GRAND RAPIDS — The May 30 violence following protests against police brutality not only damaged dozens of downtown businesses on the verge of reopening, but also has caused local leaders to revisit efforts to mend the city’s historically strained police-community relations.
Following the protest that turned violent with burned police cars, looting and broken storefronts, City Manager Mark Washington said: “There is other damage that we need to address that is unrelated to property. It is the damage due to long-held tension between some members of the community and the police department. We continue to be committed to rebuilding that trust.”
City Commissioner Senita Lenear, who represents the southeast part of the city, said during a public meeting on June 2 there is a balance that must be struck between rightly frustrated business owners and ongoing police brutality toward minorities.
“I think the balance with that is making sure we side with lives over property,” Lenear said.
Grand Rapids — with its own recent history of police mistreatment of minorities, including the Michigan Department of Civil Rights’ current investigation of 35 complaints against the city’s Police Department — is part of the national discussion sweeping U.S. cities since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. Floyd was killed by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Local business advocates say it will take proactive measures to repair decades of systemic racism.
“We do not condone violence and destruction of businesses and property, however we acknowledge we’re at a critical point,” said Kenneth James, director of inclusion for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “There is a lot of frustration with the systemic racism that is playing out in this country. The Grand Rapids Chamber wants to be part of the solution.”
James said he hopes the current “energy and attention” will help move to a point of “racial reconciliation.” The Chamber has several programs focused on race and inclusion, he said, and “we would like to see like-minded organizations and individuals talk about what’s next.”
On June 2, Washington and other city officials released a plan that indeed looks at what’s next. The city’s Office of Equity and Engagement and Office of Oversight and Accountability plans to increase summer job opportunities for youth and “increase restorative justice programming, elevating community voices, and public safety engagement,” among other measures.
James saw three events take place on May 30 and in the following days: a “peaceful protest” followed by a “few dissenters and agitators” and then the volunteer cleanup efforts.
“No, we don’t condone (property destruction), but we need to look at what precipitated that: pain and anger,” James said.
Jamiel Robinson, CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, said city leaders are seeing the “utter frustration” from community members, particularly the targeting of minorities by the police.
“Whether people feel (the destruction) was right, wrong or are indifferent to it, we have to acknowledge the fact that there’s a large portion of our community that has been oppressed from that standpoint,” he said. “We have to stop looking at protesters as the problem and have to look at institutional racism and the policies of the Police Department and keep addressing those.”
City officials reported roughly 100 businesses were affected by the damage left in the wake of the May 30 protests. Days after the protest, most downtown storefronts remained boarded up with plywood to shield broken windows, and as a precaution in case of further damage in future protests. Some business owners are reassessing when they will be able to reopen their brick and mortar locations because of damage and the potential for additional unrest.
Most of the damage to downtown storefronts happened late in the night on May 30 and early morning of May 31 by a significantly smaller group of people than the estimated 3,000-4,500 who gathered at the beginning of the protest.
Hundreds of volunteers descended on downtown the morning after the unrest and swiftly cleaned up glass and graffiti and helped to board up windows.
“I have a lot of glass to replace,” said Peter Krupp, co-owner of CDKI Holdings LLC, which owns Sandy Point Beach House in West Olive and Grand Rapids, and Mexo in Grand Rapids, which was damaged during the protest.
Mexo had been offering a limited amount of takeout during the pandemic and plans to reopen on June 8. But diners may have to sit amid plywood, Krupp said. Along with the broken glass windows, Krupp said the inside of the restaurant was vandalized and a computer terminal and cash drawer was stolen.
“It was insult to injury,” Krupp said of the damage at the tail end of the pandemic-related closure. “I’m very sympathetic to the (protesters’ cause). It was hard enough being shut down, then to have to rebuild everything to reopen is tough.”
Robinson — a co-owner of Ambiance GR, a lounge that was set to open downtown before the pandemic hit — said one of the building’s windows was broken on May 30.
“Windows can be replaced, lives can’t be replaced,” Robinson said. “It would be insensitive on our part to gripe about windows even though we’re as invested as anyone downtown.”
‘Flood of emotions’
Seeing some of the damage play out on TV was overwhelming for Ashley Pipe, manager of Ali Nicole Bridal, but she said it was a relief there was not more damage caused to the store, located at 52 Monroe Center St. NW.
Pipe went to the store with her sister the night of the protest to do her best to secure the business. One window of the bridal store was broken, but not all the way through, and nobody had entered the store.
“Because our store was affected in a less critical way than so many other businesses around us, we’re really grateful, but we’re doing a lot of reflecting on why what happened did happen,” Pipe said. “We’re trying to figure out the best way to do our part to ensure nothing like that happens again.”
Pipe describes the damage during the protest and coming into town the next day to clean up as “a flood of emotions.”
“Coming into Grand Rapids the next day and seeing the community come together in a new way and all the support and encouragement that was sent to us as a business through messages and emails, it definitely comforted any feelings of unease in terms of the damage of the store,” Pipe said.
Several shop owners that sustained damage to property, including the bridal shop, have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media. People in the community have also taped notes of support on many businesses’ boarded-up windows.
The damage was a little more extensive to Old World Olive Co., located at 108 Monroe Center St. NW. Three of its four windows along Ottawa Ave. were smashed out, according to owner Shasta Fase. Mostly everything in the display right behind the window was destroyed, she said, resulting in a lot of broken product.
Old World Olive Co. has been doing curbside pickup throughout the pandemic, but was set to reopen its shop to in-person customers by appointment on June 2, which was delayed because of the damage.
“Seeing the damage was one of the more difficult things we’ve gone through in the 11 years we’ve been in business,” Fase said.
Despite this, Fase said the company was embraced by the community the next morning as volunteers helped quickly clean up the store.
“We know that Grand Rapids is awesome and that the community is by and large a caring and giving community, but I’ve never experienced acts of strangers and acts of such kindness,” Fase said.
The company is still estimating the lost product, but Fase hopes to reopen the store in two weeks, depending on how quickly the windows are replaced. Like most business owners, Fase said she worries about more damage in the future from protests.
“This will be a lesson we’re all going to learn something from,” Fase said. “But you’ve got to move forward with strength and courage and know the community is there for you.”
Reopening for business
Despite Osteria Rossa restaurant being located in the thick of where the protest and much of the damage took place, the business was left unscathed, said one of the restaurant’s owners, Karie Koster.
“We made it through undamaged, but our landlords demanded we put up boards,” Koster said. “We actually made it through though, which is incredible and lucky.”
Koster said she hopes to reopen Osteria Rossa for dine-in customers the week of June 8, but the business needs to make sure it will be safe for staff and guests because more protests are possible.
“We’ve had a lot of people call and say they want a reservation as soon as we open,” Koster said.
The restaurant has been open for takeout throughout the pandemic, but had to temporarily close for a couple of days because of the damage to the majority of downtown and blocked off streets.
“I just felt so bad for every single business that got hit,” Koster said. “None of those businesses did anything to deserve it.”