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Imagining Grand Rapids without the GRPD

April 8, 2021

Last week, WOOD TV 8 aired a story about the national group Cure Violence. Cure Violence is likely to be hired by the City’s Office of Oversight and Public Accountability.

Earlier this year, the Grand Rapids Office of Oversight and Public Accountability put our requests for proposals on violence reduction, but they only ended up receiving a few proposals and decided to not accept any of them, which we wrote about in December.

The City of Grand Rapids had three national groups in mind, even before they put out an RFP, which in addition to Cure Violence, included Operation Cease FireAdvance Peace, and NOLA For Life. However, it looks like the City is leaning towards Cure Violence, which is why WOOD TV 8 decided to do a story on them.

In their interview with a representative from the national violence reduction group, the Cure Violence spokesperson said:

“We can get places where law enforcement can’t get because we have those relationships with those individuals on the streets, so they trust us. They know we’re not trying to send them to jail. We don’t want to see them get killed or arrested, so we’re able to mediate conflicts before it gets out,” said Whatley.

This comment from Cure Violence is not only interesting, it reflects the same dynamic that Defund the GRPD has been communicating since last June. It’s about relationships from people who live in affected communities, who have no desire to see people being punished. This kind of response to violence makes it clear that there are a whole range of ways that violence can be reduced and prevented, thus making the case that maybe we do not need heavily armed people who make it their goal to use force/violence against those designated as violent. In other words, maybe we don’t need cops to have real community safety.

Moving towards a radical community safety model requires two things. First, a divest/invest plan, which has always been part of the Movement for Black Lives agenda. If we defund the police and invest in the communities most affected by policing, it will great greater equity. We wrote about what the budget of the GRPD – $54 million, if invested in the Black community could do. Mind you, the $54 million is just for one year, so we need to imagine what that kind of monetary investment into communities affected by policing would look like in the short term and the long term.

The second step needed would then be to look at models of community safety that do not relay of policing. Those of us who have been promoting the Defund the GRPD campaign are not naive and we recognize how hard it will be to not have the GRPD. However, we also believe in radical praxis and radical imagination.

Together We Are Safe already encourages people to not call the GRPD when there is a conflict or a problem in the community. They distribute a two-page document that provides reasons why not to call the GRPD and then provides other valuable resources in the community that would more effectively respond to the conflicts in our community. When the GRPD becomes involved in conflicts, it only increases the possibility that the conflict will escalate.

So what are alternatives to having heavily armed cops in our neighborhoods, which often result in a disproportionately large number of black and brown residents going to jail?

In Zach Morris’s book, We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just and Inclusive Communities, he acknowledges that we live in a failed state. What Morris means by a failed state, is that too many people do not have their basic human needs met – housing, health care, food, transportation, child care, employment/wages. The result is the Prison Industrial Complex, the War on Drugs, Gentrification, a health care system based on profits over human needs, a dysfunctional transportation system and employment that is based on exploitation. One powerful example of how the failed state impacts black people, is this statement from Prison Abolition group Critical Resistance.

While Blacks only represent 13% of drug users, Black drug users represent 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, 55% of those convicted of drug offenses and 74% of those sent to prison.

What We Keep Us Safe advocates, in the face of a failed state, is a care-based strategy for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment. In addition, the book:

“We Keep Us Safe is a blueprint of how to hold people accountable while still holding them in community. The result reinstates full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized so they can participate fully in life, in society, and in the fabric of our democracy.”

In addition to ideas and examples provided in We Keep Us Safe, there are other very practical ways that people can practice community safety. One of the most important and misunderstood aspects of the Defund the Police movement is that people have not taken the time to actually read what is being proposed. We encourage people to read the Defund the Police Toolkit, which is a powerful document.

Another solid resource is an anti-racist neighborhood watch manual that was developed by people in Portland Oregon. This 31 page manual provides great practical resources and application around community safety, specifically that are anti-racist. In some ways, this manual builds on the work of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which was essentially about responding to the ongoing police harassment and violence directed at black communities across the country.

A third great resource, which was produced by the Women of Color group, INCITE!, is a 121-page toolkit that focuses on why calling the police is especially problematic for women of color and trans people of color. This toolkit also covers the following areas: 

  • Gender Policing
  • Immigration Enforcement
  • Cops in Schools
  • Policing Sex Work
  • The War on Drugs
  • Police Violence and Domestic Violence
  • Law Enforcement Violence and Disaster

A second major section of the toolkit, provides great examples of practicing community safety from several organizations. This toolkit is a must read and resource for people who want to practice community safety, plus it is a great resource to help us all radically imagine how life could be without the cops.

Lastly, I think it is worth quoting from the final page of the book, We Keep Us Safe:

“Real safety happens when we bridge the divides and build relationships with each other, overcoming suspicion and distrust. Real safety comes from strategic, smart investment – meaning resources directed towards our stability and well-being. Real safety addresses harms that the current system is failing to tackle, and holds people accountable for those harms while still holding them in community. Real safety results from reinstating full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized, so they can participate fully in society. If we are able to transform our old system and create a culture of caring and healing in its place, we may have an actual shot at creating real democracy for the first time.”

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