Published in Economic Development

BROKEN SYSTEM: Historic underinvestment in communities of color is root of uptick in gun violence, Grand Rapids leaders say

BY Sunday, August 18, 2019 07:10pm

Five weeks before a pair of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio rocked the nation, community leaders in Grand Rapids held a press conference on the city’s southeast side to address the city’s recent spike in gun violence. 

In the week leading up to the press conference, Grand Rapids saw 10 shootings in five days.

Joe Jones, Grand Rapids Second Ward city commissioner and president and CEO of the Urban League of West Michigan MIBIZ FILE PHOTO: ADAM BIRD

While the Texas and Ohio shootings appear to be one-off events igniting another national gun control debate, local leaders point to systemic racial discrimination that has helped fuel this summer’s uptick in gun violence in Michigan’s second-largest city. They compare Grand Rapids with cities like Chicago and Baltimore when they talk about the lack of hope among the city’s young African American male population, driven by a historic under-investment in the community.

“What we’re seeing with community violence in the city is the direct result of a much deeper-rooted issue,” said Joe Jones, Grand Rapids Second Ward city commissioner and president and CEO of the Urban League of West Michigan. “The historic marginalization of African Americans and Latinos who lack access to opportunity, live in high-density areas and deal with untreated trauma — when you pool those things together it creates a very bad outcome.”

Pastor Jerry Bishop of Lifequest Ministries on the city’s southeast side, agrees with Jones on the root cause.

“This summer is not an anomaly, it’s not unique and it’s not an isolated incident,” Bishop said. “It is the harvest based upon what we’ve planted. Economically, we’ve invested almost nothing into the audience that’s committing the most violent crimes. Where there’s no investment, there can be no return.”

Between Jan. 1 and July 7, the city saw a 56 percent increase in careless/reckless weapon firing, a 20 percent increase in non-family aggravated assaults and an 88 percent increase in attempted murder, over the same period in 2018. Robberies with a gun also increased by 50 percent over the same period, according to the Grand Rapids Police Department.

City leaders hope new community outreach efforts and targeted funding will address the city’s gun violence problem, but some concede that it could take decades.

Pitch for funding

On Aug. 8, Jones attended the Safe Alliances for Everyone (SAFE) Task Force “pitch night” in northeastern Grand Rapids. It was the third event where nonprofits and individuals compete for grants supporting anti-violence programs for 15 to 24 year olds. The causes of community violence are complex but can start to be addressed with employment opportunities or other extracurricular activities, he said. 

“Events like these — a real intentional effort to target opportunities for communities historically marginalized — are a part of the answer,” Jones said. “It’s not as easy as certain narratives make it in terms of black and brown folks being inherently violent. That is such crap, there is nothing historically that speaks to that being a fact.”

At the SAFE event, contestants pitched their ideas for five minutes to a panel of four judges, which included Third Ward City Commissioner Senita Lenear. Huntington Bank, a previous pitch night funder, pledged a $10,000 match for workforce development.

Lenear said she’s been speaking directly with companies in the area that have wanted to be part of the effort to address community violence. The 15- to 24-year-old age group is intentionally targeted.

“You see an uptick in violent acts with this age group after school and in the summer,” she said. “The goal is to have something happening during those times that’s constructive.”

August’s funding went to a community recording studio, a community picnic and a basketball tournament that also includes job training.

Lifequest Ministries was awarded funding at the previous SAFE event in June. Bishop said Lifequest has at times directed money for electric bills to pay workers. The group aims to create jobs and teach life skills to young men, Bishop said, but it will take more targeted spending — particularly on counseling for trauma victims — to find solutions.

“In Kent County, we don’t have enough utilization of culturally competent urban PTSD counselors,” Bishop said. “It’s a money issue, it’s a compassion issue, it’s a level-of-importance issue. I think we’ve really over-complicated this and under-addressed it.”

Jones adds that the “systems and structures in place that have been broken for centuries” in the United States will take decades and “significant intentionality” to fix.

“Whether it’s health care, employment opportunities, the wealth gap — all of these things play a part in the outcomes we have,” he said.

Lenear agrees.

“We need the right types of programs, and there hasn’t been a lot of organizations providing that consistently,” she said. “The city hasn’t engaged consistently in financing these agencies. It’s going to take all hands on deck, and that’s why we’re doing these pitch nights.”

Inequities persist

The historic marginalization and discrimination against African Americans in Grand Rapids is well-documented, particularly as it relates to housing and education. In the 1950s and ’60s, white residents fled to outlying areas of the city as federal housing policies favored segregation in neighborhoods and schools.

In his 2013 book, “City within a city: The black freedom struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” historian Todd E. Robinson writes that the city became increasingly divided by race post World War II, with the needs of the inner city left behind.

“While accommodating the peripheral needs of Grand Rapids during the postwar economic boom years, city officials neglected to remedy the economic and social needs of inner-city residents. Racism continued to hinder the growth and development of central urban space,” Robinson writes. “The forced concentration of blacks in the city widened the ‘black belt’ and created more blighted areas in the city. The attempt to build outside Grand Rapids without investing in the central city proved costly, as racial isolation returned to haunt the metropolitan core region.”

Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, said the organization has directed funding to and formed partnerships in communities of color. Since 2006, GRCF’s Our African American Heritage Fund has provided education and jobs for African American youth. The fund set a new goal to raise $100,000 for grants between Juneteenth 2019 and Juneteenth 2020, the annual nationwide commemoration of the end of slavery.

Sieger agrees underinvesting in communities of color has been an ongoing problem in Grand Rapids.

“We certainly agree that inequities persist in our community,” Sieger said. “We know that lack of access to opportunities is a contributing factor to violence.”

The uptick in violence also comes as Grand Rapids hired its first African American city manager and police chief. Lifequest Ministries’ Bishop says he’s “very optimistic” about the change in leadership.

Following the 10 shootings in five days this summer, however, the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association linked the increased violence to an under-staffed and over-scrutinized Grand Rapids Police Department. The police union posted on social media that the “recent and continued violence is the direct result of city officials not properly staffing and supporting the police department. To allow the police department to be constantly scrutinized discourages any type of proactive enforcement necessary to keep Grand Rapids safe. It is evidence that stop the violence rallies have no effect on criminal activity. It’s time to get GRPD back to policing.”

The Urban Core Collective responded to “highlight the callousness of this comment from GRPOA which attempts to strip communities of color of both our voice and agency by dismissing our calls for police accountability and devaluing our responses to violence in our neighborhoods … One thing we know for sure, more police does not make us safer. Narratives and stories matter, and GRPOA’s response is an attempt to control and erase voices and stories from our community that make the case for more public accountability of the police. The police union should be ashamed of using these tragedies in an attempt to remove themselves from ongoing public scrutiny.” 

The police union did not respond to a request for comment.

Bishop said the gun violence isn’t a “police issue. Police do not change peoples’ behavior. People change peoples’ behavior. They don’t get it, they don’t understand the issue. It’s a danger to be policed by people who don’t understand the issue.”

Jones, at the June 28 press conference in Joe Taylor Park in the city’s Baxter neighborhood, said police officers are “engaged in a difficult task and are being asked to do quite a bit. There’s a lot they can’t do as well where others in the community have to step up.”

More broadly, Jones spoke of a cultural shift that needs to take place, otherwise violent acts will continue to repeat themselves.

“We need not be surprised with the types of incidents that are occurring,” Jones said in an interview. “We should be devastated, disappointed and angry, but we should not be surprised.”

Read 1598 times Last modified on Sunday, 18 August 2019 19:57
SUBSCRIBE TO MIBIZ TODAY FOR WEST MICHIGAN’S FINEST BUSINESS NEWS REPORTING >