Benton Harbor on the Brink: Michigan Town Still Boiling
by Kari Lydersen
want African Americans out of Benton Harbor."
This article originally appeared in Infoshop News.
The towns of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph in southwest
Michigan are separated by a river. Historically, the river has represented an
extreme race and class divide, with Benton Harbor mostly black, poor and
subject to disinvestment and police brutality; while St. Joseph is a mostly
white, higher income, quaint tourist enclave. Tensions boiled to the surface in
2003 after a Benton Harbor resident on a motorcycle was killed during a high
speed police chase. Weeks of protests and uprisings ensued; and the National
Guard occupied the town.
Benton Harbor, with a population of about 11,000, is about
92 percent black and has a median household income of $17,000 per year. A
former industrial stronghold, it has the second highest number of brownfields
in Michigan. It fell into economic ruin as manufacturing left, and now
Whirlpool Corporation is the primary industry in the area, but employs only a
small number of Benton Harbor residents. St. Joseph, by contrast, is about 90
percent white and five percent black, with a median household income of $37,000.
In the past, it seemed St. Joseph always wanted to keep
Benton Harbor on the other side of the river. Benton Harbor residents typically
felt barred from crossing the bridge into St. Joseph, as if it were a small
southern town with ordinances banning blacks after dark. Benton Harbor teen
Eric McGinnis experienced this firsthand, ending up drowned in the St. Joseph
River after going to a night club in St. Joseph in 1991, where he was said to
be flirting with white girls.
Today, rather than trying to keep Benton Harbor on its own
side of the river, the powers that be in St. Joseph are trying to cross the
river themselves and lay claim to Benton Harbor's potentially lucrative Lake
"Benton Harbor residents typically felt barred from crossing
the bridge into St. Joseph."
Today, rather than
trying to keep Benton Harbor on its own side of the river, the powers that be
in St. Joseph are trying to cross the river themselves and lay claim to Benton
Harbor's potentially lucrative Lake Michigan lakefront.
Many Benton Harbor
residents, including members of the activist group BANCO (Black Autonomy
Network of Community Organizations), feel like they are the targets of
large-scale gentrification, as rehabbed lofts, art galleries and cafes pop up
in Benton Harbor. And more importantly, a $500 million development project
called Harbor Shores -- a marina, condo and golf complex spearheaded by the
former CEO of Whirlpool and slated to take over a more than 500 acre swath of
lakeshore and Jean Klock Park, the town's only park and major community
"They want African Americans out of Benton
Harbor," says Reverend Edward Pinkney, a local activist who has become the
figurehead of various community struggles.
Pinkney is famous for sitting in the Berrien County Court
House, in St. Joseph just across the bridge from Benton Harbor, and advising
defendants who feel like they're being screwed by the system and their public
"I did that for six years straight," he said.
He and his supporters are known to wear white T-shirts
listing "Benton Harbor's Most Wanted" and the names of the county's
chief prosecutor and various judges. Along with organizing protests after the
motorcyclist was killed, in 2003 he also led demonstrations denouncing the
police chief's firing of an allegedly unregistered gun into the air to disperse
a group of black youths.
Then in 2004, Pinkney organized a petition leading to a
recall election of city commissioner Glenn Yarbrough, whom Benton Harbor
activists blamed for being the police chief's major supporter and for
shepherding through the Harbor Shores development. The project needed a
majority vote from the city commissioners to pass, and BANCO members felt like
Yarbrough was the ringleader and key vote on the commission. The Benton Harbor
community, led by Pinkney, mobilized for the February 2005 election, and
Yarbrough lost the recall by 54 votes.
"They didn't realize they were going to lose, because
they knew we didn't have any money, we were just a large group of people who
decided we were going to do something," said Pinkney, who made absentee
voting a focal point of the campaign's strategy. "We went out and spoke
with the senior citizens, handicapped, people who were going to be out of town.
By the time they realized we were going to win, it was too late."
called the vote-buying charges outright lies."
to the local election board about the high use of absentee ballots, and the
sheriff's office opened an investigation which led to Pinkney being charged
with election fraud, on allegations that he possessed absentee ballots of
people not his family members, provided stamps for absentee ballots (a fact
Pinkney does not dispute, since he said many couldn't afford postage), and paid
several people $5 to vote. Meanwhile a local judge later nominated to the
federal bench by President Bush set aside the recall election and reinstated
Pinkney's trial resulted in a hung jury in March 2006. But
the state moved to retry him, and in March 2007, with an all-white jury in a
county 15.5 percent black, he was found guilty of five counts of election
At his sentencing on May 14, where he was sentenced to five
years probation and one year in jail, defense attorneys and the community
framed the issue as part of an epic civil rights battle and a battle for Benton
"You can avoid siding with the powers that be to
squelch a voice of dissent," Pinkney's lawyer, Hugh Davis, said to the
judge, proceeding to reference the cases of Mumia Abu Jamal and Sacco and
Vanzetti. "He speaks for those who have few to speak for him and he speaks
against those who have few speaking against them."
Pinkney called the vote-buying charges outright lies, and
pointed out that witnesses who allege he paid them $5 had their own criminal
charges pending and at least one --Brenda Fox -- changed her story several
times. She reportedly signed a statement saying Yarborough paid her $10 to
testify that Pinkney had bought her vote; and during testimony she broke down
crying on the stand. Meanwhile Pinkney passed a polygraph test in April, and
challenged Fox or any of the other witnesses to do the same. He said he will
appeal the conviction.
"Pinkney was barred from
participating in any election for five years."
Many were surprised
by the relatively light sentence; the prosecution was asking for up to three
years in prison and the charges could have brought sentences of 10 years.
Circuit court judge Alfred Butzbaugh said Pinkney had a record of using various
aliases and social security numbers, and pointed to his previous convictions
for assault in California and embezzlement -- stealing money from customers,
who Pinkney implied were linked to the KKK -- in Michigan. Butzbaugh also noted
that Pinkney said he had worked at the Kalamazoo post office for 12 years, but
investigators could find no record of this.
The terms of probation, which the defense may appeal, bar
Pinkney from participating in any election for five years. His supporters see
this as evidence that "they want to shut him up," as one man at the
Pinkney thinks the support he garnered during his trial --
when police were on standby expecting unrest -- and sentencing show a sea
change in the Benton Harbor community.
"People came together, people are more willing to stand
up and fight," than they were before the 2003 protests and his trial,
Pinkney said. "As long we keep getting the word out, we'll eventually
change all the injustice going on here."
Kari Lydersen is an author
and journalist, living in Chicago. She can be contacted at [email protected].