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Thousands of people flock to downtown Grand Rapids for peaceful protest that turned violent

A Black Lives Matter protest in Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020 (Sabrina Edwards/The Collegiate)

By Kellie Book and Brianna Wetherbee

Rioters upended downtown Grand Rapids by shattering windows, looting, and incinerating vehicles after Saturday evening’s silent march against police brutality turned violent as the day turned to night.

The march, which began around 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 30, was in response to the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd, who died Monday after officers used excessive force to detain him, with one kneeling on his neck and eventually causing his death. This, among other examples of racism and police brutality toward black individuals, inspired protesters to take to the streets in Grand Rapids.

A large, diverse crowd of protesters marched from Rosa Parks Circle and made a loop around to the Grand Rapids Police Department. At that point a large crowd lingered in front of the doors, chanting and holding protest signs aloft. The main group, led by the original organizers, carried on to Calder Plaza. 

The silence of the march was broken only by organized chants of phrases like “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” and “I can’t breathe,” along with supportive honks from nearby cars.

Outside the police station, the situation remained peaceful and relatively calm for several hours. Protesters filtered in and out of the area, and made way for the occasional vehicle that made its way through. The area was populated by people of all races and ages. Many people brought their young children, infants, and dogs.  

During an on-air phone call with WOOD TV8, Asja Saintard, one of the silent protest organizers, denounced the violence that unfolded, saying the rioters were not a part of the organized protest.

“Go home and stop trying to burn down our city, our city where we live,” Saintard said to protestors during a conversation with reporter Leon Hendrix. “When this is all over what are we going to have? You have to think about the consequences…. Go home, please.” 

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss expressed similar concerns.

“I support our community’s need and right to express its anger and pain over the tragic death of Mr. Floyd and I share the belief that black lives matter,” Bliss said in a tweet. “This evening’s event was meant to be a peaceful rally where community members could have their voices heard and stand in solidarity. Your messages were heard.”

However, the situation quickly crumbled into violence and chaos once the sun set. It began with the nearby Villa store being broken into and looted. After that, they shattered windows in and vandalized other businesses, including the nearby WOOD TV 8 downtown studio, Grand Rapids Art Museum, and the Secretary of State office. People set fires in trash cans and a dumpster that was positioned against a building. Bystanders doused that particular fire, but later, multiple cars including at least one police cruiser were set on fire and burned to a crisp. 

Grand Rapids Police officers, along with help from the Michigan State Police, Kent County Sheriff’s Department and other local police agencies, kept their presence localized on Fulton Street during the beginning stages. They used tear gas, smoke bombs, flash bangs, and other measures to disperse the crowds. As some protestors fled, others began seeping into all areas of downtown Grand Rapids, destroying storefronts and starting fires, using any means necessary to smash windows and burn cars. 

It took several minutes before firefighters were able to approach the scene of a slew of cars that were burning, with at least one of the vehicles belonging to law enforcement. Tear gas bombs did not appear to dissuade rioters. 

Extreme force and projectiles were used against the police force. For a time, the rioters were centralized at Rosa Parks Circle, a memorial for a black woman who made history with her peaceful protests, though none of the aggression that has unfolded tonight resembled that. 

According to live coverage on WOOD TV 8, the first arrest of the event was made shortly after 2 a.m. 

“I am grateful for our police and the partner agencies that are assisting tonight,” Bliss said. “Public safety is their top priority, and they are working hard to keep everyone safe under challenging circumstances…. We have a lot of work to do as we continue to work together to build trust and strengthen relationships between our Police Department and community members.”