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Reflections on One Year After the May 30th Rebellion in Grand Rapids

June 1, 2021

It has been a year since the May 30th Rebellion in Grand Rapids and there are three overarching narratives that are competing for what happened then and where Grand Rapids is now.

Before we look at these narratives, it is important for me to state why I use the term rebellion for what happened on May 30th of 2020, as opposed to the term riot. What I saw and what I experienced on May 30th was thousands of people expressing their collective anger towards the ongoing brutalization of Black people by cops. 

It is rare for Grand Rapids to see thousands of people take to the streets against systems of power and oppression, but this is exactly what happened on May 30th. The speeches that were given in Rosa Parks Circle, the thousands marching in the streets of Grand Rapids, the confrontation between the community and the GRPD, the burning of cop cars and the smashing of windows in the downtown area was a big fuck you to those with economic and political power who have ignored, dismissed or tried to minimize the amount of suffering and hardship that people have experienced in this city. This is particularly the case for how those in power have ignored the Black community; have invested in all their shiny development projects while not giving a shit about Black people being subjected to poverty; for dismissing the constant calls from the Black community to end the GRPD’s harassment, targeting and abuse of Black residents; and for maintaining a system of White Supremacy, which is the real meaning behind the phrase West Michigan Nice.

Narrative #1 is the narrative of systems of power

With all of the collective anger, frustration and cries for justice that took place on May 30th, how did systems of power and oppression respond? First, it must be said that the GRPD, with all their riot gear, their tear gas and their use of 40mm chemical weapons they fired at civilians, they were the ones doing the real harm and violence on May 30th…….all in the name of protecting economic and political power.

Secondly, the Mayor of Grand Rapids called in the Michigan National Guard to further militarize the city, with heavily armed soldiers, and then threaten to arrest people who violated a newly imposed curfew in the city. 

On Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020, the Grand Rapids City Commission unanimously adopted  a resolution that condemned what the resolution referred to as unlawful assembly and civil disorder, giving the Mayor authority to bring in the Michigan National Guard and imposing a curfew to deal with the “state of civil emergency.”

Mind you this resolution was adopted unanimously, by a group of locally elected officials that many consider to be progressive or liberal or whatever other term white people like to use. To me, it is very instructive that they refer to civil unrest, what I call a rebellion, as a state of emergency. It is an emergency because people are not playing by the rules that are dictated from those who have the most to lose. Equally instructive is the fact that 1 in 4 Black children in Grand Rapids is living in poverty, with substandard housing and ongoing food insecurity, yet the City of Grand Rapids doesn’t declare this a fucking emergency???

Another aspect of the narrative presented by political and economic systems of power in Grand Rapids was the notion that what happened on May 30th, “wasn’t the Grand Rapids I know.” This was one of the comments that Mayor Bliss gave to the news media the day after the rebellion. This sentiment, was also shared by one of the economic power brokers in the city, Sam Cummings. As the Grand Rapids Business Journal reported on June 1st:

“That is not who we are, and that was confirmed by talking to some folks on the police force,” Cummings said. “Who we were was (Sunday).”

What is so instructive about the comments from the Mayor and Sam Cummings is that it reflects a reality that says they are either in denial about the tremendous inequality that exists in this city or they don’t really know or don’t care. Again, the rebellion was not just about people articulating their collective rage against how Black people are being policed, it was also about the disgusting wealth gap that exists across the country and in Grand Rapids.

Within days of the May 30th uprising we also saw a tremendous amount of sustained organizing and resistance, particularly around the issue of Defunding the GRPD. The Grand Rapids Police Department and the Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association have responded to this call for defunding the police budget by attempting to control the larger social narrative in Grand Rapids, by engaging in an escalation of copaganda – where the cops take pictures of themselves in the community attempting to show how much they care, developing a new strategic plan that is filled with reformist rhetoric, having supporters put up over a dozen anti-defunding billboards, co-opting the language of the Defund movement, while at the same time escalating their repression of the Defund movement.

Grand Rapids City officials have also played a signifiant role in supporting the GRPD. Beginning in late June of 2020, there where an estimated 4,000 messages (based on several media sources referencing messages that commissioners had received) send to City officials demanding a reduction in the GRPD. That level of public communication around a specific issue is rarely seen in Grand Rapids, especially considering that if 10% of the voting population shows up for a Grand Rapids City election the clerk’s office is euphoric.

However, despite the high number of public participation in the call for defunding the GRPD, Grand Rapids City officials have not only put a stop to any possible vote on the GRPD budget, they have fundamentally ignored the high number of calls and comments from people during City Commission meetings, comments that have overwhelmingly call for defunding. In fact, every public comment portion of City Commission meetings since the May 30th Rebellion has been dominated by defunding comments, apart from calls around ShotSpotter technology, the use of helicopters during Operation Safe Neighborhoods or the eviction of unhoused people from Heartside Park – all of which involved the GRPD. 

No issue has dominated City Commission meetings in recent memory, like the call for defunding the GRPD. However, despite the historic public input, Grand Rapids City officials have refused to defund the Grand Rapids Police Department, have adopted the GRPD’s Strategic Plan and has unanimously approved a 2022 budget that actually provides additional funds to the GRPD budget.

Narrative #2 is the narrative of liberalism and normalcy

A second major narrative that we have heard over the past year is a narrative of liberalism and normalcy…….which, if we are honest is a narrative of whiteness. White people made the biggest stink about property damage during the May 30th Rebellion. White people are the ones who are calling for “peaceful demonstrations”, even though they fully want to cooperate with the GRPD. White people are the ones who kept saying that defunding the police really doesn’t mean abolish the police, it just means to make the cops get more training so they can be nicer while they beat you or spray you in the face with pepper spray. White people are the ones that kept saying “we need to police, otherwise there will be chaos” or “police violence is just a few bad apples.”

White people are also the ones that wanted to redirect the energy of the May 30th Rebellion away from resistance and into electoral politics. White people are the ones that have stop saying Black Lives Matter and have stoping showing up for Black-led organizing, because it just got too hard, or it’s enough already and besides there are less COVID restrictions so I just want to have fun and not be bothered by the fact that the condition of Black people in Grand Rapids has not improved in the past year.

This narrative, a white liberal narrative, also believes that what we need is unity. Well, when has there ever been unity? Calls for unity is just another way of saying, “can’t we all just get along. This notion of unity is naive, because it completely ignores the fact that there are systems of power and oppression that will never willingly giving up their power and wealth. Lastly, this white liberal narrative also believes that in terms of the police, when the GRPD doesn’t something “bad”, then the system is broken. On the contrary, when cops beat someone repeatedly with claims that the suspect was reaching for the officer’s gun, then this is a demonstration that the system works, because the cops were trained to do this, thus the system is working when the GRPD brutalizes Black people. In other words, this system of policing in Grand Rapids was and has always been designed to do exactly what they have been doing.

Narrative #3 is organized resistance and a call to Defund the GRPD

To be transparent, this third narrative is the narrative that reflects the ongoing movement to Defund the GRPD, a movement that this writer is part of. The call for defunding the GRPD began within days after the May 30th Rebellion in Grand Rapids. This call for defunding was what was happening all across the country, because it was part of the larger platform of the Movement for Black Lives and had been part of their platform since the beginning. Calling the for the defunding of police departments didn’t begin with the police murder of George Floyd, although the commercial news media would have us believe that this is where it began. The Movement for Black Lives has referred to defunding of police departments as a Divest/Invest strategy, in their A Vision for Black Lives document.

As was stated before, the call to defund the GRPD began with days of the May 30th Rebellion. This call to defund the GRPD has followed the Divest/Invest strategy, whereby reducing the funding for the GRPD would be step one, with a re-directing of those funds into the Black community as step two. 

This call for defunding the GRPD has involved social media education, the creation of magnets that offer community resources that people can contact without calling the cops, protests, marches, press conferences, numerous action alerts throughout the past year, regular summaries of the Grand Rapids City Commission meetings, phone zaps and a great deal of behind the scenes by volunteer Black organizers. The most recent efforts were centered around the City’s 2022 budget.

It is also important for people to know that what Defund the GRPD is calling for is a radical reimagining of what community safety looks like, particularly what it would look like without cops. If we have real equity in this community and if we can create models of community safety, then there will be no need for the GRPD. What this movement is ultimately calling for is the abolition of policing as we know it. 

Miriame Kaba, the prison abolitionist organizer writes:

Demands for arrests and prosecutions of killer cops are inconsistent with demands to #DefundPolice because they have proven to be the source of violence not safety. We can’t claim the system must be dismantled because it is a danger to Black Lives and at the same time legitimize it by turning to it for justice. As Angela Davis points out, “we have to be consistent” in our analysis and not respond to violence in a way that compounds it. We need to use our radical imaginations to come up with new structures of accountability beyond the system we are working to dismantle.

This narrative, the abolitionist narrative of defunding the police, is the narrative that I want to embrace. I invite you to join this movement by liking the Defund the GRPD Facebook page and then asking how to get involved.

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