There is a situation going on in Benton Harbor, Michigan, that is very important in its own right, but also very important because it is emblematic of similar situations going on all over the United States. It has to do with income inequality, corporatism, money in politics, and racism.
Benton Harbor in southwest Michigan has always been a factory town. It had a population of 40,000+ around 1980. It currently has a population of 10,000. The largest employer over this period has been Whirlpool Corporation.
Whirlpool has sent many jobs abroad. The unemployment rate was 17.3% as of 2012. The comparable rate for Michigan as a whole was 7.8% and for the U.S., 6% (It is important to note that unemployment numbers don’t include people who have stopped looking for work so the actual percentage of unemployed adults is much higher.)
Moreover, this doesn’t give us any indication of the quality of the jobs of the people who are working — 48.5 % of Benton Harbor’s population is below the poverty line (2012 figures). The comparable data for Michigan as a whole was 16.3% and for the U.S., 14.9%.
Having visited Benton Harbor several times over the last three months, I have observed many vacant houses, many houses in disrepair, and vacant land that formerly had houses. Between Whirlpool and Governor Snyder’s emergency financial manager, it is clear that Benton Harbor cannot be called a democracy at this time. (Governor Snyder has the power to appoint an emergency manager who is the final decision-maker instead of the elected representatives.)
Whirlpool, through a governmental procedure called eminent domain, has obtained the right to tear down houses in Benton Harbor and the houses have been torn down. They have built an exclusive, Jack Nicklaus signature golf course, surrounded by very expensive condominiums, in places where the teardowns were located.
Eminent domain is legally allowed only when it is used for a project that benefits the community as a whole. This is not the case in Benton Harbor.
A group called BANCO (Black Autonomy Network Community Organization), headed by Rev. Edward Pinkney, has been fighting corporatism — and specifically Whirlpool — since 2003. Several times BANCO has tried to get local officials who were controlled by Whirlpool recalled (democratically elected officials could at least fight the system).
To prevent the recall from going forward, the powers-that-be have several times speciously accused Rev. Pinkney of voter fraud. The current case is going to trial on Oct. 27. It is expected that the jury will be all white (while Benton Harbor is over 80% black, the county as a whole is only 15% black. For more information on BANCO and Rev. Pinkney go to http://www.bhblanco.org/).
This situation reminds me of Ferguson, Missouri, along with other places in this country in which democracy is seriously lacking. Closer to home, many places in the Chicago area fit the bill to one extent or another.
Our country as a whole is becoming less and less democratic. To quote Martin Niemoller, a German, Protestant minister who was active in Germany during the Nazi era:
“First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Benton Harbor is one of the worst cases of a lack of democracy in our country. I sincerely believe that if we want to preserve democracy in this country, we need to stop burying our heads in the sand. People in Oak Park as a whole, and the United States (certainly including myself) need to preserve what democracy we have left and expand upon it.
For starters, we need to be informed and vote on Nov. 4.