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20 years ago there was a movement in Grand Rapids to oppose the US war and occupation of Iraq: Part II – Confronting President Bush when he came to town in 2003

January 29, 2023

In Part I of our series looking back at the 20th anniversary of the public resistance to the US invasion/occupation of Iraq in 2003, we focused on early organizing efforts to build an anti-war movement before the US war on Iraq even began. In Part II, we will look at the plans to protest President’s Bush’s visit to Grand Rapids the day after his State of the Union address, the protest and the GRPD’s response during that protest.

With just a few days notice, it was announced that President George W. Bush would be coming to Grand Rapids the day after his State of the Union address in late January of 2003. Bush chose Grand Rapids since he believed that his ultimatum against Iraq would be welcomed in West Michigan. Bush’s father made the same mistake in 1991, choosing to come to Grand Rapids to celebrate July 4th, just a few months after the US bombed Iraq “back to the stone age.”

Organizers had just a few days to begin planning an action to confront Bush when he would be in town. The announcement said he would first be at Spectrum Hospital and then take the motorcade to DeVos Hall. The plan was to line up on both sides of Michigan Street, from just west of Spectrum Hospital, all the way down to the Federal building. The GRPD was told that the demonstration would then move down Michigan Street and turn left onto Monroe. However, organizers had a different plan, which was to turn left on Ottawa, then right on Lyon St and go directly to DeVos Hall. 

There were over 100 cops out in force that day in late January, 2003. When the police realized that the demonstrators took a detour, they panicked. Protestors, which numbered over 1,000, began turning right on Lyon Street, near the entrance to the building, when police cruisers jumped the curb and almost ran into the building, in order to block those demonstrating to walk any further. At the same time, dozens of police officers lined up along Lyon St, facing demonstrators, in full riot gear. For nearly 30 minutes there was a shouting match between cops and protestors. Jack Prince, who was teaching at GVSU at the time, and was at the protest, told us what had happened to him that day: 

The protest in 2003 had problems from the beginning. All of the phones were shut off in the sociology and psychology department on campus as a means to thwart communication, since they knew there was talk of organizing or even discussing Bush’s visit. This was denied later, obviously. The group I was in was detained on North side of Michigan Ave in attempt to separate us from other protestors by police. After complaints we had to travel down Michigan to a point to cross. We noticed a lot of plain clothes men in suits with earplugs that were directing the local police as to what to do with shades on and dress suits. They would not interact with us and tried to be invisible but they were clearly in authority and control. As we proceeded down  Ottawa south they attempted to compact us on sidewalk and when we turned West on Lyon there they had a constricted area where they made their move and began grabbing people. My daughter was grabbed and thrown on top of the hood of a car and was arrested. I became very vocal obviously at that point toward the police, but as there was a crowd forming with more witnesses they didn’t arrest me until I was walking up the steps to the ground level of a second story level by what is now the 5/3 bank building. Again in an area that was blocked from vision. My charge was: instigating a riot. A serious Felony Charge. People at GVSU, meaning  the administration higher ups, saw me with a GVSU coat I had on in the news coverage and I was contacted by the Coaching department and they shared their displeasure which led to my departure from the school. After some time and organization with others who were arrested the charges were dropped. The ACLU was helping us and and really were instrumental in the charges being dropped after approximately a month. 

What was not known at the time was that the GRPD had created a “Free Speech Zone,” which was something that the Bush administration had begun to use after 9/11. Free Speech Zones were fenced off areas that were designated for protestors, often a significant distance from where those protesting had intended. The same was the case on that day, with the Free Speech Zone create in front of City Hall on Monroe, nearly a block from where Bush would be speaking. Most of the 1,000 people who came out to protest the possible war with Iraq were uncomfortable with being pinned down by the GPRD on Lyon Street, so the majority of them decided to go to the designated “free speech zone.”

When protestors arrived on Monroe, just in front of City Hall, they were greeted by more cops and a few angry construction workers who were supportive of the US going to war against Iraq. There was a smaller group of people who refused to go to the “free speech zone”, choosing instead to demonstrate in the streets further south of where Bush was speaking, shutting down traffic on Division and several other streets.

At the same time the GRPD was engaged in their own PR war, sending out their own press release, which was the origin of many of the lies reported by the local corporate media in their coverage of the Bush protest. The press release describes a “large, unruly crowd” that “block[ed] streets in downtown Grand Rapids,” attempted to “overturn a commercial truck,” and tried to “attack police officers.” The press release outlines the arrests made during the day and the charges faced by the protestors, specifically highlighting the “10 year felony, $10,000 fine” some protestors faced for “inciting a riot.”

Included in the FOIA documents we received months later, it is instructive to read about the GRPD’s “notes” on the Bush protest and how they were prepared to use Chemical agents and shotguns on ant-war protestors.  Lastly, in another FOIA document dated February 25, the GRPD’s Internal Affairs division determined that the GRPD’s behavior during the Bush protest was justified because the protestors refused to comply with GRPD commands.

In thinking back about the action to confront President Bush, we didn’t have enough time to plan, but we also didn’t have enough capacity to plan an action that was more confrontational and could have disrupted the President’s motorcade before he gave his speech in front of supporters. However, as the resistance grew against the US threats to bomb and invade Iraq, more people began to step forward who were willing to engage in more direct actions. 

In Part III, we will look at the Women in Black actions, the global protest against the war march that took place in Lansing, along with the People’s Alliance for Justice & Change workshops on civil disobedience that were offered to a growing number of people who wanted to do more than just hold signs. 

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