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Missed opportunity by the Grand Rapids City Commission to reject the GR Chamber’s ordinance proposal to criminalize the unhoused

December 14, 2022

Ever since the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce went public with their proposal for the City of Grand Rapids, a proposal that would criminalize the unhoused, it has become the main local news topic.

GRIID wrote a response to the GR Chamber’s unjust and insensitive ordinance proposal on December 6th. That same night, during last week’s City Commission meeting, numerous downtown business owners and members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure showed up to show support for the Chamber’s ordinance proposal.

We then followed up with a post that critiqued the local news coverage of the Chamber’s proposal, making it clear that the coverage primarily centered the voices of the business community.

On Monday, we posted an article that took a critical look at another letter send to the Grand Rapids City Commission, this time from 120 business people, which included several members of the most powerful families in the city. In that post we made the point that many of those who signed the letter have financed politicians and pushed economic policies that have in many ways created the housing crisis we are currently facing in Grand Rapids. This dynamic is also true of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, which has a long track record of lobbying on behalf of the richest people in the community, while pushing policies that impacted thousands of individuals and families that are one paycheck away from being unhoused.

Several local organizers and autonomous groups have resounded to the outlandish GR Chamber proposal. On Monday, about 25 people showed up at the GR Chamber office, demanding that they rescind the letter and make a public apology for putting forth said ordinance proposal. In addition to the protest, people have been calling the Chamber CEO, along with several members of the business community that signed on to the Chamber’s proposal to let them know that if the Chamber doesn’t meet the demands presented to them on Monday, that there would be a call for a boycott of all downtown businesses. Lastly, those involved in resisting the Chamber’s ordinance proposal, created an online letter that is being sent to Grand Rapids City officials, which has been signed by over 10,000 people. I know that most of the 10,000 are not self-designated “community leaders”, but 120 compared to 10,000 should tell you something.

Just a few days ago, Grand Rapids City officials held their usual meetings, but there were two that were of particular interest as it relates to the GR Chamber’s proposed ordinance. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the Public Safety Committee met, with the Chief of Police and other GRPD staff presenting all of the things that they are doing to address “safety issues” in downtown Grand Rapids. You can watch this meeting, but what seemed clear was that the GRPD was using both the Chamber’s call that the City do more around public safety and their own list of responses, as an opportunity to push for an increase in cops and an increase in funding for the GRPD.

Writer and activist Naomi Murakaw identifies this tactic as one of the three traps of police reform. In this case, the GRPD wants to make themselves relevant through programs like the HOT Team, in order to justify ongoing or increased funding. The ongoing push by police to justify their existence almost always happens when there is significant push back from the community.( See Elizabeth Hinton’s book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s) Ever since the May 2020 uprising, the GRPD has been working hard to control the narrative and to push city officials to increase their budget and add more cops to the department. During Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting, Chief Winstrom continued that narrative.

Towards the end of the Public Safety Committee meeting, one of the committee members, Ed Kettle, who has been a longtime support and apologist for the GRPD, offered to run another millage campaign to increase funding tor the GRPD. It should be noted that Kettle was involved in the campaign in 1995 to change the City Charter to institutionalize the no less than 32% of the budget going to the GRPD and to add more cops to the force.

On Tuesday evening, during the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting, there were more than a dozen people who spoke on the GR Chamber of Commerce proposed ordinance and all of them were in opposition to it. In addition to the public comment opposition, there were already over 10,000 letters from the public condemning the Chamber ordinance proposal that Commissioners would have seen, but despite all of this opposition, the City Commissioners failed to address or reject what the Chamber of Commerce had submitted. In my mind, this was a missed opportunity to demonstrate to the public that City officials don’t give in to the Grand Rapids business class.

Not only did the City Commissioners miss an opportunity to say no to the criminalization of the unhoused, they spent the last hour of their meeting congratulating each other, since three Commissioners were leaving due to being term limited or voted out. While I can appreciate the comments that many of them made, they could have done that in a more private setting with each other, instead of using the public’s time. This was the last City Commission meeting of 2022 and who knows how long it will be before the GR Chamber’s proposed ordinance will get voted on by the commission. We do know that one of the new Commissioners, Drew Robbins, was endorsed by the police union and bankrolled by the Chamber of Commerce, which means he will likely support their ordinance proposal. The other two commissioners come from the non-profit world and are often seen as progressives, but without either of them holding political office it would be naive to assume that they would reject the Chamber’s proposal.

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