By Diane Bukowski (more photos and video links still coming)
BENTON HARBOR – Benton Harbor’s showdown with Gov. Rick Snyder, who was Grand Marshal of the region’s Blossom Time parade May 7, was loud and well-attended by hometown people, union and community activists from across the state, and even from Madison, Wisconsin. All Snyder could hear as he walked across the bridge over the St. Joseph River from wealthy white St. Joseph to poor Black Benton Harbor were chants of “Recall Rick!”
Hundreds of protesters kept up with Snyder all the way down Main Street, past Whirlpool’s new global headquarters, which is under construction on the Benton Harbor side of the river. Snyder, who appeared taken aback at the anger and strength of the protest, jumped into his black SUV with darkened windows as soon as he got to City Hall, and got out of the city.
“A Michigan governor has never participated in a Blossom-Time Parade before,” nationally-known Benton Harbor activist and NAACP President Rev. Edward Pinkney told VOD.
Snyder evidently wanted to make the point that he had no apologies for Public Act 4, and no fear of the residents of Benton Harbor, the first Michigan municipality to be subjected to emergency manager rule under the law. (See VOD story on Benton Harbor EM Joe Harris and his order banning the city’s commissioners and mayor from conducting any city business at http://voiceofdetroit.net/?p=6939.
Also read Rev. Jesse Jackson’s statement on Benton Harbor by clicking on TIME FOR BENTON HARBOR TO RISE UP Jesse Jackson).
“The people here don’t know yet, they haven’t taken the time to figure out the issues,” Pinkney said as he watched residents enjoy the appearance of the talented Benton Harbor High School Marching Band during the parade. “But we’ve got to take this battle to a whole other level. It’s for the children. The school district here is in bad shape. I’ve been meeting with the schools superintendent to demand zero tolerance, not just for students, but for teachers, parents and the school board, which is controlled by Whirlpool. You have to follow the money trail, see who’s getting the contracts.”
Pinkney has campaigned for years against the Benton Harbor judicial system, which funnels the largest percentage of Black youth in the state into the prisons, most of them victims of frame-ups according to their supporters.
Pinkney has also campaigned against rampant police brutality, which resulted in a rebellion by youth in Benton Harbor after police killed Terrance Shurn during a high-speed chase in 2003. He is calling for a city-wide protest on June 18, the eighth anniversary of the uprising.
“Zero tolerance” policies in the schools are disproportionately enforced against students of color, according to a recent study by the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), called “The School-to-Prison Pipeline.” (Click on Michigan ACLU School to Prison Pipeline to read report.)
Benton Harbor became notorious nationally even prior to the 2003 rebellion. In 1991, the body of a 16-year-old Black youth, Eric McGinnis, was pulled out of the river. The last person to see him alive was County Sheriff Stephen Marschke, who has long been suspected in his death. Former Governor John Engler later appointed Marschke to head the state parole board.
McGinnis had gone over to the St. Joseph side for some entertainment. Alex Kotlowicz investigated the teen’s death for five years, and eventually wrote, “The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma.”
While some marched in the protest, Benton Harbor residents primarily were out in force with their children to see the Blossom Time parade, which for the first time featured the Benton Harbor High School marching band at the beginning, according to one bystander.
Several Benton Harborites threw fists and shouted: “We’re not for Snyder!” But others wanted to know what the protest was about, indicating the amount of political education that still needs to be done among the grass roots.
The local newspaper, the Herald-Palladium, published an article the day of the parade headlined “Protesters: we’re anti-EM law, not Whirlpool.” It tried to distinguish the May 7 protest from a tide of earlier demonstrations that led to national news commentator Rachel Maddow’s condemnation of PA 4 and its link to Whirlpool and corporate America. (Click on: http://www.heraldpalladium.com/articles/2011/05/07/local_news/4664460.txt.)
Whirlpool was not mentioned from the podium during a brief rally prior to the march, but protesters carried signs condemning its takeover of prime public lakefront property. The speakers did target the nation’s corporations, which, as Maddow noted, are chomping at the bit to profit from privatization and takeovers allowed under P.A. 4.
.“We’re here for our kids and our grandkids,” UAW International President Bob King said. “We are so blessed to be in America, where for hundreds of years there has been a rule of the people. What some extremists are trying to make it today is a rule of money. Let’s be really clear—budgets are moral documents. Those who believe in family values, but want to eliminate the earned income tax credit for low-wage earners, tax pensions, take $460 per pupil away from K-12 education—that is immoral.”
King said the UAW’s legal department has 30 to 40 attorneys currently researching legal grounds to challenge PA 4 in the courts. State Rep. Fred Durhal said the state’s Congressional Black Caucus is meeting with Rainbow PUSH, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the UAW and AFL-CIO to join in the court battle and coordinate the overall campaign. It was unclear if this is the same coalition meeting every week at the AFSCME Council 25 hall, which is planning a class action lawsuit along with other activities challenging PA 4. (Click on http://voiceofdetroit.net/?p=7001.)
“We may win it through the courts, but that’s not the battle,” King said. “We have to be marching, rallying, demanding justice every day of our lives.”
King fell short of recommending that the unions exercise their economic clout through direct action such as a general strike. To date, rallies and protests have not stopped what some has characterized as the onward tide of neo-fascism in Michigan or nationally.
King and his members, in red T-shirts, turned out in relatively large numbers for the Benton Harbor action, although King was not at state-wide rallies in Lansing against P.A. 4 in February, March, and April.
UAW Local 6000 represents 17,000 state employees, according to Ray Holman, the union’s legislative liaison with the Department of Human Services.
“These attacks on collective bargaining and the rights of working families mean people in Michigan as a whole are going to suffer, and it’s going to get worse,” Holman told VOD. “Snyder is trying to privatize a lot of state government, and that’s going to be disastrous.”
He said much of the privatization is illegal because it involves federal funds.
Under Governor Jennifer Granholm, the state had already privatized most of its foster care functions, which led to the Department being placed under a federal consent decree citing massive abuse of children in the system in 2008.
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), said a recent report from the federal monitor still “found huge problems at DHS – including illegal budget cuts, understating abuse in foster care and the mass expulsion of children from the homes of relatives.”
Holman said a bill is pending in the legislature (SB 179, section 620) which would also farm out State Emergency Relief (SER), Medicaid eligibility determination, and other work currently done by state employees. He said the number of assistance payment workers has been cut back so drastically that those remaining now carry caseloads of 800 to 1,000 families.
On the St. Joseph side, residents there lined the streets primarily for the parade, although a small group of teachers with the Michigan Education Association carried signs condemning Snyder’s education budget cuts. Snyder raided last year’s $500 million surplus in last year’s education fund to give huge tax breaks to corporations.
Kathy Knight, a first-grade teacher in the Benton Harbor school district, decried the cuts.
“It’s been tough here,” she said. “Benton Harbor is a mini-Detroit. There have been a lot of cutbacks, and the teacher to student ratio is increasing, leaving us less time for each individual student.”
Mary Peterson works as a teacher at the Blossom Land Learning Center in Berrien Springs, a county-wide school for “mentally impaired and significantly multiple-impaired students” from ages 3 to 26.
“Our main concern is the kids,” she said. “They are cutting back funding, and we have to take so much out of our own pockets to provide necessities in the classrooms. We are short-stafffed, so besides teaching, we also take care of feeding, suctioning and diapering the students. They require us to have additional post-graduate education, but they do not pay for it.”
Neither teacher, however, expressed concern about the Benton Harbor EM takeover. According to Benton Harborites, most teachers in the system live in St. Joseph.
Typifying the response of many whites in St. Joseph and even young whites in Benton Harbor running gentrified businesses downtown, one man watching the parade with his family hollered, “Why don’t you take pictures of NORMAL people?”
Expensive yachts and boats lined the St. Joseph side of the river, along with signs touting numerous new luxury residential developments, many on Benton Harbor’s shorelines. Benton Harbor’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods, however, reminded one young Detroiter who attended a march there two weeks earlier of the rural South, where she was born and raised.
“It’s not any better there now than it was before the 60’s,” she said.
To follow ongoing activities in Benton Harbor by local activists, click on http://bhbanco.blogspot.com . Rev. Edward Pinkney can be reached at