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Behind ‘Grand Rapids Nice,’ Police Problems Run Deep in Michigan

4 minute read

The streets of Grand Rapids, Mich., have been the scenes of protest over the last week, since police last Wednesday released video that showed a white officer shooting a Black man in the back of the head after a traffic stop. The incident and the community’s expression of unhappiness are one more chapter in the story of recent protest that began when a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck in 2020.

But experts on Grand Rapids history note that for Michigan’s second largest city—which is about two-thirds white and 20% Black—this story is much more than two years old.

Like many Midwestern cities, Grand Rapids boasts a progressive image that has obscured deep-seated problems for Black residents.

“People joke sometimes, calling it Bland Rapids because of its similarity to all the other cities,” says Randal Maurice Jelks, author of African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids. “And people have the saying ‘Grand Rapids nice,’ which means that people, on the surface, appear courteous, and on the back end, are quite exclusionary.”

Read more: George Floyd’s Death and the Long History of Racism in Minneapolis

“Progressive imagery permitted racism to hide in plain sight for decades,” Todd Robinson, historian and author of A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TIME in an email. “In 1949, Grand Rapids received the first of three (1960 and 1981) National Civic League ‘All American City’ awards while maintaining a thoroughly racialized landscape through redlining, discriminatory lending policies, and racial steering. These practices further widened the wealth, housing, educational, and social gap between white and Black residents.”

Robinson argues that segregation created a “city within a city” in Grand Rapids, in which “over-policing [of] predominantly Black enclaves” was used to preserve the whiteness of other areas.

As the city’s Black population grew after World War II, with new residents heading to work for companies like General Motors, so did police presence in their communities.

“Many Black people left the South because of the changing agricultural economy, as cotton picking went automated, looking for better wages—and those wages were thought to be in factories and auto industries,” says Jelks. “And one way of dealing with Black communities [for the cities in which they arrived] was to heavily police them, and that became a problem.”

Read more: The Forgotten Girls Who Left the South and Changed History

That problematic relationship has erupted into protest before.

In fact, it was a traffic stop incident that jolted the city more than 50 years ago. The summer of 1967 earned the nickname “the long, hot summer” for violent upheaval that took place in many American cities triggered by continued racial injustice. A three-day protest erupted in the Grand Rapids in July 1967 after police used excessive force against an African American youth at a traffic stop.

The Vietnam War contributed to heightened tensions. After fighting in two wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the city’s Black Americans—like many across the country and the world—pointed out the irony of being sent to supposedly defend freedom abroad while they still had to fight for freedom in the U.S. “They’re not up for being bossed around and being told what to do by the police, because they too had in essence the same training as many police officers had by being veterans,” says Jelks.

Read more: Black Vietnam Veterans Recall the Real Injustices They Faced During and After the War

Nearly 180 African Americans were arrested during that 1967 uprising, and no major policy change resulted. As Robinson explains of the fallout, “The arrests did nothing to address African Americans’ concerns regarding the entangled histories of race, poverty, and segregation. It did, however, further the over-policing of Black neighborhoods and deepened systemic inequities and implicit biases within the local white community.”

To Robinson, the tensions and protests of this month are in many ways an outgrowth of the “constant neglect” of that history of discrimination.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com