Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Benton Harbor: A Test Case for Workers and the Oppressed

Benton Harbor: A Test Case for Workers and the Oppressed

State government gives emergency manager dictatorial powers

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Benton Harbor, April 27

Photos From Benton Harbor

In this southwest Michigan city of approximately 11,000 people, the majority of whom are African American and working class, the recent actions by the newly-elected Gov. Rick Snyder, represents a major affront. The passage of a state-wide bill on March 9 expands the powers already afforded to governors to literally re-shape municipal and county governments as well as public school districts.

Public Act 4, or The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act, which is a successor to Public Act 72, allows under the law for a governor to appoint a so-called “emergency manager” who can suspend the political authority of the mayor, city council or school board and then issue orders for the lay-off of employees, the slashing of salaries and benefits as well as the seizure of pension funds.

This has already taken place in the majority African American cities of Pontiac, where an emergency financial manager is still in control, and previously in Highland Park, where for several years the elected local government could only make recommendations to a corporate-oriented state appointee who in most cases acted strictly on behalf of the financial institutions and the transnational corporations.

Also in Detroit, the public school system was taken over by an “emergency financial manager”(EFM) appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2009. Although the appointment of the EFM was ostensibly designed to lower the budget deficit and clean up corruption, in actuality the deficit rose by nearly $200 million and the perception of non-transparent practices increased.

People Rally and March

In Benton Harbor on April 27, people gathered from around the city, state and country to demonstrate solidarity with the people of this heavily oppressed city. A standing room only crowd gathered on the second floor of the public library where various speakers, including Mayor Wilce Cooke, Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the local NAACP, Margaret Humphreys, a Norton Shores resident, Rev. D. Alexander Bullock of the Michigan Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and others addressed the crowd.

The rally drew people from as far away as Kentucky, Illinois and various parts of Michigan including Detroit and Highland Park. Rev. Pinkney, the president of the local NAACP and a longtime Benton Harbor activist, who served time as a political prisoner, stated that “When I warned several years ago that there was a takeover of Benton Harbor planned, some said I was a madman. Now we have a dictatorship.”

After the rally the people poured into the streets of downtown Benton Harbor where they marched and chanted against the state takeover. The emergency manager appointed by the previous Gov. Granholm, Joseph Harris, now with increased powers, has drawn the criticism of people from the southwest Michigan region as well as observers around the U.S.

What is taking place in Benton Harbor, many feel, is the same program that was attempted in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker forced a bill through with a Republican majority that effectively outlaws collective bargaining for public sector unions. In Benton the focus has been set on state representative Al Pscholka who proposed the new emergency management bill that recently passed.

Under emergency manager legislation, the rights of workers can be immediately dissolved and their benefits taken away. Residents of Benton Harbor and the rest of the state do not want this to happen. One of the rally speakers John Waltz, the executive director of Heartland Revolution, a Kentucky-based organization, said the group is turning in ballot language for a recall campaign against State Rep. Pscholka of Stevensville.

After the march through downtown, activists rallied at City Hall and agreed to return on May 7 where Gov. Snyder will serve as grand marshal for the Blossomtime Parade. The community leaders also announced that they would hold another rally on June 18, the 8th anniversary of the Benton Harbor rebellion that occurred in 2003.

Corporate Origins of the Economic Crisis in Benton Harbor

Benton Harbor has suffered a similar fate as Detroit, which lost most of its industrial jobs over the last three decades. Unemployment in the city is high and so is the rate of home foreclosures.

Speakers at the April 27 rally drew a direct line between the imposition of an emergency manager, the role of Whirpool Corp. and the Harbor Shores Development Project. Whirpool was once a major employer in Benton Harbor and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton is said to be an heir to the corporation.

Rev. Pinkney said that Pscholka, Upton and the governor were part of a concerted effort to take control of the entire city as was done with Jean Klock Park, a lakefront property that was privatized for the purpose of establishing the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course and a commercial-residential project worth hundreds of millions.

“If we had no lakefront property, we’d have no EFM (Emergency Financial Manager),” Pinkney said at the rally. It’s time we come together and fight these bloodsucking corporations.”

The situation in Benton Harbor is instructive for many municipalities throughout the U.S. As the economic crisis deepens, the previous notions of universal suffrage and local control will come under attack by the ruling class and the state.

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