Civil emergency declared in Grand Rapids after demonstrations damage buildings

Chris duMond
Special to the Detroit News

Grand Rapids — The West Michigan city endured some of the most violent protesting over the weekend, prompting its mayor Sunday to declare a 48-hour civil emergency, call up the National Guard and issue a curfew following rioting in the streets.

"Last night, we collectively shared disbelief in the escalation of violence and damage that was done," Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said Sunday during a press conference.

The curfew goes from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily through Tuesday morning. Violators face up to 90 days in jail and up to $500 in fines.

"Your safety, the safety of everyone in this city, is my top priority. ... We're going to do everything we can to prevent another wave of violence in our city," Bliss said.

The civil emergency proclamation comes after a peaceful demonstration Saturday turned into a destructive one, with thousands of demonstrators, angry over the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, clashing with police in riot gear who used tear gas and flashbangs to disperse the crowd. 

There were seven car fires and three building fires caused by arson, officials said. Among the damaged buildings was the Grand Rapids Art Museum, according to WOOD-TV. There were no reported injuries, Bliss said.

A silent protest march started at Rosa Parks Circle in the downtown on Saturday evening and proceeded to Monroe Center in front of the police department.

While some protesters and organizers moved on to Calder Plaza, many stayed at the police department, holding signs, yelling at police and chanting, "Hands up, don’t shoot," "I can’t breathe" and "No justice, no peace."

A rioter throws a stop sign near the police department in downtown Grand Rapids on Saturday.

Crowds of demonstrators eventually blocked the main intersection of Fulton and Division in front of the police station and Secretary of State's Office by setting up barricades and lighting trash cans on fire. 

Corey Talyer, 23, of Grand Rapids was seen spraying graffiti on the side of the police station. When asked why, he stated, “I just want to send the police a little message.” 

As more demonstrators gathered in the downtown area, tensions rose with police who were outfitted with riot and tactical gear. People began hurling water bottles, smoke bombs, fireworks and other projectiles at police.

At 9:23 p.m., Grand Rapids Police police ordered the crowd to disperse. People set trash cans and dumpsters on fire. The fire department responded and extinguished fires under the protection of riot police. 

Around 9:45 p.m., police released tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd as people vandalized, looted and destroyed property into early Sunday morning.

Demonstrator Liah Vassuer of Muskegon was playing her trumpet near police and was pepper-sprayed and pushed by police when she refused to move back off the street.

Vasseur poured milk on her face to help ease the effects of the pepper spray. “He grabbed me by my shirt and started pulling me and pepper-spraying me, and I couldn’t even see ... straight up manhandled me.” 

As the crowds broke up and went into different parts of downtown, police maintained lines to take back control of the city center. 

Murphy Ray Boisvenue, 43, of Muskegon marched with an upside American flag, a Black Lives Matter sign and a baseball bat.

“I’m here in case people try to hurt my friends," Boisvenue said. "I will hurt people back. I’m not looking for trouble but always ready for a fight.” 

Grand Rapids City Police Chief Eric Payne spoke to many protesters in the crowd and responded to media questions about the protest.

“People have a right to demonstrate; they have a right to free speech," Payne said. "We are allowing people to do that. It is my desire to keep this community safe and for people to demonstrate and then move on."

Grand Rapids Deputy Chief David Kiddle added: “We’re here to protect their first amendment rights.” 

Additional area police departments — City of Wyoming, Kent County Sheriff's Department and Michigan State Police — were brought in to help Grand Rapids' police. 

Chosun Rhodes, a third-year communication student at Grand Rapids Community College who is from Georgia, marched in the silent protest early in the evening. 

“We tired of being mistreated. Everybody’s saying they don’t understand, get it together," Rhodes said. "They're rioting in other states, but it all derives from being discriminated against in our country."

Madcap Coffee, with locations in Detroit and Grand Rapids, will still open Monday despite enduring damage. Co-founder and CEO Trevor Corlett arrived Sunday morning to his downtown Grand Rapids location to find "utter chaos" with his store windows smashed and some damage inside.

Despite the destruction, he and a few of his employees began serving coffee to an army of volunteers who showed up to help clean up. 

“People want to show support in any way they can, and for us to get back open and be able to give out coffee to volunteers, we’ve got to keep them going,” Corlett said.