Fury in Benton Harbor a sign of racial, economic strife

Fury in Benton Harbor a sign of racial, economic strife
By Salim Muwakkil

June 25, 2003

Alex Kotlowitz has received a lot of calls since Benton Harbor, Mich., exploded into two days of rioting on June 16. Kotlowitz is a well-known journalist and author who featured the town in his book "The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Death and America's Dilemma."

Reporters have been asking Kotlowitz why this town of about 11,000 predominantly black residents erupted in rage following the death of 28-year-old Terrance Shurn, who lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a house during a high-speed police chase. The two nights of violence that followed left a dozen people injured, several vehicles damaged and two dozen homes torched.

"All you have to do is look at a place like Benton Harbor, or East St. Louis, Ill., or Camden N.J., or any of many of our neglected cities," Kotlowitz says. "The distress is evident to anyone who took the time go into these communities. But that's part of the problem: No one is taking the time to go into these communities, until there is an urgent crisis."

The Chicago-based author notes that such distress in no way justifies the wanton destruction and violence triggered by Shurn's death. But, he adds, people often do inexplicable things when living amidst "poverty of the pocketbook and of the spirit."

As Kotlowitz explained in his book, Benton Harbor once was a predominantly white, well-to-do town with economic activity generated by manufacturing and fruit farming, as well as resort tourism. By the late 1960s and 1970s, "a combination of forces not at all unique to Benton Harbor drained the town of its prosperity," Kotlowitz writes in his book.

Those forces also provoked a classic American response, as many of the town's white residents fled to nearby St. Joseph, an affluent, predominantly white town of nearly 9,000, located across the St. Joseph River.

The official unemployment rate in Benton Harbor is near 25 percent (many observers say it is much higher), and median income is just over $17,000, with a third earning below $10,000. State documents list it as Michigan's poorest city.

Across the river, median income in St. Joseph is $37,000 and the unemployment rate is not quite 2 percent.

Benton Harbor residents are isolated in a pocket of poverty where many feel derided and disdained. Black residents long have complained of unfair treatment by police forces seeking to enforce the de facto racial divisions that have become conventional wisdom in Berrien County.

African-American youth regularly charge they are victims of racial profiling by county authorities. One reason there was such a volatile reaction to Shurn's death was continuing anger over two previous cases of black youths dying as the result of police actions.

Many of us are perplexed by how people can destroy their own neighborhoods, rage notwithstanding. But few of us know the deep despair that relentlessly haunts jobless communities like Benton Harbor.

The violent anger that roiled this impoverished community on Lake Michigan's southeastern shore serves as a reminder that we have urgent domestic priorities that need attention.

Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com), a Chicago-based publication, and a contributing writer to the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.