Shattered glass and flames: Demonstration devolves into riot in downtown Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Rioters stormed downtown Grand Rapids Saturday night, breaking into businesses and looting them and setting car fires as police tried in vain for hours to get everyone to simply give it up and go home.

The evening started around 6 p.m. as a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and police brutality. While the crowd was large, the initial gathering in Rosa Parks Circle — named for an icon of civil disobedience during the civil rights movement — was peaceful.

But when the crowd marched down Monroe Center, some stopped in front of Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters. Things got a little tense, but still it was peaceful.

One of the organizers of the protest, which was supposed to be a Silent March, said the people who stopped weren’t with her group. She said her group kept going to Calder Plaza and soon went home.

As dusk approached, things at the GRPD HQ got worse. Someone tagged the building with expletives. Presumably aiming to prevent escalating the situation, officers did not react.

Then, around 9 p.m., the tipping point: Some of the protesters smashed the glass doors of a clothing shop on Division Avenue and Fulton Street, catty-corner to the police department.

Police could no longer stand by. They formed a perimeter in the intersection. At 9:50 p.m., they launched the first round of tear gas.

Police use gas to get a large, unruly crowd to break up after a protest over the death of George Floyd. (May 30, 2020)

It was the start of hours of mayhem.

Some people crossed the street back to the building that houses GRPD headquarters. It’s also home to a branch of the Secretary of State’s Office. People used whatever they could find to break out the windows of that office and go inside.

Unruly protesters smash the Secretary of State office in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
Unruly protesters smash the Secretary of State office in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.

It kept getting worse. Throughout the night, rioters roamed the downtown area, smashing the glass of business after business using shovels and street signs. Many were looted. A woman who works at the Old World Olive Co., an olive oil shop on Monroe Center, stood in front of the building, pleading with people not to steal from it.

Rioters broke out window after window at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, which sits on Rosa Parks Circle.

Rioters pick up stanchions from outside the WOOD Media Arts Center in downtown Grand Rapids and attempt to rush nearby police cruisers. (May 31, 2020)

They started fires in trash cans and dumpsters. They set a police cruiser ablaze and the fire spread to several other cars, including at least one more cruiser. Car alarms blared nonstop as the flames raged.

Some who were breaking into an ATM shoved down a WOOD TV8 photojournalist and began to attack him; bystanders stepped in to save him. Veteran news reporter Susan Samples, who was with the photojournalist, called those people who helped “angels.”

Traffic downtown was heavy, especially for the middle of the night. While it seemed many people were there simply to watch what was happening, some seemed to be reveling the destruction. More than once, people set off fireworks. One man did it next to the line of burning vehicles.

The car fires were allowed to rage for some time. Firefighters couldn’t get there safely without police first clearing the area.

A line of cars parked on Pearl Street in downtown Grand Rapids burns amid a riot that developed following a protest. (May 31, 2020)

Police from at least three agencies, wearing riot gear and carrying shields, were chasing a moving target. Officers traversed downtown, showing up where the riot was the worst at any given time and launching flashbangs and tear gas to get crowds to break up.

On the phone on live television, police, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalyn Bliss and Grand Rapids City Commissioner Joe Jones urged people to avoid violence. The organizer of the original Silent March pleaded for them to go home. On Twitter, U.S. representatives from the region condemned the rioters. Everyone used words like “heartbreaking” and “outrageous” to describe the chaos.

  • The Grand Rapids Police Department's headquarters was vandalized during the protest just after 8:30 p.m. Earlier in the evening, some protesters were seen press against the headquarters glass doors.
  • A fire has erupted in the midst of the protest in downtown Grand Rapids. (May 30, 2020)
  • A fire during a protest in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • A fire in the middle of a street during a protest in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • Police cars on Fulton Street during a protest in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • Police on Fulton Street during a protest in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • Police lineup on Fulton Street during a Grand Rapids riot on May 30, 2020.
  • Trash can engulfed in flames in the street in Division Avenue and Fulton Street during a protest in Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • Kent County Sheriff's Office deputies during a Grand Rapids protest on May 30, 2020.
  • Tear gas that was deployed around 11:10 p.m. Saturday during a protest in Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • Tear gas that was deployed around 11:10 p.m. Saturday during a protest in Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • A trash can was thrown at police during a protest in Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020.
  • Fireworks go off during a Grand Rapids protest on May 30, 2020.
  • A downtown building's window that was smashed during a Grand Rapids protest on May 30, 2020.

As the riot seemed to die down, the smell of smoke hung heavy over downtown. The Grand Rapids Art Museum was tagged with obscenities, as was at least one armored vehicle. The sidewalks were littered with garbage and broken glass. News 8 crews estimated only a handful of businesses in a radius of several blocks may have escaped broken glass or graffiti. There was no immediate estimate of the damage, but it must be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Destruction for destruction’s sake,” as GRPD Sgt. Dan Adams described it shortly after midnight.

Adams promised GRPD would follow up on every single complaint in the coming days and arrest as many people responsible for the vandalism as possible.

Grand Rapids police also said in a statement that the riot was not representative of the community.

The only good news, it seemed, was that there were no immediate reports of any serious injuries.

Sunday morning, volunteers descended on downtown to clean up the damage. Ladonna Norman was among them.

“They took away our voice when they came and destroyed our city. But at the end of the day, when the sun comes up, who’s cleaning up? If black lives matter, do they matter today, too? Or did they just matter because it was trending? I tell the community to stop dropping on trendy stuff. Trends get old and black lives aren’t trends. This is our everyday reality,” she said.

Grand Rapids city officials said they appreciated the cleanup efforts, but asked people interested in joining organized volunteer cleanups to not gather in large groups downtown.

On Sunday afternoon, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss enacted a civil emergency proclamation, freeing up National Guard resources to protect the city following the riot.

As part of the proclamation, Grand Rapids was placed under curfew for the next 48 hours, with curfew hours from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

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