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'We are in this together,' Saturday protest centered around community voices

This was one of many protests to happen in downtown Grand Rapids this week.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — They marched. They chanted. But mostly, they listened.

Organizers of a Saturday afternoon protest took a different approach by allowing community members to speak their minds by both megaphone and microphone. At one point, thousands took a knee silently as people spoke one after the other in front of a barricade.

This was one of many protests to happen in downtown Grand Rapids this week, as hundreds of protests are happening across the United States following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

“Overall, as a nation we’ve been going through a lot," said organizer Jeana Mason prior to the event. "So, we want to stay within our community."

The group of roughly 1,000 demonstrators met at Rosa Parks Circle. While the other three protests have focused on bringing the message to the door of the Grand Rapids Police Department, this one took two laps around downtown stopping only to hear each other speak. 

As they marched, Eugene Brown, one of the three organizers, became visibly emotional and at one point unable to carry on with the chants he had been leading.

"I was thinking about my own brother and the Kavosaye situation," Brown said after the event. 

A mugshot of the battered face of Kavosaye Phillips circulated last month following a May 20 arrest by GRPD. Phillips' attorney, Lane Zabawa, said his client sustained injuries to multiple parts of his body. Officers involved in the arrest were cleared of any wrongdoing just hours before the first planned protest in the city last Saturday. Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne said the incident could have been avoided had Phillips complied with orders. 

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"We are screaming "Black Lives Matter" and "I can't breathe" and I was just thinking what [Phillips] went through and what his siblings, who I know personally, went through." 

Brown said it made him think about how he'd react if it happened to his own brother. 

"It made me really emotional," he said. 

When protesters arrived at the Fulton Street West and Ionia Avenue NW barricade, where law enforcement stayed behind a barrier created by Kent County Road Commissioner trucks, they all knelt and listened. 

“My life matters,” said sisters Evan, 13, and Alexandria, 12, into the megaphone as protesters erupted in cheers.

“They are standing up for someone’s life and I feel like that’s one of the greatest things you can do for another individual,” said the girls’ mother, Denise Torres. “This is the fight that they will continue, that they must continue as they get older.”

After a brief rest, Mason asked the crowd: "Do you want to stay here and talk to police or keep marching?" 

The response was overwhelmingly in support of staying in motion.

“We just kept going,” said Brown. 

Marcus Cuba was among the front of the pack, he said it's his third protest this week. This week's demonstrations led him to reach out to a Grand Rapids Police Captain to arrange a time to meet and discuss moving forward. 

"How we can get the cops to understand what we are going through, and for us to understand what they're going through," Cuba said. 

After completing another lap around the downtown area, the group stopped again at Rosa Parks Circle. Equipped with a speaker and a microphone, the organizers again gave an open call for anyone to come up and speak.

“This was not about us whatsoever; it was about the community” said the third organizer, Danielle McMillon, after the event. “I hope that everyone got the opportunity to hear how we feel, just hear the pain and our voices.”

McMillon, Brown and Mason formed the #AmINext?4Unity organization in 2016. They said this is the biggest demonstration they’ve organized.

The group said their goal is to see the city and police department acknowledge the presence of racism in the community, recognize Black Lives Matter and come up with answers and solutions on how to resolve the problem. Organizers are setting a meeting with Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne. 

CITY LEADERS SHOW UP

City leaders were among the sea of people who packed into Rosa Parks Circle around 4 p.m. 

City Manager Mark Washington and Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said they came to the protest to hear from community members. Washington said the protests have sensitized people both nationally and locally to cries that have long been ignored. 

"We’re listening now more than ever in different ways and really are trying to make effective change to cause a difference in the way that our communities are being policed,” Washington said.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said she came to stand in solidarity and show her commitment to identify ways to create change. During a virtual townhall on Friday, a number of residents called for city leaders to amend the upcoming budget in a way that defunds the police department. Bliss said millions of dollars were already cut from the budget due to revenue shortfalls caused by COVID-19. 

"The budget that we passed just last month will likely stand, although, there's always an opportunity to make adjustments," she said. 

At the beginning of the march, members of the Grand Rapids Fire Department including Chief John Lehman knelt along Monroe Center as protesters marched by.

The event wrapped up around 7:30 p.m., but two other protests formed up among the people who remained in the area. 

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