As night fell over the city of Grand Rapids on Saturday, violence and destruction of property permeated downtown. The light of morning on Sunday gave way to hundreds of volunteers, this time armed with brooms, cleaning supplies, and goodwill, flocking to the streets in an effort to restore peace and cleanliness to a city that has been shaken by violence.
The evening of May 30 began with a silent protest of people condemning police brutality nationwide, which was typified when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Minnesotan, was killed Monday after a white police officer pinned him to the ground, choking his airway. Floyd was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill and resisting arrest.
Violent and destructive demonstrations have broken out country-wide. Saturday evening was the first protest in Grand Rapids. As the night went on the damage got worse. Windows of local businesses were smashed using projectiles and brick pavers, items were being looted, fires were lit in numerous locations.
Concerns over the possibility of a second night of violence are looming. In an effort to prevent that from happening, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss has issued a proclamation of a civil emergency for the city and has enacted a 48-hour curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. for the next two nights.
“Violence does not solve any problems, neither does destroying our city. This does not represent who we are,” Bliss said, adding that she was “heartened” by the hundreds of volunteers and workers who banned together to restore the city.
Bliss said that the situation will be reassessed with the city commission on Tuesday and they will “talk about whether that needs to be extended.”
People of all ages and races participated in a massive cleanup of the city Sunday morning. Individuals were power washing graffiti off of buildings, scrubbing the pavement on Pearl near Ottawa where one of the more dangerous events took place – numerous vehicles were ablaze, some of which belonged to law enforcement, the night prior. Sunday food and beverages were being distributed to volunteers.
Biggby Coffee on Monroe Center, located inside McKay Tower near Rosa Parks Circle, was not immune to the destruction and vandalism. Owner Tim Barker watched the news from home as one of his 19 coffee shop franchises was the subject of looting, graffiti, and vandalism. Barker said it was “heartbreaking” to watch security footage on his phone of people urinating in and around his store, breaking windows and entering the coffeeshop.
“That’s not who we want to be as a community and to see, you know, kind of everything fall apart so fast and so easily was really disappointing,” Barker said.
As people power washed obscenities off McKay Tower, Barker had urns of coffee outside the storefront and was dispensing coffee to volunteers.
Barker said that the Biggby locations he and his business partner own that did not have drive-up windows were closed for “about a month” as the health and safety of his staff and customers was paramount after an outbreak of COVID-19 has ravaged the U.S.
City leaders denounced the violence from the protest that turned riot.
Mark Washington, Grand Rapids City Manager, said that managing the two crises: the public health emergency and now the civil unrest, is a complicated situation. Washington said that it was “anticipated that it may occur,” though the gathering ended up being much larger than expected. An estimated 3,000-4,500 “unplanned marchers” took to the streets.
“Even though their intentions were peaceful and we certainly understand the pain that’s sweeping across our nation due to some of the historic and current injustices around community and police relations,” Washington said during a press conference Sunday afternoon. “We have always found a way to work in a more collaborative way with community to affect good, systemic policy change. So we were a little bit surprised by the turnout last night.”
There is a planned city commission meeting on June 2 and residents may sign up to make a public comment. Washington encouraged people to raise their concerns this way rather than through the use of violence.
“Given the significant amount of damage and the potential for harm to people,” Washington assured that the police force will be “escalating” their response tonight.
“This is not the night you want to try it,” Washington warned. “This is not the night you want to try it.”
Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Payne echoed the sentiments, saying his department is committed to their top priority: keeping people safe.
“I am disappointed by the actions of some to attempt to disrupt our ability to keep the community safe,” Payne said. “There were arrests made last night and we will make more if necessary.”
Resources are being pooled to identify perpetrators of the damage. They will be utilizing social media and the media to distribute pictures and video of individuals involved in illegal activity from last night. Payne asked that the community would help identify people.
Washington asserted that the police presence this evening will be “significantly more.”
“What happened last night is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the city manager said. “Our law enforcement officers will use every means of appropriate force to prevent what is happening tonight.”
Despite the havoc that occurred, the mayor remains resolute in her confidence in the community.
“Even in light of everything that has happened, I remain unbelievably optimistic in the spirit of our community and coming together and working through issues – complex issues – together,” Bliss said.
Bill Pink, president of Grands Rapids Community College, sent an email to students and faculty Sunday afternoon. He expressed the hurt and pain the community is feeling from the “injustices we see and experience.”
“We have made progress, but the events of the last week show us that we have far to go,” the email read. “We cannot be blind to the pain so many of us feel. But healing will not come through violence.”
Pink encouraged people to adhere to the curfew in place saying, “For your safety and for the safety of others, I ask you to respect this curfew and keep our city safe. Change is needed and change will come, but let us work together toward a peaceful solution with courage, restraint and compassion.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 5:42 p.m. on May 31 to include information from GRCC President Bill Pink.