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Commissioner O’Connor’s fake apology, civility and Business as usual Politics in Grand Rapids

July 17, 2022

On Friday, three days after First Ward Commissioner Jon O’Connor shouted at protesters and walked out during public comment, he released a statement he claims is an apology.

Here is that statement from Grand Rapids City Commissioner O’Connor:

I want to apologize to my constituents and the entire city for my outburst and use of inappropriate language at Tuesday evening’s city commission meeting. Like so many others in our community, I am frustrated and unfortunately, I let my emotions get the better of me.

Over the past several months I, along with my colleagues on the commission, have remained relatively quiet at the dais as well as in our public commentary for a variety of reasons. While we all share concerns about what has taken place in our community, the actions of a small activist group have diminished the ability to conduct the business of the city and have created an environment within the commission chambers where any opposing point of view is interrupted, shouted down, or chastised. I have a responsibility to listen to all those who choose to attend and make public comments, regardless of my personal beliefs about what they are saying. The current situation continues to stifle civic engagement and intimidates individuals from participating in the local government process.

This group of individuals and their supporters have crossed a line, making it difficult to seek compromise and pursue positive outcomes for the community. They have come to my home, where my family sleeps, in an attempt to intimidate me, defacing my residence in the middle of the night. These intimidation tactics toward myself and my colleagues are unacceptable and we should not stand for such actions, now or in the future.

I remain committed to working for positive outcomes for Grand Rapids. This is an amazing community with a history of working together in a respectful manner, making hard decisions, and producing results for residents. This is the work I will continue to focus on with my colleagues on the City Commission. Our city, our state and our country have become increasingly polarized and unwilling to seek compromise with civility. In Grand Rapids, however, we must rise above. I am dedicated to this work and invite others to join in a positive and proactive discourse for a better future for all.”

– Jon O’Connor, Grand Rapids First Ward City Commissioner

There are numerous things to say in response to O’Connor’s “apology,” so I will lay them out here:

First, O’Connor says he apologizes for his “inappropriate language” during the City Commission meeting last Tuesday, claiming his emotions got the best of him. This part of the statement is designed to acknowledge that saying the word “fuck” was not ok, only because the Mayor has already been cracking down on public who use these kind of words during public comment. O’Connor, therefore, has to refer to his outburst as “inappropriate language” in order to justify the standard that the Mayor has already set for the public. However, we all know that O’Connor, like most people, when he is not publicly acting as a City Commissioner will let the expletives fly, and using derogatory descriptors directed at organizers and those resisting the GRPD murder of Patrick Lyoya.

Second, not only does O’Connor refuse to call what Christopher Schurr did to Patrick Lyoya murder, he quaintly says, “While we all share concerns about what has taken place in our community.” The Commissioner, like so many City officials, just can’t bring it upon themselves to say that the GRPD murdered Patrick Lyoya.

Third, O’Connor uses his fake apology to say exactly what he wanted to say, which was to directly blame those protesting the GRPD murder of Patrick Lyoya and resisting the repressive policing practices of the GRPD used against Black organizers. O’Connor claims that it is his responsibility to listen to all voices, but we all know that he rarely looks at those who are speaking during public comment, is often doing something else while people are speaking their truth and at times will make faces, which only demonstrates his contempt of the public.

Fourth, the First Ward City Commissioner then says that, “this group of individuals and their supporters have crossed a line.” When O’Connor says that people have crossed the line, he means that people have the audacity to question not just the GRPD, but they way the politics is done in this city. Crossing the line means that more and more people are challenging the business as usual way in which GR politics has played out for too long. O’Connor affirms the crossing the line dynamic, because – Holy Shit – people have come to his home to protest. Oh No! O’Connor fails to see that he and other City Officials are being confronted where the live, because we have come to the realization that City Commission meetings are a joke, they are anti-democratic and they will suck the life out of you if you follow their rules. We all know that Grand Rapids City Commissioners make the real decision during the Meeting of the Whole, which is why everything that gets approved during the evening meetings is nothing more than a formality. Public Comment period is also a formality they are legally obligated to have, but such forms of “civic engagement” are shallow and often demeaning.

Fifth, Commissioner O’Connor really ends up using his so-called apology as an opportunity to center himself and other city officials who feel “intimidated” by the actions of protesters. O’Connor’s faux apology is nothing more than his ridiculous attempt to claim victimhood, then to assert his real intent which was to threaten those protesting with further repression by saying, “we should not stand for such actions, now or in the future.” 

Sixth, the First Ward Commissioner then wraps up his fake apology with claims of “a history of working together in a respectful mannerbecause people “have become increasingly polarized and unwilling to seek compromise with civility.” The appeals to civility are always about respectability politics, but the calls for civility are also part a long standing tradition of systemic racism and White Supremacy within the US.

I highly recommend that people read Alex Zamalin’s book, Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession With Civility. Early on in the book, Zamalin states: 

Civility is exalted in the language of slaveholders, segregationists, Lynch mobs, and eugenicists. It is also enshrined in the language of free marketeers and preachers of fiscal responsibility. And, surprisingly, it is elevated in the language of well-intentioned liberals, self-described moderates, and devout progressives. All of them traffic in ideas about public etiquette to declare what counts as good citizenship and what doesn’t. From slavery to Jim Crow, to black ghettoization, to mass incarceration, to police brutality, the idea of civility has been enlisted to treat black suffering with apathy or to maintain an unjust status quo. Worse, it has been a tool for silencing dissent, repressing political participation, enforcing economic inequality, and justifying violence upon people of color.

People with privilege, people with power, and people who work within systems of oppression often will use the notion that those who are dissenting need to be civil, as if that has always been the way you get things accomplished. Remember when the White Christian Pastors wrote to Dr. King while he sat in a jail. The White Clergy were counseling Dr. King to not ask too much or engage in confrontational direct action, which Dr. King ignored by committing civil disobedience. The author of Against Civility, makes the point that throughout history:

Civility hasn’t been the organizing principle of the most successful anti-racist thinkers and movements who have sought to dismantle US racism. They discovered, over and over again, that real political change happens through direct struggle, without obligation to decorum or propriety.

This certainly has been true of the 200 year long Black Freedom Struggle in the US, from slave rebellions, to anti-lynching campaign, resisting Jim Crow policies, the Birmingham Bus boycott, the luncheon counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, SNCC, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the League for Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Movement for Black Lives. The people who were part of these movements, who were part of the Black Freedom Struggle, were what the author of Against Civility calls, civic radicals. The difference between civility and civic radicalism is this:

A politics based in civility makes agreement among participants the prerequisite for political thought, whereas civic radicalism begins with the goal of liberation for all, regardless of who disagrees.

Civic radicalism seems to be what the Justice4Patrick movement and the broader Defund the GRPD goals are rooted in, since they are more interested in collective liberation, rather than compromises that lead us back to business as usual politics.

In the end, we should all thank Commissioner O’Connor for his faux apology, since it exemplifies the very ethos that governs Grand Rapids City officials – deflecting and avoidance of dealing with systemic issues. The First Ward Commission provided us with insight into what those in power think, what they talk about behind closed doors and how they view the current Justice4Patrick Movement. As always, we must not be seduced or fooled by the narratives that emanate for local power structures.

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