Benton Harbor, Rick Snyder — May 7, 2011 at 9:15 am

Some thoughts on the Benton Harbor situation


Before we hit the road for Benton Harbor this morning, I thought I’d put down a few thoughts that have been running around my brain for the past week or two regarding the situation in Benton Harbor.

First of all, I wanted to address something that State Representative for the Benton Harbor area, Al Pscholka, said on his Facebook page regarding his reason for pulling out of the parade today. He said this:

“I am a supporter of free speech. I consider it to be among the most essential founding principles of our nation. Though recent protests regarding Michigan’s new Fiscal Accountability Act have been largely spurred by misunderstandings and misinformation, I would be first in line to defend a citizen’s right to invoke his or her constitutional liberties. With few exceptions, the protests that have taken place before our state’s capitol and in Southwest Michigan have been conducted peacefully and with great respect to the venue. By rule of law, protestors do indeed have the same right to bring their voice to the Blossomtime Parade.

“But that doesn’t make it appropriate.

“To fully appreciate why the Blossomtime parade is the wrong forum for protest, you have to be familiar with the tradition of the event. Since the early 20th century, the festival has served as a celebration of the agricultural community and a bountiful environment. The Blossomtime Parade is about children, families, and a celebration of our rich farm heritage. It is a wholesome community event that our young people have looked forward to all year long. It is truly unfortunate that some groups have decided to send in professional agitators by the bus load to try to create a political sideshow.

The fact that he finds freedom of expression during this parade to be inappropriate is bad enough. The man is a politician and his constituents get precious few opportunities to express themselves to him. He was the one who put himself out there as a politician to ride in the parade. How completely hypocritical and disingenuous to then have a meltdown over the fact that those who disagree with him would turn out to express that outrage.

But that’s not the bit that I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about this:

It is truly unfortunate that some groups have decided to send in professional agitators by the bus load to try to create a political sideshow.

There is a lot wrong with this, starting with the fact that nobody is getting paid to attend this parade in protest so the characterization of us as “professional agitators” is entirely laughable and pathetic.

But more to the point, Rep. Pscholka’s actions aren’t isolated simply to the Benton Harbor area. The bill he drafted and supported, the one that became Michigan’s Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) law, affects Michiganders across the state. Whether you’re in a city or school district being considered for takeover by an EFM or not, this new law has the potential to affect you. If we begin to privatize our schools and municipalities to the point where they truly are a new industry, this has ramifications for everyone living in our state.

So, you’re goddam right we’re going to show up in buses to protest your sorry ass, Mr. Pscholka. It’s just a shame you don’t have the courage of your convictions to face that opposition in person. It shows that you are a shallow, gutless man that is quite capable of inflicting your will upon others but not tough enough to face the criticism that follows.

I also wanted to speak to another point. There is a great deal of blame tossed around about why the situation in Benton Harbor is as bad as it is. Those who defend the takeover of the City Commission by EFM Joseph Harris point to corruption, incompetence and “bickering” as the main cause and justification for the takeover. Joe Harris himself speaks about some of these things when he talks about the takeover.

Driving around the city after the rally & march a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by two things. One is that there is very clearly a move to turn Benton Harbor into an upscale lakeshore community with all of the amenities that go along with that (harbor, golf courses, hotels, etc.) The presence of large swaths of desperately poor people living in run down communities full of boarded up homes detracts from that but is also an opportunity for developers who see that land’s potential. While they decry the poverty, they also have their eye on that land. If you watch what transpires over the next few years in Benton Harbor, I can all but guarantee that efforts to “fix” things there won’t be geared toward helping out its underclass, they will be aimed at eliminating it entirely and sending it elsewhere. Then that precious land can be swept up for pennies on the dollar and converted into money-making machines for the already-wealthy.

The other thing that is incredibly apparent is that Benton Harbor didn’t get to where it is overnight. This clearly has taken decades. Most of the homes in the poorest parts of Benton Harbor were very nice homes at some point. And many of them still are. You can see evidence that people are trying to bring them back to the level of pride and dignity the neighborhoods once had. But to blame what’s going on in Benton Harbor on a group of City Commissioners you don’t like is patently absurd.

If there is criminality or corruption, fine. Arrest them, try them and, if they are guilty, put them in jail. But simply making accusations like that doesn’t make the accusation true. Most certainly does not explain decades of benign neglect of Benton Harbor’s working class and you can’t drive around that city without realizing that the flight of their manufacturing base lies at the core of their problems.

Benton Harbor needs to get out of bankruptcy, no question. But one man will not solve the longer-term, systemic problems that created this situation in the first place and, when he leaves, unless steps are taken to address these problems, Benton Harbor is sure to find itself right back where it is now in a very short time.

Finally, I want to address the state of community organization in Benton Harbor. The protest two weeks ago and today’s protest were organized by Heartland Revolution. They have done a remarkable job and I have nothing but admiration for them and what they are doing.

But Heartland Revolution is based in Kentucky. None of their organizers lives in Michigan (though their director was at least from here originally.) Reverend Edward Pinkney is the heart of the Benton Harbor-based community organization and he has many very devoted supporters. But there’s no question that Rev. Pinkney brings along some baggage. He is very polarizing and intentionally provocative, an approach that makes it easy for his opponents to demonize him with. While I have a deep appreciation for Rev. Pinkney’s efforts, I question his effectiveness at this moment in time. Perhaps, and hopefully, I my impressions are wrong.

Benton Harbor needs organization. Badly. Right now the main organization that it going on is being done by groups outside of Benton Harbor and even outside of Michigan. That sends up a mighty red flag for me and should for all of us. It’s my sincere hope that an organic group of effective, competent leaders from the area rises up and helps to get its citizens organized, both to fight the takeover of their government but also to help move Benton Harbor forward in a way that doesn’t result in gentrification that forces out the poor and lower middle class people to the benefit of the rich and upper class.

I will be liveblogging the parade today so I hope you’ll stop back.