The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Benton Harbor protests long-term injustice

Jun 23, 2003

The people of Benton Harbor, Michigan took to the streets for two straight nights after a young black man was killed in a police chase on Monday, June 16. The man who was killed, Terrance Shurn, was apparently speeding on his motorcycle, when he was chased by white police officers from two different police departments from outside of Benton Harbor. One police car from Benton Township chased Shurn into the city of Benton Harbor. Dozens of witnesses said the police knocked Shurn off of his motorcycle, causing his death, although the police claim Shurn drove into a building.

About 100 people first took their protest to two meetings, the Benton Harbor City Commission meeting on Monday night, and the Benton Township meeting on Tuesday. When they didn't get any answers to their protests, people then took to the streets, setting abandoned buildings on fire and destroying some police cars. When police tried to hold a press conference, people threw rocks and bottles at them. The rebellion lasted for two nights and involved 300 to 400 people.

The Benton Harbor residents are upset about continued police harassment, especially by police from outside the city of Benton Harbor. A couple of years ago, an 11-year-old boy was run down by police, also from Benton Township. Township police are mostly white. One resident, Evette Taylor, said, "They harass us, they pull us over for nothing. We're fed up." She added, "This was just the one that pushed us over the edge. This was the straw that broke the camel's back."

The area, on Lake Michigan, was once a resort area that drew people from across the lake in Chicago to its beaches, amusement parks, and hotels. As industry grew, black workers migrated to Benton Harbor to find work. The area was home to the headquarters and the main factory of the Whirlpool corporation, as well as a Bendix brake plant and the Zenith Company, among others. But plants began to close down, jobs were lost, poverty grew. Today, unemployment stands at 25%.

Throughout the 1960s, white people moved out of Benton Harbor to St. Joseph, leaving Benton Harbor with a higher and higher black population and increasingly poorer. Benton Harbor's school system is in poor shape. Residents also complain that there is little for their kids to do, as all of the movie theaters and entertainment spots have moved out of the city. The city has a high teen pregnancy rate.

You still hear echoes of the 1991 death of a 16-year-old from Benton Harbor, whose body was found in the St. Joseph River. It was the subject of a book, called The Other Side of the River, by Alex Kotlowitz. The teen, Eric McGinnis, was last seen being chased by a white man from St. Joseph, whose car he had supposedly broken into. The man was never charged, but to this day, most people in Benton Harbor believe he killed McGinnis.

The people of Benton Harbor are right to have made their anger known. Already in the few days after the so-called rioting occurred, Michigan's Governor Jennifer Granholm paid a visit, promising to come up with programs for the city. Even Whirlpool Corporation is "looking into" what it can do.

Now that the people of Benton Harbor have made their voices heard, suddenly the politicians and bosses sit up and take notice of the problems. But there's no quick fix for the conditions faced by the people of Benton Harbor. The economy and racial tensions in Benton Harbor have festered for decades. The people of Benton Harbor will need to keep organizing and fighting if they want to see real change.