GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Rev. Edward Pinkney was excited to be at the Black Lives Matter march and rally last Thursday in Lansing. Hundreds of people gathered near the steps of the Capitol, upset about the fatal shooting of Patrick Lyoya by a Grand Rapids police officer. Reverend Pinkney was too. So, he drove over two hours from Benton Harbor to be there.
“Here’s my problem with justice: I’m 70 years old and I have never known or witnessed justice,” Reverend Pinkney said during an interview with FOX 17 that day. “They’re not just going to give it to us. If we can’t take it, we’re not going to get it. So, what we have to do is we have to come out in force and show them that we’re not going to lay down and accept this.”
Lyoya, a Congolese 26-year-old father of two, was fatally shot in the head on Monday, April 4 by a Grand Rapids police officer, identified by the department as Christopher Schurr.
Since then protests have broken out across the city and state, many demanding for the officer to be prosecuted and for systemic policing changes to occur.
“Certainly, you know the community has a right to get out there and throw your fist up and yell and scream and bring attention to the problem,” said George Bayard, executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives.
So far, hundreds of people have attended protests in the downtown area, on Breonna Taylor Way and the Medical Mile. Many have been peaceful, which is what the Lyoya family said they want.
“We are here for a peaceful protest,” said John Sloane during the BLM rally in Lansing. He’s lead organizer for the Detroit chapter of the BLM national organization. “But peace doesn’t always mean we’re going to stand with our hands behind our backs asking for things. That means that we can still demand change. That means that we can still demand reparations.”
Tuesday night, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss ended the city commission meeting early after protesters voiced their frustrations with the city’s handling of the Lyoya case.
However, most protests, rallies and demonstrations have remained peaceful.
Prof. Corey Anton of Grand Valley State University believes that’s the best way to be heard.
“For people who want to grieve collectively and they want their voices to be heard it’s important,” he said during a Zoom interview on Wednesday. “I mean for the same reason people go to church and they sing, there is this feeling of fellowship that comes from a shared situation and the need to grieve over it. I think that’s an important function.”
Anton is a professor of communication studies and has been involved in a number of protests throughout his academic career.
ACLED, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, noted that of the 10,600 protests and demonstrations that broke out following the death of George Floyd in summer 2020, 95 percent were peaceful.
“I think from my own perspective it is really only effective when it has a lot of peacefulness and it’s done in good spirits of solidarity,” Anton said. “So, you know, peaceful marches, sit-ins, ways where people show they’re not going to go to extreme means because if they go to extreme means — and oftentimes it’s trying to resist what they’re calling extreme means — it’s so easy for critics and opponents to call it hypocrisy.”
During the summer of 2020, a number of protests during the day were followed by civil unrest at night, which is what Grand Rapids experienced on May 30 that year. Windows of businesses were broken in the downtown area. Police vehicles were set on fire, and officers deployed tear gas to disperse crowds.
Protesters and demonstrators said they were not behind the violence.
Central Michigan University Prof. Laurel Zwissler, an anthropologist who studies protests, economic justice and social movements, said even violence and civil unrest has a message behind it.
“I understand the hesitancy that people have and the desire they have to sort of create categories of good protesters and bad protesters,” Zwissler said during a Zoom interview on Thursday. “But the truth of it is we’re dealing with violent social structures. And so it’s kind of a hypocritical ask to tell people who are suffering under violent oppression to be polite and quiet.”
Zwissler emphasized that she does not endorse or advocate for violence.
She believes that acknowledging the struggles of oppressed peoples and protesting in the streets are necessary in order to increase equity, she said.
It’s happened throughout history and has led to tangible structural changes, she said.
“Every major social justice milestone in American history has been the results of people being in the streets,” Zwissler said. “So, when we think about the abolition of slavery, when we think about votes for women’s suffrage, when we think about LGBTQ+ inclusion, and when we think about the Civil Rights Movement — of which we are clearly still a part of this movement — these things that we as a nation look proudly at for having accomplished, there were people in the streets being perceived as disruptive and impolite and politically naive. But the truth of it is we got those official structural changes because people on the ground called attention to them.”
Thursday afternoon, Michigan State Police said they have partially concluded their investigation into the fatal shooting of Patrick Lyoya. Prosecutor Chris Becker said in a statement that it’s incomplete and he will make a final decision on it once he receives all the materials.
Zwissler said it’s important to keep in mind that change does not happen overnight. Justice takes time. So, she encourages people to be patient with the process.
“Protests in the street are happening at the same time that people are trying to make change in those more officials ways,” Zwissler said. “In my opinion, I think that the more uncomfortable the people are about the protests, then the more likely they are to listen to more official pleas to make change.”