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Perpetuating structural racism in Kent County: Questioning the process for COVID relief funding and the limits of electoral politics in The Diatribe case

January 30, 2023

There is no question that structural racism exists in Kent County. BIPOC residents and neighborhoods where BIPOC residents are most concentrated have higher levels of poverty, are disproportionately more food insecure and are more impacted by the current housing crisis than their white counterparts.

Todd Robinson, author of the book, A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, refers to structural racism as managerial racism. No matter what words we use to describe institutional racism in Kent County, the harsh reality is that it permeates every institution, including businesses, social service agencies, non-profits, religious institutions, financial institutions and local government.

A recent article in the Michigan Advance, entitled, ‘Just not The Diatribe’ – How partisan politics intentionally left out a Grand Rapids Black and LGBTQ+-run nonprofit from receiving COVID-19 relief funding, speaks to the issue of structural racism in Kent County, particularly with the Kent County government.

The Michigan Advance article does a good job of investigating an issue that has been public for several months now, mostly because of the work done by The Diatribe to make it public, as is evidenced in this video and this interview with The Diatribe’s Marcel Price, who is the organization’s Chief Inspiration Architect.

What the Michigan Advance article did, which was not part of much of the previous coverage, was to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for access to e-mails and other communication between Kent County Commissioners and Kent County Administrative staff. The communication around the issue of which organization(s) should receive federal COVID-19 relief funding through Kent County is instructive and demonstrates not only a lack of understanding of structural racism, but almost a complete denial of the fact that it even exists in Kent County. This is in part based on who was bank rolling some of the Republican Commissioners featured in the FOIA documents, specifically Commissioner’s Green, Stek and Brieve. Here is a list of their large contributors from our research during the 2022 Election:

Ben Greene (R)

Total raised: $28,858.08

Largest contributors:

  • Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce – $3500
  • Realtors Political Action Committee of Michigan – $2000
  • TGIF Victory Fund – $2000
  • JC Huizenga, National Heritage Academies – $1050
  • Dan Hibma, Land & Company – $1000
  • Terri Land, Land & Company – $1000
  • Joel Langlois, Delta Properties – $1000
  • Michael Jandernoa, 42 North Partners – $1000
  • Susan Jandernoa, homemaker – $1000
  • Lee Anne Langlois, Retired – $1000

Stan Stek (R)

Total raised: $24,927

Largest contributors:

  • Kent County Republican Committee – $2500
  • Miller Canfield PAC – $2000
  • GR Chamber of Commerce – $1500
  • GRAR Commercial Real Estate PAC – $1500
  • Dick DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Betsy DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Pamela DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Dan DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Suzanne DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Doug DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Maria DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Steve Ehmann, RDV Corp – $1050

Emily Post Brieve (R)

Total raised: $23,286

Largest contributors:

  • Realtors PAC of Michigan – $3000
  • GR Chamber of Commerce PAC – $2000
  • Terri Land, Land & Company – $1050
  • Dick DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Betsy DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Pamela DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Dan DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Suzanne DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Doug DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Maria DeVos, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Steve Ehmann, RDV Corp – $1050
  • Michael Jandernoa, 42 North Partners – $1000
  • Susan Jandernoa, Retired – $1000

Another important aspect of the Michigan Advance article states, ”On Nov. 17,  Republican commissioners started looking for connections between The Diatribe and the Black Lives Matter organization or the defund the police movement, according to texts.”

The article goes on to say. “The defund the police movement aims to reallocate or redirect funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality, like mental health services. It is often misinterpreted by conservatives as an effort to abolish police departments. 

In April, Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr, who is white, fatally shot 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya, a Black man, during a traffic stop. For months, residents protested in the streets of downtown Grand Rapids, calling for the police department to change their policies and reform their policing of Black residents. In June, Schurr was charged with one count of second degree murder.

Brieve texted Greene and asked if he found “any defund the police stuff on the Diatribe site/social.” 

This is the point where I begin to take issue with some aspects of the Michigan Advance article. While it is clear that Kent County Republican Commissioners – which disproportionately represent more of the rural parts of the county, were wanting to fund projects that would benefit their districts – the partisan take on the issue of defunding the police is simply not accurate.

During the last election cycle, GRIID documented several instances where Democrats running for office were trying to use the GRPD murder of Patrick Lyoya to their own benefit and presenting themselves as pro-police in their campaign statements. 

  • On April 11, just one week after Patrick Lyoya was murdered by the GRPD, only one elected official out of 47 had responded to thousands of messages that were sent by one of the coalition groups, Together We Are Safe, that is part of the Defund the GRPD campaign.
  • On April 14, we posted an article after State Senator Winnie Brinks released a statement after the GRPD murder of Patrick Lyoya.
  • On April 15, we posted an article after then Kent County Commissioner Phil Skaggs (who was running for State Representative, had released a statement after the GRPD murder of Patrick Lyoya.
  • On April 19, we posted an article after Michigan Governor Whitmer had her picture taken with Patrick Lyoya’s parents and made some remarks.  
  • On July 5th, we posted an article showing bi-partisan support for more funding for police from State officials, including Rep. David LaGrand. Kent County Commissioner Phil Skaggs was part of LaGrand’s staff last year.
  • On August 14, we posted an article entitled, Despite public perception, the Democratic Party is equally committed to supporting and increasing funding for the police.

I include these previous posts to make it clear that the Democratic Party in Kent County, not only hasn’t been in support of the Defund the GRPD movement, they have demonstrated over and over again their commitment to increasing the funding for policing.

The Limits of Electoral Politics

The other main issue I take with has to do with how Kent County officials made decisions on what projects received funding is about the process. Actually, not so much the process that Kent County officials used, but what they didn’t do. 

During the process of rating and negotiating which projects would receive COVID relief funding, none of the Democratic Commissioners cited in the Michigan Advance article made any effort to make what they knew publicly. I don’t mean simply making a post on their Facebook page or tweeting about it, I mean making an effort to contact people and organizations in the community to apply the necessary pressure to make it impossible for the Republican commissioners to exclude The Diatribe or any other project that truly serves to Benefit the Black community. I never received notices about what was happening in the process to use federal COVID relief funding.

Taking it a step further, the Democrats could have demanded that the county government use a participatory budgeting model, to allow the community to vote directly on the how these federal dollars would get used, using a ranked voting system of say the top 5 or top 10 choices.

Taking it even further, instead of having Black organizations compete for the same dollars, how about a Black community coalition, which would craft a platform for what the Black community needs and demand that all of it gets funded, whether we are talking about federal, state, county or city funding. Why should we leave how communities receive necessary, quality of life funding, in the hands of partisan politics? 

We should be advocating for more Direct Democracy, instead of leaving it in the hands of politicians who are more interested in their image and getting elected, than they are in truly representing the interests of the people, particularly the most marginalized in the county. I for one am tired on how partisan politics is all about blaming and never about radically imagining a better way to engage in transformative politics.

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