Hundreds gather to clean up Grand Rapids damage after protest 

Cleanup of downtown Grand Rapids after police brutality protest, May 31, 2020 | Allison Donahue

Caitlynn Bupp stood outside Uccello’s Ristorante in downtown Grand Rapids late Saturday night to steer protesters away from damaging the restaurant at which she works. 

And on Sunday, she returned to hand out pizza to hundreds of people who turned out to clean up the damage left from the night before.

Cleanup of downtown Grand Rapids after police brutality protest, May 31, 2020 | Allison Donahue

“We have to give back,” Bupp said. “I mean, this is crazy for us to get here today, anticipating just a demolished restaurant. And when we got here it was just not that bad.”

Hundreds of people filled downtown Grand Rapids Sunday morning, armed with brooms, garbage bags, sponges and plywood to board up windows. 

It was a stark contrast to the night before when a peaceful, silent protest centered around George Floyd, a Black man who was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police last week, turned violent at nightfall. 

Protests took place in dozens of cities across the country, amid a growing movement to fight police brutality and systemic racism. 

The Saturday crowd in Grand Rapids grew to an estimated 3,000 to 4,500 protesters. What started as a peaceful demonstration in the park across from Uccello’s escalated to looting, vandalism and car fires all across the downtown area. The protest lasted until the early hours of Sunday.

But by 8 a.m., a new crowd arrived and was ready to rebuild. 

The power of community brought Bupp to tears as she looked out into the crowd across the street. A church group sang hymns in Rosa Parks Circle. Another group handed out cleaning supplies to anyone who needed it. Children wrote messages of hope in chalk on the sidewalk. 

“Being here last night and feeling the energy that I felt here, and seeing and hearing and smelling and feeling everything that was happening last night, and then being here this morning right now and feeling an entirely different kind of energy and just, I don’t know, you can just feel it. It’s actually incredible,” Bupp said.

Eden and Elena Vanderweele, two sisters who watched their city be destroyed on live TV the night before, took to the streets to help clean up. 

“We were watching the news last night and talking about how you see this happen in other cities, but you never expect it to happen in your own,” Eden said. 

Her sister agreed, and said they felt called to help out in any way they could.

They cleaned graffiti off of the police department building for hours and then moved around downtown to help scrub other vandalized walls.

The words “George Floyd” spray painted onto the police department building lingered faintly into the afternoon as people continued to power wash the facade.

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“It’s really amazing to see us coming together in the community and supporting each other like we need to be doing during this time,” Elena said. 

Melvin Stewart, the store manager of Villa Clothing Store, one of the first buildings to get damaged Saturday night, stood in front of a smashed doorway. Multiple groups walked up to he and his coworkers, offering food, water and extra hands to help with anything the store needed. 

Villa Pizza in Grand Rapids after police brutality protest, May 31, 2020 | Allison Donahue

He politely declined each time and handled the stressful morning with a cool head. 

“At the end of the day it’s just like, I can’t condone anything,” Stewart said. “I didn’t know how to process it last night. We’re OK. You know, some people handle things differently. You know, everything’s different.”

The store has been closed since mid-March due to COVID-19, but the workers had planned to come back this week to start preparing to reopen. 

Now Villa, just like most of downtown Grand Rapids, is focused on rebuilding and supporting the community. 

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.