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We don’t need no stinking permits to protest: 100 years of dissent and disruption in Grand Rapids

July 14, 2020

Ever since the Black Lives Matter uprising that began in Grand Rapids on May 30th, Police Chief Payne has been suggesting to those who are protesting that they should get a permit from his office, “so everyone can stay safe.”

Not only do people not need a permit to protest, Chief Payne’s plea for people to obtain a permit drips of irony. The protests that began on May 30th have specifically been directed at police violence against the Black community. Asking those who are protesting to seek permission from the GRPD, to resist police violence, is both confounding and ridiculous.

Now, there are numerous reasons for people to engage in public protest and dissent, but historically, one of the main reasons for protesting has been to disrupt business as usual, to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of conformity, or to strategically force systems of power to meet the demands of those who are protesting.

Social Movements throughout history have rarely sought permission to dissent. Abolitionists did not ask permission to resist slavery. Organized workers, especially in the late 19th century and early 20th century, did not ask permission to demand better working conditions. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t ask permission to engage in a sit-in and freedom riders weren’t asking permission to ride segregated buses.

We have a long history of dissent and disruption in the United States. In fact, the use of dissent and disruption were integral components of social movements, which have been the primary driving force for social change throughout history. People with power, either economic or political power, don’t wake up one day and say, “I think we should give people more rights.” Whatever rights and freedoms we enjoy currently are the direct result of the sacrifices that people in social movements have made to win those freedoms.

We also have a long history of dissent and disruption right here in Grand Rapids. I have been working on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project for 10 years now and I am constantly amazed and inspired by how often people in Grand Rapids have used direct action to make demands and to change lives. What follows is a brief overview of dissent and disruption over the past 100 years in Grand Rapids.

1911 Furniture Workers Strike – 6,000 furniture workers go on strike to demand better wages, better working conditions and the right to have a union. Workers clash with cops in the streets and throw rocks at scab workers brought in from outside the community. 

1917 – Socialists in arrested for passing out anti-draft information during WWI.

1937 – Workers go on strike in Grand Rapids, after being inspired by the Flint Wildcat Strike.

1963 – 3,000 people march in Grand Rapids to protest the Birmingham Church bombing.

1965 – Black South High students walk out, in what is called the Mustache Affair. Read the WOODTV8 editorial found on the link, which demonstrates their bias has been around for decades.

1967 Race riot, which was sparked by police harassing Black youth.

1968 – Mayor of Grand Rapids denies Black community a permit to mourn the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

1968 – 1972 anti-Vietnam War organizing in Grand Rapids.

1970 – Student-led Earth Day protests in Grand Rapids.

1986 – Anti-Contra Aid protest in Grand Rapids.

1989 – 100 people shut down Michigan Street protesting US involvement in the murder of 6 priests in El Salvador.

1991 – Gulf War protests in Grand Rapids.

1996 – Anti-Police Brutality Protest in Grand Rapids.

2000 – Anti-Globalization protests in Grand Rapids.

2003 – Anti-Iraq war protest when Bush came to Grand Rapids.

2006 – 10,000 march for immigrant justice in Grand Rapids.

2007 – Protest against Congressman Ehlers’ ongoing support for the US occupation of Iraq.

2016 – Thousands of people protest in the streets of Grand Rapids after the election of Donald Trump.

2017 – Immigrant Justice movement in Grand Rapids begins, with Movimiento Cosecha GR.

May 1st, 2017 march, organized by Movimiento Cosecha GR.

May 1st, 2018 march, organized by Movimiento Cosecha GR.

June 2018 End the ICE Contract protest at the Kent County Commission meeting.

May 1st, 2019 march, organized by Movimiento Cosecha GR.

This is only a sample of the ways in which people in Grand Rapids have protested over the past 100 years and in none of these instances did people ask permission to dissent!


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