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Remembering the 1967 Riot in Grand Rapids: What is past is present – Part V

July 22, 2022

This week we have been posting a series of articles on the 55th anniversary of the riot/uprising in Grand Rapids, which took place from July 25th through the 27th in 1967. Most of the content for these articles is from pervious postings on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project site, in the Civil Rights/Black Freedom Struggle section. I am interested in this history for several reasons, but mostly because of what we can learn from the past and how it can impact the present and the future.

In Part I, we looked at the Grand Rapids Press coverage of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. In Part II, we looked at the coverage from WOOD TV8. Part III was a look at the imagery of the 1967 riot in what we are calling Cops, Property and the White Gaze. In Part IV, we looked at a report the City of Grand Rapids produced just after the 1967 riot, called Anatomy of a Riot. In today’s post, which is the last in the series, we look at MLive reporting on the 50th anniversary of the 1967riot, along with what has happened since.

In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, this is what we wrote:

Over the past few days, MLive has been running a series of articles about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. Next week is the 50th anniversary of the 3 day riot that took place and MLive has been posting several stories, lots of photos and video about the 1967 riot.

There have been some positive aspects of what MLive reporters have done in this series, especially the interviews with members of the African American community that witnessed the 67 riot or those who have researched it.

However, there are also many problems with the MLive series on the 1967 riot. We want to address what is problematic about the coverage and why their reporting perpetuates a tremendous amount of misinformation about what took place in July of 1967.

No Ownership on the part of the GR Press and its role in the reporting in 1967

It is vitally important for us to think about the events 50 years ago in Grand Rapids, to come to terms with its significance, and how the dominant narratives around the 67 riot impact us today.

The Grand Rapids People’s History Project has assembled all the articles and the editorials from the Grand Rapids Press during the 3-day riot in 1967. The articles are in order of appearance between July 25 and July 27.

One thing that is apparent in the Press headlines is how the riot is framed. The riot is framed as violence and the response from the City of Grand Rapids is presented as keeping the peace. This is to be expected, since the dominant narratives about riots affirms the idea that riots are an attack on the social order of the day.

However, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, riots are the “language of the unheard.” In addition, riots are a response to the structural and daily violence imposed by the systems of capitalism and white supremacy on communities of color. Structural violence is the daily oppression that communities of color experience in the form of poverty, lack of adequate housing, poor health care, lack of educational opportunities and environmental racism.

MLive and the continuance of the dominant, white supremacist narrative

Fifty years later and the major daily news source in Grand Rapids is continuing to perpetuate the dominate narrative, which is to say a white supremacist narrative.

The first article in the series is entitled, Grand Rapids 67 riot: when anger, oppression erupted into ‘chaos.’ There are dozens of accompanying photos that solidify the dominant narrative, showing white cops arresting or detaining black suspects.

Several of the African Americans interview for this MLive article do offer some insight into the conditions that the black community were subjected to, but the MLive article also sought to convey the message that things are better now. Things are better now based on what Mayor Bliss is doing with the racial equity initiative, what the Chief of Police is doing with community relations, what data the City Manager has looked at and what an employee of Start Garden has to say about bringing economic development to communities of color. The MLive writer does not investigate any of the claims made by those who believe that things are better now and there is no evidence to support such a claim.

In addition, there is a video that MLive put together, which through the use of archival photos and text essentially affirms what was said in the article. There is some acknowledgement that inequality exists, but that city leaders are “now addressing issues of racial inequity head-on.” Again, no evidence is provided to show how racial inequity is being addressed in concrete terms.

second article in the series is made up of interviews with five African Americans and two white people who were living in Grand Rapids at the time. I can appreciate the attempt to make these voices public, but there is little historical context to what was shared by these seven people.

third article in the MLive series looks at how Division Avenue in Grand Rapids has never recovered from the 1967 riot. A variety of people are interviewed, historians, business people and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police. There is some acknowledgement of white flight and disinvestment in the southeast part of Grand Rapids, but there is no acknowledgement of the current gentrification that is happening in and around the area most impacted by the riot in 67. Instead, employees of DeVos-owned entity Start Garden, “are focused on redeveloping Grand Rapids at the micro level by helping small businesses and startups.”

fourth article in the series makes the claim that the city is doing what it can to address racial inequity. The MLive article gives voice to Police Chief Rahinsky, City Manager Greg Sundstrom and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. Of the three, Sundstrom is more honest about the challenges, saying that he didn’t think the problems from 1967 are getting any better today. However, both Rahinsky and Bliss make the claim that the city is addressing these problems and is making headway.

What is problematic about Chief Rahnisky’s claims that the City has been aggressive in finding solutions since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is that many in the African American community don’t believe that the city has really done anything to address inequity. In fact, as many in the African American community have been pointing out, the city leadership and the police department continue to downplay the urgency surrounding the numerous and recent incidents of violence by the GRPD.

In addition, the city has failed to take serious the black community’s word on racial profiling by the GRPD, especially motorists. This became evident recently, since the city paid thousands to conduct a traffic study, wherein the results were a confirmation of what the black community has been saying for years.

The current affordable housing crisis and the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Grand Rapids are also evidence that the city is not any closer to achieving racial and economic equity in the past 50 years. The movement by white people back to the urban core areas of Grand Rapids and the re-investment to those areas not only makes rent higher for thousands, it displaces communities of color at a disproportionately high rate.

The City of Grand Rapids needs to take seriously the platform of the Movement for Black Lives, which has laid out an ambitious and just vision for how to achieve justice, which are laid out here. However, I don’t think people should expect the city to embrace such a vision. What will likely happen is what has always happened is for African Americans to take matters into their own hands and challenge this system of white supremacy and managerial racism in Grand Rapids. How they chose to do it is another matter, but it seems that the current state of emergency might call for another uprising, like in 1967.

The 2020 Uprising in Grand Rapids

No one could have predicted that the police murder of George Floyd would have sparked a national uprising against the oppressive way that policing in done in this country. The uprising not only mobilized millions, it brought with it a deeper analysis of the Prison Industrial Complex, an analysis that came out of the work that Black writers and organizers had been doing for decades, which was rooted in an abolitionist perspective. With this abolitionist framework, the Movement for Black Lives was also calling for the Defunding of the Police across the country.  

The Grand Rapids commercial news media again, demonstrated their allegiance to centers of power and systems of oppression, by relying primarily on the voices of City officials and business owners in downtown Grand Rapids. GRIID conducted a 5 day study of the local news coverage just after the May 30th uprising, which we wrote about on June 5th.

The sources cited from each commercial news source, also indicates which voices were centered in the coverage of the protests and government response over the 5 day study period. Government and police voices are the most dominant, with business and clean up voices combined taking up the next most space, with protesters being the least important. In addition, the protester voices that did appear in the commercial news sources we documented, were voices that were primarily after the uprising/riot took place, always with the news media framing these protest voices as “peaceful” and almost completely avoiding the larger structural issue of White Supremacy. What should have been an opportunity to amplify black voices, resulted in the same voices that are always centered – state voice, business voices and cop voices.

Internalizing the values of the System

This brings us to the larger issue of how these news stories were collectively framed. Media framing is often described as the angle or perspective from which a news story is told. While news is often thought to be objective and value free this is rarely if ever the case. In fact, what media researchers have been saying for decades is that commercial news sources tend to internalize the over-arching values of the dominant culture and the larger systems of society, which are fundamentally systems of oppression.

This means that the coverage of what took place in Grand Rapids since last Saturday, was framed through the dominant social, cultural and political values. For example, protesting can only be viewed through the lens of peaceful or non-confrontational, when in fact a great deal of public dissent and protest has been very confrontational throughout US history and often operates outside of the legal framework – civil disobedience, insurrection, uprisings, strikes and occupations are all part of how people have protested/dissented. Therefore, to create the good/bad protester framework in just dishonest.

Another major value that the commercial news media has internalized, is the fact that they rarely recognize structural violence or structural looting. Every day in Grand Rapids, black people are are subjected to poverty, police harassment/intimidation, limited resources, limited choices, redlining and gentrification, yet these issues are rarely acknowledged. Therefore, when people rise up and demonstrate their collective anger and pain, the commercial news media sees vandalism and disrespect for the law, when in fact what is often happening is a collective response to the the oppression of White Supremacy, Capitalism and State violence. The City of Grand Rapids brings the National Guard in to “restore order,” when in fact the order they are restoring is racial injustice, a massive wealth gap, despair and whiteness.

Looking at these news stories collectively affirms our analysis and demonstrates that the commercial news media in Grand Rapids plays a major role in how the dominant culture views West Michigan. We need to come to terms with the fact that are growing number of people, especially black people, who are tired of living under the boot of West Michigan Nice. 

Lastly, we need to honestly think about how the trial of former GRPD cop Christopher Schurr will play out, especially if he is found not guilty of murdering Patrick Lyoya. Once again, the economic conditions of thousands in Grand Rapids, with the ongoing impact of the pandemic and the structural racism that plagues Grand Rapids are the kinds of conditions that could lead to another riot/uprising, especially if Schurr is found not guilty in the murder of Patrick Lyoya. We cannot, and should not, expect the commercial news media in Grand Rapids to provide honest and in depth reporting should another riot occur. In fact, what should be apparent to those involved in the Justice4Patrick Movement, is that we need to create and promote our own narrative and not allow systems of power and oppression to dictate what is happening right now in Grand Rapids. This should be one of the most important lessons we can learn from the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids.

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