Local and Michigan Headlines: Senate Republicans Looking to Cut College Assistance; Complaints against GRPD Increase

It has been a slow morning, but here are some interesting articles published elsewhere in the past twenty-four hours:

  • Senate Republicans to Cut Michigan Promise Scholarship, Other College Tuition Aid – Republicans in the Michigan Senate are looking to cut a variety of college tuition scholarships that help low income students attend college. The need-based programs they are looking to cut include the Michigan Promise Scholarship, the Michigan Work Study Program, the Part-Time Independent Student program, and the Michigan Education Opportunity Grants. I highly doubt such a move will do anything to help the state’s economy.
  • Granholm, MEDC Announce Over 11,000 New Jobs For Michigan – The local media–and the progressive blog Blogging for Michigan–is talking up an announcement from Governor Jennifer Granholm that over 11,000 new jobs are coming to the state. Included in that number are 3,100 new jobs in West Michigan.
  • As federal case continues, developers rush to finish elite golf course on public dunes – The Michigan Messenger looks at the continued development a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course in Benton Harbor. The course was built on the site of a former public park and has been at the center of a controversy between developers and citizens. Now, the company has begun construction while it awaits a federal court ruling on the development. It’s hoping to circumvent a full environmental review of the project. Despite all the controversy, Governor Granholm has praised the project as the kind of development that she hopes to see across Michigan.
  • Grand Rapids area in bottom 20 of Brookings Institution report, but economist sees hope – The Kent, Barry, Ionia, and Newaygo area ranks near the bottom of a Brookings Institution report that measures metropolitan unemployment, production, and housing. However, the Grand Rapids Press talks to a local economist who says that West Michigan actually is getting better.
  • Grand Rapids Police Department sees ‘unheard of’ increase in firearms discharge by officers; citizen complaints also rise – In less than two years, the GRPD has discharged their firearms six times–a substantial increase over previous years. Still, according to the GRPD, this hasn’t meant that there has been widespread injury to officers or suspects. Additionally, complaints are up, but the GRPD attributes that to a new reporting system.
Advertisements

Live from Prison Event at Wealthy Theatre

052809-prison_event.jpg

Tonight, the Wealthy Theatre will host an interesting event on prisons. The event, “Live/Life: From a Prison in Ionia to the Streets of Grand Rapids,” will provide a live forum in which 7 prisoners at Ionia’s Bellamy Creek Correctional Institute will take questions via telecast from the audience at the Theatre. It will be held at 5:30pm at the Wealthy Theatre at 1118 Wealthy St SE.

The event is being organized by a variety of entities including the Community Media Center, the Grand Rapids Police Department, the Michigan Department of Corrections, the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, and Weed and Seed.

According to the news release:

The purpose of the event is to educate “at risk” youth and young adults, between the ages of 13 and 25, on prison life and the importance of making the right decisions to prevent the youth from entering the criminal justice system. The inmates will talk about their life experience and will expose the myths and hardships of prison life while answering questions from youth in the audience.

I think there is good reason to be skeptical of the program on some level. The news release and the article in the Grand Rapids Press focus solely on the role that “bad decisions” play in getting people into prison. While that certainly plays a role, many other things inform those “bad decisions” including lack of access to opportunity, how law enforcement operates, sentencing disparities in the criminal justice system, racism, classism, and more. Unfortunately, I don’t think people end up in prison simply because they make one “bad decision”–there are a host of other factors that all too often make prison a very real possibility for a large section of our population.

Nevertheless, it is a rare chance to hear from prisoners. All too often, they are cast out from society and forgotten.

FBI Targeting of Animal Rights Activists Could Happen Here

The FBI Has Targeted Legal Activists and Charged Them with Terrorism

On Monday, I wrote about the arrest of four animal rights activists on terrorism charges. The activists are the first to be targeted under a law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) that allows the federal government to label a broad range of activism as “terrorism.”

Journalist Will Potter has obtained a copy of the FBI complaint in the case, which raises further questions about the investigations. According to the complaint, the FBI spent time using video surveillance to track activists distributing leaflets, used Internet surveillance to track activists accessing publicly available information, and used DNA testing to confirm that a bandannas were worn by the activists. Moreover, the most serious act alleged by the government–an attempted “forced entry” at the home of an animal researcher–is not even blamed on the four arrested activists. Instead, they are simply accused of being present at the protest.

Possible Ramifications for Grand Rapids?

Back in 2005, MediaMouse.org published a number documents obtained by the Freedom of Information Act showed widespread surveillance of antiwar activists in Grand Rapids. The documents revealed–among other things–surveillance of websites like MediaMouse.org, the use of undercover officers at protests, and collaboration with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to target protestors. The Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) also used undercover officers to infiltrate activist meetings. However, this didn’t die out with the decline of the antiwar movement–there have been reports from local activists that police infiltrated a meeting over the summer.

Such surveillance is disturbing in its own right, but if it was applied to animal rights activists, it could be used to target activists with “terrorism.” Well-known and well-organized activists who were effective–say in a campaign targeting a fur store with the goal of getting it to close–could be charged with “terrorism” for effecting the business’ profits.

Two Scenarios with Grand Rapids Ties

In recent years, Grand Rapids also has a rich history of activism, some of which has used confrontational tactics–for example leading an antiwar march to the home of Congressman Vern Ehlers. Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, such a march–if it went to the home of someone connected to animal research–could be construed as “terrorism” because it might intimidate the target.

Another example could be the frequent protests held outside of circuses in Grand Rapids. Back in 2004, a group of activists smashed a door at the Van Andel Arena, vandalized other parts of the building, and defaced a circus train. In the California case, activists who are not accused of property destruction are being tied to two fire bombings against animal researchers simply because leaflets they produced allegedly encouraged such behavior. Under the new law, activists handing out leaflets at a circus in downtown–a completely legal activity–could have been swept into an investigation and possibly charged as terrorists, especially if they had done other legal activity–like demonstrate outside of a fur store–that had encouraged people not to shop there. Under the law, such activity would be “intimidating” and “harassing” and potentially threaten profits, thereby becoming “terrorism.”

Fighting Repression

These government attacks on activism and free speech affect everyone, not just animal rights activists. The techniques might be used currently to target animal rights activists, but they can easily be expanded in the future. U.S. history has shown that the state always has a keen interest in repressing activist movements and that it often develops techniques to target one group before moving onto another.

That’s why it is important that we work to abolish laws such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and that we defend other activists–such as “the RNC 8”–that have been portrayed as “terrorists.”

Amnesty International Calls for Limits on Stun Weapon Used by GRPD

The human rights group Amnesty International is calling for the use of Tasers to either be limited to life-threatening situations or be suspended. The weapons have been used by the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) since 2004.

121808-taser.jpg

Tasers–a widely used electronic stun weapon–are the subject of a highly critical new report by Amnesty International. The human rights organization is calling on governments to limit their deployment to life-threatening situations or to suspend their use.

Tasers were legalized use in Michigan in December of 2002. A bill authorizing their use alongside other “less than lethal” weapons such pepper spray was one of outgoing Republican John Engler’s last acts. Since that time, they have been adopted by a number of police departments in Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD). The GRPD adopted Tasers in 2004 and has since gradually expanded the number of officers that carry them.

Across the United States, 334 people died between 2001 and August of 2008 after being shot with Tasers. The report finds that 90% of those who died after being shot with a Taser were either unarmed or did not pose a threat. Many were also subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks with the weapon that exceeded the five-second “standard” cycle recommended by the manufacturer.

For Amnesty International, this typifies the problems associated with the weapon. They are more lethal than many are led to believe and their ease of use–along with lesser restrictions governing their use–make them prone to abuse.

Tasers contributed to or caused the deaths of 50 of the 334 people who died after being shot with Tasers. The report also finds that “Taser shocks may exacerbate cardio-respiratory problems in individuals whose health is already compromised by drug abuse, exertion, heart disease, psychosis or positional restraint.” Moreover, “Some of those who died had no underlying disease or drugs in their system, but collapsed after being subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks and/or shocks to the chest, heightening concern that these factors may increase a risk of death or injury, even in relatively healthy individuals.”

The report titled “USA: Less than Lethal?” is available online.

City Names Acting Police Chief, Offers Plan for Search with “Citizen Input”

City Manager Kurt Kimball has announced a new acting police chief–Captain Kevin Belk–as well as plans to conduct a nationwide search for a new police chief. Kimball–who is given the responsibility to hire the new police chief in the City’s Charter–has stated in a memo that he “recognize[s] that the community has an extraordinary interest in providing input as part of this process.” According to a memo from Kimball sent out to news organizations by the City of Grand Rapids, Kimball plans to:

Engage our partners in the neighborhoods to help us broadly advertise the opportunity for citizens to contribute their responses to a questionnaire that has been developed to elicit input from the community. I will also write directly to a host of organizations and special interest groups encouraging them to broadly distribute the questionnaire and to invite them to provide an organizational response, if they so desire. Finally, plans are in the works to conduct four community forums to provide an early opportunity for face-to-face citizen involvement in this important selection process.

Kimball says that the cost of the search process should not exceed $50,000, an amount that includes the money to hire a consult to do a national search while also considering internal candidates, as was done with naming Harry Dolan head of the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) in 2007. Kimball’s timeline calls for the gathering of community input in September, recruitment of candidates in October and November, selection and interview of semifinalists in November and December, selection and review of finalists in January, and the appointment of a new Chief of Police in February 2008. The semifinalist interviews will be private and will be conducted by Human Resources Director Mari Beth Jelks, Equal Opportunity Director Ingrid Scott-Weekly, Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong, Assistant City Manager Jose Reyna, and City Manager Kurt Kimball. He has also indicated that he will ask local law enforcement professionals to participate in the meeting. According to Kimball, following the semifinalist interview process, he will announce the finalists and “provide opportunity for all to get to know the finalists and provide their perspectives on the finalists.”

ACORN Hosts “Save Our Youth” Town Hall Forum

On Tuesday, around 100 people attended a forum at Grand Rapids’ Eastern Avenue CRC Church to hear from youth about the lack of youth programs in the city. The forum was held in relation to concerns about violence in the community.

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.

Millions More Movement Opposes Plan to Place Police in Grand Rapids Schools

Yesterday, the Grand Rapids Local Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement sent a letter opposing Grand Rapids Police Chief Harry Dolan’s plan to bring armed police officers into the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

On Wednesday, the Grand Rapids Local Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement sent a letter to Mayor George Heartwell and the Grand Rapids City Commission opposing a plan by Chief of Police Harry Dolan to permanently place GRPD officers in the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Dolan has argued that fights and other incidents within the schools and at school-sponsored atheletic events warrants in the presence of an armed officer within each school. While there is no clear funding source for the proposal, Dolan presented the plan to a largely uncritical school board on Monday night according to the Grand Rapids Press. Dolan predicted that if the plan goes through, people would eventually want to bring armed officers into the middle schools. Already, the GRPD and the Grand Rapids Public Schools are finalizing a plan that would deploy police officers into the schools to make arrests after fights.

In the interest of presenting a critical perspective of the proposed plan, Media Mouse is reprinting the letter written by the Millions More Movement to the Mayor and the City Commission. It is printed in full below:

It has come to the attention of the Grand Rapids Local Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement that Chief Dolan is proposing a plan to place Grand Rapids Police Officers in the Grand Rapids Public Schools to this honorable body. Chief Dolan recently presented the same proposal to the Grand Rapids School District. We, the members of the committee stand in absolute opposition to Chief Dolan’s proposal. Firstly, Chief Dolan has not presented the prerequisite evidence necessary that shows the need for such a presence and force in our schools. We are concerned that the need for such a presence is based on other factors besides what happens inside of our schools. Further, there are sociological factors within the community that the district serves that must be addressed. These factors ought not be addressed by a “no tolerance” policy such as the one sustained by GRPD, but facilitated by and through a peacekeeping force that recognizes the needs of the students and offers them solutions based on a careful and comprehensive study of the problems that exist within the community. The basis for bringing peace within the schools cannot be “guns and badges”, but a genuine love and understanding for the parties involved.

A recent discussion with Dr. Walter Milton, Superintendent of the Flint Public School District revealed that placing the police in schools in an urban district is potentially volatile. Dr. Milton observed that the students of his district were subjected to assaults by police officers and even were jailed for fighting. This raises the question: Will a fight at West Catholic or one of our other private schools be a suspendable offense, while one at our public schools may be a arrestable one?

In closing, the Grand Rapids Local Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement is in receipt of an email correspondence from the Honorable Commissioner Paul Mayhue that was sent to us last summer. In it he details a plan for a gang summit that was to be held. He states that he invited Chief Dolan to take part in the summit but Chief Dolan digressed and stated that “if he came (to the summit) it would not be for peace, it would be to arrest”.

We hope that this Honorable body will not subject our youth to the type of scrutiny and abasement proposed by our Chief of Police, and that you will consider other avenues to insure a safe learning environment in our schools.

$2 Million Lawsuit against Grand Rapids Police Department Filed

A lawsuit was filed in federal court Wednesday according to the corporate press alleging that the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) beat Darrius Joseph in 2004 while detaining him for a parole violation. The incident took place two years ago with GRPD officer Matthew Lockhart beating Joseph—who admits to running first—with his police radio. According to court documents filed in the case, once Joseph laid in the “prone” position Officer Lockhart drove both knees into Joseph’s abdomen and beat him repeatedly in the back of the head with his radio, causing gashes in his head that had to be stapled shut. In a case where other GRPD officers testified against him, Lockhart pled guilty to misdemeanor assault and was eventually fired following an internal investigation by the GRPD. The $2 million lawsuit is for compensatory and punitive damages charging that the incident showed that the GRPD abused their power. Joseph’s lawyer, Stephen Drew, was quoted by WOOD TV 8 stating that “We give police, and rightfully so, power. Power to handcuff people, power to detain people. We give them power to render people defenseless… However, when the officer crosses that line and abuses that power, that’s what the constitution is about.”

Over the past few years, there have been several reported incidents of police abuse in Grand Rapids. Another case is that of Willie Winters a man who was beaten by the GRPD during a “hindering and opposing” arrest yet was later found innocent of those charges. Footage of Winters “violent” arrest was repeatedly used by the media to portray African-Americans arrested on hindering and opposing charges as unreasonable during the public debate over the hindering and opposing ordinance last year. While Winters was eventually exonerated, only WOOD TV 8 acknowledged this despite the fact that all of the local broadcast stations used the footage.