Just over 100 people came out to Eastern Avenue Church to a forum organized by two Grand Rapids chapters of the group ACORN. The forum was designed to give youth an opportunity to tell the community what they want. ACORN organizers facilitated the forum and provided a brief description of their work before youth were invited to speak.
Roughly two-dozen youth got up to address the crowd with ideas and concerns. Some of the ideas were: more after school programs, preventing gun sales to minors, the need for more positive male remodels, a fun place for kids to go to, prevent bullying in the schools, job opportunities, safer schools, and that youth have to make the decisions to not participate in the problem. Those who spoke also addressed some concerns about what they saw as some of the problems in the community. Some of the problems addressed were: single parent homes, the media blaming violence on African-Americans, gang affiliation, revenge, violence in the home, no follow through from adults on solutions, and that the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) engages in harassment.
ACORN had invited various city officials to the meeting and the only one to show up was Mayor George Heartwell. The Chief of Police sent one of his officers to represent the department. Mayor Heartwell addressed the crowd by saying how important it was for community leaders to hear from the youth. He then spoke about a forum the week before that featured members from a group called Pioneers of Peace based out of Detroit. He said they were all former gang members who had been victims of gun violence. However, 30 minutes after that forum took place another young African American male was shot not far from where the forum was held. The Mayor did say that there is a coalition for after school programs in 23 elementary schools, there is the 21st Century program, but was is lacking are programs for high school age youth. The mayor also made the statement that “there are too many guns out there and we have to change that.”
At this point the Mayor responded to just a few questions, since he had another event to go to that night. The first question was “how are the guns getting in our community? The Mayor asked the GRPD spokesperson to address that. The officer responded by saying that most of the guns used in violent acts are stolen guns and being sold in the city illegally. The next questioner asked what happened to the $1 million that was designated for youth jobs 14 years ago. Heartwell responded by say that when John Engler was governor he took the money and gave it to the John Ball Zoo for programming and exhibits. The Mayor did follow up this question with some information about a new youth jobs program in the 3rd Ward through Brown-Hutchinson Ministries called Project Cool. The program will pay students 5 days a week, 4 days of work and one day of job training.
At this point one of the ACORN organizers asks the Mayor if he would be willing to meet with the ACORN Youth Platform committee on a regular basis “to discuss issues and to create future leaders.” The Mayor made a verbal commitment to meet with the committee on a regular basis.
Following the comments from the youth in attendance and the Mayor’s response, adults in the audience were asked to address the crowd with ideas and concerns as it related to youth. Several people got up to speak, with a majority of those speaking talking from a church-based perspective and some even telling the youth “they needed the Lord.” Several people quoted the bible during their comments and some made the suggestion that they need to pray in the streets to stop youth violence. There were some who said that ministers needed to get out from behind the pulpit and into the streets, while one man made the observation “what is wrong with the fact that most of the shootings are happening in an area with all these churches?” Some who spoke provided information on specific programs that already exist such as an African American History class, a martial arts and community service project called the Strong Program, and several church based projects. Some in the audience had suggestions such putting information on billboards in the center city about all the various programs that existed, encouraging parents to spend time in the schools, and the importance of the various youth service providers to work together and stop fighting over the same funding sources. A few other speakers also addressed funding issues. One person mentioned the importance of challenging the City of Grand Rapids, which has proposed to cut funding to two youth-based programs and Kent County Commissioner Paul Mayhue said that people need to confront state lawmakers who supported an end to the Single Business Tax.
A police officer with the Grand Rapids Police Department then addressed the crowd. He said that the GRPD youth initiative consisted of Camp O’Malley, working with the boys and girls club, a cadet program, and a youth police academy. The officer then responded to the issue of police harassment by saying “we will continue to knock doors down if we have to and we don’t harass people. The problems are gangs, drugs and guns.” He was dismissive of concerns about “harassment” and outlined a plan this summer where officers are going to aggressively pull people over near “drug houses” under any pretext that they can (he cited “missing taillights” as a reason) with the goal of using the stops to search cars. When people asked him about whether or not they, as older African-American community members would be subject to this treatment, he indicated that it would be those “near drug houses” and that if they are not near the “drug houses” they will not need to worry. The officer’s comments sounded more like a plan for profiling and harassment rather than a more comprehensive approach. Several people in the audience took issue with the officer and challenged him on several of his points. One woman asked, “Where are the drugs coming from? I know that Black people do not have planes and other vehicles that are bringing the drugs into our community.” The officer did say that drugs were a problem in the suburbs as well, but he never really answered her question about where the drugs are coming from.
Finally, an ACORN organizer reminded the audience that there will be a bus to take people to the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting on May 15 to continue to address city leaders with their concerns.