by Princella Tobias
On this warm Wednesday evening at Abundant Life Church of God in Christ on May 20, I found myself in the midst of pastors of various denominations, politicians, educators, various civic organizations, youth, senior citizens and all sorts of local folks eagerly waiting to know what the Honorable Louis Farrakhan was doing in the city of Benton Harbor and why. Minister Farrakhan is the supreme minister and national representative of the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Having traveled from his home in New Buffalo, Mich., he told the crowd in Benton Harbor that he came to “talk to those who look at Benton Harbor as their home” and reminded us that “Benton Harbor can become all you desire it to be.”
Making profound statements about unity, Farrakhan, a leader in the Muslim faith, spoke as much about Christianity, reminding us to be the best Christians we can be. Though we have different faiths, skin colors and beliefs, he said, we must love all our people.
He spoke on freedom, justice and truth, reminding us that the truth shall set us free and that we must speak truth to power. His message filtered through the stained glass windows of the church and into the broken hearts of the people, who lined up to ask him questions.
Conveying his main message – that the world is watching, listening and caring about Benton Harbor – he stunned the audience by announcing a Rally for Justice on Friday, June 5, at the Lake Michigan College Mainstage right here in Benton Harbor in support of Rev. Edward Pinkney. He will deliver the keynote address at the rally, on
“Reawakening the Spirit of Unity and Justice,” followed by a panel discussion featuring Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Iva Caruthers, Dr. Conrad Worrill and attorney Warren Ballentine of The Truthfighters.
The rally will urge everyone to get on the bus and pack the courtroom for Rev. Pinkney’s appeal hearing on Tuesday, June 9, 9 a.m., at the Third District Court of Appeals Building, 350 Ottawa St. NW, in Grand Rapids. Buses will leave from Detroit through Brighton and Lansing; from Ann Arbor through Kalamazoo; and from Traverse City, picking up people in cities along the way. Everyone is asked to pay what you can to share the costs, but to come if at all possible. Contact Lynn Meadows at email@example.com or (734) 476-7101.
An all-white Berrien County jury had convicted Rev. Pinkney, the founder of Benton Harbor’s Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers (BANCO) and an associate pastor of Hopewell Baptist Church, in March 2007 on allegations of voter fraud. He won release from prison on bond in December 2008 only after the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took an interest in his case and helped with his defense.
What did Rev. Pinkney do to so infuriate the system?
“Berrien County in southwest Michigan is a stark representative of racism and national oppression,” writes Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of Pan-African News Wire, in “Activists seek to overturn racist conviction,” republished by Workers World.
“Benton Harbor, which is over 90 percent African American, is one of the most underdeveloped cities in the state. In neighboring St. Joseph, a nearly all-white city, the standard of living is much higher and it is the seat of the county where the court is located.”
According to Dorothy Pinkney, Rev. Pinkney’s wife and partner in the struggle: “The story starts with my husband attempting to stop 40 years of corruption inside the Berrien County courthouse …
“My husband was in every courtroom monitoring the proceedings – over 1,800 times. BANCO, the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, picketed the courthouse seven days a week for six years. Berrien County, Mich., has the largest number of individuals sent to prison per capita than any county in the country. Rev. Edward Pinkney, my husband, wanted to find out why.”
“The thrust [of the Berrien County courthouse] is to physically remove and destroy families through the use of the criminal justice system,” explained nationally known National Lawyers Guild civil rights attorney Hugh “Buck” Davis in a speech last year. “Every person they can put in jail, every person whose voting rights they can revoke with a felony conviction, every person they can cause to lose their job by putting them on probation, every person they can cause to lose the ability to pay for basic necessities through imposing ruinous court costs and probation is all part of the process. In the 1960s, it was called Negro removal. In Bosnia, it was called ethnic cleansing. It could be called genocide, the removal of the minority population for the purpose of redevelopment of the land. That’s what’s happening in Benton Harbor and the foremost leader of the resistance is Rev. Edward Pinkney.”
Azikiwe of Pan-African News Wire adds: “Over the last several years, a so-called development project, Harbor Shores, has unveiled plans to take control of large sections of Benton Harbor to construct a golf course and residential enclave for the wealthy. These plans, along with astronomical foreclosure and unemployment rates, are forcing many residents of Benton Harbor to leave the area.
“According to an article published by Dorothy Pinkney … presiding trial judge Butzbaugh has interests in the Harbor Shores development project. The Whirlpool Corp., which is highly influential in the region, is the major promoter of the Harbor Shores scheme.
“‘My husband was denied due process and the right under state law to an impartial decision maker because the trial judge, Alfred Butzbaugh, had a financial interest in the development of Harbor Shores. This huge development project is what motivated my husband to seek the recall of the corrupt Benton Harbor City Commissioner Glen Yarbrough,’ Dorothy Pinkney wrote. (BANCO website, April 2009)
“She continues: ‘The trial court’s financial interest in the Harbor Shores project was not known to my husband until after the trial. The Harbor Shores project, which has been primarily pressed by Cornerstone Alliance on behalf of Whirlpool Corp., began in 1998 when the community economic development corporation was formed by John Dewane of the law firm Butzbaugh and Ryan.'”
“The land grab Rev. Pinkney was fighting was the conversion of 22 acres from Benton Harbor’s only public park on the shore of Lake Michigan for an expensive golf course,” writes Pastor Mary Gault, a supporter. “That course has just been approved by the National Park Service. Expensive homes, out of reach of the Benton Harbor Black majority, whose average income is $8,000 per year, are also being built on the surrounding lake and riverfront properties.”
Ironically, the land should never have been sold for a golf course. It had been donated for the enjoyment of the residents of Benton Harbor in perpetuity.
“Pinkney was convicted of four felony counts and one misdemeanor after winning a successful recall campaign against a city commissioner,” reports Azikiwe, referring to Glen Yarbrough, mentioned by Dorothy Pinkney.
“As a result of the recall, the courts in Berrien County overturned the election results citing irregularities. The first trial against Pinkney ended in a hung jury in 2006. The charges were reinstated, leading to Pinkney’s conviction and subsequent house arrest. He was initially sentenced to one year in jail and four years probation by Berrien County Judge Alfred Butzbaugh.
“Pinkney was placed on a tether and not allowed to step outside his home. His phone calls were monitored, and he was prohibited from engaging in community or church activities in Berrien County.
“After Pinkney published an article in the Chicago-based People’s Tribune newspaper criticizing Butzbaugh’s actions in his case and citing scripture from Deuteronomy 28:14-22, the pastor was hauled into another Berrien County courtroom in December 2007. He was charged with threatening the life of the trial judge and sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison.
“Over the next year Pinkney was transferred to more than six correctional facilities throughout the state. A nationwide campaign in his defense drew worldwide attention to the pastor’s plight as a political prisoner.
Even though Pinkney was released on appeal on Dec. 24, 2008, his conditions of probation are draconian.
“Pinkney’s bond hearing was held in the same Berrien County court system that imposed the railroad. Under his appeal bond, he is denied the right to preach, grant interviews, write articles, address crowds or engage in politics.”
Support comes from legal, religious and media notables
In March, three friend-of-the-court briefs were filed in support of overturning Rev. Pinkney’s conviction by religious organizations, law professors and free speech advocates. The religious freedom brief encompasses the views of numerous faith-based organizations, and another briefs was submitted by 18 law professors from various universities.
“Quoting scripture is core religious speech; the Framers of the First Amendment could not have imagined that it would ever be a criminal offense to quote scripture,” the brief argues. Yet that is exactly what put Rev. Pinkney behind bars.
The June 5 Rally for Justice is yet another step in Pinkney’s defense. Besides those celebrities who have confirmed they’ll appear, media tycoon Tavis Smiley, whose schedule will not permit him to attend, will feature Benton Harbor in his June 4 broadcast.
Mobilizing their members and the public to attend the June 9 hearing are the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice (MECAWI), the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) and the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR).
What you can do, no matter where you are
Rarely has there been a clearer case of racism and corruption than in Benton Harbor or a more heroic champion of justice than Rev. Pinkney. Helping him win will pave the way for many more victories elsewhere. Here are some of the ways you can get involved whether or not you can attend the June 5 rally or the June 9 hearing.
Rev. Pinkney and BANCO are calling for the removal of Berrien County Judge Dennis Wiley for contempt of court and defying the Michigan Supreme Court order to “articulate” the reasons for keeping Pinkney under house arrest 24 hours a day, seven days a week with an electronic tether. You can call, email or write to the Judicial Tenure Commission and the Supreme Court calling for Wiley’s removal:
Judicial Tenure Commission, 3034 W. Grand Blvd., Suite 8-450, Detroit MI 48202, (313) 875-5110, firstname.lastname@example.org
Michigan Supreme Court, Michigan Hall of Justice, P.O. Box 30052, Lansing MI 48909, (517) 373-0130, email@example.com
When you fight the Berrien County level of corruption, legal fees just keep mounting. Berrien County even charges Pinkney $100 per week to electronically monitor his movements from room to room in his own house! Let’s all join in the struggle for justice in Benton Harbor, a city crying out for human rights abuses to end. Here’s a short appeal from Rev. Pinkney:
“Dear friends, I need your help. I have given all I have for the fight for justice in Berrien County. My wife Dorothy and I have sacrificed our personal finances, our time, our personal and family priorities, our church work and are barely able to cover day to day expenses.
“We are in desperate need and have not worked since 2005 due to being blackballed by Whirlpool. In Berrien County that means no business will hire us. It has happened to others working for justice in Berrien – they either lost jobs or cannot get one.
“Please help us continue the fight for a better quality of life for all Benton Harbor residents. We need assistance not to pay bills, but for my legal defense. The June 9 hearing in Grand Rapids will be a milestone: the first time a preacher was sent to prison for quoting the Bible.
“A grand total of $10,000 is needed for legal defense fees, but any donation is appreciated. Please send all tax-deductible donations to BANCO, 1940 Union, Benton Harbor, MI 49022.
“Thank you in advance for your kind support, Rev. Edward Pinkney”
There’s a petition in support of Rev. Pinkney that needs your signature if you have not already signed: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/624471377.
Continue to urge Gov. Jennifer Granholm to grant clemency for Rev. Pinkney. Call (517) 335-7858 or (517) 373-3400 or write to her at P.O. Box 30013, Lansing, MI 48909.
Finally, supporters of Rev. Pinkney and the people of Benton Harbor have called for a boycott of Whirlpool products and the stores that sell them. Dorothy Pinkney explains why:
“Apartheid conditions of a very serious nature are occurring in Benton Harbor. The words gentrification and even genocide are appropriate descriptors. Those responsible are at the top of the power structure in Berrien County: Rep. Fred Upton and Whirlpool Corp. They, along with developers, are stealing property along Lake Michigan and in Benton Harbor for the construction of a major resort, including a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course. Obviously, this is all being built for very wealthy white people.
“The courts and law enforcement agencies have gone outside of the law for many years, keeping Benton Harbor citizens living in a constant state of fear, convicting and imprisoning countless African-Americans – most of whom are innocent, we believe – and driving people out of the area by any means necessary.
“We must stop Whirlpool, Rep. Upton, and Harbor Shores developers. We are calling for an International Boycott of all Whirlpool Products to begin May 1, and all stores which sell Whirlpool products.”
Some of the brand names owned by Whirlpool are Maytag, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, Amana, Roper and Magic Chef. For more information, visit BANCO at http://bhbanco.blogspot.com/ or contact Rev. Edward Pinkney at (269) 925-0001 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Much of this story first appeared in the Benton Spirit Community Newspaper of Benton Harbor, Mich., on May 21. Both that story and this one quote extensively from Abayomi Azikiwe’s Pan-African News Wire account cited above. Bay View staff also contributed to this story.