, making it extremely important for people to get involved in the current social movements.

What follows are a list of books that people might find helpful in this political movement/moment to call for greater collective liberation.

For those wanting to explore the larger context around the graphic above, I would suggest a few foundational books:

  • A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen
  • An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz
  • An African America and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Ortiz
  • A Queer History of the United States, by Michael Bronski
  • How Race Survived US History: From Resettlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon, by David Roediger
  • The Half that Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist
  • How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, by Manning Marable
  • Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents, by Margaret Kimberley
  • Taking Children: A History of American Terror, by Laura Briggs
  • Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, by James Loewen

For information of Grand Rapids

  • African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids, by Randal Jelks
  • A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by Todd Robinson

Also, check out the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives https://www.graama.org/ and the Grand Rapids People’s History Project https://grpeopleshistory.org/

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