Police Abuse and Poverty Fueled Benton Harbor Riots

Terrance Shurns’s death was the final straw. But the explosion of anger in Benton Harbor last month was years in the making. One ingredient was the latest outrage committed against another Black victim by an overwhelmingly white police force. But equally important was a long history of economic neglect in a once-prosperous industrial town in southwestern Michigan that has sunk into a permanent depression.

“People didn’t even know about Benton Harbor until all this happened,” says Evette Taylor, who has lived here all of her 31 years. “If you put something on the shelf, and you don’t pay any attention to it, pretty soon, it gets deteriorated. You forgot about it. And that’s how we are. We’re forgotten about, we’re nothing.”

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BITTERNESS AT police and poverty fueled two nights of rioting after Shurn was killed in a motorcycle crash on the night of June 16. The 28-year-old–known as “T-shirt” to the many people who knew him in Benton Harbor–collided with a building after being pursued by white cops from the Benton Township police force, which is separate from the city force.

The cops’ version is that Shurn and another motorcyclist were riding at speeds of over 100 miles per hour, and officers chased them at a safe distance. Benton Harbor residents tell a different story.

Some say that a squad car rammed Shurn, causing him to lose control and crash. Friends say that Shurn often complained of being singled out for harassment by police–and that he was arrested in February and spent time in jail for carrying one prescription pain tablet in his pocket. And why, residents ask, did police continue a high-speed chase in a residential area–especially after a 7-year-old boy was killed in the same neighborhood because of a police chase several years ago?

But no one disagrees about what happened next on the night Shurn died. When a group of 50 people gathered for a prayer vigil, police moved in and ordered them to disperse.

“We weren’t loud,” 23-year-old Latonya Doss told a reporter. “We were singing church songs.” The cops threatened to make arrests, and tensions escalated. Some in the crowd began throwing bottles and bricks, driving the police away.

That’s when residents snapped, says Taylor. “This is just years and years of being abused and treated like you’re nothing,” Taylor said, “getting pulled over, going to jail, drug cases pending on you, getting set up. We’re tired of it.” That night and the next, crowds of hundreds of people set fire to buildings in Benton Harbor’s South Side–and then met fire trucks and police cars with a hail of stones.

True to form, mainstream media reports of the rioting focused on the nearly three dozen buildings that were destroyed by arson. But F. Russell Baker, pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, stresses that only two of the houses were inhabited. The others were abandoned buildings, which can be found in large numbers in Benton Harbor–a daily reminder to residents of how their town has been left to rot.

“The rioting was focused in two areas,” Baker said. “One was anger at the police. The other was at the abandoned houses. The reaction of those who were rioting was against the neglect. But it was a focused riot.”

After two nights of disturbances, local and state authorities responded with a show of force, sending hundreds of police in riot gear to take back the streets. Religious leaders from Benton Harbor organized their own patrols to try to ease tensions.

After a few nights, it was clear that authorities had put a lid back on–yet equally clear that the discontent remained. One image said it all–a menacing police armored personnel carrier parked on the broken pavement of a lot in front of a long-closed K-Mart store.

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MEDIA ACCOUNTS of the rioting often asked why Benton Harbor residents would destroy “their own town.” The answer is simple–many feel, and with good reason, that “their own town” has already been devastated.

Benton Harbor was once an industrial city with numerous union jobs connected to the steel industry–as well as the flagship factory of appliance maker Whirlpool. Whirlpool still has its corporate headquarters in Benton Harbor. But the factory is long gone, along with almost all of the good-paying industrial jobs in the area. Today, one-third of Benton Harbor’s households have annual incomes of less than $10,000, and unemployment is nearly 40 percent.

Meanwhile, across the St. Joseph River is Benton Harbor’s “sister city”–the beach town of St. Joseph. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, St. Joe is a weekend getaway destination for Chicagoans two hours away–and has enjoyed a boom as the Chicago elite bought up vacation homes.

The contrast couldn’t be greater. Benton Harbor is 92 percent Black; St. Joseph is 95 percent white. Unemployment is endemic in Benton Harbor; it barely exists in St. Joseph. The median home value in Benton Harbor is less than $40,000; it’s more than $100,000 in St. Joseph.

“You go to St. Joe, and there’s not an abandoned house, there’s not a bad street, nothing,” says Evette Taylor. “They call it the twin cities. If I had a twin that looked like that, I wouldn’t admit it.”

The racial and class tensions between the two towns is an essential part of the background to last month’s rioting. For the last two years, a small group of Benton Harbor residents has held a weekly protest march, crossing the bridge into St. Joseph to demonstrate outside the Berrien County Courthouse–with its staff of mostly white judges and attorneys that regularly deals out injustices to African American victims.

And etched into the memory of everyone in Benton Harbor is the death of Eric McGinnis, a 16-year-old Black youth who was found dead in 1991 in the St. Joseph River with rope burns on his neck. As journalist Alex Kotlowitz chronicled in his book The Other Side of the River, many Benton Harbor residents believe that McGinnis was lynched–possibly with St. Joe police participating–for dating a white teen in St. Joseph.

There have been other deaths, too–and no doubt about who was responsible. Two months ago, Benton Harbor resident Arthur Partee died in a struggle with police after they came to arrest him at his home–on an outstanding traffic warrant. The cops say Partee resisted. Witnesses insist police used a chokehold on a man who was already subdued.

In the aftermath of the rioting, the Benton Township police chief said that his officers would stop chasing Blacks into Benton Harbor…probably. But few people expect that anything at all will be done about the deeper problems of racism or the ongoing economic depression in Benton Harbor.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm may have said that the “underlying issue of hopelessness must be addressed,” but the state government has shown its priorities–locating the money to hire more cops for the area, while coming up short on funds to create jobs and cutting away at social services. “So many want to get their lives together,” said Rev. James Atterberry, of the Brotherhood of All Nations Church of God. “We just don’t have the resources. Most just slip through the cracks.”

After the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, the issues of racism and economic devastation afflicting the African American community suddenly became front-page news, and politicians started to discuss the problems that people from South Central LA dealt with every day. George Bush Sr.’s reelection campaign was put on the defensive–and he eventually lost to Bill Clinton with one of the lowest shares of the vote for any incumbent in the 20th century.

Still, the media attention eventually went away, and little concrete came from the politicians’ rhetoric. As a much smaller disturbance, Benton Harbor is already disappearing from the news, leaving the town’s festering crisis unaddressed.

We have to show why the riots in Benton Harbor are symptoms of a hidden crisis suffered by poor African Americans–and by working people generally–in cities across the country. And we have to take part in all the struggles that will rebuild a movement that can offer a real alternative to a system that breeds racism and poverty.

The crisis of Black America

THE RIOTS in Benton Harbor are an expression of the anger and frustration that exists beneath the surface in every city in America. The bitterness is especially clear among African Americans, who have been hit harder because of the sluggish economy–and stand to lose even more as George W. Bush pursues his Robin Hood in reverse policies of stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

Since Bush took over the White House, the national unemployment rate has jumped to 6 percent. Joblessness for African Americans is nearly twice that–at 11 percent. For young Black men, the situation is even more desperate. Unemployment for 16- to 19-year-old African Americans topped out at more than 30 percent, double that of young white men in the same age range.

For anyone who might think this is a case of bad luck, a University of Chicago study conducted last fall found that job applicants with “Black-sounding” names were twice as likely not to be called back for an interview as applicants with “white-sounding” names. And to add insult to injury, the Bush administration is planning on slashing urban job training programs–already poorly funded to begin with–by 70 percent, from $225 million to just $45 million.

This combination of racism and poverty underpins the social catastrophe that shapes the lives of millions of African Americans. The statistics alone are shocking:

–Some 23 percent of African Americans have no health insurance.

–Black women, who account for slightly more than 6 percent of the U.S. population, make up 68 percent of all new AIDS cases among women. About 63 percent of all new pediatric AIDS cases are Black children.

–For every one Black male who graduates college, 100 more are jailed.

–Among first-time youth offenders, African Americans are six times more likely to be sentenced by juvenile courts to prison than whites. Black youth are 48 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses.

The list of inequities could go on and on. And what’s more, the crisis of Black America isn’t something that began when Bush took office.

Some statistical indicators got better during the 1990s under the Clinton administration. Black unemployment, for example, dropped to 7.2 percent–the lowest level since records were first kept, though it remained nearly twice the overall rate. And the number of Blacks living in poverty dropped from about one in three to less than one in four.

Nevertheless, throughout U.S. society, the rich got richer at a much faster pace during the Clinton years–and this dynamic played itself out among African Americans, too. By the mid-1990s–well before the boom was finished–fully one-seventh of Black families made more than $50,000 a year, more than at any other period in history.

The gap between this layer of better-off African Americans and the bottom half of the Black community–still suffering the effects of racism and economic stagnation, especially in poor urban neighborhoods–grew larger and larger. Today, the prominence of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas and a range of others highlights the fact that the a small but significant number of African Americans have benefited from the system–while the majority of Blacks have not.

Meanwhile, many of the Clinton administration’s most loudly hyped policies had a disproportionate impact on African Americans. For example, Clinton exploited the “tough on crime” hysteria to promote two crime bills that contributed to the massive incarceration boom. Under Clinton, the U.S. prison population swelled to nearly 2 million–with minorities the main victims.

Clinton also ended “welfare as we know it” with the 1996 welfare “reform” bill. The booming economy of 1990s hid the worst impact of this law as former recipients were forced into sub-minimum wage “workfare” jobs in order to get benefits. But the onset of recession as Clinton left office hit workfare workers hard–and welfare “deform” left them with nowhere to turn when the economic bottom fell out.

Black America is a pressure cooker. With rising unemployment, little hope for the future and police nationally emboldened by greater powers because of Washington’s “war on terror,” the ingredients are there for more explosions of anger like Benton Harbor.

Many Black political leaders have set their sights on electing a Democrat in 2004 as the way to address this crisis. But this is no real answer for the majority of Blacks. We need to organize a struggle at the grassroots against racism and poverty–and link it to all the other fights against the Bush agenda.

Alan Maass is the editor of the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: alanmaass@sbcglobal.net


ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: alanmaass@sbcglobal.net