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If you really want to change the GRPD, then you should sign up to be a cop, activists are told

September 29, 2021

On Tuesday night, I went to the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting. I was doing crowd safety for the Justice For Black Lives march to the commission meeting, but then sat through a several hours long City Commission meeting.

The commission chambers was packed, so much so that they set up monitors on the first floor. People came out to talk about a proposed resolution on decriminalizing natural entheogen, a climate crisis resolution, declaring racism a public health issue, changing the names of two streets and ongoing conversation around the GRPD and their policing practices, specifically as it related to the BIPOC communities. 

As we wrote yesterday, there was discussion about several GRPD funding issues and adding more cops to the downtown area. When the City Commissioners were talking about adding more cops, it was mentioned that the Public Safety Committee recommended that the city should not accept private money for the proposed 5 additional cops for the downtown area. 

Just before the Commissioners voted on the proposal about adding more GRPD officers, Commissioner Lenear made the following comments, comments which I believe to have been directed specifically to members of Justice for Black Lives (JFBL) and their supporters.

“I want to encourage you to be the change you want to see, and encourage you to apply to become officers. Because if you stay outside of a system, then the change you are seeking… will have a challenging time seeing what is is you want.”

Now I don’t know if this statement was made out of arrogance or it was a deep misunderstanding of the history of social movements and the role they play in actually making necessary, systemic and structural change. Maybe it was a bit of both, but here is my response to the statement made by Commissioner Lenear during the 9/28/2021 Grand Rapids City Commission meeting.

Now, I am completely aware of the fact that there are those who think that working with systems of power is how you make real change. There is some evidence of that, but I come from the school of thinking that believes that real change, change that leads to liberation and justice primarily comes from autonomous social movements. This is the fundamental argument that radical historian Howard Zinn was making in his seminal work, A People’s History of the United States.

Whether we are talking about the history of the Abolitionist Movement, the Labor Movement, the anti-War movements or the Civil Rights Movement, the overwhelming view is that these movements forced systems of power to make the necessary changes needed. Abolitionist called for the end of chattel slavery, workers demanded the right to organize, anti-war activists demanded an end to war and Civil Rights organizers demanded equal treatment under the law. These movements and so many more pushed society, elected officials and systems of power and oppression to concede certain rights and to grant certain demands, depending on the effectiveness of any given social movement. 

Then there are activists and organizers who embrace a more abolitionist stance against systems of power and oppression. The original Abolitionist Movement demanded the abolition of chattel slavery, not a reformist or nicer form of chattel slavery. This same abolitionist stance is what guides many of the current organizers and activists within the current Black Freedom Struggle, specifically with the Defund the Police movement.

This abolitionist effort, which is not trying to make policing nicer, but wants to abolish the current system of policing and replace it with more community controlled forms of community safety. So, when Commissioner Lenear encourages Black and Brown organizers with JFBL, she doesn’t understand how offensive it was to tell these organizers that they should sign up to be a cop in the GRPD if they really wanted to change how policing is done in this city. 

I was looking at how people reacted to such a comment, which ranged from disgust to disbelief, while others were clearly wounded by such a statement from Commissioner Lenear.

Another way of thinking about how ridiculous it is to counsel activists who are trying to, at a minimum, have community accountability with current policing practices, is to once again look at previous social movements or resistance movements and how absurd it would be to counsel them to join a system they were seeking to dismantle and abolish. Here is a short list using the logic of the Grand Rapids City Commissioner:

  • Those fighting against chattel slavery should have embraced the plantation system or even owned their own slaves.
  • Those who were resisting Nazi Concentration Camps should have joined the SS or other elements of the Nazi military in order to get them to stop anti-Semitism or to stop rounding up members of the Jewish community and putting them to death in concentration camps.
  • Indigenous community members, specifically parents, should have become school teachers, specifically to work in what were euphemistically referred to as “boarding schools.”
  • Those who are organizing to fight against US militarism and US imperialism, should join the military to change it from within.
  • Those who are fighting against ICE and their practice or arresting, detaining and deporting immigrants, should sign up and become an ICE agent, so as to somehow make ICE less xenophobic and brutal.

Words matter. Words can do tremendous harm, just as words can be used to affirm people. It’s also important, quite often, to not speak and to honestly listen to what those most impacted by policing have to say.  Once you really hear them, then make the necessary changes or meet the demands they are bringing to those who work within centers of power. 

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