Journalist’s wife recounts night of violent protests

Editor's note: This column is part of a series featuring Lakeshore residents sharing their stories. 

It was 2:45 a.m., and there I sat on the couch in our family room. My two toddlers would wake in a few short hours, and I knew I should be in bed. 

But all I could think of was my husband, John Tunison, a reporter for MLive/ The Grand Rapids Press, who was standing on a downtown Grand Rapids street, surrounded by hundreds of violent protesters. Some among the crowd were angry and acting out in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis with the knee of a police officer bearing down on his neck. 

On this night in Grand Rapids, the protest had grown out of control. I followed along on Twitter with wide eyes as my husband posted photos of people wielding what appeared to be crowbars and shattering the windows of a Michigan Secretary of State building right in front of him. Tear gas was being fired off by police in an attempt to disperse the crowds, and a dumpster fire had spread to the wall of a downtown building. 

‘Are you OK?’

“Are you OK?” I texted my husband at 12:25 a.m. There was no response. 

I wondered why I hadn’t at least given him an N95 mask we had in the garage before he left for the night. Crowds that big during a pandemic weren’t good. But I knew there were much bigger things to worry about. 

I called my husband a few minutes later, and all I heard in that 13-second call was, “I gotta go, there’s a police car on fire.” 
I looked on Twitter to see photos of not one patrol vehicle, but two, and soon five, ablaze. My husband shared photos of a group walking out of a downtown dessert shop with shattered windows. 

Unlike anything before

“What is happening?” I thought. This was unlike anything we had seen in Grand Rapids before. 

Eventually, I went to bed, and my husband was home the next morning. He pulled in around 6 a.m. on a Sunday after a work shift that had begun at 8 a.m. the day before. 

It didn’t matter to him that he had just worked a 20-hour shift. As a journalist covering public safety, he knows it’s his responsibility to be present when there is a news story to be told, no matter how long it takes to tell that story or in what conditions that story is unfolding. 

More than a job

I know that feeling all too well. I also worked as a journalist for several years, covering news for hours outside in negative-degree temperatures and long after dark. Journalists are present so that others can stay home and remain informed at all times. 

Reporting the news is much more than a job to those who do it — it’s a duty that is carried out with a deep sense of obligation. Journalists are real people who live in our communities, raise children in our communities, and care about our communities just as we do. 

“The media” is under attack in our country right now, more than at any time in recent history. Phrases such as “fake news” circulate on social media, and journalists are facing doubt and extreme scrutiny while fighting for their right to be present when others want to push them away. 

Playing a key role

If we truly want to advocate for equal treatment of all Americans and protest unfair treatment by police — as many have been doing across the country — we need to understand that journalists play a key role in the push for real, lasting change. 
Rather than attacking them and their profession, let’s get behind them and advocate for greater transparency in our country, knowing that real change begins as we all remain informed and work together.

Journalists are those who take the time to investigate when there are questions of unfair conduct. They are there in courtrooms, following criminal cases all the way through the system and reporting on them. They are present at government meetings, where important changes are being debated. 

Journalists are our source of accountability in social issues. They are also reporting during a pandemic, making sure we understand the data being released and stay informed in order to keep our loved ones safe. 

Rather than attacking them and their profession, let’s get behind them and advocate for greater transparency in our country, knowing that real change begins as we all remain informed and advocate together for positive change. 

Heidi Tunison is a mother of two who works as a communications manager in greater Grand Rapids. 
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