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City of Grand Rapids and GRPD release memo that threatens those who would protest the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial

April 20, 2021

On Monday, City Manager Mark Washington and Police Chief Eric Payne released a memo that despite its rhetoric, is nothing short of a threat against those who would disrupt business as usual once the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial has been decided.

The memo begins by saying, “As the murder trial of Derek Chauvin comes to an end, the City of Grand Rapids reaffirms its steadfast commitment to improve policing in our community, enhance our service, building trust and partnerships, and working to be a model in community-police relations.” 

These comments are meant to divert people away from the rage and frustration they feel about precisely how policing is done across the country and in Grand Rapids. These opening words also demonstrate that City officials and the GRPD are desperately hoping that the community will not respond the way they did on May 30th last year.

In fact, it is my contention that the only reason that the GRPD adopted mild reformist policies in their new strategic plan, is precisely because they knew they had to throw the public a bone so as to appear to want to build trust with the community. One could certainly argue that the hundreds of people who protested in the streets last May, along with the burning of cop cars, broken windows and appropriation of wealth that took place was the real cause of the GRPD adopting any mild reformist policies. Had the protest on May 30th been another quiet vigil or another march with nothing more than chants, the GRPD would not have felt compelled to change a damn thing.

The City/GRPD memo goes on to say, “Whatever the outcome of this trial, we know people will be emotional and passionate in their reactions. We know people will want to express that emotion and have their voices heard. And as always, we stand ready to protect the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. We must also be on guard for those who seek to exploit these events to undermine the work we’ve already begun.”

First, the GRPD does not really protect free speech rights and peaceful assembly. For the past 40 years, I have witnessed how the police always show up to a protest to either try to manage what people want to do, or they outright use intimidation, threats and force to prevent people from speaking their minds or gathering with others who are pissed off about some injustice. Just look at the recent examples of how the GRPD has targeted Justice for Black Lives organizers and you can see how they don’t give a shit about people’s rights. Second, the GRPD, on the behest of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, will only allow people to protest if it is done in a way that doesn’t threaten power. They want people to talk to the GRPD before the protest, get a permit, stay out of the street, be nice, talk about unity, say some prayers and then go home. Anything form of protest that doesn’t fit inside that model will be scrutinized and the organizers will be harassed, intimidated, threatened and possibly arrested. Third, when the City/GRPD says people will seek to exploit these events, they are really saying that anyone who doesn’t follow their orders will be dealt with harshly. Also, what work has the City/GRPD already begun? They still want to dictate how things happen and have resisted any and all efforts from the community for accountability, alternatives to policing and have vehemently opposed any possibility of defunding the GRPD.

The City/GRPD memo then makes clear what the real intention of the memo, by stating:

We should not and will not allow our community to be further divided by those whose aims are not healing but harm – to our people, our businesses and our City. We have come too far together in these last eight months.

We have made the necessary preparations to respond as needed. 

For those who are planning to take part in the protest after the results of the Derek Chauvin trial, the GRPD will not allow people to do anything that does not fit into their pre-determined and acceptable forms of dissent. People should expect to see a massive police presence for the protest, with the likelihood that other municipal police and the Sheriff’s Department will also be involved. People should also be prepared and on the lookout for cops in plainclothes, acting as infiltrators, for the purpose of gathering information and arresting people who say or do the wrong thing.

Last year, after months of pressure, Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response were able to get some Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents pertaining to the GRPD’s preparations for the non-violent march that was organized for May 1st, 2019. You can read the entire FOIA documents at this link, but here below was what the GRPD was planning before the march even began.

One can expect that the GRPD will do something similar when there is a protest following the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. 

The City/GRPD memo should demonstrate to the public that the local power structure will not tolerate any disruption in this city and that they are prepared to use deadly force if necessary to prevent efforts to engage in any kind of resistance, disruption or righteous indignation. 

What the City officials and the GRPD do not understand is that people who resist, who disobey, who disrupt will not just be responding to the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial, but to the cumulative rage over the numerous incidents of police murder and police brutality mostly directed towards the Black community. In addition to the actions of police departments all across the US and right here in Grand Rapids, the righteous indignation is also a reflection of the cumulative frustration that people have over systemic forms of discrimination, being forced to live in poverty, being subjected to mass incarceration, inadequate educational opportunities, living in substandard housing, the affects of gentrification and a whole host of other forms of injustice that takes a toll on our collective humanity. 

In the book, Why Don’t American Cities Burn?, by Michael Katz, the author argues that whenever there are riots, uprisings or rebellions in the US, “in almost every instance, police actions had ignited long-standing grievances whose roots lay in racism and economic deprivation.”

People don’t riot in a vacuum, they riot because of much larger grievances. This was the case with the 1967 riots and the uprising that began last May in Grand Rapids. Police actions and police repression are just the spark that people need to take matters into their own hands. 

For those wanting to engage in righteous indignation after the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial, Justice For Black Lives is calling for people to gather in downtown Grand Rapids on Breonna Taylor Way at 5pm on the day of the trial verdict.

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