Tale Of Two Cities: Benton Harbor And St. Joseph, Michigan

A STUDY OF POVERTY AND RACISM IN BERRIEN COUNTY, MICHIGAN

Benton Harbor, Michigan is about an hour and a half drive from Chicago, and has a population of less than 13,000. On June 16, 2003, a terrible act of police brutality incited a black revolt in the small Michigan town , which literally shocked the world. A young Black motorcyclist, Terrance Shurn, 28 years old, and with no legal provocation whatsoever, was chased by a police officer in St. Joseph's Michigan, a surrounding town of 8,800 persons. It may have been that Shurn was afraid of the brutal reputation of St. Joseph's policeman, that gave rise to the chase. But what ever the situation which precipitated the chase, speeds reportedly reached over 100 miles per hour.

The St. Joseph's patrol officer was then joined by Benton Charter Township officers, who took up the chase leading finally into a residential neighborhood in the City of Benton Harbor, a separate municipality. According to numerous witnesses, one Township officer, Wes Koza, struck Mr. Shurn's motorcycle from behind with his patrol car, propelling the bike out of control, and at great speed into an abandoned house. Mr. Shurn was immediately killed, and the two officers gave each other congratulatory 'high fives' for a job well done. Some 40 witnesses saw these events occur, and even purportedly claim that Mr. Shurn's prone body was kicked by these officers. Although the Michigan state police claim to be performing an investigation of this entire matter, virtually none of these persons have been interviewed, and many wonder if this is not yet another cover-up by the police.

How could such a dastardly crime be done by any person, less known ones sworn to uphold the law? To understand this, you would have to turn the clock back about 37 years, to 1966. That was the last time when a similar revolt erupted in Benton Harbor. An 18 year old Black youth, Cecil Hunt, was purportedly shot and killed by a white man in a drive-by sniper incident on August 30, 1966. Because there had been years of racist brutality and harassment of Blacks by the then largely white Benton Harbor police force, this incident easily escalated into a two-day racial rebellion by angry Black youth, which did extensive damage to white businesses and properties. Even the Mayor's home was not spared from the Black youths' fury, rocks were thrown through his windows. Another reason for the Black fury was because no one was captured and punished for Hunt's death; the only person who was arrested was apparently released for 'lack of evidence', authorized by the then Berrien county prosecutor [now judge], John Hammond. After the violence spent itself, the white officials made some serious decisions, but not to do justice in the case and end racial segregation, but rather to leave and regroup in another setting.

It is important to understand that the only real difference between the 1966 rebellion, and the June 17, 2003 revolt was that the mayor, police, and all civic officials in the city of Benton Harbor and Benton Township were white. Even today, the Benton Township police are still largely white, although now they have a Black chief of police, Jim Coburn, and the city of Benton Harbor has a Black Mayor and city council, black police chief and other civic officials. At one time, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor were referred to as 'twin cities', well no more! The city of Benton Harbor is now 95% Black, while St. Joseph is 95% white. But these figures alone do not tell the whole story. There is the bridge which separates the two communities, which are two different worlds really. They are separate and unequal entities. More importantly, the bridge marks the line of demarcation between those who have power from those who are ruled over. We need to look back in time to understand how all this happened.

Benton Harbor, when it was white-ruled, had been the most prosperous city in Berrien County. It was a major tourist center, business capital, and industrial center. All during the 1930, 1940's and 1950's, Blacks from Arkansas, Tennessee, and other Southern states flocked to the city to work in its industrial and manufacturing plants. The Blacks had no political power, but at least they had jobs and opportunity. There was a burgeoning Black community that traded among itself, created their own culture, and made the best of it.

It was apparently the 1966 Black revolt which caused many whites, both business and political leaders, along with white citizens generally, to bolt the city of Benton Harbor and make the trek to St. Joseph and other predominately white cities in the county. Thousands of whites left the city, apparently no longer feeling safe and in control of Benton Harbor. This did not happen immediately, but over the years, they have managed to bankrupt Benton Harbor and build up the economy of St. Joseph. How did they do this? By seizing control of the county government, then diverting incoming federal and state community and economic developments funds to St. Joseph, after which, this induced high levels of unemployment in Benton Harbor. In addition, St. Joseph banks systematically engaged in bank redlining and denial of business credit and loans to Blacks in Benton Harbor, creating a shortage of multiple and single family dwellings, housing improvements, or creating new buildings.

Consider that there is only 2% unemployment in St. Joseph, while over 50% unemployment in Benton Harbor among youth and adults alike, many of whom have not had a job in years. Further, there has been a massive economic decline in basic industry which started in the 1970's, as well as a cutback in economic aid to Benton Harbor, orchestrated by Berrien County officials, which trapped the city in even deeper poverty.

It is no exaggeration at all to say that St. Joseph and Berrien County officials stole the available federal and state funding, which impoverished the city of Benton Harbor to the stage where it is the poorest city in Berrien County and in the state of Michigan. They robbed the community of all wealth, the same as if they had used a gun for armed robbery. All of this made St. Joseph the dominant city in Berrien County, and one of the most affluent in that state, while Benton Harbor became a beggar city of thousands of ever younger Black people. This economic apartheid is a large factor in what led to the revolt of June 17th.

Mid-American Apartheid

All of the legal, political, and judicial apparatus had also moved to St.. Joseph. The court system, especially, is an openly white racist system, and it is they who judge over the Black people of Benton Harbor in all criminal offenses. Very few Black people are chosen for jury duty from Benton Harbor, because of widespread racial discrimination in the jury selection process. With the exception of one minor court judge, all of the judges, prosecutors, and public defenders are white. These are issues which have incited the residents of Benton Harbor for years, and they complain that they have no representatives on the bench, and are fined or sentenced to long years in prison by all-white juries.

Reverend Edward Pinkney of the Benton Harbor protest group, BANCO, has led a two-year vigil at the Berrien County courthouse in St. Joseph against the 'plantation politics' of Berrien County. He has named Judges John Hammond, Paul Maloney, Dennis Wiley, John Fields and Scott Schofield as the worst judicial officials in Michigan. He accuses them of systematically violating the civil and legal rights of all Black defendants that appear before them. He and other BANCO protesters, along with many people at large, refer to them as "racist, dishonest, corrupt and biased" judges. Hardly anyone has said they felt that they could get a fair and impartial hearing before these judges. In fact, BANCO is seeking their recall or defeat in the next election.

In addition to criminal cases being heard in St. Joseph, almost all state and county licenses must be applied for an grant in St. Joseph, assuring that a large part of the Black population in the county can neither secure government grants, jobs or start businesses in Benton Harbor. Rev. Pinkney and other Blacks in Benton Harbor say that "the whites in St. Joseph control everything" while the government in Benton Harbor is a mere puppet regime. More than once they have said that the Black politicians merely preside over a miserable, poor, and demoralized population, people with no jobs or hope for the future. It's any wonder that there had not been numerous outbursts before now.

The Whitewash of Whirlpool

The Whirlpool Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of household appliances, has its corporate headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and is a large part of the reason why the city is so poor. They are a multibillion dollar corporation, but have never made a major investment in the local community to rescue the people out of poverty, nor massively given Black people jobs, instead of just profiting from their dire situation. The truth is that Benton Harbor is a company town, and that Whirlpool has both the local economy and the local political structure under their control. The local Black population is still desperately poor, while the whites in St. Joseph are prosperous and in power. Whirlpool apparently wants it that way.

Most telling is that an heir to the Whirlpool corporate founder, Fred Upton, has served in the U.S. Congress since 1986 as a "Newt Gingrich Republican", part of the Right-wing Republican cabal that have been dismantling the social gains of the 1960's civil rights movement. He resides in St. Joseph, and is part of its power base. Whirlpool money was used to put him in power and has kept him in office for the last eight congressional terms. A multi-millionaire, he has outspent every opposing candidate he has ever had. Although the congressional district he serves covers both Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, it is primarily the city of St. Joseph who has benefited from his period in Congress. He has secured millions in block grants, federal loans and contracts, state community and economic grants, and other funding for the St. Joseph community, while obtaining virtually nothing by comparison for Benton Harbor's residents. St. Joseph has fine homes, streets well paved, venture capital for businesses, and has even become a tourist center, while Benton Harbor has seriously run-down houses, few minority-owned businesses, and has virtually no access to capital or community development funding.

Everyone on both sides of the bridge are full aware that Fred Upton is working for the betterment of St. Joseph, and it is for this reason that many Benton Harbor residents literally curse his name and blame him in large part for their misfortune. In fact, Rev. Pinkney and BANCO actively campaigned against him in Benton Harbor during the last election, even though his opponent was more conservative than even he was.

Police Brutality

As pointed out earlier, there has been a long history of police brutality and misconduct by local law enforcement officials against the Black population of Benton Harbor. Residents of Benton Harbor have been made into scapegoats for economic and social conditions beyond their control, and have been subjected to discriminatory practices and procedures by local police agencies and judicial officials who cover for the excessive force and racial profiling of Black citizens that goes on routinely.

The revolt of June 17-18, 2003 was inevitable and justifiable because of years of injustice and unchecked brutality by white racist police officers and citizens. This includes the murder of a Black youth, 16-year-old Eric McGinnis, in 1991, whose body was thrown into the St. Joseph River because he was dating a white girl; the beating of a Black bicyclist, Levarst Hullett Jr., in 1998 by a St. Joseph policeman; the September, 2000 death of Trenton Patterson, an 11-year-old Black child who was struck by a car in yet another police chase while he stood on the sidewalk; and the strangulation of a Black man, 27-year-old Arthur Partee, by Benton Charter Township officers for failure to pay a $50 misdemeanor fine in April of this year. In addition, there have been 20 other complaints of police brutality by local police just this year, according to local people in the community. There has not been a coroner's inquest into the death of any of these persons who died in police custody, nor has there been independent investigation conducted into any of these cases to assign blame. The police have investigated themselves, and not surprisingly, held that they engaged in no wrongdoing or use of excessive force.

These very disturbing incidents clearly led to the rebellion on June 17th, which cost millions of dollars in property damages and created tons of ill will in the Black community. Yet, the local authorities are still in denial. They still refuse to ensure justice, while wanly issuing calls for 'peace' and 'healing', while the Michigan State Police and the County Prosecutor's office plans to prosecute the rebelling youth, rather than the racist abusive police officer who provoked the entire affair. This is typical of the kind of racist and politically motivated selective prosecution that many Blacks in this area expect from St. Joseph officials. The county officials have covered up police and racist crimes for the last 40 years.

But this includes the current governor, local politicians, and many national civil leaders who merely promise jobs, government grants, and other vague changes in the local political and criminal justice system, all which ends up hypocritically pouring gasoline on the fire the next time, which may come in weeks or months, instead of years this time. To deny justice and ignore racism is an incitement to violence. We hold the government and its malign neglect responsible for this entire situation.

What Can You Do? You can help to ensure justice in the system.

1. Write Gov. Jennifer Granholm (e-mail: jennifer.granholm@michigan.gov, P.O. Box 30013, Lansing, MI 48909), and demand that she appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute these racist cops, investigate police behavior in Benton Harbor, and compensate the victims and/or their families of police murders.

2. Send donations to the civil rights groups which are protesting this racist police brutality, the Southwest Michigan Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality, P.O. Box 19962, Kalamazoo, MI 49019, and the Benton Harbor BANCO, 1940 Union, Benton Harbor, MI 49022.

3. Support the boycott against the Whirlpool Corporation and its products until it works to end economic apartheid and racist redlining of the Black community of Benton Harbor.

4. Support the boycott against the tourism industry in St. Joseph, Michigan.

5. File complaints against the judges in Berrien County. Write to: Paul J. Fischer, Executive Director, Judicial Tenure Commission, 3034 W. Grand Blvd., Suite 8-450, Detroit, MI 48202.

6. Support the call for general amnesty from criminal prosecution for all person who were part of the Benton Harbor rebellion of June 17th and 18th.

7. Come to the July 12, 2003, Mass March on Benton Harbor to protest continued acts of police brutality. For information, contact the Benton Harbor BANCO, (269)925-0001, or the Southwest Michigan Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality, e-mail jonina1.1@juno.com, (269)370-4383.

For more information, or to join the S.W. Michigan Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality, please write to: P.O. Box 19962, Kalamazoo, MI. 49019-0962, or send e-mail to JoNina1.1@juno.com, (269) 370-4383

Link: http://www.michiganimc.org