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An unplanned march. An unlikely leader. And, for one night at least, a peaceful resolution.

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Brian Jennings stands at the front of a crowd of protesters who marched through Grand Rapids Wednesday.

Update: Brian Jennings was arrested by Grand Rapids police Thursday afternoon. The Kent County Prosecutor's office initially told Michigan Radio Jennings was charged with destruction of property separately from the destruction that happened in the downtown core on Saturday night. Since then, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker says additional charges have been filed for rioting, breaking and entering and destruction of property at 82 Ionia on Saturday. The Kent County Prosecutors office is located in the building. 

Hundreds of angry people with no leader, and no plan.

A city, and a police department, on edge.

That was Grand Rapids again last night, less than a week after protests downtown turned to destruction and looting.

But last night, things turned out differently.

The official protest yesterday, the one that was planned, ended at 5:30 p.m. Organizers asked people to leave downtown.

People didn’t listen. Hundreds remained. They didn’t want to leave.

So they started marching.

“Say his name!” they shouted. “George Floyd!”

“Say her name! Breonna Taylor!”

They held signs that said “I’m still here, I’m still pissed.”

They made their way to a barricaded street. Green dump trucks lined up, blocking off a section of downtown, the section where the police department headquarters is.

The protesters took a knee. 

Then a man stood up. He had a tattered American flag wrapped around his torso.

“We are here right now, because we mean business,” he shouted. “We are here right now because we are unhappy. We are here right now because we are all God’s creation.”

The man with the flag

Everyone cheers.

Suddenly, this man they’ve never met, this man talking about God, he has their attention. He delivers a rousing speech, making it up as he goes. His name, he tells me, is Brian Jennings. He’s from Chicago. Only been in Michigan a year and a half. Only been in Grand Rapids two weeks.

Even more: He says he was arrested Saturday during the night of mayhem and looting. The Kent County Sheriff's Office confirms he was jailed early Sunday for "malicious destruction of property." Jennings says it was a mistake, and he's innocent. He says he was just riding his bike, on his way to pick up food for his pregnant girlfriend. No charges were filed. He was released. 

On Fulton and Ionia, people listen to his words, and cheer him on. 

When his impromptu speech ends, people stand up.

“What’s next?” one of them says.

They start marching again. Jennings jumps on his bike and makes his way to the front.

They take the street, the man with the American flag leading them on his bicycle.

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

They make up the route as they go along – up to Heritage Hill, over to Michigan Ave., avoiding the highway, because police have it blocked off.

"I was thinking, what can I do?" says Hannah Schaffer, who went to the store during the march, and brought back snacks and water to hand out.

They march for a mile, then two. Others decide to take a role in this new community.

“I really didn’t expect any of this,” says Hannah Schaffer, as she stands on a street corner handing out snacks and water that she’d just bought. “I was thinking, what can I do? These people need fuel. This is a peaceful protest and this is what we need, so we’re going to keep it going.”

At the back of the march, a white car appears, driving slowly, pulling into the opposite lane, blocking traffic, protecting marchers.

A man leans out the window. He tells me he goes by AG, just AG.

“Didn’t nobody ask us to do nothing, we took it upon ourself,” he says. “Because this is what we believe in for real. This is what we believe in. It’s too many murders from the police with black people.

The march stays on residential streets. I catch up with Jennings, still leading the way.

“Did you know any of these people before today?” I ask him.

“No I did not,” he says.

I ask him who decides where they go next. He says God’s in charge.

"You don't live here"

Four miles into the march, something happens.

Police, who at first followed the protest on bicycles, have now melted away, and the march has made its way into new territory.

They march into East Grand Rapids, a separate town, a wealthy enclave known for leafy streets and lakeside mansions.

Some people come out on front lawns to wave and cheer.

But one woman walks into the middle of the street holding a baseball bat, ready to swing.

Jennings grabs the bat. The crowd swarms around her.

“No bat!” someone shouts as they try to take it away from her. It works.

“We protected her, we removed the bat,” Justin Tavenir tells me later on in the march.  “We walked her to the sidewalk, because people were starting to get aggressive – we don’t want that, we want a peaceful protest.”

I ask if she said anything to Tavenir.

“Yeah, she told me, you don’t live here,” he says. “I don’t know what that means, because I do live here, but she said you don’t live here.”

The march continues.

Near mile five, Jennings stops the people to gather. They kneel in the street.

Jennings talks about justice, and God and Jesus. He asks for a moment of silence. He tells them to close their eyes. Then, he leads them in prayer.

“Our father, who art in heaven …”

“Hallowed be thy name,” the people respond.

They say the Lord’s Prayer out loud, then he asks them to say it again.

When they’re done, they get back up to march.

Now they’re headed back where they started: downtown, where the streets are barricaded and police wait in riot gear.

When they arrive, they’ve been marching for more than seven miles.

A simple ask

man holding an american flag in front of a police line
Credit Zac A. Clark / Clark Camera
Clark Camera
Brian Jennings stands in front of a police line in Grand Rapids at the end of a march Wednesday.

But downtown, the mood shifts. The marchers step up to the barricaded line of law enforcement.

“He’s got his finger on the trigger!” one man shouts, pointing at a sheriff’s deputy.

I’m standing between the line of protesters and the deputies in the riot gear. I can’t see everything that’s happening. But everyone feels the tension rising.

The protesters come up with a simple ask. They want the sheriff’s deputies to kneel with them.

“Kneel with us! Kneel with us!” the protesters shout.

The deputies stare forward, unflinching.

Earlier in the day, the chief of Grand Rapids Police had come out, briefly, to talk to the protesters at the original event, and take a knee.

That didn’t seem to satisfy this crowd. And the people with the riot gear and shields never kneeled. 

Minutes tick by. 

"One person kneels we leave."

The law enforcement in riot gear, they’re not city police. They’re county sheriff deputies.

After several minutes, the deputies, with their black armor and faraway stares, change. They meet the protesters eye to eye. 

“One knee, we will leave,” says a protester named Gershom Uredi. “One person kneels we leave.”

One deputy looks at the guy next to him. Do you think he’s telling the truth? He asks. The other deputy nods. But they do not kneel.

Jennings has given up talking

“We don’t gotta talk to them no more,” he shouts to the protesters. “They know what we want.”

His back is to the line of deputies.

But they’re not the only line.

On the other side of a dump truck, more deputies are stationed, filling the gap between trucks. And other protesters have been pleading with them too.

Suddenly past Jennings, a cheer goes up.

Some of the deputies have taken a knee in their riot gear.

The cheering fades. People shake hands with the deputies who kneeled.

“Let’s go home everyone,” shouts Uredi.

"A miracle"

The deputies taking a knee - it was a symbolic gesture. One that the city’s police chief had already done earlier in the day.

"We're out here for a reason and they know we're out here for a reason," says Anthony Jacobs of the deputies in riot gear.

But one protester, Anthony Jacobs, tells me, this gesture meant a lot to him.

“We’re out here for a reason and they know we’re out here for a reason,” Jacobs says. “Just show that you’re not one of the bad cops that we’re out here protesting against. We know all cops are not bad but right now it looks like all cops are bad ‘cause no one is standing with us, and that’s literally all we want.”

And that’s it.

After three hours, and almost eight miles of improbable, unplanned, marching, the people disperse.

No tear gas. No rubber bullets. No violence.

And after grabbing the attention all night, I find Jennings alone, leaning up against a bus stop. He’s weeping.

I ask what’s going through his mind.

“Oh, man," he says, “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I’m just happy. I’m just happy. It’s a miracle. And we all know where miracles come from.”

I think Jennings knows, like everyone else, that a few deputies taking a knee doesn’t solve the big, structural problems that led to the march here, or anywhere else.  

It won’t bring back George Floyd. It won’t bring back Breonna Taylor, or any of the other black lives lost. It won’t undo any of the painful incidents of police using force against black people in this community.

But on this night, for one night, at least for the people here, it feels like a change.

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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