Two weeks ago, we posted Part I of this series on anti-Iraq war organizing in Grand Rapids. Part I dealt with the beginning actions against the build-up to the war, specifically in the fall of 2002. Today, we will focus on the continued resistance at the beginning of 2003, including the demonstration that took place when President Bush came to Grand Rapids the day after his State of the Union address.
Just prior to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in mid-January, there was an indoor rally held at Plymouth Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, which included speakers and a send-off for people who were making the trip to Washington, DC for an anti-war march on MLK Day.
The People’s Alliance for Justice and Change were hosting ongoing organizing meetings in preparation for the US invasion/war against Iraq. The meetings were held in numerous locations, but organizers began noticing that there were both GRPD cruisers parked nearby meeting spaces and on several occasions undercover officers attempted to come to the meetings. Organizers were able to spot them and denied them entry into the spaces were the meetings were being held.
Then, it was announced that President George W. Bush was coming to Grand Rapids, the day after his State of the Union address. Organizers began planning an action to confront Bush when he would be in town. The announcement said he would first be at Spectrum Hospital and then take the motorcade to DeVos Hall.
The plan was to line up on both sides of Michigan Street, from just west of Spectrum Hospital, all the way down to the Federal building. The GRPD was told that the demonstration would then move down Michigan Street and turn left onto Monroe. However, organizers had a different plan, which was to turn left on Ottawa, then right on Lyon St and go directly to DeVos Hall.
There were over 100 cops out in force that day in late January, 2003. When the police realized that the demonstrators took a detour, they panicked. Protestors, which numbered over 1,000, began turning right on Lyon Street, near the entrance to the building, when police cruisers jumped the curb and almost ran into the building, in order to block those demonstrating to walk any further. At the same time, dozens of police officers lined up along Lyon St, facing demonstrators, in full riot gear. For nearly 30 minutes there was a shouting match between cops and protestors. What was not known at the time was that the GRPD had created a “Free Speech Zone,” which was something that the Bush administration had begun to use after 9/11. Free Speech Zones were fenced off areas that were designated for protestors, often a significant distance from where those protesting had intended. The same was the case on that day, with the Free Speech Zone create in front of City Hall on Monroe, nearly a block from where Bush would be speaking. (as you can see in the photo here below)
Jack Prince, who was teaching at GVSU at the time, and was at the protest, told us what had happened to him that day.
The protest in 2003 had problems from the beginning. All of the phones were shut off in the sociology and psychology department on campus as a means to thwart communication, since they knew there was talk of organizing or even discussing Bush’s visit. This was denied later, obviously. The group I was in was detained on North side of Michigan Ave in attempt to separate us from other protestors by police. After complaints we had to travel down Michigan to a point to cross. We noticed a lot of plain clothes men in suits with earplugs that were directing the local police as to what to do with shades on and dress suits. They would not interact with us and tried to be invisible but they were clearly in authority and control. As we proceeded down Ottawa south they attempted to compact us on sidewalk and when we turned West on Lyon there they had a constricted area where they made their move and began grabbing people. My daughter was grabbed and thrown on top of the hood of a car and was arrested. I became very vocal obviously at that point toward the police, but as there was a crowd forming with more witnesses they didn’t arrest me until I was walking up the steps to the ground level of a second story level by what is now the 5/3 bank building. Again in an area that was blocked from vision. My charge was: instigating a riot. A serious Felony Charge. People at GVSU, meaning the administration higher ups, saw me with a GVSU coat I had on in the news coverage and I was contacted by the Coaching department and they shared their displeasure which led to my departure from the school. After some time and organization with others who were arrested the charges were dropped. The ACLU was helping us and and really were instrumental in the charges being dropped after approximately a month.
In addition to the few who were arrested on Lyon Street, there was a whole other group that chose not to march down to the Free Speech Zone and began marching in the streets through downtown Grand Rapids. The GRPD began arresting people for marching in the street and an estimated 17 people in all were arrested that day. However, as Jack Prince shared in his story, ACLU lawyers got involved and most people had the charges dropped. Those who did not have their charges dropped were ultimately charged with misdemeanors.
In Part III, we will explore other actions that took place in Grand Rapids prior to the US invasion of Iraq.