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Don’t be seduced by proposals to reform the GRPD: Now is the time to work towards Defunding the GRPD and the Abolition of Policing in Grand Rapids

April 17, 2022

It has now been two weeks since a GRPD cop shot Patrick Lyoya in the back of the head, after the cop pulled him over for an invalid license plate. 

While we are all still in shock from what happened and continue to grieve with the Lyoya family, there has been a fair amount of pontificating about what could be done to prevent this from happening again.

Most of the commentary from Grand Rapids City Officials, along with other politicians and so-called community leaders are calling for certain police reforms or additional training for members of the GRPD. This is what people in power do, they only want to tweak policies, instead of engaging in radical imagination. Mild reforms will never address the root causes of policing. 

Remember, in just the last decade, the GRPD has implemented so-called policy reforms, ever since Trayvon Martin was killed and the Movement for Black Lives entered the national scene. The GRPD and Grand Rapids City officials did the same reformist two-step after Michael Brown was killed by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. I remember attending a meeting in 2014, where then Chief Rahinsky said that the GRPD was going to adopt numerous reforms, including officers wearing body cams.

In May of 2017, many in the Black community called on Grand Rapids City officials to declare a State of Emergency because of the GRPD pulling guns on several Black youth, which was largely ignored.

In late 2017, the GRPD once again pointed guns at Honestie Hodges, an 11 year old Black girl. The GRPD at the time felt that the officers were simply following procedure.

In the late Summer of 2018, the GRPD continued this pattern of detaining Black youth at gunpoint, with a mild reformist policy outcome.

Despite the GRPD’s Youth Interactions Policy, the GRPD again pulled guns on two Latino youth just for walking in the street on a side road in their neighborhood. Later that year, Black and Latino activists made demands on the GRPD, but the GRPD simply ignored it. 

This is all to say that Grand Rapids City Officials and the GRPD are only willing to adopt reforms when there is significant pushback from the community, but these reforms are irrelevant in the face of how the GRPD does policing on a daily basis. The GRPD killing of Patrick Lyoya is getting lots of attention (rightfully so), but the GRPD policing practices are always putting Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other marginalized communities at risk of arrest, detention, intimidation and death.

This moment, right now, seems like the perfect opportunity to have a serious community conversation around Defunding, even Abolishing the GRPD.

GRIID just finished an 8-week class on Police Abolition, so we have lots of reading material and resources to challenge our views about policing in general and why reforms and policy tweaks will do nothing to prevent the criminalization of Black people and other marginalized communities in the future. (See links from the 8-week class on Police Abolition at the end of this article.

Naomi Murakawa, author of the book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, has a great essay entitled, Three Traps of Police Reform. Those three traps are:

The first trap of reform is that reform the police usually means reward the police. As a supposed concession to the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 through 2016, the Obama administration gave police a gift basket: $43 million for body cameras. Body cameras have not delivered on early promises to reduce force and increase accountability, but they have expanded police surveillance powers, especially when equipped with facial-recognition software. As police patrolled Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, they captured images of protesters—by using the very technology that elites promised would contain some of the police powers that had sparked the protests just a few years ago. 

The second trap of reform: Because police seem lawless, reformers hope that new laws will rein in their power. But the premise is wrong. Policing is not law’s absence; it is law’s essence in a system of racial capitalism.14 In this system, laws affirmatively protect the police’s right to target the poor, to lie, and to kill.

The third trap of reform: perpetual reform exploits and feeds the fantasy that violence is a technical glitch of policing. Because reformers refuse abolition, they can only tinker with the style of police violence.

Another insurgent writer on the issue of the failure of reformism and policing is Dylan Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s most recent book is White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logics of Genocide. His essay, Police Reform as Counterinsurgency, states:

Reformism the ideological and political position that fixates on reform as the primary if not exclusive engine of social change/justice—is another name for this soft form of counterinsurgency. Reformism defers, avoids, and even criminalizes peoples’ efforts to catalyze fundamental change to an existing order, often through dogmatic and simplistic mandates of “nonviolence,” incrementalism, and compliance. 

Moreover, reformism sees the law as the only legitimate form of protest, collective cultural/political expression, and/or direct intervention on systemically violent conditions. (It is worth noting that the interpretation of violent vs. nonviolent acts requires discussion and debate, particularly in response to oxymoronic notions of “property violence” that rarely account for gendered anti-Black and racial-colonial state violence.) Reformism limits the horizon of political possibility to what is seen as achievable within the limits of existing institutional structures (electoral politics, racial capitalism, heteronormativity, formal citizenship, established forms of government and state authority, etc.). 

While abolitionist, revolutionary, and radical forms of collective analysis and movement frequently create irreconcilable confrontation with oppressive institutions and systems, reformism seeks to preserve social, political, and economic orders by modifying isolated aspects of their operation. A peculiar assertion animates contemporary forms of this liberal-progressive counterinsurgency: that the long historical, systemic, institutionally reproduced asymmetries of violence produced by existing systems are the unfortunate consequences of fixable “inequities,” “disparities,” “(unconscious or implicit) biases,” corruptions, and/or inefficiencies. In this sense, reformism presumes that equality/equity/parity are achievable—and desirable—within existing systems. The reformist counterinsurgency pivots on a fervent belief that the spirit of progress, national improvement, and patriotic belief will prevail over a fundamentally violent order. In practice, this belief approximates a form of dogmatic liberal faith—a kind of pseudo-religion. Thus, increased “diversity” in personnel and bureaucratic infrastructure, shifts in the legal and policy apparatus, and individualized “anti-bias trainings”18 ascend as some of the principal methods for alleviating state violence. There is yet another layer of fatal assumption that structures the reformist position: that those targeted for misery, displacement, and premature death under the existing social order must tolerate

The system of power in Grand Rapids, which includes the GRPD, will probably offer up some reforms in the wake of the police murder of Patrick Lyoya. Grand Rapids City officials will will do this for two main reasons: 1) to appease White Guilt, and 2) to circumvent any real discussion around Defunding and Abolishing the GRPD. We cannot let that happen. If those who are currently marching to demand justice for Patrick Lyoya miss this opportunity to push for GRPD defunding and the Abolition of policing, then we will guarantee that there will be more GRPD killings of Black and other people of color in the future.

GRIID Class Resources: See all of the links in each of the 8 part class posting.

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part I 

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part II

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part III

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part IV

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part V 

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part VI

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part VII

GRIID Class on the History of Policing and Working Towards a World without Police Part VIII

Editor’s Note: If there are enough people who wanted to take this GRIID Class, I would be happy to schedule another one on this topic of the history of policing and working towards the Abolition of policing.

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