The stripping of all power of the local government in Benton Harbor, Michigan has brought the national spotlight to the tiny town on the shores of Lake Michigan. The first city to be declared in a "financial emergency" by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, CMD reported that Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) Joseph Harris was assigned to the city back in 2010 by then-Governor Jennifer Granholm. But it wasn't until March of this year that Harris essentially disbanded the local government and boards.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. responded to this takeover while on a tour of the state, calling for a rainbow coalition to organize against the EFM bill and others that Snyder and the Republican-led Senate has passed. At a protest in Benton Harbor, Jackson said that he, along with Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Benton Harbor Mayor Wilce Cook will file a lawsuit to challenge the law's constitutionality.
Governor "Decimates Democracy"
WNDU in South Bend reported on Jackson's speech to members of Benton Harbor: "It simply decimates democracy and gives dictatory powers in someone who does not live here, but has the power to sit down officials and cancel contracts, but have power over assets selling off the properties of the city and its assets, that's un-American" says Jackson.
Jackson also wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun-Times calling for an "uprising" in Benton Harbor and around Michigan. The town's poor, mostly African-American population has been highlighted by Jackson and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.
"Benton Harbor, Mich., is a town of nearly 11,000 people, about 90 percent of whom are African American. It is a catalogue of the misery of the industrial Midwest," said Jackson in the Chicago Sun-Times. "It was the headquarters and manufacturing center of Whirlpool, but the last Whirlpool plant closed years ago. Now Benton Harbor has a per capita income of about $10,000 a year. And it is plagued by the ills that accompany poverty in today's America: high unemployment, broke government, failing schools, crime, drugs and despair."
Community activist Rev. Edward Pinkney in his blog, Blanco, notes: "There is nothing to stop the state from abolishing democratic governance in any of Michigan's cities, if an emergency can be declared or created. On April 15, the mostly black city of Benton Harbor, the poorest jurisdiction in the state, was placed under total financial martial law, its citizens suddenly made more powerless than blacks in Selma, Alabama, prior to the civil rights movement."
A Developer's Dream -- A Corporate Coup?
The take over of Benton Harbor has been linked to a commercial development plan, backed by Whirlpool and the very legislator who introduced the EFM bill, Rep. Al Pscholka. Pscholka is a former aide to the grandson of Whirlpool's founder, Rep. Fred Upton, and former vice president of one of the companies involved with the Harbor Shores development and also on the Board of Directors of a non-profit involved with the development. The plan is to build a high-end lakeshore housing development and golf course, taking over the city's sprawling public park and beach, Jean Klock Park, gifted to the city in 1917.
The latest protest on April 27th saw hundreds of people march through the streets of Benton Harbor with signs and chants decrying the takeover.
Business Insider, however, wrote that "Benton Harbor's finances are indeed a mess -- the result of mismanagement, poor accounting and too much spending."
But Rev. Jackson doesn't see it that way. He holds fast to the belief that the problems in Benton Harbor, as in other previously-industrialized cities in the Rust Belt, are a symptom of the resulting poverty that followed the end to factory jobs in these areas. The solution, he says, is to invest in the very people that have all but been forgotten by the Governor Snyder's office.
"They've shut down the jobs, and taken over the schools. Now they want to shut down the democracy and turn the public parks into a rich man's playground," said Jackson. "But in Benton Harbor, as in Selma and Montgomery, they forget even the poorest people have a sense of dignity.... In Benton Harbor, it is time for the good people to make themselves heard."
Watch Rachel Maddow's coverage of this issue: