Benton Harbor, MI - On June 17, the African American community of this southern Michigan city rebelled against police terror. Police chased down, without justification, a 28-year old Black motorcyclist, Terrance Shurn. According to witnesses, they rammed his motorcycle from behind, causing it to crash into an abandoned house. Shun was killed. The pursuing officers gave each other high-fives. The cops then kicked his body.
For a community that had experienced decades of racist discrimination and police violence, enough was enough. For two days, police were confronted in the streets, squad cars were destroyed, and abandoned buildings burned.
An organizer in Benton Harbor's fight for justice, JoNina Abron, chairwoman of the Southwest Michigan Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality, told Fight Back!, "I call what happened a rebellion, because I believe the community's response was a result of years of pent up rage and frustration. The people of Benton Harbor are fed up with the years of police brutality that they have had to live with. They are outraged by the economic apartheid that they see every day. Benton Harbor's population is 95% Black. They are outraged by the racism of the criminal justice system. Their response was the culmination of many things that came together. The people of Benton Harbor saw an 11-year old boy, Trenton Patterson, struck and killed in September 2000 in another police pursuit case. They saw that nothing was done in that case."
Benton Harbor police, along with those in the surrounding township, have a history of brutality, which has left more than a few injured or dead.
Tale of Two Cities
Benton Harbor is a small town. The folks that live there are Black. 50% of the population is unemployed. Across the river is St. Joseph. The residents are white, and it is the center for business in Berrien County, where both cities are located. The unemployment rate in white St. Joseph is 2%.
A statement from Benton Harbor community organizers shines a light on this divide. It notes, "At one time, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor were referred to as 'twin cities,' well, no more! The city of Benton Harbor is now 95% Black, while St. Joseph is 95% white. But these figures alone do not tell the whole story. There is the bridge which separates the two communities, which are two different worlds really. They are separate and unequal entities. More importantly, the bridge marks the line of demarcation between those who have power from those who are ruled over."
The statement also pointed out, "It is no exaggeration at all to say that St. Joseph and Berrien County officials stole the available federal and state funding, which impoverished the city of Benton Harbor to the stage where it is the poorest city in Berrien County and in the state of Michigan. They robbed the community of all wealth, the same as if they had used a gun for armed robbery. All of this made St. Joseph the dominant city in Berrien County, and one of the most affluent in that state, while Benton Harbor became a beggar city of thousands of ever younger Black people. This economic apartheid is a large factor in what led to the revolt of June 17."
Another facet of the political and economic life of Berrien County is the Whirlpool Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of home appliances. While it's headquartered in Benton Harbor, the corporation favors the white city of St. Joseph. Fred Upton, heir to Whirlpool's founder, is a right-wing republican. Upton has done everything in his power to make government dollars flow to St. Joseph.
On June 12, community organizers issued a statement advancing the demands of the mass movement in Benton Harbor: "We call for an end to the racist outrages against the Black people of Benton Harbor by white politicians in Berrien County, Michigan. We call for an end to racial segregation and economic apartheid in this county. We call for an end to police brutality and to officially sanctioned violence against the black population of Benton Harbor. We call for an end to political disenfranchisement, neo-colonialism and the sharing of political power in Berrien County. We call for an end to the theft of community and economic development funding by county politicians, which has impoverished the black community of Benton Harbor and enriched St. Joseph's white community."
The statement continued, "We call for the removal of all racist judges and prosecutors in the local judicial system, and immediate cessation of unjust selective prosecution of all those arrested during the June 17-18 rebellion in Benton Harbor. AMNESTY NOW! We want the criminal prosecution of: Benton Charter Township officer Wes Koza, for the death of Terrance Shurn on June 16, 2003; all officers responsible for the death of 11-year old Trenton Patterson in September, 2000; all Benton Township officers involved in the April 27, 2003 strangulation of Arthur Partee and other suspicious deaths of black people in Berrien County. Most importantly, we call for an immediate end to the reckless police pursuit policies through populated black civilian areas."
Organizers are also calling for a boycott of tourism to St Joseph. The next issue of Fight Back! will contain an account of the ongoing protest movement.
No Justice, No Peace!