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Free Speech, Hate Speech and the attempt by the Grand Rapids City Government to silence dissent

August 25, 2022

What kind of a world do we live in when people are threatened with arrest at a Grand Rapids City Commission meeting for using swear words, but someone can say, because he didn’t obey the GRPD cop, Patrick Lyoya deserved to be shot in the back of the head?

This was the main question I was left with after Tuesday’s Grand Rapids City Commission Meeting. During public comment, there were several white 1st Ward residents who all spoke against defunding the GRPD, saying things like “we need more funding for the GRPD” and “they keep us safe.” Then, another white dude from the 1st Ward said, that Patrick Lyoya got what he deserved because he refused to obey the cop who ended up shooting him.

Right after this white guy said that Patrick Lyoya deserved what he got, several people who are part of the Justice4Patrick Movement sat in shock, while some booed and others tried to call this white guy out for his hate speech. At no point did Mayor Bliss chastise or counsel the white guy to reframe from using that kind of language, but the GR Mayor did tell those who are part of the Justice4Patrick Movement that they need to respect the white guy’s right to speak. You can watch/listen to what went down at the 1:54:00 mark at Tuesday City Commission meeting.

I tried to think about what would prompt this white guy to say such a thing, that an unarmed Black man, got what he deserved, a bullet to the back of the head. Certainly, part of why he said it, was because he, like most white people, feel a sense of entitlement. Another part of me had to acknowledge that this white dude knew there would be no consequences for making such a hateful comment, which means we live in a deeply White Supremacist culture. In addition, his comments about Patrick Lyoya in particular, but all of his comments, demonstrated both a lack of empathy and a willful ignorance of the history of the Black Freedom Struggle.

For me, this white guy’s comment demonstrated no empathy for what happened to Patrick Lyoya. Would this same white guy say those hateful things to the parents of Patrick Lyoya or to Patrick’s children? Does this white guy not know how much the murder of Patrick Lyoya has impacted the Congolese Community, the Black community, and other immigrant communities? Does this white guy not realize that saying the hurtful things that he said is traumatic and will likely re-traumatize members of the Black community? 

Earlier, I named the comment from this white guy as hate speech. I’m not referring to the legal definition of hate speech, rather I am referring to the harm that his hate speech would cause people. This is likely why several people verbally reacted to his comments about Patrick Lyoya getting what he deserved. People were clearly bothered by his comments, but they were also harmed by his comments. This white guy’s comments were ultimately saying that Black Lives do NOT Matter, that they are trivial and disposable, especially if you do not follow the orders of a cop. 

This white guy’s comments also reflected his willful ignorance about the history of the Black Freedom Struggle. This white guy, not only made hateful/harmful comments about Patrick Lyoya, he also said that people who didn’t follow the rules at City Commission meetings should be arrested, plus those who march in the street without a permit should be arrested. The very history of the Black Freedom Struggle IS a history of disobedience, of disruption and defiance. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, SNCC, the countless marches organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, and other Black organizations, land occupations, refusing the draft, the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and on and on, were all engaged in disruption, disobedience and failure to obey authority, because those authorities and those laws protected and defended Structural Racism and White Supremacy. 

Lastly, the very fact that the Grand Rapids City Commission, the Mayor, the City Attorney and the City Manager were silent when this white guy made harmful/hateful comments, not only reflects their complicity, it normalized White entitlement. It speaks volumes that at no time did any Grand Rapids City Official address these hateful/harm comments from this particular white man. Their collective silence over the comment that Patrick Lyoya got what he deserved, should signify to all of us who are fighting for justice that Grand Rapids City Officials value rules and procedures more than they do the lives of Black people in this city.

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