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Five things we need to be reminded of after last week’s protest in Grand Rapids

March 14, 2021

Last Monday, the GRPD arrested 8 people during a march organized by Justice for Black Lives, a march that happened on the first day of the trial for the cop who lynched George Floyd was to begin. 

On Tuesday, the 8 people who were arrested held a Press Conference to share their ind=sights on what happened, with the over-arching message that organizers, particularly Black organizers were targeted for arrest by the GRPD.

The GRPD posted their own response to the arrests, using misinformation, double speak and gaslighting to make their point. 

On Saturday, I attended the 1 year anniversary march for when police shot and killed Breonna Taylor, while she was at home and sleeping in her bed. As of today there has been no justice for Breonna Taylor and her family.

The Breonna Taylor march on Saturday had a permit. Someone told me that people not connected to the march organizers offered to pay the fee for the permit, but what is problematic about that is that getting a permit plays into the GRPD’s propaganda. I have spent the past week reflecting on what has happened in Grand Rapids and thought it might be useful to remind us all of important aspects about engaging in protests and revolutionary politics.

1. There have been plenty of people in the last week, along with the GRPD, saying, It’s against the law to march in the streets without a permit. First, the cops always selectively enforce such laws. The GRPD constantly blocks traffic in front of the arena to allow pedestrians to cross the street, even though people could cross during the normal crosswalk designations. More importantly, the GRPD has not arrested a single person during protests that have been in the streets since June 2nd, just two days after the rebellion that took place on May 30th, until last Monday. Lastly, we DO NOT NEED PERMISSION to fucking protest. It’s a protest! 

2. There is No such thing as a peaceful protest when cops are involvedFirst, it is important to come to terms with the use of the word peace, which for many people means the absence of conflict. If we think about peace in terms of a protest, then we have to ask ourselves if there is no conflict. The very nature of a protest, whether we are talking about climate change, US militarism or police violence against black people, there is always an inherent conflict. People protest because some injustice has occurred, because they want to express some grievances, grievances often directed at the very institutions which are at the heart of the conflict. Therefore, we can conclude that a protest cannot be peaceful, since there indeed is a conflict.

Second, it is important that we frame the issue of racism, White Supremacy and the police murder of black people through the lens of power. Systems of power, like police departments, have the backing of the legal system, the political system and propaganda systems like news media, popular culture and schooling, all of which present a general narrative that police are necessary and most of them are “good.” All of these systems of power protect and legitimize police and policing. However, police departments are one clear example of structural violence, which we are conditioned to not think about. As Alex Vitale, author of the book, The End of Policing, states:

Well-trained police following proper procedure are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color because that is how the system is designed to operate – not because of the biases or misunderstandings of officers.

Third, the presence of police at a protest, means there are people with guns, tasers, mace, clubs, tear gas, rubber bullets and a whole range of other high tech weapons. As anyone who has ever participated in a protest knows, it doesn’t take much for the police to use any number of these weapons. In fact, one could argue that the police are looking for a reason to use such weapons. However, even if they don’t use these weapons, there is always the threat of their use, which means that whenever cops are at a protest it CANNOT be peaceful.

Fourth, calling a protest peaceful, when protests are anything but peaceful, is a way for the system(s) to dictate the narrative about what is happening. When the police say a protest was peaceful, they mean that those protesting obey their orders, did nothing to disrupt business as usual and often it means that protest organizers cooperate and even collaborate with the police. In fact, one could argue that if this happens, then it is not really a protest, instead it becomes a performance. Such forms of “protests” are almost always organized by white liberals to make other white people feel good about themselves, without having to interrogate systems of power and oppression.

3. Disruption is a long standing tactic within Social Movements. The history of Social Movements is filled with actions – marches, sit-in, strikes, civil disobedience, insurrection – that are designed to be disruptive to business as usual, to what is normative. But here is thing – White Supremacy, poverty, mass incarceration, the climate crisis, rape, structural violence, these are normative, particularly within a Capitalist system. Social Movements disrupt the norm. Social Movement tactics, like blocking traffic, are designed to disrupt business as usual because they want people to be confronted with the grievances that people are making public, like the systemic practice of cops lynching Black people. Movimiento Cosecha often carries a banner with them that says, We’ll stop interrupting your lives, when you stop interrupting ours. What they mean by that is we’ll stop blocking traffic when you stop a system where ICE can take my family members, lock them up and deport them, with a likely outcome that the parent that was arrested will never see their children again, and all of this happens because people do not have documentation.

4. Systems of power and privilege will always push back against calls for radical change. All of the responses we have seen in the past week, from both the GRPD and Grand Rapids City Officials, while infuriating, is expected. Systems of power will always push back against social movements, especially when there are calls for radical systemic change. In fact, one could argue, based on history, that systems of power will often become more entrenched precisely because they feel threatened. We should celebrate this fact, since it means that those in power feel threatened and their push back is a signal that they feel threatened. Systemic and structural change never comes about quickly, nor does it come without sacrifice. We have to be in these kinds of struggles for the long haul and not give in to the temptation of reformism.

5. The GRPD acted exactly how they were supposed. When it comes to how policing happens in Grand Rapids or around the country, we need to come to terms with the fact that they are designed to protect the very systems of power that oppress us. The GRPD arrested 8 people last week and targeted Black organizers because that was a strategic response on their part. None of it is random. 

When dealing with protest movements, the GRPD will use two overarching strategies, Negotiated Management and Escalating Force. Negotiated Management – also called Command and Control techniques – this is when police attempt to negotiate actions, always with the goal to manage it. This often takes the form of cops asking people to get permits to protest, showing up at a protest to let everyone know that they are there to keep people safe, when in fact they are there to manage or control public dissent.

Escalated Force – this is where the state uses surveillance, infiltration, negative press, pre-emptive arrests, protest zones and the use of less lethal weaponry to suppress public resistance. This is what we have seen in Grand Rapids beginning on May 30th, where they have used weapons agains the public, relied on curfews, brought in the National Guard, sought to control the public narrative in the news media and have created the good protester/bad protester dichotomy.

Until we come to terms with these facts, we will continue to view the police as a necessary good and only seek to reform the GRPD. When we speak the language of copspeak – of police reform – we see the world as police do. Police reform is the science of police legitimation accomplished through the art of euphemism. Police reform speaks in a language carefully calibrated to limit our ability to understand police as anything other than an equitable force and indispensable institution.

Ultimately, we have to see that police and policing, even in West Michigan, function to protect power. Black communities have understood this about the US, since the country was founded. James Baldwin, in his famous 1966 essay on policing, referred to policing as a function of an occupying power. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense used the same language several years after Baldwin wrote his essay, always referring to the police as an occupying force.

However, white communities don’t tend to see the police through the same lens, especially white liberal communities like Grand Rapids. As Alex Vitale, in his groundbreaking book, The End of Policing:

For liberals, police reform is always a question of taking steps to restore the legitimacy of policing…………They want the police to be better trained, more accountable, and less brutal and racist – laudable goals, but they leave intact the basic institutional functions of the police, which have never really been about public safety and crime control………..The reality is that police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and highly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people; those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”

Lastly, the 5 points we just laid out are precisely why the GRPD needs to be Defunded.

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