When reading radical historian Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, it becomes clear early on that one can not talk about social movements without talking about the power structures that those movements fought against.
Whether it was slave owning class, robber barons, war profiteers, White Supremacist power structures or other sectors of power, Zinn makes it clear that every major social movement experienced push back from these structures of power.
Grand Rapids has its own history of robber barons, right from the start. City fathers such as Lucius Lyons and Louis Campau were some of the earliest robber barons, buying up land that had belonged to the local Native community. These men are seen as in competition with each other, but it is also clear that they were both beneficiaries of White Settler Colonialism that was moving westward after the founding of the United States.
Like much of the mid-west, Grand Rapids had its own industrialists, particularly in the furniture industry. Men like Henry Widdicomb (pictured here), were not only the beneficiaries of massive deforestation in the Great Lakes, they also made their wealth by paying workers low wages. Widdicomb, according to Jeffrey Kleiman, author of Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, was one of the most vicious in attacking workers during the 1911 strike. Widdicomb also led the charge to bring in scab workers and hire thugs to break the strike.
In more recent decades the robber barons have names like Van Andel, DeVos, Seechia, Kennedy, Frey, Jandernoa, Hunting & Wege, just to name a few. All of these families made their wealth through the labor of working class people and by accessing public funds for private gain. The graph here demonstrations how many of them are part of the same power structures in Grand Rapids.
Probably the most notable contemporary robber baron family is the DeVos family. Co-founders of Amway, the now three generations of DeVos family members have inserted themselves into a great deal of local state and national politics. The DeVos family has been buying elections and influencing policy by spending millions on political campaigns and lobbying. They own a tremendous amount of property in downtown Grand Rapids, most of the hotels and through their involvement in Grand Action, have re-directed millions in public funds (Van Andel Arena, DeVos Convention Center and the Downtown Market) to benefit themselves and the other members of the capitalist class in Grand Rapids.
The DeVos family is so wealthy that they used to own their own island. For years the family owned Peter Island, part of the British Virgin Islands, but more recently have invested heavily in The Cape Eleuthera resort and real estate project, according to an online source.
This should not be a surprise for those who have followed the DeVos family, their excessive wealth and how they flaunt it. The DeVos Family owns one of the world’s largest yachts, which they have so arrogantly named Freedom. Below is a picture of the yacht, accompanied by an interior photo. More recently, the family has acquired the yacht know as Seaquest, which is 130 foot long.
Frederick Douglass’ point about power conceding nothing without a demand is still relevant today. Indeed, with a growing gap between those with wealth and those in poverty, it is clear that those with wealth will not willingly give it up. As with all generations of social movements, we need to know who the opposition is and be prepared to fight against them, because they sure as hell will not ignore social movements that want substantive social justice.