The fight in Benton Harbor is a war, it’s not a conflict. It’s a war over whether America will have prosperity and democracy, or live in poverty under the heel of open corporate rule. – Rev. Edward Pinkney
As reports escalate of police assaults and murder of unarmed black men for “suspected” crimes, a jury trial certainly sounds like welcome justice.
Not so for many in Michigan, where a 66-year-old black activist, Rev. Edward Pinkney, convicted of felony election fraud by an all-white jury, faces a life sentence, amid accusations of trumped-up charges and no direct evidence of wrongdoing.
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When an all-white jury is chosen to try a prominent black community leader of an impoverished city with a 90 percent black population, when the powers that be have numerous reasons to want him discredited, when the evidence is entirely lacking and the punishment is draconian, there is ample cause to suspect another egregious breach of justice – one as blatant as refusing to indict the police who killed an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, and choked a father of six to death in Staten Island.
To be clear, there is nothing illegal about trying a black man with an all-white jury in the United States. In the 1986 Supreme Court ruling, Batson v. Kentucky, the court held that a defendant is not entitled to a jury containing or lacking members of any particular race. But in this case of activist, Reverend Edward Pinkney, his supporters believe it is equivalent to a white mob lynching an “upstart negro.”
For decades, Rev. Pinkney has been a highly irritating thorn in the side of the Whirlpool corporation and the power structure in Michigan; a state where racial and economic divisions are ugly and stark. In recent years, democratic governance of six low-income, majority African-American cities has been forcefully suspended by state “Emergency Management.”
No direct evidence was presented to the all-white jury to implicate Rev. Pinkney, who was charged with altering data on public petitions to recall Mayor Hightower.
Pinkney is founder of BANCO, the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, and is arguably the loudest, most outspoken activist in Benton Harbor, which fell under the dictatorship of emergency management in 2010. His organization holds spirited rallies and takes political action against what the group claims is rampant government-corporate collusion, police corruption, economic injustice, and a discriminatory – even “genocidal” – plan for gentrification of the city.
Rev. Pinkney has also taken on the dominant power in the city of Benton Harbor – the Whirlpool Corporation. The criminal charges against him stem from his attempt to recall Mayor James Hightower for foisting a multimillion-dollar loan on the citizens of the city to balance the budget, while refusing to tax Whirlpool, a $19 billion Fortune 500 behemoth that pays absolutely no taxes to Benton Harbor, where it is headquartered.
A majority of city commissioners voted against the loan, but they were simply overruled by the “emergency manager.”
According to Rev. Pinkney, the recall petition against Mayor Hightower was due to his support of the loan and lack of support for a proposed city income tax, which could have produced $3.5 million annually to pay off the city’s debt, forcing corporations – including Whirlpool – to pay their fair share. While the income tax vote lost in a public referendum in November, 2013, Rev. Pinkney believes more voters would have supported it had they known about the upcoming loan.
The charges against Rev. Pinkney derailed the petition to recall Mayor Hightower, who many believe would likely have been ousted had the election taken place, including former Benton Harbor City Commissioner Trenton Bowens, who just retired.
“I’ve never seen this many citizens so frustrated. They feel the mayor is for big business and not about people. Pinkney is a radical, he wasn’t on anyone’s payroll, he was protesting at the hospital, the courthouse, the mayor’s house, city hall. If the status quo does not like you, they will do anything to get rid of you. It’s a sad day.”
There was a palpable sense of something being done wrong to everyone in the room as we watched the proceedings in both events, as basic rights were being violated.
No direct evidence was presented to the all-white jury to implicate Rev. Pinkney, who was charged with altering data on public petitions to recall Mayor Hightower. The charge was that some signatures were made one day prior to the 60-day window required by state law, and that dates were later changed to make the signatures valid.
The signatories testified that they had signed the petition on the correct date in question, and no one claimed that they saw Rev. Pinkney change any dates. Mark Goff, a forensic document examiner with the Michigan State Police, stated the dates were written with two different inks, but that he could not determine who made the changes, or when they were made.
The crime itself of altering data on petitions is only a misdemeanor offense under Michigan law. Despite all this, the white prosecutor decided to charge Rev. Pinkney with five counts of felony election fraud “forgery.” The 66-year-old activist was convicted on November 3 and now faces a up to a maximum life sentence; he will be sentenced by a white judge on December 15.
Rev. Pinkney’s arrest began with similar overkill in May, when neighbors reported that an armed police team had stormed into his house to arrest him. “They could have just called me on the phone,” says Rev. Pinkney, who had taken his wife out to dinner for her birthday. His attorney, Tat Parish, had already informed the state that his client would turn himself in. “They put me under house arrest and said they would monitor me by satellite. Very unusual for a recall petition.”
In stark contrast, the surprise write-in victory of white outsider candidate Mike Duggan as Detroit Mayor in 2013 was riddled with public accusations of fraud and numerous submissions of evidence, but that highly questionable election was never even officially investigated. Jean Vortkamp, former Detroit mayoral candidate and Election Integrity activist, presented evidence of Duggan’s write-in ballots, with clearly identical handwriting to elections officials, but was completely ignored.
“The common point between Reverend Pinkney’s prosecution and the Duggan recount,” says Vortkamp, “is that in both places these people felt free to do anything, no matter how downright ludicrous. There was a palpable sense of something being done wrong to everyone in the room as we watched the proceedings in both events, as basic rights were being violated. It was something you could almost touch. These people live without shame or fear, with a pathological righteousness grown from hatred.”
Since 2000, the state has installed “Emergency Managers” with nearly dictatorial powers in nine economically struggling cities, including Flint, Detroit and Benton Harbor. The purpose is to implement corporate- and bank-led financial “restructuring,” which has included forced bankruptcy, privatization of public assets, slashing city budgets, disabling unions, cutting worker’s pensions, and – in Detroit this summer – shutting off water to thousands of low-income families in what the UN called a human rights violation and public health crisis.
Promising to create jobs by the right-wing playbook, Republican Governor Rick Snyder has lowered state corporate taxes overall, raised individual taxes, cut public education, and in 2012, Republicans used a lame-duck session to rush through a union-busting “right-to-work” bill.
Yet, while unemployment in Michigan has lowered along with national levels, analysts point out that job creation has dropped every year of Snyder’s administration. Today the state remains saddled with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Once a vibrant manufacturing center, Benton Harbor is now one of the state’s poorest cities, where over half the population survives with public assistance.
Though blaming the poor for their plight is a central tenet of far-right-wing ideology, the reality, as most Americans agree, is rather more complex. But how much does white America really understand about the myriad unequal underpinnings of our poorest minority communities?
As with other similarly distressed cities, Benton Harbor’s demise must be examined in light of the long-term government-sanctioned structural racism in housing, schooling, lending and employment throughout the 20th century. Combine this with corporate economic policies – radically accelerated in the past 40 years – explicitly designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor and working class.
We certainly cannot expect to see white Wall Street bankers in a deadly police chokehold over their “suspected” crimes against millions of defrauded Americans.
Neoliberal trade agreements have decimated manufacturing in Rust Belt states like Michigan, while Tea Party-driven politics undermined collective bargaining and support for increases in the minimum wage. Add predatory corruption to the mix: In 2008, Michigan was among the states hardest hit by the financial crisis, where criminal lenders had targeted low-income, predominantly African Americans for loans they could not afford.
Those criminal banks and lenders, as we know, have yet to fall under the purview of American justice – of any kind. We certainly cannot expect to see white Wall Street bankers in a deadly police chokehold over their “suspected” crimes against millions of defrauded Americans.
As minority cities like Benton Harbor sank over generations into poverty, drugs infiltrated neighborhoods. The explicitly racist war on drugs thus commenced its relentless persecutions of the poor – particularly young black men – while turning a blind eye to the rampant drug culture of the wealthy elite, who are not subjected to daily harassment, frisks, beatings, home invasions or demonization for their myriad – sometimes celebrated – addictions.
Over time, this galling prejudice undermines respect for law enforcement in poor communities. The lack of trust is only compounded by police criminality including planting evidence, falsifying search warrants, and stealing money and property from residents – some of which got two Benton Harbor officers convicted and jailed in 2010, including the head of the narcotics unit. “Benton Harbor has the most corrupt police department in the nation,” wrote Rev. Pinkney of the nearly all-white law enforcement in the nearly all-black town.
The same dangerous racial imbalance is found on the Ferguson, Missouri, police force, and many more across the country.
Growing public outrage and mass demonstrations is allowing racist police corruption to be more safely exposed by whistleblowers, such as former St. Louis cop, Redditt Hudson, who writes in The Washington Post:
“The problem is that cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it. These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police. Even when officers get caught, they know they’ll be investigated by their friends and put on paid leave. My colleagues would laughingly refer to this as a free vacation. It isn’t a punishment. And excessive force is almost always deemed acceptable in our courts and among our grand juries. Prosecutors are tight with law enforcement, and share the same values and ideas.”
Finally – and not least – the drive to corporate privatization of the American prison system has turned poor and minority citizens into fodder to fill for-profit target quotas of 100 percent cell occupancy. Over 2 million people are currently behind bars in America, providing a source of third world-style prison labor for major corporations from Starbucks to Victoria’s Secret, to the United States Military.
Such complex social malignancy is poorly understood by the affluent classes and never discussed by the white, 1%-owned corporate mainstream media. Today this means that blighted minority communities are easy pickings for the wealth-engorged vulture-capitalist class. Using unequal media access to defend their brazen land and resource grabs, they spout simplistic, racist justifications that “those people” are lazy and cannot govern themselves. Some even promote the “post-racial” theory, denying that racism plays a fundamental part in shaping present American society.
In fact, 26 racist hate groups are known to be operating in Michigan today, and the state was a major hub of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, targeting black people in the Great Migration north from southern states to industrial centers. In the late ’90s, when the Klan appeared in Benton Harbor again, it was Rev. Pinkney who organized citizens to avoid their demonstrations and “deprive them of an audience.”
But if Rev. Pinkney has taken the role of David in Benton Harbor, he clearly sees Goliath as the Whirlpool Corporation. The multi-national appliance giant has closed factories and cut five thousand jobs nationwide in recent years, outsourcing some manufacturing to Mexico, citing the race-to-the-bottom of free-trade economics as the grounds for abandonment of American workers. Though Whirlpool closed its last Benton Harbor plant in 2010 and laid-off hundreds, it remains the primary industry in the area.
Whirlpool is among many Fortune 500 companies that have pulled the “Get out of Taxes Free” card. Congress has authorized hundreds of millions in tax credits for Whirlpool, whose total income taxes – including foreign, federal and state – were (negative) -$436 million in 2011, -$64 million in 2010, and -$61 million in 2009, according to The Boston Globe. The company carries forward federal credits as “deferred tax assets” that it can use to lower future tax bills. “Multinational companies and banks, including General Electric, Citigroup and Ford Motor Co., with investment earnings from overseas accounts, won tax breaks collectively worth $11 billion – a return on their two-year lobbying investment of at least 8,200 percent,” according to a Globe analysis of lobbying reports.
Rev. Pinkney writes, “Whirlpool should pay taxes. Whirlpool is among the wealthiest, greediest corporations in the world. Somebody needs to ask the Whirlpool Corporation and Mayor Hightower how they can sleep at night. Mayor Hightower continues to support and enable the greed at Whirlpool at the expense of Benton Harbor residents. Because of his corporate collusion, he joins all of the giant corporations who are directly responsible for the severe poverty in the city of Benton Harbor.”
Whirlpool begs to differ, citing the Habitat for Humanity homes that its employees helped build, the Whirlpool Foundation’s funding for a Benton Harbor Boys and Girls Club and large grants to the city’s poorly performing public school system.
Countering that Whirlpool exploits the poor using the model of predatory home loans, Rev. Pinkney points to the 1999 conviction of Whirlpool Financial and one of its dealers in Alabama, caught in a fraudulent state-wide, door-to-door sales scheme. Peddling drastically overpriced satellite dishes on so-called “Whirlpool Credit,” with a 22 percent interest rate, according to law firm Beasley Allen, Whirlpool bilked millions of dollars out of thousands of people. “A former agent testified that Whirlpool specifically targeted illiterate and unsophisticated people, and that he had trained others to lie about the terms of the financing.”
Today a bitter source of contention between Benton Harbor residents and Whirlpool is what many see as the hostile take-over of Jean Klock Park, a green- and dune-scape, bequeathed to the city solely for public use in 1917. The real estate fronts gorgeous Lake Michigan. In 2008, a consortium of Whirlpool Foundation and two other nonprofit groups privatized the heart of the park as part of a $500 million development called Harbor Shores, a planned enclave of high-end homes, shops and hotels, including a “Jack Nicklaus Signature” golf course. Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment promised to attract business, tourists and new middle- and upper-class homeowners.
In May, 2012 Rev. Pinkney organized Occupy PGA, boisterously marching 100 protesters to the Golf Club at Harbor Shores during the 73rd Senior PGA Championship, a $2.1-million golf tournament. Occupy PGA demanded that 25 percent of the Senior PGA profits be provided to the city. They also called for boycotts of KitchenAid, the Senior PGA’s presenting sponsor, and Whirlpool.
Today this means that blighted minority communities are easy pickings for the wealth-engorged, vulture-capitalist class.
Additionally, Rev. Pinkney and others claim the 530-acre Harbor Shores deal violates the 1977 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act protecting the Jean Klock park under the condition that the land remain forever open to the public or, if closed, be replaced with land of equal fair market value and reasonably equivalent recreational use. However, according to two citizen opposition groups, the land given in exchange is scattered and contaminated with industrial chemical waste.
Reporting on both Harbor Shores and a new $68 million, 270,000-square-foot corporate campus for Whirlpool (subsidized with millions in tax credits), The New York Times stated:
“The juxtaposition of Benton Harbor’s impoverished population and its two rising monuments to wealth – all wedged into a little more than four square miles – make it almost a caricature of economic disparity in America. But at the same time, it offers a window into one possible future for towns across the country, places that can no longer support their own economies or take care of their citizens and may ultimately have no choice but to turn their fate over to private industry and nonprofits. The way things are going, more and more states may start to look like Michigan, and more and more towns may start to look like Benton Harbor.”
The Times noted that the Harbor Shores proposed economic and cultural revitalization in Benton Harbor included a free, 10-week course called Bridges Out of Poverty, designed to “prepare residents culturally to join the middle class.” The course description states:
“Moving out of the culture of poverty requires more than an increase in financial means . . . and accepting achievement as the driving force in one’s life. It will require one to learn and use middle-class language and behaviors.”
But many residents fear that Whirlpool and wealthy developers are planning to turn their town into an expensive vacation resort that in truth can only exist by driving out current low-income population. Benton Harbor officially exited Emergency Management and returned to local control in March, 2014, with a small transition team comprised in part by former Whirpool managers.
Local social justice activists are proffering a radically different, grassroots-driven vision for Benton Harbor and other cities. Seeking post-industrial solutions for the Rust Belt and beyond, they include – in fact, require – greater democratic empowerment of poor communities in building their own future.
Prominent activist leader Charity Hicks was beloved in Detroit for her capacity to articulate this hopeful vision; an “irresistible narrative” of societal transformation that affirms human dignity, inspires tolerance and diversity, rebuilds the commons and challenges gentrification, corruption, and centralization of power. “Repeat after me,” said the always colorful, strikingly beautiful Hicks at McGill University in 2013, “Resistance. Resilience. Restoration. Reimagining.”
Hicks was killed in 2014 by a hit-and-run driver. The loss of her leadership is deeply felt among Michigan activists, struggling to find paths forward into a future made more uncertain by the undermining of democracy in their communities.
The loss of Rev. Pinkney would also leave a deep hole in the activist community of Michigan, but it wouldn’t be the first time. A recall attempt of a city commissioner in 2005 also landed Rev. Pinkney in court, where after an initial mistrial he was convicted on March 22, 2007, of five counts of election fraud including possession of four absentee ballots, which he denies, insisting he was framed to silence his political activism. Speaking of the new charges Rev. Pinkney says, “I didn’t see this coming. I just didn’t think they could do this to me again.”
Appealing for support in his case, Rev. Pinkney writes in his well-known rabble-rousing style:
“This is not a thing of Blacks against Whites. It is Rich against Poor and the Haves against the Have-nots. Corporate fascism is here now. We must stand together and fight this Police State. Together we stand, divided we fall. There is more Power in the People, than the People in Power.”