U.S. and World Politics

Benton Harbor: The Stolen Town

By Kathy Nathan

As consumers of mainstream media “news” and accounts on events in our world and communities, we often see and read reassuring reports about the apprehension of dangerous criminals who commit bank robberies and convenience store heists with the aid of firearms or threats. It makes us all feel safer to know the criminal has been detained and will probably be brought to justice. Sadly, there are much more ruthless and destructive criminals abroad which the media prefers to ignore as they sack and ruin the once vibrant state of Michigan. But equally sadly the MSM (Main Stream Media) media remains disturbingly blank about these events. Specifically I am talking about the heist, which has been taking place in the besieged lake front community of Benton Harbor over a number of years.

In this case, the robbers and criminals do not wear masks or work under the cover of darkness. Their plundering and dismemberment of the once-thriving working and middleclass community in Benton Harbor is openly performed in broad daylight. Those who are committing this open heist claim to be “public servants,” legitimate business interests, and “protectors” of the environment. Their only cover is the indifference of the media and the ignorance of the rest of us. As a reader of the blog, I have been following these events over the years with increasing consternation. How can this be happening now in the “era of racial equality” in a country “by and for the people?”

In a recent phone conversation, Reverend Edward Pinkney took some of his valuable time as one of the only active voices standing up for the people against the oppression happening in Benton Harbor to fill me in on some of the details. Even though I have been somewhat aware of this situation for some time, the facts and figures he quoted tell a story that is beyond appalling and which make the petty bank robberies and break-ins that our media is always highlighting seem like mere little kids stuff. When we can begin to grasp the truth behind these numbers we see who the real criminals and sociopaths are. The figures he quoted check out with the U.S. 2010 census report.

Pinkney explained to me how the heist taking place isn’t just on paper. The city of Benton Harbor’s elected mayor, Wilce Cooke, has literally been removed from his offices. He is “allowed” to use a community owned space with telephones, which he shares with the other disenfranchised elected officials. All the real work of governing the town is now performed by Joseph Harris who has the title of Emergency Financial Manager. He has been given tax supported office space and is answerable to Governor Rick Snyder. Thus the citizens of Benton Harbor have been effectively deprived of the right to elect their own government officials. They no longer have a voice and their “vote” is a meaningless gesture to elect a token official who does not even have a real address.

Pinkney believes that the power grab has occurred to consolidate the victory of corporate interests over an oppressed and racially targeted community. Indeed, the facts do validate his claims. As Pinkney reports, the population is 94 percent Black and 90 percent below the poverty level. Unemployment is anyone’s guess from 60 percent to 80 percent.

While asking for and obtaining huge tax breaks as “incentives” for business, Whirlpool Corporation then proceeded to outsource and move all its manufacturing jobs to Mexico and other similar countries outside the U.S., thus impoverishing the local workers in Benton Harbor and similar towns in the area who had worked for Whirlpool for decades.

In the meantime, Benton Harbor has been asked to underwrite the Whirlpool Corporation by allowing them reduced fees for operating their offices here. This corporation has taken the offered goods and services and given nothing in return on a state, local, and national level. For example, the U.S. government gave Whirlpool over $500 million dollars in tax breaks and Whirlpool has taken 19.3 million from the state of Michigan Economic Growth Authority. Apparently, judging from the horrific statistics, none of these incentives, benefits or tax-supported handouts have trickled down to the people who remain in a dire state.

Now, with the help of U.S. congressman Fred Upton (one of the principle heirs to the Whirlpool fortune), Whirlpool is attempting to grab the remaining park land belonging to the city of Benton Harbor and the homes that border it from the legitimate owners. In the place of the public parks, Whirlpool hopes to construct condos, golf courses and playgrounds for the very wealthy elite who populate their offices—all of which will be off limits to those who currently own and use this land.

Because the victims are all poor (by design) and Black, these blatant robberies and crimes continue seemingly invisible to our media—and the rest of us as well. I agree with Reverend Pinkney. It is time to end the era of the corporate robber barons personified by Whirlpool and its minion Fred Upton. We need a federal grand jury investigation into their theft and dismemberment of an entire town and their use of public funds and resources to further personal wealth. It is the ugliest of heists and those participating should feel the force of the laws which protect us.

But how can this be accomplished? Pinkney has the following observations on that point:

“We the people must change the system; it is broken. The time is now. In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand.”

“Our pathway must be through the soil up...through swamps, forests, streams and rocks...up through commerce, education, and religion. We cannot begin at the top to build a house...if we try to do this we shall reap folly as our reward. We must start at the grassroots. The time is now.” (Benton Harbor Black Autonomy Network Community Organization), May 28, 2011