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Police handling of protest dominates public comment at City Commission meeting

While not on the official agenda, the shutdown of a protest Monday night and the arrest of its organizers became the main topic of discussion at the March 9, 2021 Grand Rapids City Commission meeting.

Grand Rapids City Commission meetings are held twice per month, every other Tuesday at 7:00pm.

The next Commission meeting is scheduled for March 23rd, 2021.

A screenshot from live video of the 03/09/2021 Grand Rapids City Commission meeting

A screenshot from live video of the 03/09/2021 Grand Rapids City Commission meeting /

Though four public hearings and several additional updates were on the agenda for Tuesday evening's City Commission Meeting, it was fallout over the breakup of a recent protest by the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) that dominated an outsized portion of the public comment period.

A rally was held Monday evening in downtown Grand Rapids to mark the beginning of the long-awaited trial of Derek Chauvin, the first of four Minneapolis Police officers accused of murdering George Floyd during an arrest in May of 2020. Floyd's death, and the death of countless other unarmed Black Americans at the hands of police, helped renew the national call for police reform and sparked a summer of protest felt across the country and, acutely, here in Grand Rapids.

Monday night’s action ended with the arrest of eight protestors, including members of the local grassroots organization Justice for Black Lives, key organizers of the rally. The eight arrested participants each gave statements about the rally, their arrest, and the Black Lives Matter movement in general at a press conference earlier Tuesday afternoon. GRPD also released a statement via Facebook, indicating that they had arrested protestors "engaged in the dangerous and illegal act of blocking the roadway."

Back at the City Commission meeting, there was no public comment about any of the four scheduled public hearings, which included consideration of a brownfield redevelopment initiative at 2233 Michigan NE, the upcoming Uptown Business District improvement plan, and a pair of connected hearings about the establishment of an Industrial Development District and a 12-year Industrial Facilities Exemption Certificate for a $2.5 million development project in the Walkerview Industrial Park.

Community silence came to an abrupt end when Mayor Bliss opened the phone lines for general public comment at approximately 35 minutes into the meeting. For more than an hour, Grand Rapids City Commissioners faced one blistering call after another about what happened Monday night, a topic that was not otherwise on the agenda.


Pubic comment begins

The first caller, Jennifer, a resident of Grand Rapids, set the tenor of the evening, invoking a unified message that would be heard throughout the public comment period: 

“...We, the Grand Rapids community that pays the bills of this department, demand immediate accountability and action to ensure our rights stop being violated. We demand answers as to why the GRPD chose to target peaceful protestors. We demand that whatever changes in personnel and policy must occur to prevent a repeat of last night happening immediately. We demand public statements from chief Payne, [City Manager] Mark Washington, and [Mayor] Rosalyn Bliss on how they are working to prevent constitutional violations of this nature. We demand respect as those that you swore to serve, and the charges of those arrested to be dropped.” 

In total, there were 25 calls in support of the protestors, demanding police reform and accountability, two defending the actions of the police, and one seemingly advertising the services of local composting upstart Organicycle

Some called in with first hand observations of what they saw at the rally, including Madelyn, a resident of Grand Rapids: “There was a very safe, secure, well-controlled protest action that was taking place last night,” they said. 

“As this march was coming to completion, as we were on our last two blocks heading back to where we started, and the Grand Rapids Police knew damn well we were heading to where we started, they surrounded and targeted and made a very specific plan to target specifically BIPoC protest leaders, not just protest leaders, community leaders. People who have been taking action in this community to fill gaps this city is not meeting.”  

BJ, on the other hand, lives in the area where the protest occurred and did not find the protest to be entirely peaceful. “I do support people who want to protest peacefully,” they said.

“I would also like the people who protest peacefully to know that, increasingly, downtown Grand Rapids is a residential neighborhood. There are a lot of people who live here. And when you are blocking streets and you are yelling in our neighborhood it is disturbing the peace.”

From their perspective, the protestors were rightfully arrested, adding, “Last night the police asked several times for the protestors to get out of the street, and when they didn’t get out of the street that’s when they were arrested. If the protestors would have gotten out of the street, when they asked to, they wouldn’t have been arrested.”

However, several callers observed the opposite and expressed frustration that protest leaders were arrested on the sidewalk, despite being told that is where they should be. 

“The police lined up in an intimidating way, and charged the crowd and arrested leaders right off the sidewalk, which is exactly where we were told to be standing,” said Jade, a 14-year-old caller from Howard City who participated in the rally. 

“You grown ups need to get it right,” they added. “You are sending a message to us kids, we are listening, we are watching.”

Deandre, a resident of Grand Rapids and participant in Monday’s rally said that they see both sides of the issue.

“I just hope that people from Justice for Black Lives start to protest more peacefully,” they said, adding “I just hope that [the] Grand Rapids Police Department treats people fairly and not just target individuals, because I feel like some of those individuals were targeted. But, I do feel like some of those individuals should have got on the sidewalk and protest peacefully so there wouldn’t have had to been so many traffic stops and people blocking traffic.” 

Deandre also mentioned seeing several Grand Rapids police officers dropping the body cameras they are required to wear and operate while on duty. 

Callers repeatedly accused GRPD of making targeted arrests. John, a nurse from Grand Rapids, suggested that GRPD specifically sought to arrest leaders of Justice for Black Lives, “calling them out by name” before arresting them. 

Aly Bates, one of those arrested leaders, is the president of Justice for Black Lives and echoed these sentiments.

What happened last night was clear. that the Grand Rapids Police Department has been targeting not only myself, but other community activists. And this is not the first time that something like this has happened, and most likely will not be the last, unfortunately.”

But, what I want to know is what the city plans to do about the Grand Rapids Police Department, because it has been more than clear that the department abused their power and ...are targeting people who want to defund the police…  We have tried meeting with the Chief of Police, we have tried talking to people. At this point, what do we do as community members? There’s only so much we can do. You guys have the power to make the changes.

Hold these people accountable. Stop allowing them to abuse us. All we want is accountability and funding for our community. We love our community … But apparently wanting better for our community makes you a target. That’s something that each and every one of you guys needs to address.

The calls took a turn for unsettling when Jimmy, from Grand Rapids, called in to defend the actions of GRPD and to seemingly threaten a previous caller. 

“Every time she comes to the city something bad happens,” Jimmy said, referring to Bates. “I think she should be banned from the city. and that’s the truth. You know, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and all that stuff. That’s great. But our city cannot be the sacrifice… And though I hate to say it, and I am not in a bad mood, something has to be done to her.”

Jimmy’s comment invoked two direct responses, an unusual occurrence, including a repeat call from Bates: 

“I really just want to address the fact that somebody literally just called in here and made threats against me personally for my peaceful protest, and saying that ‘everytime I come into the city something bad happens,’ when I really just want to point out that everytime something bad happens I am not the common denominator. It is GRPD."

"Like I said before," they added. "All I want is defunding the GRPD, reallocating those funds into our community. And I will not be threatened, I will not be afraid, I refuse to take any of that from anyone. So if you feel like you want to threaten me, come and f***ing get me.”

After more than an hour of public comment, Mayor Bliss and City Manager Washington brought the period to a close by reminding viewers that the public is only allowed to call in once per comment period and of existing rules around use of appropriate language. 


City commissioners respond

It is the policy of City Commission meetings for commissioners and city staff to not respond in dialogue with callers during public comment periods. They are instead able to respond directly, if they so choose, during their closing remarks.

Third Ward Commissioner Nathaniel Moody dedicated his entire closing remarks to the topic at hand:     

As I said earlier, I commend the Grand Rapids PD for doing their job last night. Social Justice for Black Lives [sic] probably do have some concerns, but at the same time our laws and regulations should be enforced. And I want to make it very clear right now to all those that are listening: I will not be voting to defund the Grand Rapids Police Department. So you can save some of your emails, and calling me, and asking me to do so. That's not going to happen.

Secondly, I do not believe that Social Justice for Black Lives has done everything that they claim they have done. If they have done a lot of stuff in the community, then Social Justice for Black Lives, why didn't you come forward and protest the 38 shootings that took place in 2020? That was a travesty within our community. I understand that George Floyd died at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, or one officer, but that is not the Grand Rapids PD.

I do believe that in the past, in terms of my work in this community, I'm a resident of this community, been in this community for over 65 years, and I'm sure I've done more work in this community than any of you in any period of time. I welcome conversations from you all. I welcome a conversation. Not anything negative, but positive conversation. So, if you want to talk positive with me, give me some insight on what plans you have. If it was up to me I would tell the Mayor, City Manager, and the Police Chief, whom I have the greatest respect for, not to respond to you.

That's my comment for the night.

Second Ward Commissioner Milinda Ysasi thanked those that called in, and that while she has not personally watched any of the video of the protest, the commission was kept up to date on the situation by Washington. “At this moment and at this time, my focus is to work on the issue of prevention. And how can we make sure that everyone is experiencing our community safely.” Ysasi also reflected on the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s entrance into Michigan.

Second Ward Commissioner Joseph Jones used the closing remarks period to celebrate the work of City Treasurer John Globensky and their efforts to diversify the investment firms that help handle the finances of the city. The treasurer has selected four new firms owned by people of color to help manage the city’s investments. Jones also recognized the recent passing of Noel Webley, a local musician, long time Grand Rapids Public Schools art teacher and Grand Rapids Press photographer.

First Ward Commissioner Kurt Reppart thanked the callers for calling attention to the trial of Derek Chauvin, and gave updates from the Community Development Committee and the Economic Development Project Team, which heard about six new projects, three of which were approved today, that will together yield a $3.4 million dollar investment into “micro-local minority and women-owned businesses.” 

City Manager Mark Washington thanked the various staffers working to secure COVID-19 relief funding, of which the city is in dire need. Washington then piggy-backed on Ysasi’s comments about prevention, saying that “in this instance the best prevention would have been to proceed with a permit application. That would have helped all to be aware of the route as well what was needed to ensure that everyone was safe.” Washington described an instance where he and caller Deandre had personally intervened to stop an intersection to help safely facilitate an unpermitted protest march. 

“That is just not the safe way to do it,” he said.

According to Washington, Police Chief Eric Payne has already initiated a review of the matter and that neither he, the mayor, nor any elected official has the power to drop any charges, as demanded by many of the callers. 

Mayor Bliss echoed Washington’s call for organized protestors to seek proper permitting for protest. 

“We want to make sure that people can safely gather and demonstrate, and that’s especially true as our downtown and neighborhoods get busier and our economy starts to reopen. And there’s going to be more traffic on the street than there has been in the past twelve months. We want to make sure that the individuals who are demonstrating, our pedestrians, are safe and that we are able to be helpful in making sure that safe routes are identified.”

Bliss also recognized the passing of Rupert McGinn, Jr. a 95-year resident of Grand Rapids who called himself “Mr. Wonderful” and served as the director of the city’s water system for 30 years. 

Commissioners Jon O’Connor and Senita Lenear, City Clerk Joel Hondorp, and City Attorney Anita Hitchcock all declined to make closing remarks.

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