Drawing Lines: Race & Gentrification

New phrases are invented every year to overshadow the word “gentrification.” A few decades ago it was just “revitalization” or “urban renewal,” while in recent times new terms have cropped up such as “inclusive growth,” “development without displacement,” and a new favorite of Grand Rapids: “place making.” Marketing and branding schemes don’t come from nowhere, they are meant to hide and shift public dialogue into a direction favorable to economic power. This is nothing new. The myth of a post-racial society has permeated the United States for decades, with code words such as “thug” and “welfare queen” concealing the racism at the foundation of this society. The word “gentrification” must be hidden because it characterizes the social, economic, and political orientation of development as inherently racist.

An economic process by any other name…

Grand Rapids has been ranked the 2nd worst out of 52 urban centers for economic opportunities for black people in the entire country according to a recent Forbes Magazine article. Nearly 45% of black residents in Grand Rapids live in poverty. Grand Rapids-Wyoming is the 26th most segregated metropolitan area between white and black people in the United States. Black people on average give the city a worse rating than white people. The GRPD regularly stop, photograph, and fingerprint black men who are not being charged with any crime and as a result the department is currently facing a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the city is receiving accolades for its economic growth. Lonely Planet named Grand Rapids as the top US travel destination of 2014, the same year it was ranked 5th among U.S. cities benefiting most from economic recovery. In 2013, Grand Rapids won the “Beer City USA” award for its numerous microbreweries and bars. These awards cater primarily to white people – the culture of entrepreneurship so praised in Grand Rapids rarely celebrates black businesses. The cultural activities celebrated are also a celebration of white pseudo-culture – i.e. stuff white people like.

Marginalization in every sense of the word describes the process applied to many of Grand Rapids’s black residents. Not only are the majority of non-white people held back from economic opportunities, but for white people these problems and others are kept out of sight and out of mind. For a city the size of Grand Rapids, that means that these social inequalities affecting majority black areas are happening literally a block or two away from majority white areas, and yet remain largely unseen.

White Grand Rapids exhibits a combination of callous, oblivious, and indifferent attitudes towards the marginalization of the city’s black residents. Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation sponsor a “Place Matters” feature on the local news website The Rapidian, which strives to make the city look more appealing to potential professional newcomers. Grand Rapids has been participating in a global trend where cities compete with each other to attract entrepreneurs and a certain class of new residents. This process crafts a regional identity into a kind of brand, and exploits peoples’ sense of belonging into a kind of brand loyalty. Seriously examining the racial and economic disparities in the city doesn’t make for flashy PR. A public relations group responded to the aforementioned Forbes Magazine article with a #BlackInGrandRapids campaign on Twitter as well as showcasing a video, both of which were meant to counter a narrative which brought bad press to Grand Rapids.

PR-01 PR-02


This move failed, as people quickly used the hashtag to post statistics and stories about the oppression and marginalization of black people in Grand Rapids.

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Gentrification unearths an ugly truth about race in Grand Rapids and the United States: that blackness is considered undesirable, dirty, and dangerous while whiteness is seen as pure and safe. It is a centuries old narrative whose parts are updated every generation – but it’s still largely true. White people refer to areas with mostly black people as “ghetto,” even if the residents are middle class. The Meijer on Kalamazoo and 28th is colloquially called the “ghetto Meijer.” Living south of Franklin is in “the hood.” While tolerant multicultural society urges white kindness to a black neighbor or co-worker, it does so under the implication that white people form the majority and hold the power. This is why “development without displacement” is a joke, and those who urge for it are either naive or have ulterior motives. On the flip side of this, some white people are aware of the sterility of whiteness, and subsequently desire to be around people of color, fetishizing areas with majority black and brown people as exotic and “authentic.” These white people tend to unknowingly be the vanguard of gentrification, making space where more white people feel comfortable inhabiting.

The Vacancy is Too Damn Low!

As pointed out in our “Fulton Place & Development” article,

“Gentrification scholars have long recognized that ‘displacement’ doesn’t exclusively mean physical displacement and that displacement can happen over time as the culture and composition of the neighborhood changes. Gentrification is a concept that captures the ways in which most ‘redevelopment’ projects involve a shift from one class to the other, regardless of whether or not they involve direct displacement.”

This process is aided due to a large influx of new residents into the city. While gentrification is normally seen as a raising of rent, in this case that might not even be necessary. Grand Rapids has the lowest rental vacancy rate in the country at 1.6% compared to the national average of 7%. New residents pulled in by the allure of urban living likely benefit from race and class privileges over long-term residents, which might include clean arrest records, high credit ratings, stable incomes, and even white-sounding names. In securing loans, applying for housing, finding employment, and in almost every other dimension of public life they have the advantage.

The Wealthy Street Model

On most nights along Wealthy Street, there are large crowds of (white) people visiting a host of bars, breweries, and eateries which serve up the latest in foodie trends. From fish tacos and micro-brews to artisan vegan food and $12 macaroni and cheese, they can all be found. During the day, boutique stores, salons, and coffee shops are popular destinations. Visitors come from outside the neighborhood – it has become a destination spot among hip travelers and residents of other neighborhoods alike. Fancy cars line the streets, while expensive bikes take up space on the bike racks. It’s a mix of hipsters, affluent millenials, families, and more – the overwhelming majority of which tend to be white. Walk a few blocks north from the intersection of Wealthy Street and Diamond Avenue, and you are in an even more affluent area where restaurant options rival those found in bigger cities. The money and wealth radiates out from the area, creating a two-block stretch that might make one surprised that they are still in Grand Rapids. On the walk over, one may have noticed the homes, many of which are owner occupied and well-maintained, creating a desirable neighborhood popular with homeowners and renters alike – including the coveted young professionals. However, walking just a block south of Wealthy Street and Diamond Avenue evokes the feeling of being in a totally different world. The quality of homes drops dramatically, the presence of police increases, and numerous indicators of generational poverty and disinvestment are everywhere. And the racial composition of the neighborhood almost flips. While those visiting and owning businesses along or north of Wealthy Street tend to be white, those living south of Wealthy Street tend to be black. The dividing line of Wealthy Street couldn’t be clearer.


The Wealthy Street corridor has been heavily gentrified in recent years. Like many inner-city neighborhoods, there was significant disinvestment in the second half of the 20th century, which accelerated following the 1967 riots against police. In the intervening years, it was largely forgotten about by white residents. The standard picture painted by the neighborhood’s boosters is that prior to their efforts, it was overrun with drug dealers and gang members. While these components certainly existed, it’s worth considering the ways in which this story creates a racialized narrative. This is especially important in light of the fact that the developments along Wealthy Street are very one-sided, directed at – and benefiting – primarily white people. This kind of critical distinction is absent in most discussions of Wealthy Street. If you look at media coverage or listen to neighborhood boosters, you are far more likely to hear stories about the near super-hero like role individuals had in facing down drug dealers, the heroic efforts of homeowners renovating their homes against all odds, the importance of creating a historical district, and the opening of new businesses in helping to “turn” the neighborhood. Unfortunately, many of these protagonists are white and many of the investments come from outside the neighborhood. Black-owned businesses do still exist along Wealthy Street, but it is those that cater to the new class and race of customers that are celebrated in the media.

While there has been some debate over whether or not the neighborhood has undergone gentrification, it tends to be a charged conversation. In it, most popular myths of gentrification are invoked and there is little actual examination of what has changed on Wealthy Street. People will assert publicly that gentrification is not happening and argue that there is no displacement of existing residents. This of course is limited in that it assumes a narrow definition of displacement, focusing only on physical displacement rather than cultural. It’s a different form of displacement that is taking place when black residents may not feel welcome in an area built to cater primarily to white dispositions and cultures. On the topic of displacement, this is a common issue in gentrification studies as the process of measuring displaced residents is difficult as they are by definition gone from the areas where sociologists would go to interview them – thus making the displaced largely untraceable. Yet it’s doubtful that those who clamor of evidence of displacement actually care, as they are often the proponents of the gentrification. There has been relatively little study of Wealthy Street, leaving one to rely primarily on perceptions based on the proliferation of upscale establishments and the experience of walking through the neighborhood and noting what is going on. When it comes to actual studies, one from 2002 found that the area was undergoing a process of gentrification and that was before things really took off in the mid-2000s.


The wholesale transformation of the area is unmistakable. Even as some continue to celebrate it, others have been more critical, arguing that the benefits of the development have not moved south of Wealthy Street and have not been extended to non-white residents. In some cases, it’s mentioned in a very matter-of-fact way that gentrification did happen and that it clearly did not benefit residents. Even proponents of what happened on Wealthy Street have occasionally expressed regret, admitting that the neighborhood lacks middle-income housing. Often, the question of whether or not gentrification happened along Wealthy Street falls along racial and class lines, with those who benefit from gentrification being the staunchest and loudest in their opinions that it did not.

Wealthy Is Everywhere

Despite the negatives associated with the gentrification of Wealthy Street, many in the city – especially in the development community and its cheerleaders – see it as a sort of “model” of how “revitalization” can happen in Grand Rapids and what the desired end goal is. Bear Manor Properties – which at the time owned Electric Cheetah, Brick Road Pizza, and the Meanwhile Bar – asserted, “We feel like Wealthy Street is a model for the future of good development in the city.” In regard to recent developments on the Westside, developers have not been shy about invoking the image of Wealthy Street when discussing the neighborhood’s future. The owners of the forthcoming Harmony Hall – a second location for Harmony Brewing – have said that “…it reminds me a lot of working on Wealthy Street back in 2006 and 2007.” Others have said that the Westside will be “like Eastown” in 5-10 years. And it’s a theme that is consistently invoked in the media. Developers and their boosters – in the media and gentrifiers – speak of how Bridge Street is shaping up to be a “destination” neighborhood.


In the way that criticism of the gentrification of Wealthy Street is shot down with the assertion that before it was overrun with drug dealers and gang members, gentrifers on the Westside speak of the need to eliminate “low use” and an undesirable “culture” (in reference to a lingerie/video store and an adult theater) that existed along Bridge Street. Without defending the previous businesses, it should be obvious that it does not have to be an either/or scenario, as if the choice must be between abandoned buildings and gentrification. Along with the rhetoric, the constellation of restaurants and developments planned for on the Westside point towards a future like Wealthy Street with upscale clothing stores, restaurants, and breweries planned for the neighborhood. Along with these, a number of housing developments have been proposed for the area which introduce rental rates far outside the norm for the area. Ultimately, the original cultures will be replaced – witness the number of restaurants planning to serve Polish and Mexican fusion cuisine – as an insulting homage to those who have been (or will soon be) displaced. Meanwhile, people living in the adjacent neighborhoods will be increasingly unwelcome and their opinions will be deemed less and less relevant. Invoking Wealthy Street as a model may be accurate in terms of conceptualizing what Bridge Street will look like and who it will cater to, with the new build gentrification, it may be an even more totalizing transformation.

The “Wealthy Street Model” of gentrification is moving beyond Bridge Street. New projects in other areas of the town are repeating a similar pattern. One developer commits to an area, only to have a number of other projects follow in their footsteps. This is happening in the Creston neighborhood, where Derek Coppess of 616 Development says that “you’re going to see a whole different neighborhood.” While 616 Development is building new developments, they are also promising the same kind of total transformation that happened on Wealthy Street. He even goes so far as to describe the neighborhood – home to many people and businesses already – as being made of “great bones” in “… need [of] an infusion of market-rate people who are here 24-7.” News reporters couldn’t be happier, barely able to contain themselves at the prospect of yet another brewery opening. As a new class of people is introduced to the neighborhood, a feeling of dislocation and exclusion is inevitable and a variety of direct and indirect pressures will begin to bear down on those living on the edges of the gentrifying blocks.


The opening of Hall Street Bakery on the corner of Fuller and Hall should be considered as another iteration of the “Wealthy Street Model” of gentrification. Hall Street Bakery—operated by the same owners of the Wealthy Street Bakery—consciously identifies with and celebrates the role that Wealthy Street Bakery had in the gentrification of Wealthy Street. David LaGrand, one of the owners of the two businesses, said in an interview with MLive, “The bakery really helped kick off some development on Wealthy Street years ago and we’re hoping this will stimulate some investments in the (new) neighborhood.” He has also said that “The neighborhood in Hall and Fuller looks a lot like what Wealthy Street looked like when we (first) invested there.” It’s worth noting that while he celebrates the “revival” of Wealthy Street, LaGrand does not believe gentrification actually happens in Grand Rapids. With the Hall Street Bakery opening, one can’t help but wonder if the same demographic shift – both in terms of race and class – that occurred along Wealthy Street will happen around the Hall Street Bakery. After all, gentrification scholars such as Neil Smith have long recognized the importance of “outpost” businesses in the process of gentrification that test the waters for future development.

“Best Side” for long?

The near Westside of the city just across the river was noted as one of Grand Rapid’s “most integrated” areas according to a MLive article citing US Census data. The population has historically been composed of working class black, white, and latin@ people. Of course, that is not to say that the area is racially harmonious, but just to note that at the present time, it is relatively diverse – especially by Grand Rapids standards. It’s no secret that urban planners as well as construction and real estate firms are in the process of gentrifying Bridge Street and the Westside in general, all with city commission approval. As expected, the microbreweries, boutique clothing stores, and market-rate housing are clearly not meant for long-term residents. West Grand Neighborhood per capita income is an average of $14,880.26 a year, John Ball Park Neighborhood’s is at $20,415.62. In contrast, a pair of pants at Bridge Street clothing store Denym costs $100-200. Rent at the 600 Douglas project is market-rate, which ends up being $975-2,100 a month.

At the same time, landlords are buying up newly vacant family homes near Lake Michigan Drive, many of which have recently been foreclosed on, and are renting them to GVSU students, a demographic that is 84% white. A house, for which a family may once have paid a mortgage of less than $1000 a month, is rented to four students at $400 each. In addition to becoming less affordable, the neighborhood changes in character. The party lifestyles of privileged youth directly clash with neighboring families or older residents. Even if not priced out, long-term residents might just get sick of hearing that same Jay-Z song ritually blasted at 2 AM every night.

Whether it’s predatory landlords renting to boisterous students or capitalists and city planners trying to attract more capital along Bridge Street, the limited gains of racial co-existence made on the Westside will likely be gone in the near future. But why should officials in Grand Rapids care? They already rank 51 out of 52 cities in economic opportunities for black people. They can hardly go any lower, and city officials have made it quite clear that gentrification is the official policy, regardless of its consequences.

“No Neutrals There”

In 1931, the United Mine Workers of Harlan, Kentucky battled an openly violent conflict against the mine’s owners. Florence Reece, whose husband was one of the miners, wrote the song “Which Side Are You On?” to implore that there can be “no neutrals” amidst such conflict. The mine owners and the structural forces behind gentrification share the ability to create and change the world around those that inhabit it. To take a passive or neutral stance in either situation is ultimately to side with the oppressor.

On October 6, 2014 a group of activists disrupted the St. Louis Opera, standing up from their seats and singing an altered version of “Which Side Are You On?” called “A Requiem for Mike Brown.” The last year of revolts over police killings has shattered the mask of a post-racial society for all who are willing to look. Gone are the days when one could sincerely pose the question in mixed company of whether racism still exists in this country. In this time of gentrifying displacement, cold-blooded murder of black people by a white supremacist, and ongoing revolt against the violence of the police, more so every day the question shifts from whether racism exists to a choice: “which side am I on?”

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.