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Benton Harbor, Mich., is a town of nearly 11,000 people, about 90 percent of whom are African American. It is a catalogue of the misery of the industrial Midwest. It was the headquarters and manufacturing center of Whirlpool, but the last Whirlpool plant closed years ago. Now Benton Harbor has a per capita income of about $10,000 a year. And it is plagued by the ills that accompany poverty in today’s America: high unemployment, broke government, failing schools, crime, drugs and despair.
Everything has been stripped from Benton Harbor’s residents. The industrial jobs that used to provide a ladder into the middle class have been shipped abroad. The call center jobs that replaced them employ few at a poverty wage. The failing tax base means that public services are starved. The schools struggle to educate children from mean streets; these children are often hungry and without adequate health care or stable homes. The good teachers flee; the schools fail or are taken over, a shuffle that substitutes motion for real action on poverty.
But Benton Harbor may become to economic justice what the small town of Selma was to civil rights. For in Benton Harbor, the powers that be now are wreaking the final indignities on the town’s beleaguered residents — stripping them not only of their schools, but of their democracy, taking away not only their jobs, but their public parks.
Benton Harbor’s finances are a mess. How could they not be in a town stripped of jobs and hope? So, the state has stripped its residents of their democracy. In what is accurately termed "fiscal martial law," the state has named a czar to run the city. That appointee, Joseph Harris, has issued an order essentially stripping the elected city council of all powers. No money can be spent, no taxes raised or lowered, no bonds issued, no regulations changed without his approval. Benton Harbor’s residents now live in a dictatorship imposed by a Republican governor famous for his belief that the poor should be punished and the rich rewarded.
This appointed dictator claims breathtaking powers. He can sell public assets, dismiss pension boards and take control of public pension funds and revoke labor contracts. What triggers this takeover? The law is remarkably vague. The governor may act if a payroll is missed, if there are complaints of late bill payment, if pensions are underfunded, if there is a significant budget deficit, a term that goes undefined.
This takeover is a recipe for the worst abuses of oppression, cronyism and corruption. And here, too, Benton Harbor is the example. One of the few citizen treasures in Benton Harbor is the Jean Klock Park, a half-mile of sandy dunes on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was bequeathed to the children of Benton Harbor by the Klock family in 1917 in memory of their daughter.
But developers backed by Whirlpool now want to appropriate a large portion of the park to turn it into a Harbor Shores golf resort with a 350-room hotel, two marinas, a 60,000-foot indoor water park (for members only), and a fancy golf course open to all who can afford a $5,000 entry fee and be approved by the club. The town’s citizens have resisted this development, which is under litigation.
But the new czar’s first act was to take over the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, most likely as a way to proceed with the development and sidestep the lawsuits. Why be suspicious? Because the law that the new czar is operating under was introduced by Republican state Rep. Al Pscholka, former staff aide to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, an heir to the Whirlpool fortune.
They’ve shut down the jobs, and taken over the schools. Now they want to shut down the democracy and turn the public parks into a rich man’s playground. But in Benton Harbor, as in Selma and Montgomery, they forget even the poorest people have a sense of dignity. Dr. King wrote, "the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people." In Benton Harbor, it is time for the good people to make themselves heard.