Controlling the Narrative, Controlling the Streets

In the weeks and months after the August 2014 police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the issue of policing in the United States was at the forefront of discussions. For those who experience the physical and psychological brutality of the police, these discussions were not new. Nevertheless, a seemingly endless barrage of politicians and pundits discussed policing, reform, and the possibility for change as if somehow the reality of policing as a white supremacist endeavor had escaped them for all these years. The results were predictable: the debate was shifted towards body cameras, ShotSpotters, community policing, and other solutions that didn’t challenge the underlying system of policing.

This was true in Grand Rapids, where much of the debate around policing centered on the topic of body cameras. Following a protest in response to the decision not to indict Darren Wilson and a community forum, any general criticism of the police was quickly channeled towards calling for body cameras. The call was initiated by the non-profit organization LINC who dubbed the campaign #OperationBodyCamGRMI. It was enthusiastically taken up by the City Commission despite initial objections by both Police Chief David Rahinsky and the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association. Even after the City of Grand Rapids issued a broader set of recommendations for improving relations between Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) and city residents, much of the public debate still focused on body cameras. In its place, there was a steady stream of articles on body cameras, giving updates on how they would be paid for, how cops who tested them thought they would work, new policies governing their use, limits of cameras, and what company will be providing the cameras. In effect, what could have been a comprehensive discussion of the nature of policing and racism in Grand Rapids was narrowly contained.

Rosalynn Bliss at Police Use of Force Training
Mayor elect Rosalynn Bliss participates in a GRPD “use of force” training for the media and City Commissioners.

The limiting of this conversation is important as it highlights a way in which the Grand Rapids Police Department and police in general seek to operate in the post-Ferguson world. Police have begun to understand that managing conflict and public perception is a critical aspect of their daily activities. In light of both heightened scrutiny and the reality that police keep killing people, managing perceptions has become essential. The United States Conference of Mayors identified this as one of its core recommendations for improving relations between police departments and the communities they police. Police across the country have undertaken media trainings and are developing sophisticated media strategies that seek to manage events.

In Grand Rapids, the form has varied from the management of crisis to rather crass endeavors that seem almost painfully obvious. An example of the latter is Chief Rahinsky announcing that the GRPD will ask the Michigan State Police to investigate any officer shootings as a public relations move to avoid criticism. In the case of the former, there has been the appointment of a full-time “Public Information Officer”. The appointment was tied directly to the post-Ferguson discussion, with the GRPD claiming that it was another effort at providing police “transparency” for the public.

GRPD demonstrating a new segway for the news media.
GRPD demonstrating a new segway for the news media.

As a government agency, the Grand Rapids Police Department regularly issues news releases to local news agencies about incidents, investigations, and changes in department staffing. They’ve operated both a website and a Facebook page for years. However, the Public Information Officer demonstrates a new idea of policing that seeks to always cultivate a positive portrayal of police and quickly diffuse any criticism. One way this can happen is by simply increasing the number of relatively benign stories about the GRPD that appear in the media. In the last year, this has included stories about new police dogs, new Segway vehicles for police, media ride-a-longs with officers, police playing baseball with kids and feeding homeless people at a local shelter, and a father-son working relationship. These are obviously all crafted to improve the public perception of the police, largely by humanizing them or doing what Information Officer Terry Dixon said is to challenge the “negative” impression of law enforcement.

GRPD News Release

In response to Ferguson, there has also been a significant effort to improve the perception of police among youth, who often face the brunt of police aggression. Efforts like the Junior Police Academy are clear in their campaign to change the publics views. In addition, at least part of the body camera discussion was seeded by police which begs the question as to whether or not it was a strategic decision by police to go along with the cameras (especially once the GRPD realized that body cameras will exonerate them and not help residents).

However, the media strategy is about more than just the realm of ideas and portraying police as friendly members of the community, it is also about responding to criticism and neutralizing it. In the public relations world, this might be called “controlling the narrative”, and it is essentially what the Grand Rapids Police Department has been doing after Ferguson. Two high profile examples over the past year demonstrate what this new strategy looks like and both involve the police’s aggressive use of the media to silence criticism.

In an incident that happened in Martin Luther King Park on June 24, 2015, a GRPD officer—who was white—used a Taser to allegedly stop a fight happening at the park. A video from a bystander was posted on Facebook which shows the a cop pointing a Taser at 3 unarmed African-American youth ages 12-13. He used the weapon to keep them on the ground for several minutes until multiple cars came to detain the teenagers. As it should, the video prompted intense criticism of the GRPD both in this situation and more generally of their policing of people of color. Likely knowing that this might reveal the day-to-day brutality of policing, the Grand Rapids Police Department’s Information Officer responded aggressively, issuing a news release the next morning saying that the police officer “deployed the Taser properly.” The police also scheduled a media event to answer journalist questions and offered police video to incite them to come. This shaped the narrative by shifting the discussion from questioning police conduct to reporting the police perspective that the incident was justified (see the Mlive and WOOD TV 8 stories on the incident) and diffused what had the potential to become a crisis. Even if the GRPD’s justification seems absurd, it succeeded in controlling the situation and dominating official discourse, moving it away from police conduct and towards “preventing violence”.

GRPD Facebook Posting

A similar incident happened again in September. A party on Giddings Avenue on the Southeast side of Grand Rapids was broken up by police who arrested 9 people and Tased 1. In all, 35 police officers responded to the party. Once again, a video of the police actions was posted on Facebook and quickly spread across people’s social networks, being shared several thousand times. As was the case with the MLK Park incident, people were highly critical of the Grand Rapids Police Department’s actions. In this case, police declined to directly defend their actions pending a complaint via internal affairs, but they still sought to dominate the narrative and generally make excuses for their conduct. The GRPD released a video showing their perspective and made themselves available for comment. Later, they released a staggering 15 hours of video to the media. FOX 17 reported that the police said they released the video to be “as transparent as possible,” but the transparency claim hides the fact that by dominating the media narrative they are seeking to quell criticism.

Defending of police practices is a regular activity of the Information Officer. In response to news that the GRPD wanted to equip all police vehicles with assault rifles, Dixon was there to defend the decision even as the militarization of police has been criticized across the country. The same was true of the expansion of police surveillance cameras, which when pressed with questions about the price, Dixon responded, “Can you put a dollar amount on your safety?” Dixon seemed to welcome recording of police by residents, but at the same time dismissed it because it “only captures one particular narrow point of view.” At times, it’s getting across a core message of policing: that the use of force could be avoided if people simply complied. In some cases, the police must support their own while giving the appearance that they care about others. Rather than dismiss outright a local billboard proclaiming “Blue Lives Matter” or simply endorse it, Dixon replied with the seemingly more diplomatic: “Our law enforcement officers, they matter, but at the same time we also recognize and we know that every citizen that walks here in Grand Rapids, their life matters; every single one.” Perhaps needless to say, the notion that “all lives matter” has been a way of minimizing and diverting the Black Lives Matter movement, while “Blue Lives Matter” has invoked the idea of an imaginary war against police.

GRPD in action

In essence, this is what the entire post-Ferguson debate comes down to: putting a friendly face on the Grand Rapids Police Department while avoiding substantive change in practice. The much touted language of “community policing” provides an excellent example of this. As author Brendan McQuade writes:

“In the most general sense, community policing encourages residents to report crimes to the police and calls upon them to resolve disputes. Police are implored to get out of their cars and walk the streets, residents to aid in the hunt for the bad guys. But community policing is never simply a well-intentioned effort to bring the government closer to the people. It enlists residents and community leaders in the work of policing. It informally incorporates residents into the state’s repressive apparatus.”

Coffee with a Cop FlyerIn other words, while the Grand Rapids favorite “Coffee with a Cop” or partnerships with neighborhood associations might seem innocuous, it is not changing the underlying goal of policing, merely changing how policing happens. Community policing and the use of the media by police departments is part of a broader strategy that takes police in the direction of counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency can be defined as an approach “characterized by an emphasis on intelligence, security and peace-keeping operations, population control, propaganda, and efforts to gain the trust of the people.” In this approach to law enforcement, the psychological or media-based battle for ideas are as important as physical control. However, the policing cannot happen without both aspects. Approaches such as “Weed and Seed” mix “community” based approaches of “seeding” a neighborhood with social programs while the hard edged “weeding out” of so-called criminal elements. While discussions of militarization of police often look solely at weapons, the emergence of counterinsurgency approaches also bears consideration. Since the 1960s, there has been a continual exchange of information between military and police agencies with community policing and counterinsurgency strategies of the police and military melding into a shared set of tactics, both domestically and internationally.

So when the Grand Rapids Police Department engages the media, partners with organizations, and participates in community forums, it does so not because it has fundamentally changed, but rather because it is adapting to a new reality. It is now necessary to control the narrative, just as they control the streets. The GRPD is all too willing to go in front of a crowd, smile, nod, affirm concerns, pretend to listen, and even engage in a little self-criticism, but it’s all part of a carefully concocted strategy that is designed to control and manage situations and to always put itself in advantageous position.

Ambassadors for whom?

Like many major urban streets in the US, Division Avenue of Grand Rapids, Michigan has a varied history as a home to hotels, stores, restaurants, and other businesses. It was a vibrant neighborhood at numerous points in the city’s history. However, with the so­-called “race riots” in Grand Rapids of 1967, white flight, and urban renewal, Division Avenue became a different place. It was home to low-income residents, homeless populations, and abandoned and dilapidated buildings. In response to the general flight from this area, various social service agencies, ministries, and shelters opened along the street. The area was, and to some extent still is, one of the densest and poorest neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. South Division in particular was ignored in the 1990s as developments took place in other areas of downtown.

For years the street seemed resistant to gentrification. Numerous art spaces and music venues—from The Basement to The Reptile House—were home to vibrant alternative and underground scenes, yet Division remained a place where many feared to go. Despite the best efforts of various investors, city boosters, and city government—the street retained its image and patterns. In the mid­-2000s with the “Cool Cities” initiative and the Avenue for the Arts designation, The Grand Rapids Press even described the street as undergoing “fitful gentrification,” but the process remained slow.

This began to change in 2012 and 2013, when many new projects were undertaken. As interest in downtown living increased and developers began to make significant profits off market­-rate rentals, investors and city planners began to look at South Division anew. The Harris Building, once a home to the non-profit charity In The Image, was developed into an event space with an upscale (seriously, a bag of noodles costs $12) artisan pasta shop on the ground floor. The DAAC, an almost ten year old art and performance venue, lost its space due to rising rent. Along with this, a number of new boutique stores, restaurants, and housing developments opened, both on Division and in the surrounding blocks.

Local Epicurian on South Division
Local Epicurean on South Division

Still, South Division remained an area shaped by its legacy as a haven for low ­income and homeless populations. Many social service agencies remain located on the street and homeless people still slept in doorways and congregated along the streets. Various types of crime—theft, vandalism, drugs—took place on a regular basis. In 2012, many of these problems were identified as an obstacle to the economic development of South Division between Fulton and Wealthy. The Division Avenue Task Force specifically sought to “identify solutions” to panhandling, loitering, graffiti, and the so­-called “public nuisances” that take place on the street. It was clear that if South Division was to change, it would have to be “cleaned up.” Ultimately, this is a new form of colonization—where areas previously unsafe for capital must be tamed, pacified, and cleared of obstacles, just as the very land on which we now live was stolen from the Anishnabek people.

Ambassadors To Whom?

The solution the Division Avenue Task Force recommended was to implement national urban services company Block By Block’s Safety Ambassadors Program; not just on Division, but for all of Downtown. The “problems” on Division are a Downtown-wide phenomenon, especially as the boundaries of “Downtown” expand into working-class areas adjacent to it. The last ten years of urban development have been characterized as a reinvigoration of wealthier people’s interest in living in the city, often at the expense of the urban poor and working class who end up being crowded out by subsequent rising costs of living. This process has been an inversion of the suburbanization that characterized post-WWII development. This demographic shift has been fueling the process of gentrification in modern cities—including Grand Rapids. The Downtown Ambassadors, operating as both low-level security and customer service for downtown, aid in facilitating this gentrification.

The Downtown Ambassadors perform what are essentially low-conflict policing and sanitation efforts as well “customer service” in order to make a new, wealthier population in downtown feel welcome.

The Downtown Ambassadors are paid employees who patrol downtown in teal uniforms with pockets full of brochures, often while riding segways. They perform what are essentially low-conflict policing and sanitation efforts as well “customer service” in order to make a new, wealthier population in downtown feel welcome. The “customer service” role works for both current residents who only recently have felt safe venturing downtown and tourists wandering aimlessly during events such as ArtPrize and other festivals. For these types, the Ambassadors are available to give directions to the lost and provide umbrella escorts if it’s raining.

The policing functions they perform were discussed by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), which operates the Ambassadors, stating “The Safety Ambassadors are intended to complement and enhance the efforts of the Grand Rapids Police Department.” DGRI CEO Kris Larson also said the program “works hand-in-hand with the police department, serving as their eyes and ears.” This is confirmed in their annual report, which claims that the Ambassadors have reported “suspicious people” 1,861 times. At a recent “State of the Grand Rapids Police Department” speech, the GRPD stated that working with the Safety Ambassadors has been “very positive for policing.” The statement is an unequivocal testament to the policing role of the Ambassadors.

Policing Without Police

Police violence and cases of excessive brutality have become apparent to a wide range of people since the rebellions that broke out in response to the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It is possible that this is the beginning of an evolution of policing, where the Downtown Ambassador program or something similar can widen and accomplish some of the roles of policing without the threat of police “overreaction” and brutality. If the present trend can be described as wealthier white people moving back to the cities and crowding out the poor then the Downtown Ambassadors will serve an important role in facilitating this transition.

Downtown Ambassadors Pamphlet

Though they are not legally permitted to use force or make arrests, the Ambassadors have a close relationship with the police. Manager of Operations for the Downtown Ambassadors Melvin Eledge says,

“Each of the Downtown Ambassadors is equipped with an iPhone and an internal app which allows them to build a report on each person of interest, creating a trail that helps the Ambassadors keep an eye on suspicious activity, hotspots and – just as importantly – to follow up with services people may have received to see if they need additional help.”

This surveillance function of the program allows the city and police to have more “eyes on the street” (an appropriation of Jane Jacobs’ language that replaces an authentic urban fabric with an artificially created one) while doing so under the guise of a form of social work. This gives the city a good image while also widening the scope of the GRPD’s ability to track and understand what’s going on at a street-level.

The visibility of homeless people directly contributes towards a city’s image and acts as a deterrent for wealthy people to become residents, especially if they are forced to interact with them face-to-face when being asked for money. As it is now, expecting the police to remove the homeless is a lot to ask in that it drains resources and initiates a process of brutality that would tarnish the city’s image. Urban police departments—while always guardians of property and power—cannot provide the level of “service” conducive to business development in a “troubled” area.

Grand Rapids Safety Ambassador Panhandling Report

The Ambassador program is a logical solution for the city government in that they will try to stop panhandling and keep doorways clear from people sleeping in them. The Ambassadors recognize this goal, with Eledge stating “One aspect of the Ambassador program is making sure downtown residents are not constantly being asked for money as they go to and from home and work.” MLive says about ‘Downtown Safety Ambassador of the Year” Veronica Aho “for panhandlers, Aho keeps them moving along if they bother pedestrians.” As a result the Ambassadors made “3,806 panhandling contacts” in their first year.

Of the seven Ambassadors, six of them rotate between different areas, while one is permanently situated in the Heartside district. Why the special treatment? This neighborhood, home to low-income housing, shelters and missions alongside boutiques and bars, is a place where the tension between business interests and human interests is especially visible—and requires special management to keep invisible. While the Downtown Ambassadors would describe this as unbiased “customer service” it is a policy function in that it manages—or gives the appearance of managing—a persistent social problem.

The city becomes a blank space on which commerce can happen—a predictable and safe environment.

In addition to “cleaning up” downtown by managing undesirable populations, the Downtown Ambassadors also physically clean up space. Unlike the police the Ambassadors have the ability to clean up graffiti when they see it, and they apparently did so in 1,462 instances during their first year. Graffiti arrived as a cultural phenomenon with the birth of hip-hop and its rising influence among urban youth during the 70s and 80s. It is an easy way for marginalized people to leave their mark on an otherwise hostile and alien world. As a blemish on an otherwise clean and orderly backdrop, it signals that the forces of order are not as invincible and omnipresent as they’d like to seem.

Not only do these reasons make it natural for the city government to want to remove it, but a graffiti-free area is also more appealing to out-of-towners with money who find graffiti to be off-putting, unsafe, and a form of blight. In this way the Ambassadors are performing a quasi-policing function that also helps gentrify the city. The city becomes a blank space on which commerce can happen—a predictable and safe environment.

Downtown GR: City or Mall?

Customer: noun

  1. A person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.
  2. A person or thing of a specified kind that one has to deal with.

Recently spokespeople for the Downtown Ambassadors insist that they are not an auxiliary police force and urges people to view them as a type of ‘customer service’ that exists for pedestrians in the downtown area. As it turns out the city can have their cake and eat it too. Making white and/or middle and upper-class people feel safe downtown requires both sanitizing the existing space in addition to providing a mediated, tailored experience. Whether they’re giving out-of-towners directions or reporting a “suspicious person” to the police, the Downtown Ambassadors are performing essentially the same task of making Grand Rapids more appealing to wealthier white people. This was made clear when DGRI CEO Larson said, “Frankly, there’s a lot of youth that have begun to hang out. It’s not the patrons of the bars; it’s the other element that is coming down looking for trouble.” In other words, those who want to spend freely at the bars are fine—and the Downtown Ambassadors exist to serve them and those who profit from them. Stellafly Social Media interviews Kris Larson and states:

“Larson has about the same interest in parking lots as he did as a kid. Parking lot? Pffftttttt. That’s no fun. Let’s build cool stuff on ‘em, he says, places where you can go spend your allowance.”


This quote evokes imagery of the ideal person downtown meant to be like a child at a toy store, whose relationship with the area is one of awe and passive consumption. A kid doesn’t loiter in the toy store or do anything there except browse and spend money. This is not only telling of what downtown is meant to look like but also of who is meant to be there, those with expendable “allowance” who can buy a $12 bag of pasta. This is why in all their interviews with the media DGRI refers to the Downtown Ambassadors as “customer service.”

In an interview with Wood TV 8 Kris Larson says the point of the Ambassadors is “really to provide that unexpected level of customer service to differentiate the experience in the downtown.” Eledge tells the Grand Rapids Press, “Everything we do, we do through a hospitality lens. We don’t act like security officers. It’s all about customer service, meeting their needs.” He echoes this sentiment later with Rapid Growth Media, “We’re out there for hospitality and customer service, and we include a safety and observation function.” For those with money it’s friendly service, for those without it’s a fast-track to social service programs diagnosed by security guards who repeatedly say they “aren’t social workers” and “aren’t cops.”

A Safety Ambassador walks down Monroe Center.
A Safety Ambassador walks down Monroe Center.

Just like the greeters at Meijer, they are both a human face to the business and a subtle form of loss prevention. If the Ambassadors represent a phase of urban development that views people downtown as “customers,” then in this plan the downtown space itself is meant to be a fabricated playground for consumerism. Urban settings are seen as exotic by white middle-class suburbanites. The growth of artisan culture perfectly coincides with this concept. Local shops and restaurants with handmade ingredients contrast greatly with strip mall chain businesses, while bike lanes and sidewalks pair well with feel-good consumer politics and resonates with those tired of sitting in traffic while commuting to work. Localism is ultimately just consumerism branded with a hip aesthetic.

Grand Rapids is now allowing and encouraging the construction of parklets, parking spaces turned into extensions of the sidewalk meant for people to stop, to sit, and to rest while taking in the activities of the street. Seating in the center of the mall come to mind, where customers can relax before getting up and going back to shopping. Recent and proposed park renovations also exemplify this, with Monument Park being remade into an extension of 616 Lofts and Veterans Park—long a gathering place for low/no-income folks in downtown—slated to undergo a similar transformation. For the newcomers to downtown “exotic” is good, but too exotic can be scary or overwhelming, and that’s where the Ambassadors come in.

The loss of kinship and community that exists in modern times is apparent in the fact that the Ambassadors exist at all. They are specialists in giving directions and offering warm welcomes, customs that in any other time would be done between strangers walking past each other on the street. The wealthier people new to downtown are afraid to interact with more disadvantaged long-term residents, while the latter have little interest in them. The Ambassadors are the friendly face that, for good reason, the new wealthier downtowners will not see on the current residents.

A Welcome Banner for the Rich

Going to the mall or shopping at a chain store creates strange feelings. Everything is ordered and designed in painstaking ways for the consumer to consume. The greeter welcoming people in makes the experience feel even more sterile and unnatural. The Downtown Ambassadors represent a vision for the city that wishes to treat its subjects in a similar way. We are meant to be customers of the mall that is downtown.

For now the city must grudgingly manage those who are unable or unwilling to be its customers. Criminalization of homelessness and arresting panhandlers and loiterers would bring bad press to the city. Instead little steps are taken: the fencing off of underpasses where homeless people slept near the new Downtown Market is one, a Downtown Ambassador shooing away a panhandler is another.

They may claim now that they are not an auxiliary police force but their management of panhandlers, their treatment of graffiti, and their close relationship with the GRPD says otherwise. Like the police, the operations they perform are for the benefit of business–in this case the downtown business owners, housing developers–and ultimately to pave the way for the next phase of capitalism.

When’s It Gonna Stop?

When the police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it was not a reflection of a broken system, but was instead a particularly visible example of the state violence and racism that is at the core of U.S. society.

In the months since, there has been a lot of talk about the police. Unfortunately, much of it has focused on so-called “police misconduct”—as if the police are doing something outside of their mandated role. In fact, the police are doing just fine as an institution designed to protect property and those in power. Over the years they’ve developed more sophisticated means of doing this—new technologies (surveillance, weapons, etc) and new approaches (“community policing”)—but the underlying purpose remains unchanged.

Despite many people’s wishes, we can’t just reform away the problems of police violence—it must be understood as essential to the function of police. And as such, body cameras, more cops of color, and more sensitivity training aren’t going to change their functioning.

In Grand Rapids, we’ve seen the post-Ferguson discussion dominated by these conversations. Almost immediately after it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be charged for the murder of Michael Brown, a push was made to get the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) to use body cameras. While there has been some discussion of how police actually operate on the ground in Grand Rapids, it has largely been with the assumption that police are generally good and that there are a few simple tweaks that can be made to “improve relations” with the community. And while there may be instances of racism and violence on behalf of the GRPD, those are largely seen as correctable rather than inherent in the way police and policing are designed.

police charge protestors

The History and Origins of the Police

“The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off patrolling all the nation …
My grandfather had to deal with the cops
My great-grandfather dealt with the cops
My GREAT grandfather had to deal with the cops
And then my great, great, great, great… when it’s gonna stop?! ”
KRS-ONE, “Sound of Da Police

Unlike KRS-One, police chiefs and scholars of police studies proudly trace the origins of their institution to the evolution of a more “civilized” society as cities and industry grew. This is certainly accurate, but it isn’t a heritage to be proud of. It’s well documented that the modern police were invented over the course of a few decades in the mid-19th century, during a time when growing mercantile power was threatened by collective action: strikes, riots, and insurrections by laborers and slaves. The police didn’t come into being in response to some sudden outbreak of interpersonal crime, but in rather in response to public dissidence and disorder, and the ability of increasingly wealthy merchants and increasingly powerful local governments to reward others for protecting their interests.

Police departments in the Southern U.S. can trace their lineage to the slave patrols… Even in the North, the informal system of constables… performed racial policing.

This is as true in Grand Rapids as anywhere else, with the Grand Rapids Police Department being established in 1871. Here, as elsewhere, the police department was organized to provide a state-run security force to replace the private constables that had previously been hired by merchants to protect their businesses and property. Reflecting this origin, most of the early police chiefs in Grand Rapids came from military or business backgrounds.

There were methods of supervision and control prior to this development, of course, and the modern police grew out of these threatening mechanisms. Police departments in the Southern U.S. can trace their lineage to the slave patrols – armed white volunteer forces that patrolled the countryside intimidating and brutalizing slaves into submission. Even in the North, the informal system of constables that provided “night watch” to settlements and cities performed racial policing – in colonial times, defending occupied territory from displaced Indigenous people, and later, harassing and intimidating Black people who dared to exist in public spaces.

In this light, it’s easy to understand the historical relationship between policing and white supremacy. The idea of a “white race” was an invention aimed at promoting cross-class solidarity between poor and wealthy white people, based on the idea that skin color was a unifying factor. In exchange for ignoring the differences in class, white men were awarded privileges (ability to own property, right to vote, higher position in the social hierarchy, etc.) denied to the enslaved and free African populations. This white supremacist system was designed in response to slave rebellions and indigenous resistance and ensured stability by keeping poor whites from pursuing alliances with black and indigenous peoples. Despite its historical origins, white supremacy did not go away after slavery’s legal abolition. The police play a critical role in maintaining white supremacy from the Jim Crow laws enforced by police in the post-Reconstruction South to the racially targeted policing of today.

And so the historical origins and purpose of the police are clear – to protect and serve, as they say! But only to protect property and trade, and serve those who own and conduct it – while maintaining a system of white supremacy.


The Police Today

In modern times, police are on the front line of a system of criminalization and punishment that targets people of color and low-income people. The U.S. prison system is the largest in the world and over two million people are in prison. It’s larger than at any point in history — 1 in 99 adults are in prison, and 1 in 31 are under some kind of correctional control. In many cases, prisoners perform involuntary forms of labor for the benefit of private corporations. Of course, the overwhelming majority of those ensnared are people of color.

The police maintain the day-to-day workings of this system. Study after study documents the disproportionate targeting of people of color. This isn’t just on the national level, as if somehow good old Grand Rapids is immune from this type of racism. Here, as everywhere, the Grand Rapids Police Department maintains a white supremacist power structure. For many folks who aren’t white, this is painfully obvious in the day-to-day harassment experienced and the knowledge that whenever they step out their doors they are a target.

Grand Rapids has a long history of racist policing…

Grand Rapids hasn’t made the headlines with any great moments of tumult or unrest lately, but it consistently ranks as one of the most segregated housing markets in the nation, and the city’s arrest rates of Black people double those of Ferguson, Missouri. A recent study found that for every 1,000 Grand Rapids residents, 206 black people are arrested compared to 35 non-black people – a 1 to 6 ratio. In contrast, Ferguson has a 1 to 2.6 ratio. It is common practice for the GRPD to take photographs and thumb prints from individuals they come into contact with who do not otherwise have official identification, and as it always is with policing, it is people of color who are most often subjected to this. Grand Rapids has a long history of racist policing: the “Special Investigations Unit” in the 1920s and 1930s tasked with policing and managing the black population, the use of “no good account” charges until the 1960s to keep people out of certain neighborhoods, the GRPD’s consistent use of “hindering & opposing” charges to target black residents, or a 2004 study showing that people of color were more likely to be stopped while driving.

Over the years, police in urban areas have adopted new theories of policing, where cops target petty crime and individual disorderliness in hopes of displacing or preventing more serious crime. These theories, such as “broken windows,” claim that by aggressively clamping down on small crimes it will prevent a larger climate of lawlessness.  In practice, this saturate poorer neighborhoods with police, and disproportionately targets homeless people and people of color, while police and their defenders can still use the excuse that they’re focusing on behavior, not race. At the same time, prison populations grow as more people are arrested and incarcerated.

Much of this has been under the guise of  “community policing.” Participating in relations with community organizations, businesses, schools, and homeowners, the police not only get the PR of looking like they’re acting in harmony with the communities they prowl, they also are able to more closely monitor potentially unruly populations. Community policing generally emphasizes relationships with those who already have power in society, reflecting the underlying design of policing.


As “community policing” has grown in prominence, there has also been an increase in the militarization of the police. Since at least the early 1990s, the tendency of the state has been toward more police and more policing — federal grants, more cops, bigger budgets, and heavier weaponry. A federal program started in 1990 dispersed military surplus equipment to state cops specifically for use in the “War on Drugs.” The origins of the “War on Drugs” are complex, but it has often served as a convenient excuse for the continued targeting of people on the basis of race, as seen in the well-documented sentencing disparities that exist in enforcement. Police also haven’t limited the use of these weapons to drug-related activities and in many cases police departments use military equipment in the execution of search warrants, crowd-control situations, and other day-to-day activities (for example, the increasing numbers of police departments who have their officers wearing military fatigues). Transfers of military equipment have  increased in the past few years. Michigan police have received $43 million worth of military equipment since 2006, including everything from armored vehicles to grenade launchers.

…modern policing has also involved the expansion of so-called “softer” forms of policing… private security firms, the expansion of the surveillance state, and variations of the aforementioned “broken windows” policing.

Along with the PR-friendly face of “community policing” and the harsher reality of militarized police departments, modern policing has also involved the expansion of so-called “softer” forms of policing. This is seen in the increased reliance on private security firms, the expansion of the surveillance state, and variations of the aforementioned “broken windows” policing. In Grand Rapids, the “Downtown Ambassadors” program fuses many of these. The “Safety Ambassadors” operate under the guise of making the city more welcoming to tourists, but more importantly they aid in the political project of “cleaning up” downtown – moving homeless people out of visible areas, documenting petty crime, cleaning up graffiti, and generally making the streets palatable and inviting for the current transformation of downtown. A critical part of their job is keeping extensive records on the people they come into contact with and funneling information to the GRPD. This all relates back to the founding of the modern police system, which was designed to protect those with money and power.

You Can’t Reform a Broken System

In Ferguson, people responded in a way that made immediate sense to them: they targeted the places and institutions that they saw as being representative of the police violence that killed Michael Brown and that targets them on a daily basis. However, as the response to Ferguson took shape on a national level, the conversation shifted into the realm of reform. It’s notable how in most of these conversations, the word “solution” is rarely used. Instead, many of the same words pop up over and over: “reforming,” “curbing,” and “mediating.” Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization devoted to legal reform and good law enforcement, admits that police abuse “has a long history, and seems to defy all attempts at eradication.”

police abuse “has a long history, and seems to defy all attempts at eradication.”

As it turns out, the ACLU is on to something. No amount of reform is going to be able to change how the police function. Instead, all reform can do is limit dissent and restore faith in the police—which is the basic goal of reform no matter in which context it is used. That’s why we see the Grand Rapids Community and Police Relations Committee being so willing to make a few token changes. In the interest of the police and those who benefit from them, it makes strategic sense to offer a few relatively inconsequential reforms in order to avoid a larger rebellion. Former City Commissioner Robert Dean really did say it best, “it’s really a matter of trust. We’re fighting perceptions.” Those in power—and those who ally themselves with power—want to ensure “an environment that ensures civility and respect between the community and the Police Department.” And that must be done as quickly as possible. The police are not concerned with state violence as violence is an everyday part of policing—it is the appearance of order that is absolutely essential.


More Eyes on the Street, More Sellouts in Power

Almost immediately after it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted, the conversation over police abuse in Grand Rapids shifted to a discussion of body cameras. A local organization, LINC Community Revitalization, proposed that the GRPD require its officers to wear body cameras and the media and the City government quickly made this the main point of discussion. There was a predictable public back-and-forth between the police, community activists, and the government about it, but it had the practical effect of reducing any conversation about the nature of police and policing down to a simple discussion: should cops wear cameras? Aside from a few comments at various public hearings, the day-to-day actions of the police in Grand Rapids were ignored.

There are plenty of problems with body cameras. There is little evidence that they will make police less likely to use brutality. We must remember that many instances including the beating of Rodney King in 1992, to the killing of Oscar Grant in 2009, and the recent murder of Eric Garner were caught on camera and all of those cops walked. Police are filmed brutalizing people all the time and they never see disciplinary action besides the occasional temporary suspension (read: paid vacation). Since the recordings are in the hands of the state itself, we will likely continue to see these cameras “malfunction” during exceptionally brutal acts. There is an oft-cited study claiming that body cameras cut down on use of force. This actually was conducted by the chief of a small police department that was under threat of being dissolved if they didn’t cut down on their use of force. Other studies reach similar conclusions, cameras more often help the cops than those brutalized by police. Like any gang, police protect each other, and departments will resist turning over information that will compromise one of their own. It’s no surprise that the makers of body cameras routinely advertise them as a ways to help protect police—not those who they target. A prominent manufacturer of body cameras, VIEVU, uses the slogan “Made By Cops For Cops. Prove Your Truth.”

The state regularly uses “crisis” situations to expand its power, so it’s important to remember that more cameras in the hands of cops means more power in their hands.

From the perspective of the state, the logic for body cameras is sound. Body cameras expand the systems of surveillance that exist in the modern world. Body cameras will join the surveillance cameras already in place in Grand Rapids (which the GRPD recently gained real-time access to) and license plate scanners that record the movements of vehicles in the city. As shown in the recent debate over NSA surveillance, people tend to be skeptical of increased surveillance and some understand that more surveillance means less options. However, packaging body cameras as a way to increase “accountability” makes it the surveillance seem more palatable. The state regularly uses “crisis” situations to expand its power, so it’s important to remember that more cameras in the hands of cops means more power in their hands. It’s the same when the City discusses “community policing” as a way of expanding the total number of officers. Even if the job description changes, the power of the police increases.

It makes sense for the City of Grand Rapids to willingly adopt body cameras. It’s an easy way to give the appearance of making a change, even though it will just expand police power. Buried deep in the City’s recommendations is the fact that the City’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union includes a provision stating that new technology cannot be used for disciplinary purposes during the first year of its use.

As with body cameras, we should be skeptical of calls to increase the hiring of more cops of color. This is a perfectly palatable reform for those in power, which is why the city is so willing to pursue it. The consequence of efforts such as an NAACP scholarship for people of color to enroll in the police academy or new hiring practices targeting people of color, means more praise for the police. In other cases, recommendations such as an increased visibility of the GRPD in Grand Rapids’ schools simply means more policing of already targeted populations. All of this presumes that the problem is either inequitable representation or individual white racist officers – when the problem is a system that rewards officers of all colors for protecting power and its interests. The police as an institution serve the white supremacist power structure and individual cops are unable to challenge or change it, regardless of the color of their skin. We should celebrate those who refuse to be cops. In the case of black youth, they likely understand how the police function, and as such, why would they want to join?

In the recommendations made by the Community and Police Relations Committee, nearly two pages out of a seven-page document were spent dispelling the need for a Civilian Police Appeals Board with subpoena-power. The City and GRPD are steadfast in their opposition to this, which gets to the core of the problem of reform. When it comes time to implement changes that might have actual consequences, the reforms are suddenly can’t be made. The City plans to launch a public education campaign to increase awareness about the Board, even as acknowledges its limitations. The Appeals Boards is entirely review-based and has no power to interview witnesses or otherwise investigate allegations, and most certainly “has no power to impose discipline.” All it can do is act on the words of the GRPD’s Internal Affairs Unit, and there’s every reason to be skeptical of police investigating themselves. Time and time again, police line-up to protect their own. We see glimpses of this in the police union’s opposition the City’s approved reforms and as well as Chief Rahinsky’s admission that he knows of no Grand Rapids cops have been removed from their job for an instance of abuse in “recent memory.


If not Reform, then What?

Despite their many flaws, police are still seen as necessary. Those who benefit most from the police would hate to see them abolished or destroyed, they prefer to see them managed and reformed. In this way, the well-meaning reformers collude with those with whom police are designed to protect. Both assume that the problem is on the surface, rather than at the core of the institution. The problem is assumed to be one of individual misconduct and a lack of oversight or training. For those of us caught in between these positions, police are often seen as a necessary evil – something haunting that we live with over our shoulder, but without which we’re not sure what the world would look like. Police are often seen as our only option, only they can provide the illusion of safety and order in a highly stratified society.

Rather than talking about body cameras, we need to ask deeper questions. To whom are the police necessary? What role do they really serve?

The truth is, we don’t need nicer cops. We don’t need cops with more community-sensitivity training. We need fewer cops. We need alternative methods for keeping each other safe and holding each other accountable. In the end, maybe we don’t need cops at all.

In order to get there, we’ll need imagination and vision. But we can begin that process by understanding that modern policing came out of a specific need to protect property and commerce and to enforce racial and class divides. The cops have always functioned this way – and they always will.