Tensions were high and anger was expressed during the Grand Rapids virtual City Commission meeting on Tuesday, June 2.
After extensive discussion regarding the extension of the state of civil emergency for the city of Grand Rapids, commissioners voted 5-2 to extend the order. Commissioners Milinda Ysasi and Senita Lenear voted in opposition. Those who voted in favor noted that it is beneficial for the mayor to have the “flexibility” to assemble resources in a quick manner should additional protests turn violent.
The extension of the civil emergency, now set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on June 16, does not reinstate the curfew, though it does allow for that to happen should it be deemed necessary.
Much of the meeting was focused around the Grand Rapids Police Department and the way they chose to protect the city during Saturday evening’s silent protest which devolved into violence, not unlike protests across the country.
“When we’re on scene we’re there to protect people’s first amendment rights and for them to be able to peacefully protest,” said Scott Rifenberg, GRPD Deputy Chief. “That’s extremely important for us.”
City Manager Mark Washington noted that the police department is “overwhelmed and understaffed.” GRPD Chief Deputy David Kiddle said that officers have been working 16-18 hour days.
“Having the ability to have reserved forces when we have these events gives us the ability to plan properly, to protect our city, and then also to have that force – the police department, we want to police our city…,” Rifenberg said. “We’re your police department. We want to serve the citizens of our community.”
Though not everyone expressed a similar sentiment.
“All of us said we didn’t want the national guard (referring to a meeting the commissioners had earlier that morning) and all but one of us said we didn’t want the curfew,” Lenear said before the vote. “I think those are last resorts if you are able to get the authority to exercise it because those are things we said we did not welcome.”
Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss desires that people can continue to voice their opinions in a safe manner.
“I am very hopeful that we’ll continue to see safe protests and people coming together safely to lift up their voice,” Bliss said. “That is my deep, deep hope and prayer.”
“Given the uncertainty of the days ahead, I understand and appreciate the flexibility and we need to make decisions quickly,” Commissioner Jon O’Connor said. “I have said to several people I’ve had my frustrations with the events of the mayor calling a curfew with limited communication but, ultimately, I think that was the right decision and I applaud her for taking that bold step and doing what was needed to calm the air over the last 48 hours. She’s been in constant communication with all of us as well as the administration trying to think about what the next best steps are.”
Many who called in during the public comment portion of the meeting expressed concerns about the use of force exerted by police and that the purpose of the silent protest on Saturday has become convoluted. Community members also shared scathing criticism of the mayor, city commissioners, and the police department who some callers believe are not demonstrating good leadership.
Sam Jones-Darling, a native of Grand Rapids currently living abroad in London, where the local time was around 1 a.m., “so imagine how much this actually means to me,” he said, acknowledged the importance of police accountability.
At 7:20 p.m. on June 1, the Grand Rapids Police Department’s Twitter account sent a message suggesting that the media was hindering their ability to conduct their jobs.
“It’s simple, mayor and commissioners you need to tell them (police) ‘If you harm the media, you will be terminated.’ Period,” Jones-Darling said. “And this should include community media; end of story. Hold the city manager and chief accountable to ensure freedom of the press is preserved.”
A constituent who identified herself as Alyssa said she had tried to reach the mayor via email numerous times to no avail. She was “disgusted” when she saw a video of a protester getting shot by a rubber bullet.
Her question directed toward Bliss was: “why are you cutting the budget and funding of resources that are meant to get rid of these issues… what is the reason for that and I would like an answer from you as a constituent?” Assuming that the mayor would respond immediately and didn’t, Alyssa said, “Mayor Bliss?”
Bliss did not respond and the caller, who was reminded that the commission does not respond to each speaker directly during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“But she has the ability to respond, correct?” Alyssa said. “Because I’m just wondering as a constituent if I can’t get through to my mayor over email or over phone, how can I get through to her because it seems like she’s ignoring me and I think the silence says more than anything she could tell me.”
Another caller questioned the intentions of Bliss, saying, “It seems kind of absurd to me that the mayor who ran on a platform of racial equity is doing so much to suppress her own citizens’ voices. I’m honestly disgusted with how this has all been handled by the city.”
She went on to express her concerns over the 48-hour curfew that was imposed.
“Are you really so afraid of property damage and the black citizens of this city having a voice that you’ll arrest anyone and their dog after 7:15 p.m.?”
Grand Rapidian Mary Rudy shared what she believes needs to be done by law enforcement officers in order to have meaningful change.
“While I appreciate the efforts and leadership of Mayor Bliss and our city commissioners, it is obviously not enough to affect change,” Rudy said. “GRPD needs to put in the work which includes, but is not limited to, accountability, each officer acknowledging their own racism, training on non-violent deescalation, proper, informed training, and accountability. Yes, I said it twice because somebody apparently needs to hear it more than once.”
A man identifying himself as “Jack from East Grand Rapids” called to “demand” that the police officer who shot a tear gas container “point blank on an unarmed civilian’s face” be brought to justice.
“To know that as a citizen of your city I walk around town with someone who would willingly attempt murder on an incapacitated civilian is not only violent and disgusting, but it terrifying and stands against everything this country was built on,” Jack said.
Vanessa, a 10-year resident of Grand Rapids, said she was among the protesters downtown on Saturday. She encouraged the city leaders to “reject the simple narrative” that there were two separate groups of protestors present.
“As someone who was in the crowd, there was a very specific shift in atmosphere that everybody felt when there were whispers through the crowds that, ‘The police are coming, they’re showing up in riot gear. Like go home or like be prepared to encounter the police.’ I really want to reject the fact that the police showed up to help. The whole reason they were there was to instigate the protestors.”
Nathaniel Moody, commissioner and pastor in Grand Rapids, recently named the Giant Among Giants during a celebration of African American leaders in the community, defended the police department.
“We cannot blame the police officers for everything that has taken place over these last few days,” Moody said. “The community and the protestors have some fault as well.”
He apologized for the “young man who got hurt,” saying that he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.
“As a black man in this community, I have experienced racism from all levels,” Moody said. “Not just from the police department but from a corporate level, from a civil level, from a federal level, from a state level. We have to understand that the police is not the enemy. The enemy is racism that exists in some of the people who called it in their families, what they were taught. I’m glad they’re standing up, but I wonder, do they really stand for black lives matter? Or do they stand up for a proletarian government? That’s my concern.”