The Benton Harbor Uprising Why It Matters

Isaiah J. Poole

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Benton Harbor, Mich., is a small community of about 10,000 people that has had big problems for decades. It’s a virtually all-black town where the median income is less than $17,500 and the unemployment rate is at least double the 11 percent unemployment rate for the entire region. It is also today a symbol of the worst of conservative imperialism.

The town’s financial woes—some of which are the legacy of corrupt or inept leaders but much of which are due to factors beyond the town’s control—are being used as a pretext for Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to strip the town’s elected officials of all of their authority, putting control of the town in the hands of a single emergency manager.

It certainly puts all of those “Don’t Tread On Me” flags that were waved at Tea Party protests in perspective. It’s a lesson those of us who are District of Columbia residents learned decades ago: As far as most conservatives are concerned, democracy only belongs to those who have earned it by making choices conservatives approve of. When democracy is used in a way that displeases conservatives, they reserve the right to take it away.

Thus, in the 2011 federal budget, House Republicans insisted on, and obtained, clauses in the bill that dictated that the District could not use its own taxpayer funds to cover the cost of abortions for poor women, even though the city’s elected officials are essentially unanimously pro-choice; and that the city had to offer “opportunity scholarships” for elementary and secondary school students to attend private and parochial schools, even though city officials were opposed and despite the already extensive charter school network in the city.

The fact that when this suspension of democracy happens, the victims are most often communities of color is, I’m sure, a coincidence.

With regard to Benton Harbor, the Rev. Jesse Jackson today in the Chicago Sun-Times calls for an “uprising” against the anti-democratic actions of the state against its residents. In the article, he lays out the economic conditions that have devastated the town—in particular, the loss of industrial jobs, including those from Whirlpool, which recently closed its last U.S. factory there, and the low wages of the jobs that still exist. Then he explains why “Benton Harbor may become to economic justice what the small town of Selma was to civil rights.”

For in Benton Harbor, the powers that be now are wreaking the final indignities on the town’s beleaguered residents — stripping them not only of their schools, but of their democracy, taking away not only their jobs, but their public parks.

Benton Harbor’s finances are a mess. How could they not be in a town stripped of jobs and hope? So, the state has stripped its residents of their democracy. In what is accurately termed “fiscal martial law,” the state has named a czar to run the city. That appointee, Joseph Harris, has issued an order essentially stripping the elected city council of all powers. No money can be spent, no taxes raised or lowered, no bonds issued, no regulations changed without his approval. Benton Harbor’s residents now live in a dictatorship imposed by a Republican governor famous for his belief that the poor should be punished and the rich rewarded.

One of the most controversial outcomes of this takeover is the fate of a city park, which is destined to be literally turned into a private playground for the wealthy.

One of the few citizen treasures in Benton Harbor is the Jean Klock Park, a half-mile of sandy dunes on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was bequeathed to the children of Benton Harbor by the Klock family in 1917 in memory of their daughter.

But developers backed by Whirlpool now want to appropriate a large portion of the park to turn it into a Harbor Shores golf resort with a 350-room hotel, two marinas, a 60,000-foot indoor water park (for members only), and a fancy golf course open to all who can afford a $5,000 entry fee and be approved by the club. The town’s citizens have resisted this development, which is under litigation.

But the new czar’s first act was to take over the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, most likely as a way to proceed with the development and sidestep the lawsuits.

There lies a fundamental difference between the conservative vision and the progressive vision. In the conservative you’re-on-your-own world, there is nothing wrong with telling impoverished residents of color that they had their democracy, they botched it, and now it’s time for the big boys to take over. Public resources then become private ones. Public investment is turned off or redirected. Those who cannot or are deemed unworthy to survive in this brave new world simply won’t.

Progressives look at Benton Harbor and see a community that has been kneecapped by the the legacy of racism and conservative economic policies that fostered outsourcing and the decimation of the middle class of all races. The solution is not to turn communities such as Benton Harbor into petty dictatorships. Yes, root out corruption and incompetence where it exists, but then invest in the community in ways that will create breadwinning jobs for its residents, not minimum-wage service jobs at a resort for the wealthy.

That has to be bolstered by a national strategy that has its first goal job creation, especially in the communities where those jobs are most desperately needed. That is why we have to fight the budget cuts in economic development and job training that the right is continuing to push.

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