New Artwork exposes Settler Colonialism as part of the founding of Grand Rapids

Four years ago we wrote two pieces that looked at the foundation of the oppressive politics which led to the creation of Grand Rapids.

The first piece was entitled More White Lies: Grand Rapids and Settler Colonialism. In that piece we provided a framework for the function of settler colonialism, along with how it was practiced by white settlers, who through legal means, appropriated the land that once belong to the Anishinaabe people.

The second post from four years ago looked at the role that the government and early christian communities played in settler colonialism along the Grand River. The second article is entitled, The Role of the Church & State in Native Displacement in West MI: Settler Colonialism in Grand Rapids Part II.

Using this history and frame, GVSU student Larry Chavez created this print, which is a fabulous visual compliment to the narrative on how Grand Rapids was founded.

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2006 Immigration March was the largest in Grand Rapids History

(On March 26, 2006, I was writing for Media Mouse and reported on an immigrant-led march that was a response to proposed anti-Immigration legislation that year. What follows is what I wrote and a brief analysis of the Grand Rapids Press coverage.)

Thousands of people marched in favor of immigrant rights today in Grand Rapids as part of ongoing organizing efforts against anti-immigrant legislation being debated by the federal government. The march, which went from Garfield Park to Calder Plaza, was the largest march in recent history, far exceeding a 2004 march for immigrant rights that was attended by more than 400 people.

In Grand Rapids today, nearly 10,000 people marched in favor of immigrant rights and against legislation that would criminalize undocumented workers. Their signs read “We are ALL Immigrants,” “We do the Work,” and “We are not Terrorists.”

Starting at Garfield Park on the south side of Grand Rapids people from all over West Michigan came together from all walks of life. There were ministers, small business owners, parents, students, but most of the people who gathered today were workers. Several people I talked to said they took the day off from work, because “this issue is more important than a day’s pay.” Economics was one of the 2 main reasons that people mentioned for taking action on this issue.

A farm worker named Vicente said, “people don’t realize how important we are to the economy…..we pick the fruit, we do the work!” Teresa Hendricks from the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project says that “if the current undocumented workforce was arrested the economy locally would shut down. We estimate that migrant workers generate about $10 billion annually in West Michigan.”

The other issue that people kept repeating was the fact that if the proposed legislation went through it would be “a grave injustice.” The possibility that millions of people could be jailed for nothing more than being undocumented, generated lots of angry energy at the march. People yelled, chanted, and carried hundreds of Mexican flags. Luis Beteta, head of the Catholic Church’s Hispanic Ministry office said that “this proposed legislation itself was criminal. People should never be considered illegal just because a policy says so.” When asked about people who are not directed at risk with this proposed legislation Beteta said “in Nazi Germany many people said this doesn’t concern me and look what happened. It affects all of us. We are all Immigrants.”

The march ended at the Calder Plaza, where several thousand people listened to speakers from a variety of different community organizations. Speakers highlighted the contributions of immigrants to US society, discussed HR 4437, and highlighted the continued need for legislative proposals such as the Kennedy-McCain Immigration Reform Act and the DREAM Act. Similar events were held across the country in cities such as HoustonPhoenix, and Salinas over the weekend with the largest of these rallies drawing between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people in Los Angeles.

Grand Rapids Press Coverage

The Grand Rapids Press coverage wasn’t awful, but it was limiting in what information was shared. First, the coverage does not center the voices and perspectives of the immigrant community that participated in the march. Second, the coverage focused too much on the theme of, “we are not terrorists.” Third, the coverage underestimated the numbers that turned out. The GR Press relied on the GRPD for an estimation and put it at 7,000, while organizers told me they believed it was closer to 10,000. Lastly, the GR Press coverage did not provide any larger analysis of why so many turned out for the march and how the mass turnout was replicated across the country. The lack of context also failed to acknowledge that there had been several organizing meetings in the months leading up to the march, meetings that were public with 200 – 300 each meeting.


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Farmworker Solidarity action in Grand Rapids – 1983

Last week we posted a piece on efforts in Grand Rapids in the late 1970’s to provide support and solidarity with migrant farmworkers across the country. These efforts were organized through the group, Western Michigan Friends of the Farm Workers.

We obtained archival documents of this movement work from the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. There were a few other documents that we found, documents from the same group, the Western Michigan Friends of the Farm Workers.

These documents are from their newsletter in 1983.

On page 1 it states that those supporting the national boycott from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) will be holding “human billboard” action on July 28th in Grand Rapids in front of Monroe Plaza at noon.

This action was in conjunction with a 527 mile march that FLOC organized, a march that was ending at the Campbell Soup Company headquarters in New Jersey.

On page 2 of the document, it states that FLOC has been on strike since 1978 in the tomato fields of northwest Ohio, because of low wages and working conditions. In 1983, wages for those picking tomatoes in Ohio were $1.96 an hour, with poor housing and constant exposure to pesticides. It was also documented that child labor was being used.

The United Farm Workers endorsed the boycott, as did the AFL-CIO and other labor groups, including the Grand Rapids Education Association. There were also peace and justice organizations in Grand Rapids that supported the Campbell boycott, like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Institute for Global Education.

The boycott ended in 1986, with a victory for farmworkers, who were able to get a $4.50 an hour wage for hundreds of farmworkers beginning in 1987.

A big thank you to Kaitlin Popielarz, for taking pictures of these documents and sending them to us!!!




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Solidarity with Migrant Farm Workers event in Grand Rapids – 1978

Recently, we were able to find some archival documents from the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University, documents that are specific to Grand Rapids, particularly the Farm Worker Movement.

The image below is taken from a newsletter in April of 1978, and as you can see it says Vol. 1, No. 1. We have yet to come across any other copies of any other volumes from this newsletter, which was put out by Western Michigan Friends of the Farm Workers.

There are three people pictured in the newsletter, one of which is Rosa Fraga, who is still in Grand Rapids and still active in issues that impact the Latinx community, specifically around the issue of immigration.

Based on our own research and talking with people who were active in migrant worker justice in the 1970s in Grand Rapids, we known that there was never a migrant worker union that was formed in West Michigan. However, there were numerous support groups of allies doing solidarity work, like the Western Michigan Friends of the Farm Workers.

At the end of the archived document above, it says that there was going to be a meeting at Sr. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, in preparation for the Migrant Worker Walkathon being held in Detroit in May of 1978. We did not find anything on the Walkathon for 1978, but we did find an archival flyer for a Walkathon in 1983, picture below.

A big thank you to Kaitlin Popielarz, for taking pictures of these documents and sending them to us!!!

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Anti-Globalization Movement in Grand Rapids began in the Spring of 2000

The US anti-sweatshop organizing in the 1990s focused a great deal of individual corporations and their exploitation of workers in countries around the world.

Organizers around the world however, didn’t just challenge the practices of individual corporations, instead they saw the larger structural exploitation that was taking place because of neoliberal capitalism. Organizers in countries that were being exploited saw the relationship between US imperialism, the global financial institutions (IMF, World Bank and the WTO) and white supremacy, thus articulating an analysis that went beyond brands like Nike and Disney.

The analysis that insurgent groups in Latin American, African and parts of Asia began to use the language of globalization when referring to the economic system that was transferring wealth from former colonial countries to the US and Europe.

This analysis was also being put into action in the form of resistance around the world and eventually came to Seattle in 1999, with the protest/direct action against the WTO meetings that were being held. The direct action shut down the meeting for part of the time and for the first time, people in the US saw what insurgent movements around the globe already knew, that resistance to globalization was possible.

After Seattle, these kinds of mass demonstrations began to follow the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and any regional trade policy discussions. In the Spring of 2000, there was an action planned in Washington DC, while local groups were also planning their own actions. In Grand Rapids, an anti-globalization movement also planned an action that would coincide with what was happening in DC.

People from grassroots autonomous groups, organized labor, environmentalists and others planned and participated in the April 2000 action in Grand Rapids. The action consisted of three parts, beginning with a rally on Calder Plaza, which featured numerous speakers, as was documented in the 11 minutes video by Media Mouse.

After the rally, roughly 100 people took part in an un-permitted march that went south on Division, west on Fulton and right on Monroe. The march took over the streets and the GRPD quickly showed up and demanded that people walk on the sidewalks. Police began pushing people towards the sidewalk on Fulton Street near the arena, but weren’t able to get everyone off the road until in turn north on Monroe. Police continued to harass protestors and several were arrested. You can see the GRPD pushing people towards the sidewalk in this photo on the right.

The Grand Rapids Press reported on the action, with an article we are reposting below.

These kind of actions would continue in Grand Rapids for a few more years and at times people from Grand Rapids would travel to participate in other mass protests that confronted globalization.

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Anti-sweatshop Action in Grand Rapids – 1996

As part of the growing anti-globalization/anti-free trade movement that was growing in the US, especially after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, organizers with the Institute for Global Education held an action at the Woodland Mall to bring attention to the sweatshop labor practices of the global corporation, Disney.

In the Spring of 1996, the Institute for Global Education had brought Charles Kernaghan, the head of the National Labor Committee, to Grand Rapids to speak about the work of his organization. Kernaghan made national headlines when he confronted Kathy Lee Gifford over the sweatshop conditions at a factory in Honduras that was manufacturing her clothing line.

Kernaghan used confrontation as a way of exposing the growing international garment industry’s practices of using sweatshop labor, a practice that led to the book that Naomi Klein wrote, No Logo. One of the biggest brand names that the National Labor Committee took on was Disney, which was being confronted by the amount of sweatshop labor the company was using, especially in Haiti.

We have written about other organizing around Haiti, in a 3-part series that dealt with West Michigan connections to Haiti in the early 1990s, especially the clothing manufacturer, HH Culter, which used to make clothes in Grand Rapids, before moving their operation to Haiti.

Bringing the spokesperson for the National Labor Committee to Grand Rapids was important at the time, as it led to a greater awareness of how globalization was impacting workers around the world. In addition, bring Charles Kernaghan to town help to create the seeds of a movement that began in Grand Rapids in 1996, a movement that would later call itself the anti-globalization movement.

The first action, which was specifically designed to challenge anti-sweatshop labor, took place in Grand Rapids in late November of 1996 at the Woodland Mall. The image below if from an article in the Grand Rapids Press.

There was another campaign against Nike in 1997 that Grand Rapids organized put together, which was followed by many other actions that confronted sweatshops. In addition, there was an effort after the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, to bring labor organizers, environmentalists and community organizers together to confront the growing connections of globalization that were taking place in West Michigan, which we will explore in future articles.

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Grand Valley Labor News series on Amway – 1980

We recently received a three-part series of articles written by Michael Johnston, a Grand Rapids labor historian and former journalist with Grand Valley Labor News (GVLN).

This recently acquired three-part series is important, since he provides important analysis about co-founders Rich DeVos & Jay Van Andel. The GVLN series is also important because it looks at the anti-labor practices of the Ada-based corporation in the late 1960 and early 1970s.

Part I of the series provides more of an overview of the Amway Corporation and its co-founders DeVos and Van Andel. One thing important from Part I in the series is the information about how much media the Amway corporation produces and owns, both in the United States and around the world.

In Part II of the series, entitled, The Right Wing Idol, Johnston takes a look at theideological worldview of the Amway co-founders and provides details on who these two members of the capitalist class were funding at the time. This investigation into which organizations DeVos and Van Andel were funding is similar to our post from another source in the late 1990s. It is important to have some comparisons in different decades to see how their contributions to Right Wing entities had evolved.

In addition, the picture that accompanies Part II in this series (see above), is from May of 1980, where some 500 people were in Calder Plaza to protest Amway’s anti-labor practices. Most of those protesting were from various trade unions, but there were also representatives from ACORN – the Association for Community Organizing for Reform Now.

In Part III of the series, the writer takes a close look at Amway’s anti-union position, beginning with examples from the 1960s, when the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (part of the AFL-CIO) attempted to unionize the Amway plant in Ada.

This story is particularly interesting since it discusses how Rich DeVos began holding mandatory in plant meetings to counter the union efforts. Part III devotes a fair amount of attention to this dynamic, since DeVos has made this practice of regular meetings with employees an important part of his strategy to undermine workers who attempt to create a union within the company founded on a pyramid scheme.

(A big thank you to Michael Johnston for sharing this series and for allowing us to post in on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project site.)

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