The Rapidian

Problem by any other name:"Growth," racism in Grand Rapids

Our city is in need of frank discussions about racism, segregation, growth and what all of this means for Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids, we gotta talk.

As a local activist and organizer, in the past year and a half alone I have organized or helped organize three demonstrations to show solidarity against and bring visibility to racialized police brutality and violence across the country and here. One was a vigil for Trayvon Martin, the second a Good Friday march against institutional, police and military violence, and a third, the most recent, a "National Moment of Silence" vigil for Michael Brown and other Black and Brown victims of police brutality in solidarity with the protesting and outcry coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, in connection with other vigils coinciding nationally. During each event, I made sure to mention that Grand Rapids has a huge race, authority and police and poverty violence problem. In large part these problems exist because we just do not talk about racism, race, poverty, misogyny and the other social issues that lead to issues of poverty and police and prison violence.

Growing up, I went to either primarily white or highly segregated schools where the staff and teachers were in no way, shape or form equipped to address race or issues of racism. I was confused for the one other Black girl in my class, assumed to be combative or having an attitude problem when I was merely shy, quiet and withdrawn. The issue there is not a question of lack ability to expose white kids to children of colornon-white people make up 42% of the population of Grand Rapids.

I watched police in Kentwood and certain parts of Grand Rapids overwhelmingly harass and antagonize Black and Brown people, especially if they were young or homeless. In Kentwood, as the racial demographic of the community changed and more people of color started to move in, whether because they were being pushed out of the city or they were immigrants, police started to patrol the streets and put curfews on parks and even age restrictions on them. If you looked like you were a teenager and up to suspect activity (read-of color) you were probably going to be asked to leave, regardless of what you were doing, a practice similar to the nationally known "Stop And Frisk" practice of New York City. There was a summer in which a friend, who was white, and I started to count how many times we would get stopped and harassed by the police. In just a matter of two and a half months, we got to about eight or nine stops. During my years at East Kentwood High School, I saw as inner city kids who got pushed out from Grand Rapids city schools that were shutting down due to lack of funds during the recession then get kicked out of East Kentwood under "Zero Tolerance" policies, convenient policies used to specifically target youths of color and other marginalized kids. I learned that "bad part of town" and "riding the bus" were racialized concepts.

Then, as a teen, when I'd go to hang out downtown, I'd witness how the police would harass the homeless, which led to citizens harassing them, too. On South Division, I'd heard stories of young white teens beating up on and harassing the original inhabitants of the block.

Now, as an adult, I watch as gentrification under the guise of "urban renewal" and "growth" raises rent in Eastown, Midtown and Heritage Hills, and slowly pushes  farther out the people who have lived in those communities for years in favor of housing white folks from surrounding suburbs: young white professionals with jobs in the offices directly downtown, families with dual income and cache with the new establishment or white college kids from towns or even states away. There are little to no initiatives enacted by community members, business, the police, the various community centers or churches, hyperlocal governments, anyone, to try to incorporate working class and of color communities in the growththey're just getting pushed farther and farther into cheaper parts of town, or even outside of Grand Rapids entirely. This very phenomena is what turned Division from run-down and crime-ridden, of no interest for growth and development or really anything outside of policing and criminalizing, into a hopping artists' haven, with rent too expensive for any of the original businesses that make the block a staple in the communitythe "pioneers of gentrification"and the currently existent businesses that replaced them "too nice" to be uglied up by the homeless. I watch and notice that the police patrol extra hard in poor communities of color, and tend to pull over Black and Brown citizens more often.

Browsing the media and popular opinion also shows how skewed and racist our reporting and community response is to crime and certain communities, how it reflects mainstream and larger narratives of the same type. Overall, I see how our community internalizes, views and projects the criminality inherent in marginalized bodies as deemed by a racist society.

I think a lot of people in overly-polite West Michigan hear someone like me and think what I have to say is hard to hear, or just outright ridiculous. They don't understand why I'm saying what I'm saying because they don't experience it, simply don't see this violence, or think I only have something negative to say and offer no solutions.

But I speak because I know the only thing that rids our community of injustice is addressing it, no matter how hard it is to hear. If you think that, imagine how much harder it is to live it. Ignoring these realities under the guise of "keeping the peace," not rustling any feathers and being polite is anything but. It is just apathy, complacency, and ignorance towards serious injustice, and it is far, far from kind or neighborly. I speak up because I am invested in this community and its people and the betterment of our livelihoods. I am invested because I know that many of us deserve better than what we have been given and how we have been treated, deserve our voices to be heard and for the violence to stop. I know that the community can and must do better for them.

There are amazing community initiatives and businesses like the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, LINC, Heartside Ministries and Wellhouse who, while not perfect, do try to do the best for the community, by the community, and have the platforms, resources, community sensitivity, care, and skills to start to more formally and seriously address these issues in earnest. I'd like to see more involvement and initiatives coming from them and other organizations and other community members and groups to address the myriad of issues surrounding institutional issues of race and poverty-related violence. Because we can, and we should.

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