On May 23, 2011, I had the privilege of interviewing the Reverend Edward Pinkney and his wife Dorothy in Chicago. Rev. Pinkney has gained national recognition for his leadership in galvanizing the impoverished community of Benton Harbor, Mich., in its fight over the corporate takeover by Whirlpool.
As Rev. Pinkney, who will be on a California tour in late July, puts it: “[The travesty and injustice] of what is happening in Benton Harbor could be coming to your town next.”
Dorothy added, “Beware because Benton Harbor is a testing ground for the capitalists to take control of the whole country. Our fight is for everyone. Be watchful, and get involved.”
According to Wikipedia: “Benton Harbor is being governed by Joseph Harris, an emergency [financial] manager appointed by the Michigan Treasury Department in April 2010, and given expanded powers under a new law signed in March 2011 by Republican Governor Rick Snyder…On April 14, 2011, Harris suspended the decision-making powers of Benton Harbor’s elected city officials, who can hold meetings, but are not allowed to govern.”
Rev. Pinkney outlined a brief chronology of how his city of about 11,000 people, 92% of whom are Black, got to this position of having an individual with dictatorial powers invalidate the decisions of democratically elected officials. More important, he explained what is behind the maneuverings and the tremendous implications for the rest of us in this country.
Once a thriving part of the auto and steel belt of the Midwest, Benton Harbor is situated on prime lakefront property near Lake Michigan. Whirlpool Corporation is the single largest employer in the area. Fred Upton, heir to Whirlpool, is the area’s U.S. Representative to Congress.
In the early 1990s, jobs began to disappear largely due to the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Production was either shifted to lower-wage areas such as Mexico, or taken away by labor-replacing technology, which caused massive unemployment in Benton Harbor. Left, at least for the time being, were the few jobs available for residents of neighboring St. Joseph, which is predominantly White.
Rev. Pinkney relates that all the while the economy deteriorated, Whirlpool took advantage of the situation and appeared to maneuver with a plan. It demanded and received a $50 million tax break under the threat of leaving. Then it purchased $10 million worth of ground for $50,000, effectively excluding any other company that might choose to relocate in Benton Harbor.
In 2002, Rev. Pinkney became suspicious of Whirlpool’s intentions, when Whirlpool, through its then stranglehold control of the City Council, purchased the land where the high school stood and proposed to move the school out to township land that is contaminated. To date, this has not yet happened.
In 2003–2004, the former CEO of Whirlpool advocated for developing a $500 million marina/golf course complex that would take 530 acres of Benton Harbor, thus privatizing the city’s only beach, at a cost to Whirlpool of less than $1 million.
Rev. Pinkney mounted a campaign to oppose the “hostile takeover” of the land, arguing that privatizing the land would do nothing for the poor and would deprive the city of some of its greatest assets. The chief obstacle to preventing the takeover was then City Commissioner Glen Yarbrough, who is Black and constituted the sixth critical vote that could determine the fate of the land in question.
The community and Rev. Pinkney launched a successful recall campaign whereby Yarbrough was removed, and the hostile takeover was prevented. However, the decision was overturned when county authorities challenged the results of the recall election. The act of defiance on the part of Rev. Pinkney was the beginning of the personal and political attacks on this champion of the poor and dispossessed of Benton Harbor.
Accused of “voter fraud,” Rev. Pinkney was forced to mount a costly defense. Acquitted in the first trial, he was found guilty in the second because of the selection of a jury that was not of his peers—all White, whereas Benton Harbor is more than 92 percent Black.
After having been placed on house arrest, he was subsequently charged with a parole violation for writing in the People’s Tribune:
“We must fight for justice for all any time you have a judge like Alfred Butzbaugh, who is a racist…..[my due process was denied] by the dumb judge and prosecutor…I support the constitution of the United States and the State of Michigan; we are still waiting on this racist corrupt judge to do the same.”
While in jail for his parole violation, Rev. Pinkney again ruffled the feathers of his enemies by championing the plight of the poor in jail. He quoted scripture, addressing a letter to the judge wherein he quoted Deuteronomy 28:14-22. This measure (see sidebar) recites the maladies God will bestow upon those who in positions of authority mistreat those they are bound to serve. For this, Rev. Pinkney was sentenced to 3–10 years.
Currently out on appeal, Rev. Pinkney’s defense has generated tremendous sympathy and support, as well as activity and empowerment in the community of Benton Harbor. Since that fateful day in 2005 when the stranglehold of political control of Benton Harbor was challenged, the political landscape of Benton Harbor had changed. In 2008, four commissioners favorable to the Benton Harbor community were elected, effectively preventing Whirlpool from controlling decisions in Benton Harbor. All of this was due to the tireless efforts of Rev. Pinkney, his wife, all of those surrounding and supporting the effort, and the role of the independent press and news coverage.
Unable to take the lakefront property by traditional means, Whirlpool has now resorted to extraordinary measures. Taking advantage of the fact that Benton Harbor is $5 million in the red (though $3 million is owed in property taxes yet to be collected), and despite a gift of $6 million to Whirlpool by the state, Whirlpool has taken the land it wanted anyway. This travesty was accomplished through the actions of Michigan’s state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) Joseph Harris. By the new law, an EFM can be a person, a corporation or a person beholden to a corporation.
Thus, Benton Harbor was the first victim of Michigan’s new EFM law, but it likely won’t be the last. On the same day, the Detroit school system EFM laid off all 5,000 teachers from the Detroit school system.
At stake are the political rights of the citizens of the United States, as the EFM can nullify the actions of democratically elected officials and still require taxes to be paid by individuals. Our forefathers fought a revolutionary war over the issue of taxation without representation.
Furthermore, freedom of speech is at issue, as evidenced by Rev. Pinkney being punished for expressing his opinion of the sentencing judge and prosecutor. Importantly, freedom of religion is threatened if a preacher can be imprisoned for quoting the Bible.
The case of Rev. Pinkney and his continuing battle with the corporate control of Benton Harbor has tremendous implications for the rest of the country, given the state budget shortfalls throughout the country. At issue too is the preferential treatment given many corporations and the fact that many do not pay taxes.
It is important that all of us heed this warning. As Rev. Pinkney stated, “This could be coming to your town next.”
“But if you do not hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, and are not careful to observe all of his commandments, which I enjoin on you today, all these curses shall come upon you and overwhelm you:
“May you be cursed in the city, and cursed in the country!
“Cursed be your grain bin and your kneading bowl!
“Cursed be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and the offspring of your livestock, the issue of your herds and the young of your flocks!
“May you be cursed in your coming in, and cursed in your going out!
“The Lord will put a curse on you, defeat and frustration in every enterprise you undertake, until you are speedily destroyed and perish for the evil you have done in forsaking me.
“The Lord will bring a pestilence upon you that will persist until he has exterminated you from the land you are entering to occupy.
“The Lord will strike you with wasting and fever, with scorching, fiery drought, with blight and searing wind, that will plague you until you perish.”