Grand Rapids’ riots: 53 years apart but so much alike

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Unlike 53 years ago, when he was arrested during the riots of 1967 in Grand Rapids, Willie Joe Vance was nowhere near Saturday night’s unrest in the city.

Instead, he was fishing, then returned home to watch the riot live on television.

He was struck by the faces he saw.

First, blacks and whites peacefully protesting.

Then, whites and blacks smashing windows, looting stores and setting fires.

“It wasn’t a race riot as I see it,” Vance said of Saturday night’s unrest. “It was just a riot, you know.”

Back in July 1967, as riots broke out across the country, poverty and poor housing among blacks led to what started in Grand Rapids.

A photo of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids.
A photo of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids.

“It was pretty much the same thing, the same way,” Vance said. “In ’67, it started out as a peaceful demonstration, but somehow, I don’t know, it got out of hand, and all of the fires, the violence, the destruction. It’s all pretty much the same.”

In 1967, rioters in Grand Rapids set 33 fires over parts of three days, all in the predominantly black neighborhoods of the Southeast Side.

They burned down Willie Vance’s home. He was 21.

They looted, tossed rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails. Forty were injured, nearly 350 arrested.

Vance said it appeared that rioters in 1967 were taking advantage of a bad situation.

A photo of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids.
A photo of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids.

“That’s the way it seemed. What really caused the violence during the protest, I don’t really know, it just exploded like that.”

That, he said, is what appeared to happen again Saturday night.

Vance, now 74 and still living on the Southeast Side, is also struck by this: That even though the causes are different, it still comes down to inequality after all these years.

This time, it’s police brutality.

“We’ve got the same problems still exist. I don’t think nobody knows the right kind of way to settle it. All I know is the violent part of it doesn’t do anything for the protest.”