GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – In one of his first acts under the new Emergency Financial Management law, which critics have described as a financial dictator law, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder stripped the people of Benton Harbor, Mich., of their voting rights and their elected officials last week.

The order came just days after another Snyder henchman used new powers to initiate steps to violate contracts between Detroit Public Schools and its teachers and their union.

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joseph Harris took over Benton Harbor’s finances last year, but under new powers granted to Gov. Snyder by the Republican-controlled state legislature, Harris has claimed unprecedented authority.

Appointed to takeover the predominantly working-class, African American city, Harris seized control over the duties and responsibilities held by Benton Harbor’s elected officials, its commissions, and its financial resources.

According to media reports, over the past year Harris had already been sharply criticized for cutting fire department services in the city and for allegedly abusing his expense account.

One particularly disturbing controversy centered on the privatization of parkland owned by the city, which may subsequently be sold to build a luxury golf course.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported that Snyder’s emergency powers law allowed Harris to take the city’s attractive lakefront public land and give it to a group known as Harbor Shores, which has been linked to the local Rep. Fred Upton, a high-ranking Republican leader in the House of Representatives.

According to Maddow, the cost of an annual pass into the proposed golf course is projected to be about half the average annual income of the typical Benton Harbor resident.

Local media also reported last week that Joseph Harris personally reorganized a local government development agency that would have otherwise blocked permits to prevent the construction of the golf course. New members of the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and Planning Commission, appointed by Harris, seem inclined to go forward with the golf course.

In 2009, a conglomerate that included the Whirlpool Corporation (of which Upton is an heir), Harbor Shores, and a Whirlpool-owned real estate company tried unsuccessfully to gain control over Benton Harbor’s lakefront parkland. That year, Benton Harbor residents called for a boycott of Whirlpool in response.

Residents of Benton Harbor have launched protest campaigns and joined statewide efforts to repeal the law and to recall Gov. Snyder.

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. traveled to Michigan last week and joined protests against the governor’s emergency powers. “The governor has no right to disfranchise the voters who voted for the mayor,” Jackson told Fox 2 News in Detroit. “We shall take this case to the Department of Justice, if necessary to the Supreme Court.”

Snyder and his appointees under the law have so far targeted majority African American communities.

Benton Harbor has been economically depressed for years, but when Whirpool abandoned the area for cheaper labor elsewhere, the city’s fortunes grew dire.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).