Benton Harbor protests racism, abuse

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – About 400 protestors marched from the City Hall here to Berrien County Courthouse, July 12, to keep the spotlight on police abuse and racism. Sponsored by Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers (BANCO) and other groups, the multi-racial crowd marched, carried signs and banners and chanted “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” Benton Harbor residents were joined by activists from all over Michigan and the Midwest.

Benton Harbor was thrust into national headlines last month after a high-speed police chase resulted in the death of Black motorcyclist Terrance Shurn, which in turn sparked two nights of rebellion in this city of 12,000.

Residents of Benton Harbor, which is a predominantly African American city, have had long-standing problems with the police of neighboring Benton Township. The Benton Township police officers who chased Shurn across jurisdictional lines into Benton Harbor were white. Witnesses said the police caused Shurn to crash into a building. Yet, Berrien County Prosecutor Jim Cherry recently cleared the police of any wrongdoing. Among the protest demands are an end to high-speed chases and amnesty for everyone arrested during the two-day rebellion.

Benton Harbor resident Wesley Fleming told the World that problems with Benton Township police and the Berrien County courts are deep-rooted. “Everybody who is Black is considered a criminal. Nobody deserves that,” he said.

Fleming, a Bosch Corp. employee, said his daughter was abused by Benton Township police and unjustly arrested on July 11. They used obscenities and pushed and kneed her, he said. The police said they were “escorting” her out of the store [where the arrest happened]. “But there is a difference between pushing and escorting,” Fleming said. “I taught my children to be disciplined and respectful, but I also said ‘Don’t ever let anyone abuse you.’”

Organizers targeted biased Berrien County judges as “Benton Harbor’s Most Wanted.” Fleming said holding the judges accountable was a good idea because judges can “throw out the cases when the police do wrong. That kind of leadership would change the attitude of the police.” There are no Black judges in Berrien County.

Annemarie Hodges and Jason Cook came to the march from Lansing. As members of the Greater Lansing Network against War and Injustice, both Hodges and Cook saw a link between taking a stand against the Iraq war and police brutality in Michigan, saying people can’t be apathetic to injustice anywhere.

Hodges was glad Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) got involved and set up a Benton Harbor taskforce, but she said there needs to be a sustained effort with a great deal of community participation to get rid of police abuse and racism.

Michelle Hoersch, who lives in Chicago but spends the weekends here, said she was appalled by the economic injustices in the area. Hoersch, who is pregnant, said she didn’t want to bring her child into such a world.

Benton Harbor, which lies on the shores of Lake Michigan, faces severe economic depression with an official jobless rate of 25 percent. Next door, with only a 2 percent unemployment rate, is St. Joseph, a predominantly white and trendy tourist town. Whirlpool and Bosch are the two largest employers in the area.

In an article from globalblacknews.com called, “A Tale of Two Cities: Benton Harbor and St. Joseph,” the authors say the force behind the police brutality, racism and economic apartheid is corporate.

“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 article exposes Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as an heir to the Whirlpool fortune and a far-right Republican who is “part of the right-wing Republican cabal” set on dismantling any civil rights gains. Upton resides in St. Joseph.

The article says during Upton’s tenure only St. Joseph has benefited from the millions he has secured in block grants, federal loans and contracts, while Benton Harbor has received relatively nothing.

BANCO’s Rev. Edward Pinkney, who chaired Saturday’s rally, called on people to get more involved in the struggle. “Tell your brothers and sisters to come out. We’re on the move, but it’s going to take a few more people.”

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org