“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s been almost a half a century since hundreds from the black community rose up in a three day riot against racial injustice.
In 1967, there were 44 cities that experienced a racial uprising, including Grand Rapids. Like all across the country, the black community in Grand Rapids suffered from high levels of poverty, unemployment, limited educational opportunities, poor housing and little political power. On July 25th, Grand Rapids police pulled over a car with several black youth, and in front of several witnesses, used “excessive” force against those same black youth.
This was the spark that ignited an entire community’s rage over decades of institutional racism and exploitation. Some in the black community smashed windows of white owned businesses, while others set fire to abandoned or rundown buildings owned by white absentee landlords. An estimated 320 arrests were made during the three days that rioting took place, with most of the arrests involving members of the black community.
However, there were several white people who were arrested, according to a report published just months after the 1967 riot, entitled, Anatomy of a Race Riot. According to the report, published by the Grand Rapids Planning Department, most of the white people that were arrested, was because of weapons charges. Apparently, there were several white residents who wanted to use the riot as an opportunity to shoot black people. The report notes that some of the white people arrested were armed because they “wanted to protect their property.”
There were even a few groups (the report refers to them as gangs) of white people who roamed the streets on foot and in cars, particularly from the west side of Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Police Department even received calls from white people wanting to “volunteer as vigilantes.”
Most of the local news coverage of the three day riot in 1967 was sensationalized and tended to rely heavily of the police department and other city officials as sources. On the second day of the riot, a Grand Rapids Press editorial stated, “The great majority in the Negro Community is law-abiding.” Such a statement sends the message that those involved in the riot acted outside of officially sanctioned behavior.
The editorial goes on to say that, “the lawless behavior of a few Negro citizens has made a mockery of civil rights and that everything that has been done up to this point to improve the Negro’s social and economic standing has been a waste of time, money and effort.” Here we can see strong White Supremacist values in the editorial. Writing for a majority white population in Grand Rapids, the GR Press editorialist is suggesting that white society has invested all of these resources – time, money and effort – to save the black community, but it has all been wasted. This is a clear reflection of what some call the white savior complex, as if white society has made every effort to treat the black community better, despite themselves.
Lastly, the editorial says, “there must be no compromising with the forces of disorder.” The Press editorial writer makes his bias known by saying that anyone arrested should be treated as a criminal and nothing else.
In addition, to the editorials, the Grand Rapids Press ran an interesting story, one that reflected the dominant culture’s fear about urban Blacks. The July 27 story was based on calls the Press writer made to people in communities near Grand Rapids, communities that were almost exclusively White.
A woman from Ionia said, “We heard they were coming here on Tuesday. We all had our guns ready if we had to.” Another White woman in Lowell was quoted as saying, “I think it is terrible. They are destroying their own property – hurting their own cause.” A resident of Saranac stated, “It is a terrible thing to say, too, but authorities should open fire on them, do something drastic to wake them up.” A man from Holland agreed with serious force being used against those rioting. He stated, “The troops should have orders to stop them anyway necessary.”
It’s Their Behavior, not the System
In the last section of the Anatomy of a Riot report they make some recommendations about what could be done to prevent future responses like the 1967 riot.
Income – The report states that there is a need to provide full employment to people in the black community, so they they can take care of themselves. The report doesn’t say anything about wages, just employment, as if any job will suffice. The report also acknowledges that there are few black owned businesses and no black run financial institutions. Looking at the economic reality for blacks in Grand Rapids today, not much has changed, based on a report acknowledging that Grand Rapids is one of the worst cities for blacks to live in.
Housing – The report acknowledges that more black people should be provided the opportunity to own their own homes. However, the report also states, “At the same time, to stop deterioration, the prices of ghetto property have to be determined by the supply and demand of the open market.” Ironically, the same mentality exists today, which is why a disproportionate number of African Americans are being priced out of the housing market in Grand Rapids.
However, the report does suggest that local government needs to better serve the black community. The report states:
“The residents of the inner city must feel that the local government is their government. This is best shown when their problems and suggestions are considered as seriously as those of others in the community. A reputation for being concerned and doing everything possible for the inner city will go a long way toward the opinion that, unlike most American cities, the government of Grand Rapids considers these people first class citizens.”
In this whole section of the report, the section on recommendations, is completely devoid of any systemic analysis. In addition, institutionalized racism and White Supremacy are completely omitted from this part of the report, which is to say that those that prepared the report believe that while society can do better, the problems facing the black community comes down to its behavior.
So it has been nearly a half a century since the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. So, what lessons can we learn from how the dominant culture responded to this racial uprising that took place nearly 50 years ago?
First, not much has changed in terms of the quality of life for the black community in Grand Rapids. Almost every indicator in terms of quality of life has not changes much. Whether it is income levels, employment, housing, health care or incarceration rates, the black community continues to be disproportionately impacted in a negative way in each of these areas.
Second, the news media and public opinion continue to reflect White Supremacist values. The problems in the black community, we are told, are the fault of the black community. Things like institutionalized racism don’t really exist, we just need more diverse representation in our organizations, in government and corporate board rooms. However, the real lesson to be learned is that white people and white dominated power structures are resistant to change. The 1967 Riot says more about white people and our unwillingness to come to terms with White Supremacy.
Lastly, black anger and black rage are not allowed. As in the 1967 riot, black people today are constantly being told to be patient and to work to change things through proper channels. Join a non-profit, vote or start your own business, but stop blaming it all on racism are the mantras of today. Black people are not allowed to be heard, as Dr. King put it 50 years ago, by engaging in riots that challenge the “intolerable conditions that exist in our society.”