“Here, Whirlpool controls not only Benton Harbor and the residents, but also the court system itself. They will do anything to crush you if you stand up to them. That’s why it’s so important to fight this. I’m going to fight them until the end. This is not just an attack on Rev. Pinkney. It’s an attack on every single person that lives in Benton Harbor, in the state and around the country.” – Rev. Edward Pinkney
On December 15, Rev. Edward Pinkney, a leader in the struggle for social and economic justice for the residents of Benton Harbor, Michigan, was sentenced to serve up to 10 years in prison, on the basis of thin circumstantial evidence that a few dates had been altered on a recall petition against the city’s mayor, James Hightower. The recall was prompted by the mayor’s continued support for tax evasion by the Whirlpool Corporation, the Fortune 500 company and $19 billion global appliance manufacturer, headquartered in Benton Harbor.
As we wrote last week in depth, the politically motivated prosecution against Pinkney killed the petition to recall Hightower, who many believe would have been ousted due to his ongoing protection of Whirlpool’s interests at the expense of impoverished Benton Harbor, which is over 90 percent African-American.
There was absolutely no evidence to convict Pinkney, and, legally, the altering of a petition document should have been a misdemeanor offense. Instead, they charged him with felony forgery – though no signatures were forged and all signatories testified that they signed willingly on the correct day. A forensics expert for the prosecution testified that there was no way to determine who changed the handful of dates. Incredibly, the all-white jury was urged by the prosecutor to believe that direct evidence was not required; they only had to “believe” that Pinkney was motivated to cheat and that he “could” have changed the dates while circulating the petitions.
Mary Alice Adams, a Benton Harbor commissioner stated, “Rev. Pinkney was accused of writing and changing my date on a petition when, in fact, I wrote my own date and changed it after realizing I had put the wrong date down.” The jury at Pinkney’s trial rejected Adams’ testimony.
Witness after witness stood up to the prosecutor who put not only Pinkney on trial, but also his community organization, BANCO. The prosecutor hounded the witnesses to “confess” that somehow the dates were altered, and questioned if they were card-holding members of the BANCO organization. The scene held shadows of a McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunt.
Pinkney had helped organize the petition to unseat Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower, who residents consider a “yes-man” for Whirlpool. Instead of supporting a tax that would make Whirlpool pay its fair share for city services and employees, the mayor signed a $3.2 million loan that the residents of Benton Harbor, one of the poorest cities per capita in the United States, would now have to pay. Meanwhile, Whirlpool pays absolutely no income taxes to the federal government or to Michigan.
Pinkney was also a leader in the fight against what he called an “illegal” ceding of a Benton Harbor public park to Whirlpool and a development firm which privatized the park and gentrified that prime real estate into a golf course and wealthy gated community on Lake Michigan – excluding the people that the property was deeded to serve. Pinkney led a protest against the PGA Senior golf tournament at the private new golf course, sponsored by Kitchen-Aid, a division of Whirlpool.
And so, with the complicity of a white, “highly political” right-wing prosecutor, Whirlpool reached into the court system and publicly “lynched” the town’s most prominent and outspoken black community activist who dared to stand up to the powerful company and the state’s elite. Pinkney’s sentencing is as blatant a kangaroo court as seen since Hurricane Carter, a black power advocate, was framed by New Jersey prosecutors decades ago – a typical case of the white power structure icing an “uppity Negro” with trumped up charges. In Carter’s case, the witnesses were two men facing charges for burglary, who were enticed to provide false testimony with reduced charges.
Pinkney says he was similarly set up to take a fall for a paltry smattering of election fraud charges in 2006 during an attempt to recall a city commissioner. He was finally convicted of possessing four absentee ballots, but pointed out that the women who fingered him – all members of a family – mysteriously avoided jail time for the multiple criminal charges they were facing, including a drive-by shooting and kidnapping.
“I’m not angry with them for doing that,” Pinkney said. “It’s a deal that’s hard to pass up.”
Pinkney was put on probation at the time, until he had the audacity to quote a particularly scathing section of Deuteronomy to the judge, who then sentenced him to three to 10 years in prison. During his seven months in the county jail and four months in prison, Pinkney ran for a seat in the US House and received more than 3,500 votes as a Green Party candidate. The American Civil Liberties Union finally got him released on an appeal bond, and he was allowed to return home under house arrest. Later the appeal court overturned Pinkney’s conviction, and reversed his sentence of 3-10 for quoting verse 28:15 of the Fifth Book of Moses.
But if Pinkney is a man who’s hard to keep down, his enemies are just as determined to put him away for good.
“It’s a modern day lynching,” said Adams, the Benton Harbor commissioner, of Pinkney’s latest conviction. “After hearing the ‘evidence’ it would seem that the decision was made before the trial began. They are looking at Michigan as a glove for dictatorship. And the predominantly black communities are the test tubes. When you stand up against the largest manufacturer of appliances in the world, of course there will be a backlash.”
Pinkney was straightforward in his description of his conviction:
Here, Whirlpool controls not only Benton Harbor and the residents, but also the court system itself. They will do anything to crush you if you stand up to them. That’s why it’s so important to fight this. I’m going to fight them until the end. This is not just an attack on Rev. Pinkney. It’s an attack on every single person that lives in Benton Harbor, in the state and around the country. We got to fix this jury system. There was not one person from Benton Harbor, not one person from Benton Township on the jury. Anytime a Black man is sitting inside that courtroom and the jury is all white, that is a major problem.
Michigan is a state where virulent racism followed the Great Migration of southern blacks into northern industrial states in the 20th century. With more than two dozen racist hate groups still active in the state, Michigan has essentially turned into the Mississippi of the North. In fact, Pinkney organized his community against the KKK when they began to hold rallies in Benton Harbor in the 1990s.
Pinkney points out how class intersects with race, when it comes to the oppression of the people of Benton Harbor. “It’s a class war,” he said. “It’s us against them. Rich against poor. That’s what it adds up to. The point is we have to take a stand. It’s about you, your children, and your grandchildren. I never thought for a minute that the system could be this broken and would go to this extreme. They could care less about you, me or anybody else. They only have one thing in mind. That is to make sure they protect the rich.”
Judge Schrock denied Pinkney’s lawyer’s request for release pending his appeal. Pinkney was handcuffed and hauled off to jail from the county courthouse as his wife, Dorothy, and supporters stood aghast, having witnessed US justice for an African-American minister at its racist best.
Concerned activists and clergy associated with People Demanding Action, a national social justice organization, are circulating a petition to ministers and various organizations. The petition is to be forwarded to the US Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for an investigation into the circumstances of Pinkney’s trial and sentencing.
Support for Rev. Edward Pinkney’s appeal should be sent to his organization: BANCO, 1940 Union Street Benton Harbor MI 49022