Yesterday in Grand Rapids, citizens gathered at the New Hope Baptist church to discuss recent violence in the city and to examine ways in which citizens can organize to end violence in their communities.
Over the past month and a half, the Grand Rapids has seen an increase in violent crime, with police recording 31 shootings and 12 homicides so far this year. The increase in violent crime has brought considerable attention from the local corporate media, city officials, the religious community, and the police, all of whom have weighed in with solutions to the problem. Unfortunately, much of this dialog has been shaped by the media’s sensationalized coverage of the violence, coverage that largely portrays African-Americans in Grand Rapids as “out of control” and ignores the more systemic issues—poverty, broken public education system, and racism in Grand Rapids—and instead has chosen to simply emphasize the violence without discussing solutions. Similarly, the Grand Rapids Police Department, represented through media reports, has advocated for tougher policing as a solution to the crime, announcing that they will add a second mobile police station in the inner-city (Baxter and Diamond) and launching “Operation ALL-OUT” to increase the presence of police officers as a deterrent to crime. As the GRPD has increased its resolve to quash the violence through law enforcement, it has occasionally recognized that there are more systemic issues at hand, with Chief of Police Harry Dolan blaming the 52% dropout rate from high school or stating that “we can’t arrest our way out of this,” yet the GRPD has offered little beyond increased patrols and promises that they will be in the southeast side of Grand Rapids “indefinitely.”
As a counter to the discussion taking place in the media and by the police, a meeting was held Thursday night at the New Hope Baptist Church on Delaware to bring the Grand Rapids community together to address the root causes and solutions to the recent violence, which New Hope’s pastor said has put the city in a “state of crisis” over the past month. The meeting was setup as a free flowing dialog with small group sessions to discuss the problem, and in order to promote and honest and frank discussion of the situation in Grand Rapids, the media and police were barred from attending in order to encourage people to participate without fear of reprisal. In his opening remarks, Reverend Dean explained that the media was not allowed in order to prevent it from becoming a “dog and pony show” and to instead have a discussion that would lead to concrete results as “lives are in balance.” The meeting was attended by several elected officials including Grand Rapids City Commissioners Elias Lumpkins, Jim White, and Rosalyn Bliss, Kent County Commissioners Paul Mayhue and James Vaughn, along with Joan Bowman from the governor’s office. By way of a show of hands, several ministers were in attendance representing a variety of Christian and Muslim churches.
Following a brief outline of the meeting’s format, the audience was split into groups for small group discussion. The groups were given twenty minutes to discuss each of four questions pertaining to recent violence in Grand Rapids—what are the problems, what are the causes, what are the solutions, and how are we going to know when elected officials adequately responded to the concerns raised during the meeting. During these discussions, residents of the southeast side brought up a variety of reasons for the violence ranging from the influence of popular entertainment that glorifies violence to the absence of religion in the public schools. There was a general consensus that the violence was rooted in systemic causes, with many raising concerns about the realities of economic inequality in Grand Rapids, lack of equitable funding of public schools, a high incarceration rate that is a product of a punitive and biased judicial system that prevents felons from attaining jobs or voting and deprives families of their fathers. Other causes were also raised including a lack of discipline by parents, lack of respect of elders in the community, and a lack of respect towards the community. Among the solutions favored by attendees were incorporation of black history into school curriculum to foster a sense of pride in one’s community and culture, job programs, reform of the both the local judicial system and the national system, more community involvement in schools, the neighborhoods, and in the churches, and more activities for youth. It is also worth noting that while the meeting was predominately middle-aged or older, several youth did express the need for youth to included as part of the solution.
After the small group sessions, people developed a list of recommendations that will be included along with a summary of the meeting in a report to be presented at the next City Commission meeting. Among the ideas that the group agreed to present were:
- A unified approach by the religious community to address the problem
The implementation of black history as a means of fostering a sense of empowerment and pride as part of the public education system
- Rehabilitation programs in the prisons and jails
Apprenticeships and other programs in the inner-city aimed at youth
An end to separation by race and an effort to work towards a solution as a united community