By Brianna Wetherbee and Kellie Book
Demonstrators flooded the streets of Grand Rapids Wednesday afternoon for a peaceful demonstration. Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne, Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young, along with additional officers, knelt alongside protesters after conversing with them.
Enraged and horrified by the recent death of George Floyd, a Minnesota black man killed by a police officer, and so many others before him, many people held signs saying, “I can’t breathe” and “I’m still here. I’m still pissed.” They were there to denounce police brutality.
“I’ve committed to meeting with anyone where we can make change because change needs to happen, okay?” Payne said, addressing the protestors. “I’ve been working for 30 years to make change.”
For a significant amount of the time people remained silent, with only speakers from the crowd talking on a microphone. People were quick to reject anyone who was inciting trouble. For nine minutes people chanted “I can’t breathe,” symbolic of the time Floyd spent dying while pinned to the ground by a white police officer. The sorrow many felt was palpable as people in the crowd could be heard crying as they chanted.
Danny Santiago, a 28-year-old Grand Rapids resident, talked to a hushed crowd about injustices that he has faced, the pain, anger, and hurt that he has felt being a black man.
Santiago was there for unification, to offer up a “collective voice.” When asked if he wanted to influence the crowd or the police, he said “the people.”
“I’m trying to influence the people – influence unity in the people,” Santiago said.
When will change happen?
“When black lives aren’t taken by the police anymore,” Santiago said. “When we start to change the system that is broken. If we can’t change the system that is broken then it’s going to remain here.”
To Santiago, it was “extremely important” that the protest remain peaceful. And it did aside from a select amount of people who became combative with police, yelling expletives at them.
David Colbert, a resident of Grand Rapids, attended “for the same reason as everyone else: Black Lives Matter.”
He did not attend the Saturday night protest that devolved into one of destruction as 100 local businesses sustained damage.
“That’s why I wanted to come down today, to at least show my support for both ends,” Colbert said. “I understand why they’re rioting. But I understand that we have to make a change, we do have to come out and let our voices be heard.”
Colbert participated in the cleanup efforts Sunday morning, saying that it was “terrible” to see the city he has lived in his whole life — where he has dinner with his family at local restaurants and his children play at The Children’s Museum — “destroyed.”
“I understood the pain. I understood the anger. I understood the passion behind all of it,” Colbert said. “Because this is what we’re going through all the time but now we have it in visual form. You can see how much we’re hurting. But it’s still my city, we still have to put it back together, we have to rebuild so that we can be understood and heard.”
From Colbert’s vantage point, he was unaware that the police chief kneeled with protestors.
“I couldn’t see him take a knee so I got so aggravated about it,” Colbert said. After being informed that Payne did, in fact, kneel, he said he hopes to see a video or picture of the chief doing that because it would be “so heartwarming to us that are hurting because then we’ll know he actually knows our pain.”
Judicial reform and accountability for police officers is important to Colbert.
“I want them to fear going to jail just as much as we fear going to jail,” Colbert said. “I want them to be held accountable for their actions.”
In his lifetime, Colbert doesn’t believe he will see the tangible evidence of the reason he was out protesting come to fruition.
“Normal is how George Floyd died. We can’t go back to normal,” Colbert said. “…We have to have a new normal after this. We may not see it in this generation, we may have to die on, but we’re fighting for the next generations to experience that.”
Colbert is raising two young daughters and hopes that they won’t have to experience the racism he has. While he doesn’t have a son, Colbert believes raising an African American male is “one of the hardest jobs in America. You have to tell them so many things. They have to be on the P’s and Q’s just to live, just to wake up in the morning.”
Brian Christopher Jennings’s speech about his own painful experience and the world his children will experience was also met with attentive ears and ardent cheers.
“I refuse to let my children live in a world where they are subjected to racism, prejudice, and being victims of mistaken identity,” Jennings said. “See, three nights ago I was arrested. I was riding my bicycle down the street, going to get my pregnant girlfriend something to eat, like a good man’s supposed to. I was thrown on my stomach, I was handcuffed, and I was taken to jail. And I was told I was being charged with malicious destruction of property. And I said, ‘what did I destruct?’”
Jennings also explained that the charges against him were dropped, and he was released from police custody.
“It’s two thousand twenty,” Jennings said a few moments later. “It’s about black lives, it’s about all lives, but most importantly it’s about our children’s lives…. children that need to be loved, children that need to be cherished, children that need to be taken care of, and children that need to be raised in a way that does not instill hate in their minds, in their bodies, in their souls.”
Members of the crowd were extremely supportive of these messages.
Broxton, 26, was raised in Grand Rapids, and felt a strong urge to come support the movement.
“I want to get behind this,” Broxton said. “For the right reasons, not to get behind the whole riots and all that. I don’t believe in any of that. That’s just unnecessary. As far as everything else that’s happening, I’m fully supportive of (the reaction to) what happened to George Floyd. He didn’t deserve to die like that. No one should die like that.”
Broxton urged influential members of the community to pay attention to the messages of the protests.
“Listen to what people are saying, they know exactly what they’re going through,” Broxton said. “We want you to believe in what we’re doing and not push us away.”
“Show people you’re out here, that you support the cause,” said Broxton’s brother DJ in agreement.
Kylie Chester, 25, shared Broxton and DJ’s desire for the community’s support.
“Right now there’s so much momentum, and the key thing is to not lose that momentum,” Chester said. “Keep talking about it, keep educating people, keep using your platform positively and peacefully.”
Chester noted the positive energy coming from most of the crowd and speakers.
“It’s remained extremely peaceful and constructive,” Chester said. She had noticed one incident of a person growing belligerent, but quickly getting corrected by the speaker at the time, who reminded the crowd that merely expressing anger isn’t helpful to the progression of the cause.
Sarah, 36, agreed with Broxton about the riots.
“Come here and support us and do what’s right, don’t come here just to destroy stuff to make yourself look cool and to loot,” Sarah said. “That’s not what the cause is, we’re not here for destroying stuff, we’re here for justice and to make sure that this (police brutality) stops, period.”
Deyonta, 27, who attended the protest with Sarah, emphasized the core message of the protest.
“Justice needs to be served for anyone who’s in the wrong,” Deyonta said. “At the end of the day, it’s all unity… it’s not even a race war it’s about understanding what’s wrong with police brutality.”
Most of the protesters dispersed by 6 p.m. Those who stayed turned the originally scheduled silent sit-in into a march, walking through the Heritage Hill district all the way to Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids before making their way back to the starting point, Fulton Street and Sheldon Blvd. around 8:30 p.m., Wood TV 8 reports.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. on June 4 to include additional comments from demonstrators.