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Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce letter is a great example of who and what gets prioritized in community safety

July 11, 2022

The agenda packet for Tuesday’s Grand Rapids City Commission meeting, included a letter (on page 52) from Joshua Lunger, the Vice President for Government Affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

The letter begins with the Chamber representative clearly wanting to frame the downtown business concerns as urgent. 

“The Grand Rapids Chamber shares many of the values and priorities set by the City’s Strategic Plan, including goals for economic prosperity and a safe community. Unfortunately, as many of you are hearing, the high rate of shootings, violent crimes, trespassing, harassment and many other unacceptable actions continue to harm businesses and their employees in downtown, neighborhood business districts and other critical commercial corridors.”

The letter then goes on to list 13 separate incidents in the downtown area, involving some theft, but mostly incidents where there was public defecation, people shouting and causing a disturbance, someone using drugs in a business restroom, public masturbation, and a “camp” that was set up in a wooded area near a business.

Many of these incidents did not require the GRPD to be present, as there are numerous other services, organizations and entities that can deal with many of the conflicts or issues mentioned in this letter. Having heavily armed violence workers, as known as cops, show up to deal with issues of are community mental health, substance abuse, people who are houseless, are not only unnecessary, they often make the problems worse by escalating the conflict. We encourage people to read the report, Cops Don’t Stop Violence, co-produced by the Community Resource Hub and Interrupting Criminalization.

The GR Chamber letter does acknowledge the additional resources allocated by the City for Mental Health and the HOT Team, but those effort almost always include the GRPD to accompany mental health or social workers. Having police accompany those who have training and lots of experience with mental health, substance abuse and housing issues, simply creates a more hostile, intense or traumatic environment for people who are struggling. 

The GR Chamber letter ends with the following paragraph: 

That being said, it takes a long time to build a reputation as a clean, safe city and only a short time to lose it. We know there is not an easy fix or we’d already have done it, but I feel compelled to share it with you and increase awareness of the serious nature of what people are experiencing. The general feedback I get from many is that problems are getting worse and they don’t expect this to change. I look forward to further discussions and working with you and all stakeholders to promote the vibrant, safe environment that everyone in our community deserves.

These comments from the GR Chamber representative illustrates some clear contradictions. First, they say want a safe environmental for everyone, yet there are literally thousands of individual and families that are struggling with the cost of rent, food insecurity, unjust wages, and the structural racism that exists in this city. People can never be safe if they don’t have their basic needs met. 

Second, the GR Chamber of Commerce has consistently opposed raising the minimum wage and does not support a living wage. The Chamber also supports rental property associations and housing developers, which dictate the cost of housing in this community, which excludes a significant percentage of the population. Over a decade ago, the GR Chamber gave birth to the group, the West Michigan Policy Forum (which is now an autonomous group) which is made up of the Grand Rapids Power Structure and has pushed legislation that benefits their interests, which are the same interests as the GR Chamber of Commerce – eliminating business taxes, privatizing the public sector, opposing labor unions, using public money for private sector-led development projects, etc. All of these things listed here make it impossible for thousands of people in Grand Rapids to have their basic needs met, thus contradicting the notion that the GR Chamber wants everyone to feel safe.

Third, the GR Chamber of Commerce has leverage with City officials, since several members of the current City Commission has received campaign contributions from the GR Chamber or prominent members of the local chamber. These contributions not only buys the GR Chamber and its prominent members access to politicians, it usually translates into action on the issues most urgent to them, such as creating spaces for people to purchase and consume. 

Lastly, it is hard not to recognize that the GR Chamber primarily represents the professional and business class to the exclusion of working class people and large sectors of the BIPOC community which has to deal with the harsh realities of racial capitalism. I would argue that the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, with their primary commitment to free market capitalism, has actually helped to create the social and economic conditions that result in people being homeless, struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, along with perpetuating Structural Racism, all of which has come back to hit the GR Chamber right in the face. The people that the GR Chamber of Commerce are complaining about in their letter to the Grand Rapids City Commission are in many ways are the collateral damage create by the free market capitalism that the GR Chamber and its members push on the rest of us. 

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