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Coming to terms with the function of policing in the US and in Grand Rapids Part II

July 21, 2020

In Part I, we provided a framework for how policing functions in the United States and in Grand Rapids, with particular emphasis on the two overarching strategies that police departments use, Negotiated Management and Escalating Force. 

In Part II, we want to focus on why police departments, specifically the Grand Rapids Police Department, sees dissident movements/protest movements, as an insurgency. Within the larger US foreign policy framework, insurgent forces are those that are a direct threat to US political and economic dominance. To deal with any insurgent movement around the world, the US has adopted what they refer to as a counterinsurgency strategy.

Counterinsurgency, as practiced by the US, essentially means to separate the general population from the combatants – those who make up the insurgent forces. It is important to note that for counterinsurgency experts, separating the public from insurgent forces is not just a physical separation, but a psychological and ideological separation. This type of separation is critical for us to understand, especially when we are talking about policing around the country and in Grand Rapids.

A couple of important books on this very topic of how police department have adopted a counterinsurgency strategy are, Police” A Field Guide, by David Correia and Tyler Wall, and Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, edited by Kristian Williams, Will Munger and Lara Messersmith-Glavin. In their analysis, the contributors to the second book make it clear that:

The state needs legitimacy to stabilize its rule, and that under conditions of insurgency its legitimacy is slipping. In other words, from the perspective of counterinsurgency, resistance is not simply a matter of the population (or portions of it) refusing to cooperate with the state’s agenda; resistance comes as a consequence of the state failing to meet the needs of the population.

We need to understand that state repression is constant, even if we don’t always recognize it. The inequality and structural violence that exists – systemic racism, gentrification, economic exploitation, mass incarceration, the wealth gap – are a constant in Grand Rapids, whether we resist it or not. In this sense, the Grand Rapids City Commission and the Kent County Commission function as “the state” in this situation and they will do whatever is necessary to maintain order, which is to say they act as a buffer against anyone who threatens structural violence. However, when we decide to resist the structural violence, then the state – specifically the City of Grand Rapids – will utilize more overt forms of repressive to suppress dissent.

Life in Grand Rapids before and after May 30th

Before the recent uprising on May 30th, structural violence, systemic racism, gentrification, mass incarceration and other forms of inequality were prevalent in Grand Rapids. There has been a massive disinvestment in the Black community for decades, a housing market that has made rent costs impossible for thousands of families, a growing wealth gap and police violence that has disproportionately impact Black and latinx communities. The COVID-19 pandemic hits and these disparities are even more apparent, with high rates of infection in Black neighborhoods and higher rates of unemployment and food insecurity in the Black and immigrant communities. The structural violence was already there, but on May 30th these injustices were made visible with thousands of people in the streets of Grand Rapids.

Since the uprising began on May 30th, it is important for us to see how the City of Grand Rapids has responded to the collective anger and frustration was demonstrated on May 30th and how their response has been a form of counterinsurgency.

  • The uprising was condemned by the political and business class, particularly the property destruction. This moment is instructive, since there is virtually no acknowledgement of decades of looting by the business class, nor the structural violence that Black and latinx people have been experiencing on a daily basis in this city.
  • The Mayor of Grand Rapids calls for a 2 day curfew, making it punishable for residents to be out, especially in downtown Grand Rapids.
  • The Michigan National Guard are called in to “assist” the GRPD with “population management,” which is a standard counterinsurgency measure.
  • City officials, the GRPD, business interests, the news media and white people go out of their way to determine what are acceptable ways for people to protest or to articulate their grievances. Direct Action and protest are condemned, unless it is peaceful, which means – get a permit, obey the laws, be nice, cooperate with the cops and be respectful of those in authority. Within the first week, it became clear that the systems of power in Grand Rapids wanted to shift the focus from the collective grievances of the Black community and other dissents, to “we know you’re upset, so we’ll take a knee with you to show you we understand.”
  • The City of Grand Rapids held a few online community forums on police reform, which is what they do every time the community makes demands. The proposed reforms are largely window dressing, but the focus is on how the City is being responsive, instead of focusing on the collective grievances of the Black community.
  • Then the resistance shifted by calling for a Defunding of the GRPD, pointing out the massive amounts of money the cops were getting while so much poverty and inequality exists in the Black community.
  • The Grand Rapids Police Officers Association pushes back against Defunding the GRPD, as do White people and members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.
  • The push for Defunding the GRPD increases, with lots of organizations getting behind the campaign, using a variety of tactics to highlight the need for a reduction of funding for the GRPD and a refunding of that money to the Black community.
  • The City of Grand Rapids does an end run on the Defunding the GRPD effort, by claiming that City Commissioners don’t have the legal authority to reduce police funding.
  • The GRPD quickly shifts their counterinsurgency tactics to demonize those using graffiti to make their demands to Defund the GRPD, even recruiting the local commercial news media to use their resources to hunt down the “perpetrators.”
  • In an escalation of psychological warfare, the GRPD then claims that there is no way that the City can afford to defund them, now that there has been an increase in the homicide rate in Grand Rapids. The news media goes along, because its good optics, even though there is no evidence presented to show that more cops or more funding of cops will effectively reduce gun violence or any other kind of community violence.
  • Community leadership stand shoulder to shoulder with the GRPD decrying gun violence, all the while ignoring the ongoing White Supremacist practices  and structural violence in Grand Rapids.

The narrative of this timeline is a perfect example of counterinsurgency being employed by the City of Grand Rapids and the GRPD, since what began as the collective rage and frustration against White Supremacy and structural violence has now been replaced by City government and the GRPD reassuring the community that they are doing what is necessary to “keep us all safe,” which is counterinsurgency language for pacification.

However, even the best counterinsurgency plans often underestimate the resistance to structural violence and White Supremacy.

The resistance continues!

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