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Benton Harbor: after the fire; A small riot in the Midwesth caught national attention two years ago. Help and photo-ops arrived but that hasn't stopped the decline in the Rust Belt.

The story was everywhere: riot in a black Midwestern town. It was mid-June 2003, and televisions nationwide showed houses and cars on fire, angry crowds throwing bricks and dozens of heavily armed police officers looking overwhelmed. Reporters said the violence flared up after white police officers chased a black motorcyclist who crashed and died; people in one of the poorest areas of Benton Harbor, a Southwest Michigan city of about 11,000, were letting the world know they were tired of being targeted by police and shut out of jobs.

Benton Harbor is a run-down, isolated place, many stories then reported, citing census data that contrasted the town with its neighbor, St. Joseph. While Benton Harbor is predominantly African American (92 percent), largely poor (40 percent of families live below the poverty line) and short of jobs (25 percent are unemployed), St. Joseph is white (90 percent), middle class (median household income is $37,000) and working (2 percent are jobless). It looked like the mixture of racism and rage had exploded.

Months after the riots, Benton Harbor stayed in the news. The governor stopped by. Jesse Jackson marched. Jimmy Carter flew in and promised to build homes. A lot was happening in this small town, and a lot of people seemed to be paying attention.

Over a year later, pastors, political leaders, teachers, activists and unemployed youth are describing a community that's been re-energized by new attention and investment. But they are also clear that the old problems aren't disappearing. People are wrestling with the complicated mix of racism and economics that has plagued the Benton Harbor area--and the rest of the Rust Belt--for so long.

A Four-Block Riot

The violence started the evening of June 16, 2003, when a group of people faced off with Benton Harbor police next to the abandoned building where motorcyclist Terrance Shurn had crashed early that morning. Shurn, an unemployed 28-year-old father, had been driving at a speed of more than 100 mph with officers in pursuit, police said.

The group assembled to hold a vigil for Shurn, but after police ordered them to disperse, they tried to set the abandoned house on fire. When police forced them away, they went across the street and lit another empty home, and then another; in that neighborhood, they had plenty of options. The crowd grew to as many as 300 people, with some throwing bricks and rocks at squad cars. The police were outnumbered.

The next night, bigger crowds faced an increased number of better armed, better shielded police officers from Benton Harbor, the state police and other area forces. No one was killed, but several people were reportedly beaten, while 21 houses were burned down, almost all of them abandoned. When Benton Harbor Police Chief Samuel Harris, who is black, refused to refer to the incidents as riots, explaining, "A riot is when there's total chaos," a reporter corrected him in print: "The situation met every definition of the word 'riot,'" she wrote.

Many people in Benton Harbor weren't so sure, including Patricia Plaut-Payne, the manager of a local African-American bookstore and Gladys Peeples-Burks, a longtime educator and current member of the town's school board. Both are African American and members of the Race Relations Council of Southwest Michigan, which studies and holds discussions on diversity issues. This past October, both said news coverage of the "riots" had been overblown.

Plaut-Payne didn't know about the violence until she saw footage of it on television. She and her husband live in Fair-plain, a racially mixed area tucked between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. On June 17, 2003, they drove within a few blocks of the riot and didn't hear anything unusual--no sirens, no yells, nothing. They didn't smell any smoke or see anything to make them feel uneasy.

At home, Plaut-Payne turned on CNN. She was taken aback. "The news made it look like the whole city was on fire," she said. She later found out it was confined to about four blocks.

"I had a real hard time calling that a 'riot though for the people right in the thick of it I can imagine it could not have felt very good," she said.

Her views are not isolated. Peeples-Burks, who lives a few blocks from the scene of the violence, learned about it through a phone call from her daughter in Texas. In fact, the 30 or so people interviewed for this article said they thought the incidents were serious and dangerous, a real sign that the community needs more investment all of its members can share in. But they also believe the coverage was based on stereotypes that black folks are always ready to explode in violence.

Harris, the town's police chief, hasn't changed his view of what he still refers to as "our disturbance." He believes it had nothing to do with race; it was incited by a group of "older gangsters" who wanted a confrontation, he said. The violence grew into a "disturbance" with national news coverage, because his department wasn't prepared, he said: only he and three other Benton Harbor police officers were on duty when the riots broke out, and none of them had protective gear.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Benton Harbor police force now knows how to quash a potential riot, said Harris. Last March, he and other officers broke up a gathering near the scene of the crash. One man opened fire, hitting a bystander in the leg (he was later convicted of trying to kill Harris). Then, on the anniversary of Shurn's death, between 200 and 300 people, mostly teenagers, hurled bricks at police. This time, Benton Harbor cops were clad in gas masks and riot gear purchased with a $25,000 grant from the United Way, a nonprofit foundation that sponsors the YMCA. Local officers called for backup from state and county police and tear gassed the kids.

Had it not been for the riots, Harris said, the police department would not have procured the equipment. But that wasn't the only kind of assistance that's been offered. The department also received more than $500,000 from local donors to hire more police officers. Another grant, from the U.S. Department of Justice, will put eight officers in local public schools.

Last year's violence "caused the world to look at this little town," Harris said. As a result of the extra resources, relations with the community--long strained by allegations of disrespectful and even abusive police conduct--have already "improved dramatically," he said.

But the Rev. Edward Pinkney dismisses this claim. Pinkney, pastor of Benton Harbor's New Mission Baptist Church, leads the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, which frequently protests alleged racial discrimination by the police department and Berrien County court system. He said Harris has "created a lot of hatred" by threatening Benton Harbor's poorest residents with crackdowns.

"You've got to have people sit down and talk," Pinkney said. "You don't do it by threatening people. These young guys, they're not afraid of dying, anyway, so that's not going to do any good."

Broke in Benton Harbor

Ultimately perhaps, the violence exposed the unemployment and racism of the Midwest. Of all the numbers thrown out to show what Benton Harbor is like, none is more shocking--or more to the point--than its jobless rate. In October, Benton Harbor's unemployment was at 24.8 percent, compared with 6 percent across Michigan and 5.1 percent nationwide (when it's not seasonally adjusted). And the figures don't include the huge number of people in Benton Harbor who've given up on looking for work. The real share of the population without jobs, community leaders believe, could be as high as 80 percent.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The last time the city's unemployment rate was below 10 percent was September 1973, when it was 9 percent--still extraordinarily high by American standards. For the more than 31 years since, that figure has ranged from 10 to nearly 48 percent, with 20 to 30 percent being the norm. It's been four years since it even dipped into the teens. In other words, between a fifth and a half of Benton Harbor adults trying to find work are jobless--and have been, every single day, every single month, for a full generation.

"The adult population, over 40, they've seen a better time," said Plant-Payne, the bookstore manager. "But you've got a generation of young people who've never seen anything besides this. They probably don't think it will ever change."

The area's postwar economy was built on manufacturing and tool-and-die work. Whirlpool Corp., one of the world's leading appliance makers, had an assembly plant in St. Joseph and its headquarters in Benton Harbor. Other local companies made parts used by Detroit's Big Three automakers, supplying area workers with high-pay union jobs.

By the early 1970s, though, the auto industry slumped, putting the squeeze on local companies. Whirlpool closed its St. Joseph plant, cutting 1,000 jobs. Other plants moved South, went overseas or disappeared altogether. By the early 1980s, the area was shedding these jobs; officials still talk about the two-and-a-half-year stretch when 5,500 disappeared.

The city fell into an ugly economic cycle. With few people working, the tax base eroded, and public services, including the police force and school system, struggled along with less money. Fewer middle-class people wanted to invest in housing or send their kids to Benton Harbor schools. They moved--and the tax base sank some more. In 2000, 47 percent of the city's families with children were living in poverty, and 39 percent of Benton Harbor adults hadn't finished high school, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. "It's had a devastating effect," said the Rev. James Atterberry, a lifelong Benton Harbor resident and leader of its 90-member Ministerial Alliance. "A lot of people found themselves scrambling to survive. Welfare became the only work."

Everyone would like to report that the trend has been reversed, but no one can. Several plants announced their closings in the last 18 months, accounting for hundreds of lost jobs. Still, while Benton Harbor is a dramatic example of economic implosion, it's not a unique one. An arc of industrial cities stretches across the Great Lakes region from Wisconsin to upstate New York, and most have been hit hard. In East St. Louis, Ill., the October unemployment rate was 15.2 percent; in Gary, Ind., 11.6; in Flint, Mich., 13.5; in Detroit, 12.9; in Cleveland, 12.6 percent. And so on.

Midwestern unemployment is not just a black problem. Many of the mostly-white small towns and rural areas around Benton Harbor, for example, have above-average joblessness. Still, the higher the concentration of African Americans, the higher the unemployment rate. St. Joseph's jobless rate is only 2 percent, and it hasn't been in the double figures since hitting 10.2 percent in 1985.

Some can only conclude that the gaps were created and allowed to persist because of racism. When hard times hit the local economy, people with means left Benton Harbor, and those who were left didn't have a way to respond. "I've heard statements--'Black people tore up Benton Harbor.' That's not all true. It went down because it had no support," said Atterberry, who is African American. "If we went to bed, and all of us woke up a different color, you'd see a different response to the community."

Yet Atterberry also believes that his city is finally getting some of the attention it's needed.

Solution or Selling Out?

Shortly after the riots, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed a task force to devise ways to revitalize Benton Harbor. The group, made up of community leaders and local teenagers, issued its final report in 2003, recommending that the community develop jobs, slash the high school dropout rate, expand community policing and offer diversity training throughout the area.

"The positive [side of the riots] is that Benton Harbor has been noticeable," said Atterberry, one of the co-chairs of the task force. "Some people may say, 'It's wrong to have a riot and then have people rewarded.' But it was a response ... to a community that's been in trouble a long time. I just hope we can keep the momentum going."

The community doesn't have the money to do everything at once. As the report puts it: "Most of the proposals will require long-term strategies for implementation."

So for now, while officials say they're working on all of these issues, they're making a priority of bringing in housing and development that can raise the city's tax base. No one disagrees that the housing stock in Benton Harbor has fallen into poor shape; between 1963 and 1996, when a local Habitat for Humanity chapter was formed, just one residential building permit was issued by the city. City leaders think new construction will help fund improved schools and city services while integrating Benton Harbor economically--which, they believe, will in turn help close some of the area's racial gaps.

The plan has won widespread support. Last spring, the federal government pledged $15.9 million to build public housing. Habitat for Humanity is slated to build 12 homes in the city in 2004, and in 2005 Jimmy Carter will return to make Benton Harbor his organization's showcase worksite. A new, market-rate housing development is underway, promising to bring middle- and upper-class homeowners to the downtown area. Whirlpool, which has spearheaded much of the planning, announced that it would open a new office downtown.

"If we can do the physical development, we'll make it attractive to people and turn the corner," said Al Pscholka, a staffer for U.S. Representative Fred Upton. Until December, Pscholka, who is white, was a vice president of the Cornerstone Alliance, a Whirlpool-backed economic development organization.

But where Pscholka, Atterberry and others see new investment and energy, critics like Pinkney see a plan for gentrification that will marginalize poor African Americans.

Though many of the new homes are supposed to be kept affordable for low- or moderate-income families, Pinkney charges that the majority will end up being out of reach for most people in town. "In my eyes, it's worse than ever before--it's a takeover of the city," Pinkney said. "They do have a plan, but the plan doesn't include the people of Benton Harbor."

And some longtime community organizations don't seem to be part of the process, with different overlapping groups sometimes vying for the same pool of funds.

JoAnn Bailey is the executive director of the Workforce Skill Development Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to remove barriers between Benton Harbor residents and area employers. Over the last decade, the center has offered GED preparation, life skills classes and job placement to dozens of people; more than 80 percent of those who got jobs in the first few years were still working five years later, Bailey said.

But while the state opened a job training facility in downtown Benton Harbor this summer, Bailey's organization, struggling for funds, has suspended its adult education program. Currently, it works with teenagers who've been temporarily kicked out of school for disciplinary reasons. About 15 students at a time receive individual tutoring and community service assignments for ten days before returning to their regular classrooms.

Bailey is still waiting to find out if her center will get certified to run a construction trades program that she thinks would dovetail nicely with the new housing plans. "This and quite a few other grassroots, community-based organizations are really just trying to make it," she said. "We do quite a bit, but we don't always get the credit for it."

She believes Benton Harbor's biggest long-term problem is still finding ways to put people to work. "I think it's wonderful that all of this [building] is going on, but you still have to deal with the systematic poverty, and I don't know if anyone has," she said. "The reality of the situation is that people don't have jobs. We need a plan for this."

Just about everyone agrees that this is really the key issue, but most still struggle to describe what that plan should consist of. After all, it's not just a Benton Harbor issue--lots of other Midwestern cities are searching for the same answers. For starters, though, Bailey and others want to see Benton Harbor residents working on the new construction projects. Atterberry adds that the county could do its part by hiring more African Americans for public works jobs. Pscholka said local officials are trying to recruit new companies that work in distribution, food processing, tourism and computer technology. "And we're still going to chase manufacturing jobs," Pscholka said.

But in the meantime, Terrance Mason said he has no reason to think his prospects are getting any better. One Sunday afternoon this fall, Mason stood in an empty lot near the center of last year's rioting and explained why the new developments don't mean much in his neighborhood.

"They're building a lot of things, but they're still not helping inner-city people get jobs," said Mason, 30. He applied for work during a recent job fair, he says, but "ain't nobody I've heard of who's got no phone call."

Since dropping out of high school in the early 1990s, Mason has been in and out of jail on drug charges. He insisted, though, that he has good construction skills. The problem is that no one will give him a chance.

He looked across the empty lots, noting the other men and women standing in groups, some drinking from bottles in paper bags. He knew most of their names and stories. He said few of them had ever found real work. "That's why you see a lot of people hanging out," he said. "We've got nothing to do. When you've got to do anything you can to survive, you do what you can."

Mick Dumke, who grew up in St. Joseph, is a contributing editor for the Chicago Reporter. He also teaches journalism at Columbia College Chicago.
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Title Annotation:feature
Author:Dumke, Mick
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:2994
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