The Rev. James Stokes remembers Grand Rapids, Mi., after the slaying of George Floyd, when demonstrations devolved into rioting that left businesses damaged and scores of people arrested. Stokes and other leaders desperately wanted to avoid a similar outbreak of violence when a white Grand Rapids police officer fatally shot Patrick Lyoya, a Black motorist, last April. After video of that shooting was released, outrage in the community grew, and some feared a violent response. The protests — while loud and angry — were peaceful. No buildings were burned. No shops were looted. City leaders say policing reforms and outreach to Grand Rapids’ Black community, including the clergy, helped to keep the peace after Lyoya’s slaying. Others believe the reform efforts have been slow and their impact superficial at best, the Associated Press reports.
“We knew what potentially could have happened,” said Stokes, pastor of New Life Tabernacle church. “As pastors, we got out in front of it right away, talking to our congregations, holding press conferences. The world was watching and everybody understood Grand Rapids had to get this right.”
Grand Rapids police have a history of heavy-handed encounters with Black people, who account for 18% of the population. Stokes said no one has forgot how officers detained five Black youths at gunpoint in 2017 and, about 16 months later, officers stopped and pointed guns at three Black children, including two 11-year-olds — both prompted by reports of Black kids with guns. The killing iof Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, touched off demonstrations and riots against racist policing across the U.S., including in Grand Rapids, where more than 100 businesses were damaged, seven police vehicles were set on fire and the mayor declared a civil emergency. Then, last April 4, Grand Rapids officer Christopher Schurr pulled over Lyoya, a 26-year-old from Nigeria, ostensibly because the license tags on his car didn’t match the vehicle. When Schurr asked for his license, Lyoya ran, but Schurr caught him and the two wrestled on the ground. Schurr’s bodycam footage appears to show Lyoya reaching for the officer’s Taser. They tussle until Schurr fires one shot into the back of Lyoya’s head. A passenger in Lyoya’s car filmed the shooting with his cellphone.