Grand Rapids poet laureate asks “what are we willing to do” for justice and peace?
Marcel “Fable” Price is poet laureate of Grand Rapids. He’s also the executive director of The Diatribe, a youth-focused performing arts nonprofit in Grand Rapids. He recently put out a statement about the protests against excessive police force happening here in Michigan and beyond. It read to us more like an essay, or dare we say, poetry. Listen below to hear Marcel share his thoughts on this moment in America.
I would like to start by first stating that organizations like The Diatribe Inc. are in a very dangerous situation. Honestly, this weekend I have been very vocal on my personal social media pages, but almost completely silent on our organization’s page, because, well… white supremacy and racism.
What do I mean by that?
Well, that answer isn’t simple. It is just as complex as the events that transpired this weekend. But I will try to break it down in a way that makes sense.
When a black man is murdered at the hands of our law enforcement in a neighboring city that isn’t unsimilar to Grand Rapids, when a black woman is slain in her home by the hands of the same congregation in a different state, and—to top that off—a black man locally is brutalized so badly, that when you look at his picture, you cannot help but cry.
When this all happens—on top of opening your eyes to the fact that our city is the second worst economically for black people; that students in our urban core have had full-time subs in some of their classes for multiple years in a row as our teachers are expected to provide more to our young people with less; in a city with a zip code that has kids in the 49507 testing with lead levels as high as Flint; with an infant mortality rate so staggering you actually feel attacked by the data—we are creating a social time bomb that is ready to explode.
You see, in Grand Rapids, we live in a echo-chamber.
We know gentrification exists. We have documentaries covering gentrification in our city, but many prefer the new residents and new businesses over doing the labor to improve the quality of life for those that have always called this city home and have always seen it as valuable.
Living in this bubble makes watching people scrub the words/names of dead people off of the walls painful, as residents are quicker to erase the literal writing than they are to seek justice for black people that have been brutalized or even murdered.
But when people snap, when people get fed up, and cannot take anymore they are told that “Hate is winning”. They are told to be quiet, they are told to “take more,” and they are told “anger will not solve anything” by the very people perpetuating the issues.
I am not saying that rioting is the answer. I will say that anger is a healthy emotion, as is sadness. I will say that for every Fair Housing Movement and peaceful protest, there was a Detroit Riot. That for every Equal Marriage Law passed, there was a Stonewall.
So, to assume that there is one finite way to solve an issue, that is rooted in black people being quiet, complacent, and continuing to stomach mistreatment, is not only selfish, but racist.
I think there are levels to allyship. There are people who say, “Black Lives Matter," and there are people who mean it. When some people say Black Lives Matter, what they mean is “The Black lives behaving the way I want them to behave matter." When some people say Black Lives Matter, what they mean is “The Black lives that haven’t done things I disagree with matter."
I encourage you to say, “Black Lives Matter” and mean ALL Black lives. Black Christians, Black felons, Black trans folks, and Black atheists. Black artists, Black families, and Black single parents. Black business owners, and the displaced Black people downtown.
The Black lives who riot, and the ones who are peaceful all deserve to live—period.
If you are choosing to employ officers that are brutalizing or murdering our residents, you care more about white supremacy than you do about black people—period.
We would also like to acknowledge those that are striving for better than ‘C+’ allyship. The people downtown this weekend pouring milk in the eyes of those being tear gassed. The allies who were putting their bodies in front of those being shot with rubber bullets and putting their bodies on the line to protect black existence. This allyship is truly rare. So, thank you for that. I hope others will be inspired by your bravery.
Before we focus on crucifying those lashing out, we need to dissect why the lashing out is being done in the first place. If people are peacefully protesting, they should be peacefully arrested—PERIOD.
If the brutality stops, if the murders stop, if we actually focus on combating racism, if we work to make our city culturally rich, and if we truly celebrate diversity to a point where our residents are proud to call this city their home while thinking of downtown as their own—I believe events like this weekend will not happen.
We fixed up downtown in a day, when we have businesses on the southeast and southwest side with urine and broken windows that have been asking for support for YEARS.
People don’t try to break systems that aren’t broken, but maybe this system is working just as it was designed to?
So, help us break it by prioritizing the areas that are being ignored.
As an arts and education organization in a time where the future of education is uncertain and arts and cultural programs are being cut, we see our work as even more important. Teaching young people the history that is often left out of text books and encouraging them not only to write about the things they see going on in the world and their communities, but to take action and to unpack the personal and collective trauma in a safe and culturally responsible way.
Today, tomorrow, and the next day—I want you to say their names.
Breonna Taylor, Kavosaye Phillips, and George Floyd.
Look them up, learn their story. Ask yourself, next month: if it is me, one of our students, any other Grand Rapidian, what will we do?
Is continuing to live as if it didn’t happen and erasing the ugly reminders progress?
What are we willing to do to ensure that this does not happen again?