by Eartha Jane Melzer
“Benton Harbor is the new Selma of the 21st century, a battle ground for human rights and civil liberties,” Mayor Wilce Cooke told a crowd that gathered in the town library before the march. “The whole world is watching us to see what is going to happen here in Benton Harbor. What happens here could affect the nation as a whole.”
The impoverished former industrial town of Benton Harbor has become a flashpoint in the controversy over the new law that allows the governor to appoint emergency managers with virtually unlimited authority over local governments.
On April 14, state-appointed Emergency Manager Joe Harris used the expanded powers granted by the new law to issue an order banning the city commission from taking any action without his written permission.
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Juanita Henry says her constituents are angry and looking for help, but without the power to hold meetings the city commission can’t even provide an official venue for citizens to ask questions and get answers.
“They are using Benton Harbor as a test case,” Henry said. “If they have disenfranchised the people so badly they just don’t respond to anything, they can do this all over the country.”
Community activist Rev. Edward Pinkney said that many Benton Harbor residents only learned that their city government had been sacked by reading about it in the paper days later.
Leading the April 27 march and rally, Rev. Pinkney decried the hostile takeover of Benton Harbor by the emergency financial manager, intensifying the racist influence by Whirlpool that has grabbed much of the city’s priceless lakefront, including a large portion of Jean Klock Park, dedicated in perpetuity to the children of Benton Harbor. Rev. Pinkney’s long struggle for self-determination in nearly 90 percent Black Benton Harbor cost him a year in Michigan prisons as a political prisoner.
Though home to the corporate headquarters of appliance giant Whirlpool, the city lost its last manufacturing plant this year, almost half the population lives below the poverty line and the public lakefront has been privatized as part of a luxury golf development backed by the Whirlpool corporation.
An appeal of the conversion of the city park is underway in federal court.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm approved a state takeover of Benton Harbor’s finances last year after the city needed help meeting payroll.
Relations have been strained between the elected officials and Emergency Manager Harris. In January the city commission tried to oust him after criticizing his expenses and his plans to cut the fire department.
“People should be paying attention to what is happening here because Benton Harbor is GROUND ZERO for the future of what is to become of our state under Governor Rick Snyder,” said Carole Drake, who fought the privatization of Jean Klock Park in state court.
Locals in Benton Harbor said they will work to repeal their state Rep. Al Pscholka, who sponsored the bill, as well as state Sen. John Proos and Gov. Rick Snyder, who also approved it.
The total suspension of power for local officials has brought Benton Harbor’s situation into focus for other Michigan communities, where people now worry that growing budget problems could mean they will face similar loss of assets and control.
“I have been in touch with people all over the state via e-mail, face to face and Facebook … this is a hot topic all over the place and our community Facebook page A Referendum to Reject PA 4 has quickly quadrupled in size in just the last 24 hours as we have reposted the link with our different contacts,” said Traverse City activist Betsy Coffia. “I think Benton Harbor really shook some folks up.”
Coffia said that repeal advocates are talking with legal experts about how to draft official language for a petition.
According to information from the Secretary of State website, in order to have a referendum on a newly enacted law petitioners must gather signatures from 161,305 people — 5 percent of the number that voted in the last gubernatorial election.
The signatures must be submitted within 90 days of the end of the legislative session in which the bill was passed. If the group manages to gather enough certified signatures, the emergency manager law would be automatically suspended until a repeal vote can be held on the next general election date.
“Education is key as the groundwork is laid for an organized referendum to repeal,” Coffia said. “This motivates me to educate as many people as I can so that we will be fully prepared to sign our name as registered voters repealing this law.”
Maddow: Benton Harbor is ground zero of American politics
On her show April 19, Rachel Maddow said that the takeover of Benton Harbor and the privatization of Jean Klock park is a perfect illustration of what current Republican philosophy has to offer American communities. Watch the video below.
Describing Benton Harbor and its neighbor, St. Joseph, she said: “St. Joseph is home to 8,500 or so people and is nearly 90 percent white. … Benton Harbor is its twin, population not quite 11,000, approaching 90 percent African American … Per capita income in Benton Harbor at last estimate is less than one third of its twin across the river in St. Joe, and Benton Harbor per capita income is just over $10,000, which is very, very low.”
Jesse Jackson calls for uprising in Benton Harbor
Residents of Benton Harbor should not lose their democratic rights or their city parks just because the city is poor, Rev. Jesse Jackson said April 25, and he called for people to speak out against Michigan’s emergency manager law.
In an op-ed to the Chicago Sun Times Jackson wrote:
“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.
“This appointed dictator claims breathtaking powers. He can sell public assets, dismiss pension boards and take control of public pension funds and revoke labor contracts. What triggers this takeover? The law is remarkably vague. The governor may act if a payroll is missed, if there are complaints of late bill payment, if pensions are underfunded, if there is a significant budget deficit, a term that goes undefined.
“This takeover is a recipe for the worst abuses of oppression, cronyism and corruption. And here, too, Benton Harbor is the example. 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. Why be suspicious? Because the law that the new czar is operating under was introduced by Republican state Rep. Al Pscholka, former staff aide to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, an heir to the Whirlpool fortune.
“They’ve shut down the jobs, and taken over the schools. Now they want to shut down the democracy and turn the public parks into a rich man’s playground. But in Benton Harbor, as in Selma and Montgomery, they forget even the poorest people have a sense of dignity. Dr. King wrote, ‘The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.’ In Benton Harbor, it is time for the good people to make themselves heard.”
Black caucus plans federal case against emergency manager law
The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus is working with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, and others on a lawsuit to challenge Michigan’s emergency manager law.
The emergency manager law, also known as Public Act 4, violates the voting rights of people in Michigan, he said, and runs afoul of constitutional provisions against enacting laws to violate contracts.
Durhal said the group also expects to file suit in state court for violations of the Home Rule Act, which empowers communities to elect their local governments.
Conyers is the only member of Michigan’s Congressional delegation to publicly criticize the law. In a statement last month he said that allowing emergency managers to dissolve local governments, “implicitly targets minority communities that are disproportionately impacted by the economic downturn, without providing meaningful support for improved economic opportunity.”
Conyers called the bill an opportunistic Republican power grab aimed at crushing workers’ rights.
Durhal said that he expects the group will ask the court for an injunction on the law. “If we are going to stop the travesty caused by this law,” he said, “we need to start with Benton Harbor.”
Federal case seeks to remove golf course from Benton Harbor park
Opponents of the privatization of Jean Klock Park are hoping that all the attention focused on Benton Harbor as a result of the suspension of local government will bring support for the legal fight to take back the park.
In 2008, amid political pressure from Whirlpool heir and Republican Congressman Fred Upton, the National Park Service approved a plan to allow developers to swap former industrial parcels in Benton Harbor for the pristine Lake Michigan dunes at the heart of Jean Klock Park.
Federal approval of the swap was needed because the National Park Service had spent money on improvements for the park, and it cleared the way for Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment Inc. to build the Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course that now dominates the city’s park.
A group of Benton Harbor residents is arguing that the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to follow environmental laws when they allowed the deal. The residents say that the scope of the golf project was trivialized in order to avoid federal environmental review and that information about the severity of the contamination of the parcels offered in trade for the park was not made available to the public.
Terry Lodge, attorney for the Benton Harbor plaintiffs, said that the federal agencies failed to meet their responsibility to ensure meaningful public involvement in the decision of whether to privatize public property.
In January 2011, Judge Robert Holmes Bell of the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids rejected these arguments, and park advocates are now appealing that decision in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, where oral arguments are expected this summer.
A key element of the appeal is whether local residents have standing to sue over an appraisal of the park that valued it at less than a collection of contaminated inland parcels, Lodge said.
A standard buildable lot with Great Lakes frontage was going for a million bucks an acre at the time of the 2007 appraisal of Jean Klock Park, Lodge said, but the 22 acres of lakefront dunes were appraised at only about $900,000. Meanwhile, the contamination of the parcels offered in the trade was not disclosed, and one industrial parcel of less than two acres was valued at $700,000.
“The appraisal is huge.” Lodge said, “There was a complete lack of disclosure to public that the land to be traded was seriously contaminated. If this had been disclosed, elected leaders might not have gone along with the project.
“If the appraisal is dead,” he said, “presumably the deal is off.”
Lodge said that now that Benton Harbor is under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, conditions are ripe for a “to hell with you, try and stop me” transaction in which the remaining acres of the park could be leased or sold without any public involvement.
“I am genuinely afraid of the fact that the remainder of the park could be conveyed into other ownership,” he said. “Benton Harbor has nothing else to sell off.”
“In addition to the repudiation of democracy, everyone should know that the key to Whirlpool getting control of Benton Harbor was first getting this beautiful half-mile of Lake Michigan lakefront in Jean Klock Park for their golf course,” said LuAnne Kozma, of the Park Advocate Alliance, who has worked with people in Benton Harbor on the park issues.
“In addition to the repudiation of democracy, everyone should know that the key to Whirlpool getting control of Benton Harbor was first getting this beautiful half-mile of Lake Michigan lakefront in Jean Klock Park for their golf course,” said LuAnne Kozma, of the Park Advocate Alliance.
Kozma said that the takeover of Benton Harbor’s city government by Emergency Manager Joe Harris shows a scaled-up attack on the public commons.
The federal case over the conversion of Jean Klock Park will show whether environmental laws like the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act will endure as meaningful tools to uphold protections for the nation’s parks, she said.
“The Jean Klock Park-(Protect Jean Klock Park advocate Julie) Weiss case is going higher in the federal courts, and it will set precedent for all parks in the nation protected by LWCF,” Kozma said. “There are other LWCF-protected public parks that are also in the middle of takeovers by corporations, including Lake Texoma State Park in Oklahoma, being taken over by corporate CEO Aubrey McClendon, and many Ohio state parks are threatened by fracking for methane gas by the gas companies.”
“This is more than just a trend,” she said. “It’s a plan.” More information about Weiss v. Salazar is available here.
Eartha Jane Melzer writes for the Michigan Messenger, where her extensive recent coverage of Benton Harbor, which has been compiled for this story, first appeared. SF Bay View contributed to this story. Learn more about Benton Harbor on Rev. Pinkney’s site, the New York Times, Heartland Revolution and Blogging for Michigan. Tune in Pinkney to Pinkney on BlogTalkRadio every Sunday at 2 p.m. to hear Rev. Edward Pinkney, Larry Pinkney of Black Agenda Report and Bay View columnist Kiilu Nyasha.
Protest Gov. Snyder at the Blossomtime Parade
When Gov. Snyder visits Benton Harbor’s twin city, St. Joseph, as grand marshall of the Blossomtime Parade on Saturday, May 7, he’ll be confronted by a throng of protesters. Rev. Pinkney is inviting everyone to come from far and wide to make this parade, St. Joe’s biggest annual event, meaningful and memorable.
Protesters will meet at the Benton Harbor Public Library, 200 Wall St., at 11 a.m. for a rally, then march a mile to the parade. For more information, call Rev. Pinkney at (269) 925-0001. Bring a sign.
The Rachel Maddow Show, April 19, 2011
“Jean Klock Park and Harbor Shores golf course” by eclectablog
Interview with Rev. Pinkney on KPFK’s Sojourner Truth, hosted by Margaret Prescod, April 21, 2011