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What I learned at the Press Conference hosted by the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors, speaking out on the GRPD killing of Patrick Lyoya

June 1, 2022

Earlier today, several members of the religious community in Grand Rapids, calling themselves Grand Rapids Association of Pastors, held a press conference to denounce  City Officials and the Grand Rapids Police Department over the GRPD killing of Patrick Lyoya.

Since April 30th, this association had crafted a statement, which begins by saying:

We, ministers of Christian churches in Grand Rapids, call for accountability for the killing of Patrick Lyoya. Black residents of Grand Rapids, and all people of color in this community, need to feel safe. To that end, actions must be taken. We stand with our colleagues in the Black Clergy Coalition, and echo the NAACP, the ACLU, Urban Core Collective, A Glimpse of Africa, and other leaders who represent those most impacted by this incident in the following: 

The statement also comes with a list of demands listed here:

  • A prosecutor outside of Kent County, who does not work regularly with the GRPD, must be appointed to handle this case, as is legally required in many states and is widely acknowledged to be best practice; 
  • A federal investigation must be immediately launched into this killing along with the history and culture of the GRPD; 
  • The community must have a seat at the table in the ongoing negotiations over the GRPD police union contracts, which have for far too long shielded officers from accountability and which do not reflect the community’s priorities for how to achieve public safety in our City; 
  • Both the Civilian Appeal Board and the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability must be given the authority, resources, and funding to provide true civilian oversight and be able to affect real change; and 
  • The City and GRPD must respect the constitutional right of all people to protest this tragedy and exercise their freedom of speech without violence, threats, or intimidation. 

While I think that some of these demands are important, they still rely too heavily on a political system that has demonstrated over and over again that they do not listen to the community and that they will above all protect the image of Grand Rapids and business as usual. What follows are a few things that I learned from today’s Press Conference:

  • One of the Congolese pastors who spoke pointed out that in their culture, which is the culture of Patrick Lyoya, that running away from the police is a sign of respect. To stay put and engage a police officer is considered offensive. 
  • One of the members of the Executive Team of the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors is Rev. Nathaniel Moody, who is also a Grand Rapids City Commissioner. Rev. Moody’s name is not listed as being one of the 70 pastors who have endorsed the statement. How is it that a core member of this group has not signed on, and more importantly, how is it that he has resisted the countless demands from those showing up to City Commission meetings for years, especially since the May 30th uprising in Grand Rapids?
  • When asked about the small percentage of Churches who have signed on to the statement, particularly white Churches, the response was (from white pastors) that they need to do better.
  • Several of the pastors stated that they are meeting with City and County Commissioners, as well as other elected officials behind the scenes to address their concerns. First, these meetings have not been very public. Second, despite these meetings both the City and County Commission have not met any of the demands coming from the community. Also, meeting with elected officials behind closed doors historically has not resulted in making the kinds of structural changes necessary for racial and economic justice. Elected officials have only ever responded to the demands for justice that come from the community when they are pressured and force to meet those demands. Until there is sufficient pressure, which involves various forms of direct action, will those holding political power take action.
  • I asked if the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors would be willing to participate in a campaign of Civil Disobedience, which has been consisted within the Black Freedom Struggle for decades. No one responded who spoke publicly responded that they would be willing to take that kind of action.

While I think the statement from the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors is a good first step, it needs to move beyond a reformist approach to social change and embrace a more abolitionist framework for creating a just society. As the Abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “The limit to any reform is the system itself: Reform tends to strengthen institutions, especially those geared to social control.”

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