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Gun Violence, Structural Violence and the GRPD

November 18, 2020

Over the past few weeks, we have written numerous stories about the Grand Rapids Police Department’s push to obtain the technology known as ShotSpotter, as a tool to reduce gun violence in the city.

On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids City Commissioners voted no on using a $500,000 gift from Kent County, which was funding the county received through the CARES Act. The vote was 3 – 3, which meant that it didn’t pass. However, the GRPD had a memo attached to the city’s resolution on the county funding, a memo which clearly states their  intentions to obtain ShotSpotter, beginning with a pilot program:

Going forward, GRPD will attempt to negotiate a pilot program with ShotSpotter and one or more willing neighborhood in order to evaluate the value of this technology in reducing gun crime. This also will allow GRPD to further engage with residents about where this technology may be deployed and to inform them and receive their feedback on this technology. GRPD will return to the City Commission after negotiation with ShotSpotter and additional engagement with the community to seek approval of a pilot per the City’s surveillance policy. After evaluation of the technology through the pilot, future funding possibilities will be explored.” 

Now, I completely understand that the rise in gun violence is a serious issue in Grand Rapids. I also acknowledge that the majority of gun-related homicides have occurred in the southeast part of town, which also has the largest concentration of the Black community. It is completely understandable if people who live in that community are open to wanting ShotSpotter if it results in the reduction of gun violence. 

However, the problem with how we respond to violence, gun-related or otherwise, is problematic, mostly because we allow the GRPD to control the narrative on how to respond to violence in Grand Rapids. 

The reality is that the GRPD, which is part of a larger system of oppression, relies on force/violence, or the threat of force/violence, when responding to conflict in the community. The ShotSpotter technology should be viewed as just another tool in the police department’s arsenal when responding to violence. The ShotSpotter technology detects gun shots in the city, which, as the GRPD would argue, allows them to potentially respond quicker when gun fire is occurring. Read that point again……it allows the GRPD to potentially respond quicker. In other words, ShotSpotter does not prevent gun violence, which is where the community’s focus should be, violence prevention.

Structural Violence and the GRPD

Before we talk about Structural Violence in Grand Rapids, it is important for us to establish a working definition of what Structural Violence is. One of the best definitions I have come across is from an online site called Structural Violence. Here is their definition:

“Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.”

Now that  we have a working definition of structural violence, lets look at ways in which structural violence manifests in Grand Rapids, especially when, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. 

  • There are a handful of billionaires in GR, along with one quarter of the population living in poverty.
  • There are thousands of people who on’t make a living wage and can’t afford the cost of rent in most neighborhoods.
  • Thousands of families are food insecure in Grand Rapids and have little or no health insurance.
  • There are countless families who have to decide on paying rent each month or paying their utilities.
  • People who still live in places with lead-base paint or lead in their drinking water.
  • People who can’t afford to own are car and who don’t have a bus route near their place of residence.
  • People who are forced to live near the City owned incinerator, a toxic waste site or other     areas that disproportionate have more pollution. 
  • People who can’t find work or a place to live because of a past criminal record.
  • People who live in neighborhoods that are disproportionately policed by the GRPD.
  • Black, brown, indigenous and other communities of color that face structural racism, which is also a form of structural violence.

Ok, so here are just 10 ways in which Structural Violence exists in Grand Rapids. At this point we should ask ourselves, if they really want to reduce violence, why is the GRPD not policing or arresting employers who don’t pay a living wage; landlords who charge too much for housing; businesses that pollute the water, air and soil; the food system which keeps people malnourished and sick; billionaires for being, well billionaires; and politicians who vote on policy that benefits the rich and punishes working people? 

Aren’t all of the things I have listed an urgent, daily form of violence that plagues our communities? Why is the GRPD not urgently trying to figure out ways to stop these forms of violence? Simple, because the GRPD, which is part of the system of power and state violence, doesn’t care about Structural Violence, they only want to respond to street level violence, because it disrupts business as usual. 

However, the thing we need to come to terms with is the fact that people who are harmed by Structural Violence on a daily basis, are often the same people who resort to crime or gun violence out of desperation. I’m not saying that people, even those who experience Structural Violence, have no agency, but if you have ever experienced multiple forms of Structural Violence for much of your life, your options are often quite limited, especially within the systems of White Supremacy and Capitalism. 

Lastly, if we want to honestly prevent gun violence in our community, then we have to work towards ending structural violence, in all of its many manifestations. To do so will require lots of hard work, a great deal of creativity, an enormous amount of radical imagination and lots of compassion, since ending structural violence will mean we need to fundamentally re-order society. Of course, if we want to fundamentally re-order society, we will have to contend with those who currently benefit from Structural Violence  – rich people, politicians, the business class, landlords, and the GRPD, just to name a few.

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