Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Occupy the PGA Hits Out at Racism, Dictatorial Rule in Benton Harbor

Occupy the PGA Hits Out at Racism, Dictatorial Rule in Benton Harbor

People mobilized nationally make statement against corporate control

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

This city of 11,000 in southwest Michigan was the scene of the PGA Senior Golf Tournaments during late May. The games are a national event with media coverage and advertisement from leading corporations such as Mercedes Benz and Kitchen Aid.

In Benton Harbor, with its high unemployment and poverty rates, the PGA was touted as providing a much-needed infusion of cash, tourism and positive public relations. Over the last several years the lakefront area in the city has been taken over and the construction of the golf course, expensive homes and a revitalized beach has served to further drive out and disenfranchise the majority African American community.

Rev. Edward Pinkney and Dorothy Pinkney, leaders of the local NAACP Chapter and the Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers (BANCO) viewed the PGA Tournaments that were held in Benton Harbor as an affront to the largely working class and poor city. They raised questions related to the real benefits this project would bring to the jobless and impoverished residents who are being systematically removed from the city.

Whirlpool Corporation, which is based in Benton Harbor, has been the driving forces behind the gentrification. The major investment in this process is the Harbor Shores Development scheme that took control of Jean Klock Park, a public site, and turned it into the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course which overlooks the beach.

The Occupy the PGA was called during May 23-27 to coincide with the golf tournaments. People from as far away as Fresno, California, Vermont, Colorado, New York City, Denmark, Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica traveled to Benton Harbor to protest alongside local organizers from the city and around the state of Michigan.

Two women participants, Mary M. Morgan and Jan Griesinger, now seniors, had been involved in another demonstration at the PGA Tournaments in August 1969 in Dayton, Ohio. Both women recounted how they disrupted the event due to the involvement of the-then racist South African golfer Gary Player.

Demands of Occupy the PGA

A series of demands were issued by the organizers of the Occupy the PGA to the sponsors of the golf tournaments. These demands were designed as a rallying point for both the people of Benton Harbor and to also expose the plight of the residents to a broader national and international audience.

These demands included the transfer of 25 percent of the profits from the games to the residents of Benton Harbor. The group also demanded a public acknowledgement at the tournament of the “theft of public park land for private profit.”

This demand relates to what the Occupy PGA says was “the lease of 22 acres of dunes on Jean Klock Park for transformation into three holes of the Harbor Shores golf course at which the Senior PGA Championship” was held during late May. The Occupy PGA went on to point out that the takeover of park land represented the “complete undermining of democratic structures via the installment of the Emergency Financial Manager (now Emergency Manager) in Benton Harbor in December 2010.” (Press Release from Occupy PGA, May 9)

According to the Occupy PGA press release, “Accompanying the demand letter is a lengthy summation of community grievances against the Harbor Shores development, ranging from the taking of the park land to unfulfilled promises of significant jobs and tax revenue for Benton Harbor residents. The packet, including maps illustrating the transformation of Jean Klock Park, also analyzes the failure of state and federal agencies to protect the public interest, the unpermitted use of public water resources by the private developers, and the origin of the Emergency Manager Bill (Public Act 4).”

Rev. Pinkney told the press assembled for the demonstrations that “Benton Harbor continues to be a city under siege. The mishandling of public trust couldn’t be more massive, unjust, inhumane, and unconstitutional. The Senior PGA needs to hear our voice. It’s time to stand up and fight for what’s right.”

Heavy Police Presence and Harassment

The major event of the five days of activity surrounding the PGA tournaments was the so-called “Death March” through the city and to the grounds outside Jack Nicklaus Golf Course. Participants gathered on May 26 at 10:30 am outside the Benton Harbor City Hall.

After a brief rally, people lined up in a single file behind a mock coffin representing the deadly policies of the State of Michigan, Whirlpool, Harbor Shores, and the emergency manager of Benton Harbor. During the march through downtown Benton Harbor, the toll of the world economic crisis on this former industrial city could be seen.

Blocks of closed businesses and abandoned homes were more the norm than active storefronts and viable dwellings. Whirlpool, which was a major employer for the city and region for many years, has largely been idled with most of its production being outsourced and its investments diversified into other sectors of the economy.

Nonetheless, when the marchers got closer to the Harbor Shores development, there were new homes, refurbished properties and the new golf course. The beach, where the march ended, had a new shed, benches and reconstructed embankments.

Police presence was heavy inside the central city and during the entire march. The rally which took place in the aftermath of the march on the beach was monitored by the city and county cops.

There had been a struggle over the march route between Occupy PGA and the local authorities under the emergency management of Joe Harris. After negotiating the route, the police sought to change it just days before the actual events.

On May 25, just one day prior to the major march, Rev. Pinkney led a group of 10 PGA participants through the area near the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course. The group was stopped and surrounded by 15 cops who forced them off the public sidewalk.

The situation became heated when the group attempted to emphasize their right to proceed on the sidewalk. One person was given a ticket by the officers for supposedly sounding a bicycle horn in the park.

Rev. Pinkney says that he will file a lawsuit in the matter against Benton Harbor police chief Roger Lange, the Benton Harbor Police Department, the PGA, Whirlpool, and KitchenAid.

Benton Harbor: A Legacy of Struggle

Benton Harbor is a microcosm of the broader crisis of the cities in the present period. A one-time industrial hub for assembly-line production of household appliances and shipping, the city has fallen on hard times as a result of capitalist over production and racist gentrification.

In 1966, the city was the scene of an urban rebellion. The following year Detroit had its rebellion which was the largest in the history of the United States up until that time.

In recent years, the city exploded in 2003, when police chased a young African American motorcyclist to his death in a crash. The city was occupied for four days by the state police in an attempt to quell the rebellion.

Rev. Pinkney, BANCO and its supporters have been a thorn in the side of the city administration and its corporate handlers. Pinkney was arrested and indicted on trumped-up charges of voter fraud in 2006.

The first trial ended in a hung jury. However, the Berrien County authorities tried him again gaining a conviction of one year in jail and five years of probation.

Later under house arrest in Benton Harbor, Pinkney was charged with threatening a judge after he quoted biblical scriptures in an article published in the People’s Tribune based in Chicago. He was given 3-10 years in prison for probation violation.

After an international campaign demanding his release, an appeals court in Michigan overturned the conviction. He recently completed his probationary period.

Benton Harbor was placed under emergency management in 2010-11. Public officials have no authority and the residents are being over taxed and completely left without any voice through the official political channels.

However, events such as Occupy PGA indicate that the struggle is far from over. The increasing repression by the state will leave the residents no alternative but to organize and mobilize in defense of their political and economic interests.

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