Benton Harbor Riots Bring Changes But Some Residents Remain Unimpressed

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At first glance, the little riot that erupted in Benton Harbor, Mich., this summer after a motorcyclist was killed in a police chase might seem like a long-awaited blessing for this forgotten ghetto tucked among the beach resorts on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, The New York Times reports.

The two months since the two nights of violence that left 12 buildings torched have brought a flood of good-news announcements: $500,000 from the state to create summer jobs for teenagers; the renovation by the Whirlpool Corporation of a decades-empty department store, bringing 150 workers to Main Street; a “professional corner” including the first new building in the dilapidated downtown since 1989; 50 inexpensive homes for poor families; a governor’s task force and a broad citizens’ group meeting weekly to tackle the intractable.

Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm is expected to bring a new bag of goodies when she returns here on Tuesday; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has marched through town five times this summer, plans to open a satellite of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition here this fall.

“Things are really moving; the window’s open now,” said the Rev. Edward Pinkney of the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, whose weekly courthouse protest has swelled from its mainstay of 20 to as many as 80 at times this summer. “Nobody got killed. A few houses burned down, but we’re going to get 50 new ones. That may not be a bad exchange at all.”

Look closer, though, and the changes in this city of 12,000 residents – 95 percent of them black, 40 percent below the poverty line, one in five unemployed – might appear cosmetic.

The economic development deals were in the works long before the disturbances; in fact, resentment over the dominance of white contractors in the downtown revival may have helped stoke the outrage. The Youth Works summer jobs grant simply revived a longstanding program that was abandoned in 1998 – and had slots for only 262 of 640 applicants, for just six weeks. Main Street’s few small businesses have been struggling with lower sales since the violence scared customers away.

In the graffiti-stained neighborhood, where ashes from the burned buildings have been covered with sand but the boarded-up houses next door remain hideouts for drug dealers, residents say the only difference is the squeeze from the police. The 12 officers of the Benton Harbor Police Department have been buttressed this summer by 23 state troopers, who locals say endlessly harass motorists and bicyclists, and shoo even adults from streets to stoops before the 10:30 p.m. youth curfew.

“I see no changes – everybody put on airs,” said Linda Briziel, 49, as she took pictures of her grandchildren playing at a picnic organized by a local mental health clinic in response to the riots. “They’re going to do everything they can for a while, but it won’t do anything. They still going to have the drugs, they still going to have the violence.”

The “disturbance,” as many here call it, was set off by the June 16 death of Terrance Shurn, a 28-year-old man who was driving without a license and crashed while being chased by the police at speeds that witnesses said topped 100 miles an hour. It was one in a series of ugly, and often fatal, altercations between the poor African-Americans of Benton Harbor and the white officers from neighboring towns like Benton Township and St. Joseph.

The glare of national news coverage embarrassed city leaders at first, but they quickly seized the microphones to lament the horrors that have engulfed their city since it lost 5,000 factory jobs in the mid-1980’s. Half the residents lack a high school education. Two-thirds of the men ages 17 to 30 have a felony record. The once-thriving downtown is just 30 percent occupied (up from 10 percent a decade ago), the tax base dry as stone.


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