I arrive in downtown near Rosa Parks Square with fire pulsing through my veins, having never been part of an active protest before. Following a throng of civilians, I soon realize that I’ve arrived a little late for a purely peaceful gathering, the crowds bristling with anger outside the site of a firebombing whose source was indeterminable from my vantage point. One protestor openly berates the wall of police officers before him; another, holding a sign that reads “I CAN’T BREATHE” raises a fist in solidarity as police vehicles maneuver past him in the street. A Muslim man preaches nonviolence as he makes his way through the barricade, and a man who has been pepper sprayed pours milk over his face. The police, wearing bulletproof vests, gas masks, and armed with batons, pistols, and stun guns, stand in a monolithic line before me. Few officers are wearing visible badge numbers. Rocks are thrown at police vehicles and chants are begun, but otherwise the standoff is benign, and meanwhile I can see and hear tear gas containers and fireworks being set off down other streets.
Turning down Monroe Center, I find myself less than a block away from the Grand Rapids police precinct, where protestors are lighting off fireworks and throwing them into the no-man’s land between us and the police barricading the station entry. Business windows are being smashed (and a few looted), trash cans lit on fire, and spray paint liberally applied to storefronts. The individual who was mocking the riot police minutes before has also moved to this street, wielding a piece of debris that he brazenly hurls through the station window. The only things seeming to prevent him from being arrested or assaulted are the extensive amount of recording devices trained on the guards. After a number of fireworks are set off a little too close for comfort, I decide to pass peacefully through the barricade at the end of the street, which temporarily bars the entry of a black individual until a white comrade raises enough hell to let him through.
Shortly after taking a left I come across a business with its windows smashed out; moments later tear gas is released without warning to bolster the advancement of police squads coming down either end of the block. Luckily I, along with a disorganized group of protesters, escape down a side alleyway. There’s a man pissing against one of the walls. Emerging from the alleyway, I come across a raging dumpster fire blocked off by state police wielding shotguns and automatic rifles. There continue to be scattered sounds of makeshift incendiaries, property destruction, tear gas canisters, and non-lethal rounds discharging in the distance. As I have arrived at this event alone, I decide it would be best to return to my car before inevitable police retaliation.
Following up on the previous night’s events, I find reports of an inconsistent number of torched police vehicles, damage to nearby businesses, and at least one protester seriously injured. Arrests have been made on individuals accused of inciting riots, and government officials allege that many of the protesters were not local. A 7 PM curfew has been placed on the city of Grand Rapids until further notice. Many news stories use language like “violent” and “unruly” to describe the protesters, implying that thousands of mindless rioters took to the streets with the intention of spilling blood. While I cannot attest to anything that may have occurred when and where I was not present, I personally experienced no actions (other than a firework lit and placed among protestors by a white male) that did not exceed a proportional response to the decades of violence experienced by African American communities, crescendoing in the deaths of George Floyd, and, more directly, Breonna Taylor, a Grand Rapids native and EMT by occupation, who was unjustly killed in a home invasion perpetrated by the Louisville police last March.
More disconcerting were the lack of transparency displayed by the police and the media. This may have been due to my late appearance to the protests, but the police made no attempt to warn protestors of gas attacks. The restraint they displayed seems only to be the result of caution in response to Little Brother.
It’s hard to believe that not all cops are bastards when they enable serial killers among their ranks, and even if you could make the argument that the voices of those who maintain any sort of moral integrity are stifled by the crypto-fascist Blue Wall, remember this: the police are not your friends. They are tools of an oppressive system designed to protect itself before the citizens who fund their paychecks. While I do not advocate needless violence and looting, now is the time to show the police state we live under that, while they have us outgunned, we have them greatly outnumbered, we’re pissed, and we will not back down. This is our time. Don’t forget to stop and smell the street fires.