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20 years ago there was a movement in Grand Rapids to oppose the US war and occupation of Iraq: Part VI – Anti-War Actions once the war started, along with increased GRPD repression

March 19, 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 looked at the protest when President’s Bush’s visited Grand Rapids the day after his State of the Union address and the GRPD’s response during that protest. 

In Part III, we looked 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.  Part IV focused on student organizing against the imminent US war against Iraq, along with civil disobedience that was done at Rep. Ehlers office before the war began. And, in Part V, we looked back on some of the plans that anti-war organizers had put in place once the US invasion/occupation of Iraq began, along with increased GRPD surveillance.

In today’s post we will focus on what actions took place once the US war/occupation of Iraq had begun, along with the increased intensity of GRPD surveillance and repression against anti-war organizers.

On March 20th, the US War/Occupation of Iraq had begun

The US military began its bombing campaign of Iraq on March 20th, 2003. As was previously decided, anti-war activists would meet at the Federal Building in downtown Grand Rapids. It was raining that day, but there were still about 100 people that showed up. In addition, there were a handful of pro-war people who came and stood across the street on Michigan Ave, right in front of the old GR Press building. In addition, there were GRPD cops, along with undercover cops who were trying to pass themselves off as protesters, even though many of us knew exactly who they were.

The group People’s Alliance for Justice & Change had planned to hold a meeting at the office of the Institute for Global Education (IGE) on the evening of March 20th, specifically to plan the next several actions, talk about tactics and strategies for increasing anti-war activity. 

We know that the GRPD were planning on increasing the surveillance of anti-war activities, based on the FOIA documents we were able to obtain months later. In the FOIA documents that dealt with the beginning of the war, there was an e-mail they included from the Grand Rapids City Manager to City employees telling them to bring IDs to work that day, there was a copy of a flyer announcing a protest at GVSU that was organized by students, and there was a brief noted (with some information redacted) that said that the Kent County Sheriff’s Department would have extra officers assigned the GVSU. However, the most revealing FOIA documents had to do with the GRPD’s undercover cops who were present during the anti-war meeting at IGE on the evening of March 20th and subsequent protests.

As was already mentioned the meeting at IGE on March 20 was to discuss upcoming actions. The GRPD had send both undercover cops and cops in uniform to that meeting to attempt to intimidate people and to gather intelligence. Here is an excerpt from the GRPD perspective on what was happening.

During the March 21st protest it became clear that the GRPD undercover cops were privy to what we had planned, which was to shut down traffic on Michigan Ave by the Federal Building using a slow-down cross-walk technique, where people would walk in pairs slowly and then turn right on the next cross walk, thus stopping traffic going two way initially, then 3 ways and then altogether. However, since the GRPD knew we were doing this, they made it difficult, by threats with arrest, for us to shut down more than one of the cross walks. 

On that same day, there were other GRPD cops who were undercover and attempting to pass themselves off as anti-war protesters, even carrying signs. What they did not expect was that one of the anti-war protesters, who was also a translator in the District Court, recognized some of the undercover cops because they were with the vice squad. Here is a GRPD document dated March 26th, that was a result of what happened on March 21st, where the GRPD undercover cops were outed.

What we didn’t know at the time is that after the undercover cops were pointed out to us, those same cops that were with the vice unit, stopped the person who at outed them and made threats against her for pointing them out to organizers, as was stated in the FOIA document. In fact, this issue was happening all across the country with cops infiltrating anti-war demonstrations, which was the subject of an article on in February of 2004, titled, A thousand J. Edgar Hoovers. Several people from Grand Rapids were interviewed for that story, which was later picked up by the GR Press making it known in West Michigan that the GRPD was engaged in COINTELPRO-like activities.

One thing became clear after the US Military War/Occupation of Iraq had begun, was that the numbers of those protesting had dwindled (unless a high ranking US official was in town). This was probably one of the results of the GRPD surveillance and repression of anti-war activists, but it also was a reflection of the bi-partisan support for the war and war funding, once the war had begun, which meant that many white liberals who identified as Democrats no longer were resisting the war since the Party’s leadership was behind it.

In our next post looking back at the 20th Anniversary of the US war in Iraq, we will look at how the Grand Rapids-based news media was reporting on the war, local war activity and even providing a platform for pro-war voices. 

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