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Two officers - one white, one black - remember the 1967 Grand Rapids riots

Downtown Grand Rapids
Public Domain
“We were so ill-prepared. We didn't have equipment, they weren’t doing planning," said former Grand Rapids Police captain Victor Gillis.";s:


When a rebellion exploded in Detroit on July 23, 1967, cities around Michigan watched as bullets flew, windows were smashed, and buildings burned.

Two days later — 51 years ago today — an uprising was ignited in Grand Rapids, setting off three days of violence that left 44 people hurt and 350 arrested.

Listener Aaron David Werner wanted to know more about that time in the city's history. He is originally from Alpena and was a pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids for six years.

He asked us: "What is the true story of the people involved in the 1967 race riots in Grand Rapids?"

To answer this question we talked to two men who were in the middle of the riots.

Dan Groce was a probation officer at the time and Victor Gillis, now a retired Grand Rapids Police Captain, was then working as a patrol officer. Both men joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty at our live show in Grand Rapids. 

Gillis, a young white officer, said when the trouble began in Detroit, there was a naive assumption that Grand Rapids did not have those kinds of problems and that the riots would stay on Michigan's east side. 

“We were so ill-prepared,” Gillis said. “We didn't have equipment, they weren’t doing planning. They didn't have rosters changed. It was like a surprise, and it shouldn’t have been.”

At the time, Groce was a probation officer for the juvenile courts. He spent most of the three days walking around, making sure the young people he was working with were not involved in anything that could get them arrested. 

Groce said while he cannot speak to exactly how all African-Americans were feeling in the months before the uprising, there were growing concerns in the community regarding economic, housing, and health conditions.

According to Groce, the day of the riot itself was like a case of spontaneous combustion. He had heard about an incident of an officer using excessive force in an arrest, but that there was no planning or formal organizing. He said people were only responding and reacting. 

Gillis agreed with the seemingly spontaneous nature of the riots. He said looking back, he can now see everything that built up to that day.

At the time, Gillis said his police force was not large enough to handle the uprising on their own. To assist, a hundred state police troopers were sent into Grand Rapids. According to Gillis, these troopers were sent straight from 30 to 40-hour shifts combatting the violence in Detroit. 

Gillis believes bringing in the state troopers in was a tactical error.

“They were very aggressive,” Groce said. “You can’t take somebody out of a week of a terrible situation on the east side of the state and throw them onto here.”

During the period leading up to the riots, Groce said the relationship between the African-American community and the police had already been shifting.

“They used to have a Youth Commonwealth in Grand Rapids — it was on Wealthy Street — and the relationship between police officers was quite different, and I think it had moved more towards impersonal kinds of contact with people rather than person to person,” Groce said.  

So, where do relationships between Grand Rapids police and black Grand Rapids residents stand now?

Gillis said he's not foolish enough to say things are perfect, but he thinks relations are better.

Groce said he is not out in the community like he was back then, but he is aware of some of the recent meetings that have been held about police's interactions with African-Americans. 

“I had a colleague who’s a female attorney share with me that we're still litigating or talking about stuff that we were talking about 50 years ago,” Groce said. “So they have not viewed a great deal of improvement in terms of what happened.” 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry.

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