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G-Sync: Pop songs and progress


G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen took the weekend off from attending local events and stepped into the streets of Washington, DC. Now he shares his view from the nation's capital and his hopes for 2015.
Since moving to Grand Rapids in the 1980s, part of my ability to survive decades of living in the city has come from my willingness to listen and learn from others. In those early, pre-Yelp, pre-Facebook years, the excitement of listening to other community members produced some of the most wonderful insights, leading to my own discoveries of the many unique aspects Grand Rapids has to offer.
 
In 2014, you can call it many names -- just don't call it "Bland Rapids" any more, as never in the more-than-three decades of my living here have I witnessed so much to do on any given night. Downtown has changed drastically, and the diversity of choice when it comes to community and social events can even be overwhelming (in a good way).
 
Here on this foggy morning, just hours of returning to Grand Rapids after attending the Justice For All march on Washington last weekend, I am connecting my past, present, and future with a random song playing on my iPod. Standing in a city park humming a pop song that appeared on my iPod, I suddenly began to reflect on a sermon I heard at Fountain Street Church in the 1990s where Neil Diamond's lyrics were used to drive the message home.   
 
At the time, it was a shock to listen to a minister base an entire sermon off of just one pop song, but with time it made more sense as he framed the lyrics against the backdrop of being mindful in our steps. I remember discovering Fountain Street Church (a former Baptist church converted into a unique downtown place of worship) and realizing how unusual it was because of its community-based approach to programming. I remember discovering that FSC hosted a powerful speaker series and hosted an annual Blessing of the Beasts, where people were encouraged to bring their pets to enjoy a service together. As the song played in my head again this morning, I was reminded of the message from that day.
 
 
"People rise together when they believe in tomorrow"
 
The above is not a quote from one of the tens of thousands who took to the streets in peaceful protest last week with messages from “I can’t breathe!” to ‘’Hands up, don’t shoot!” to even the very modern hashtag signs like #blacklivesmatter and #thisstopstoday.
 
No, this line came from a pop song from Rise by Samantha James -- and one that packed a lot of power as I, a white male of privilege but also a person with a heart connected to my hands and feet, listened with new ears based on the experiences of this last year and attempted to ponder the images, words, and people I encountered in Washington.
 
Amid dire headlines these past weeks, there are things to celebrate: our President's pledge to fast track the deployment of body cameras for police officers; the passing of the Senate's "Death in Custody Reporting Act," an act that has been around in various forms but never with any real teeth to enforce. Even the outcome of the march will be played out everywhere in a host of creative ways that you and I may never see. But locally I believe we will see our own form of change up close in the weeks and years to come.
 
What these first new steps are about is the collecting of the much-needed data to support the corrective measures we will need to enact as we attempt to restore balance and faith in our cities.
 
As I listened to the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, John Crawford III, Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin last weekend, I was reminded by the voice inside of me to look beyond the dome in my path's vision, to go silent and just be in the moment, looking into the eyes of others who also made the journey.
 
In my silence, the recently released ProPublica report came back into view: "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police." In short, if you are a black male in America, you are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of the police.
 
This data will become even richer in the years ahead; as the new law passed by the senate illustrates, it will not allow a law enforcement department off the hook – no longer is the submission of this kind of data voluntary. Under the "Death in Custody Reporting Act" it will be mandatory that all deaths at the hands of a police officer are submitted back to the Department of Justice or face the withholding of funds to the offending departments. This time the country appears to be ready to move forward towards a solution.
 
A new era for Grand Rapids is before us.
 
Grand Rapids is also on the verge of a new era. Many citizens have already stepped up and into the chambers of City Hall to be heard regarding how they feel about the need for body cameras and a supporting policy.
 
On Tuesday, Dec. 16, the community came back out as they did two weeks ago, both to weigh in on the matter of adding body cameras to the police and, as Mayor Heartwell encouraged those in attendance to do, to expand upon the conversation.
 
As the first hour quickly passed, more and more people still came forward of all backgrounds and abilities. I was encouraged to see so many millennials in attendance speaking up on a host of topics. These youthful citizens asked questions about terms that were often casually tossed about in the chambers but they quickly adapted this new knowledge, making arguments from the perspectives they hold in society. It was, to say the least, refreshing to see people speaking to power in this manner and with such respect.
 
They were there to engage on race but in the process became active voices in other matters. In the end, it was clear that everyone wants a workable solution, but for anything to work we need to have trust restored in our police force.
 
This will be hard to accomplish, as illustrated  by a letter the ACLU presented, asserting that "USA Today has found that, for every 1000 Grand Rapids residents, there are 206.2 arrests for Blacks, compared to 35.6 for non-Blacks." These stats and others that they submitted at the podium caused an audible groan in the room likened to that sinking feeling when you feel hope is lost.
 
But actually even in this moment, with all the suggestions and proposals coming forward locally and nationally, we all seek to link big data to the names and faces in our community. Body cameras and smart policies are where we have to begin locally and as a nation. And we will begin that healing, as it appears from the commission's willingness to move forward with a solid body camera policy less than 60 days from now.
 
If you missed it, you still have time to make your voice heard.
 
So what does this have to do with the economics of a city?
 
A lot, when you consider that a city is made up of the many, not just the lucky or privileged. We are a city that is shifting very quickly and our city is truly becoming a beautiful tapestry of opportunity where our differences can actually make us stronger. It is so important that we look to the future and think about how all of us rise together, as the pop song says, when we believe in tomorrow.
 
Our collective local group went off to DC to march last weekend just as so many tens of thousands did in places like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and even Ferguson, where they have marched for hundreds of days since the shooting of Michael Brown. On the ride back, our conversations were peppered with longer-than-usual pauses during the 10-hour ride. I think each of us was struggling to find the right words to give meaning to this impulsive but important journey. While it was expected that I would pen something, I was not sure what those words would be until I ventured into the woods again with my iPod buds in my ears.
 
Why now?
 
Just as the sermon based on the Neil Diamond song reminded me all those years ago, hearing Rise reminds me that I still firmly believe in stepping forward. In the weeks to come, during a time of charity and love, I hope we can find a way to give more than just a damn. I hope that this time we can get it right, because it is time to do the right thing. If we don't, then the opportunity to learn and change will be lost, and so could another generation of Americans and Grand Rapidians.
 
"Today, it is within our grasp. If we do not get distracted or deterred, substantive change and police accountability will prevail," said Rev. Al Sharpton at the Justice For All rally. "It is our job to remain focused and firm in our resolve. In the words of the late great Sam Cooke, 'It's been a long time coming, but a change is gonna come.'"
 
Look into the eyes of the people around you during this holiday season, listen to others' stories, and remember that pop music can provide us a path to a better and more mindful community, march us over the bridge of understanding, and lead us to the future that needs all of us.
 
The Future Needs All of Us.
 
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
 
G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!
 
Photos from this week's editorial are from Tommy Allen's March on Washington this past weekend.

 
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