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What Would John Brown Do?

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Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder [R]“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
by Walter A. Davis

Welcome to de-industrialization-- or disaster capitalism-- domestic style. Michigan’s new governor, Rick Snyder [R] recently signed into law the Emergency Financial Manager Act [EFM]. This act was authored and submitted to the state legislature by Benton Harbor state representative Al Pscholka [R]. Last week Benton Harbor became the first Michigan city where the Governor put that law into effect. Accountant Joseph L. Harris was appointed last year by previous Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) to work with the mayor and city commissioners of Benton Harbor to address the deteriorating financial condition of the city. 

Snyder’s law gives Harris unlimited power, which he has asserted by dismissing the mayor and city commissioners—elected officials all. Under Harris’ edict they are now only permitted to call and adjourn council meetings, but to conduct no business during them. Harris now runs everything.  His powers, under the EFM, in addition to the power to dismiss elected city officials, include the power to break labor and other contracts, and—though this has thus far drawn little comment—the power to sell city assets. Traditionally there have been two ways to deal with financial mismanagement of a city. Indict those responsible. Or vote them out of office. But in a corporate oligarchy the democratic process is far too slow and uncertain. Far better the appointment of a Czar with unlimited power.

The above paragraph summarizes current discussion of Benton Harbor and the EFM in the media. But if that’s all you know about what’s been going on in Benton Harbor, you’ve come in in the middle of the movie. A movie that began over 20 years ago. As you watch it unfold the advice of Deep Throat remains salutary: “Follow the Money.”

Benton Harbor is the corporate headquarters of the Whirlpool Corporation. Over 3,000 people are employed at those corporate offices, which are located north of the city. (Very few of those employees live in Benton Harbor.) Whirlpool was founded by the Upton family who remain major shareholders. The grandson of those founders, Fred Upton [R], is the U.S. Representative for the area.  State Rep. Pscholka is his protégé and was formerly employed by him. Whirlpool is the largest seller worldwide of kitchen appliances. Profits in 2010 were $18.4 billion. Its workforce totals 71,000 and its products are sold in more than 130 countries. In better times, Benton Harbor was the manufacturing center for Whirlpool.  All those jobs have now been outsourced and the manufacturing plants in Benton Harbor closed.

Benton Harbor, population 10,200, is 92 % African-American. Seventy percent of the workforces in the city are unemployed.  Ninety percent live beneath the poverty line. Per capita income for Benton Harbor in the 2000 census was $8,965. Today it’s much lower. (Between 300-400 homeless also live in Benton Harbor, their numbers increasing.) Benton Harbor—or “Benton Harlem” as white folks in West Michigan commonly refer to it-- has a “twin city.” St. Joseph, located to the south across a small bridge. Half the population of Benton Harbor, its profile is considerably different. Ninety-one percent white, it is a popular spot for tourists and vacationers. Its lakefront is marked by beautiful beaches, its downtown area by quaint shops, art galleries and coffee houses.

It would be hard to imagine two cities as different. But if Whirlpool has its way they will soon be the same.  Benton Harbor will have disappeared—its remaining black residents relegated to some ghostly presence beyond the ken of the wealthy predominately white And Whirlpool will then extend from the corporate headquarters north of Benton Harbor through the entirety of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.

In its concern to help Benton Harbor “transition” from its industrial past to a new community, the Whirlpool Foundation is developing Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor. Harbor Shores is a 530- acre resort community which will house nearly 800 residences in charming cottages, custom homes, town-houses and condominiums. A boutique hotel and spa is also planned, plus a marina village with Riverwalk, shops, restaurants.[See:www.HarborShoresResort.com.] The jewel in the crown is an 18-hole “public” Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course --and the emerald at its center is the breathtaking view of Lake Michigan offered by holes 7-9. These holes situated across a highway from the rest of the course, are the only ones which provide a view of Lake Michigan.

 I’m sorry it has taken so long to tee up our ball on #7—since the golf course is the heart of the story. You see holes 7-9 have been gouged out of Jean Klock Park, which was the one thing that the impoverished residents of Benton Harbor could enjoy and point to with pride. 

Jean Klock Park was a 1917 gift of J. N. Klock to the people of Benton Harbor in memory of his daughter Jean, who died in childhood. The deed stipulates that the Park is for the people of Benton Harbor. “The beach is yours, the drive is yours, the dunes are yours, ”said Mr. Klock at the dedication. I have viewed countless photographs of the Park as it once was: a beautiful tree-lined processional of walks through woods fretted with flowers and rich with birds. [See: here

All that is gone—given over to 2 tough par 4s and a mammoth par 5. All that remains of the Park is the long walk that one can still take along the Beach. But if Harbor Shores has its way the rest of Klock Park and an adjoining Water Plant (to which I’ll devote a subsequent essay) will pass into its hands. EFM Harris has the authority to bring about this result. And then it won’t be long before the master plan can be realized: luxury homes for the rich on the shores of Lake Michigan. You see, rich folks like to lounge on their front porches and enjoy spectacular sunsets over large bodies of water, then in the morning stroll out the back door onto a golf course to chip and putt a few or just to take in, with their coffee,  the glory of their entitlement.

How, you may ask, could they get away with it given the specifications of Mr. Klock’s bequest of the Park?  Well, it turns out that Michigan law allows that a golf course is a legitimate public park use. And the cost to play The Golf Club at Harbor Shores is certainly reasonable as public golf club fees go: $150 for non-residents of Benton Harbor and $40, at specified times, for residents. Thus we can rest assured that this use of the Park is of as great a comfort to the people of Benton Harbor as the old Park once was.  Moreover, it’s all legal.  During negotiations and in the contract entered into in 2006 and 2008 allowing Harbor Shores to lease acreage in the Park for 35 years with 2 automatic renewals, the city was represented by an attorney, who did not disclose at that time that he was also a constituent member of the Harbor Shores development consortium (then named Edgewater River Run). Yes, it’s all legal.

Jack Nicklaus, who received 1.5 million to design the course, has stated that he hopes his involvement in the Harbor Shores project will buttress the fortunes of southwest Michigan. To that end he has been among those instrumental in getting the PGA Senior Tour, in an unprecedented move, to schedule its Championship at the Harbor Shores golf course in 2012 and again in 2014. The 2012 event is scheduled for May 22-27 of that year.

Thanks to Orwellian Newspeak, Whirlpool, Harbor Shores, and Nicklaus have been able to trumpet their actions—and the organizations and programs they’ve established-- as a boon to the local community. You betcha, as Sarah would say.  Bring back the black caddie, a nice boy even if he’s over 50 and struggling to support a family.  If he stepinfetchits just right he’ll get himself a nice big philanthropic tip today.

If you have a CD of it,  I’d suggest playing Howlin Wolf’s “Evil” as you read the rest of this essay.  Its refrain --“evil…evil goin on”-- can work wonders in an outraged ear. Or perhaps this claim of Aristotle will serve you: He said all you need is to hear the facts about Oedipus and you’ll feel all the tragic emotions.

What is to be done? It’s all legal—and all legal attempts to address this situation have failed. Nor can the people of Benton Harbor hope the Democratic Party will undo Snyder’s actions. Such faith rests on woeful blindness to the fact that we live in a corporate oligarchy. Remember, Snyder took the next step by seizing a possibility that a Democratic Governor put in place.

Of course, when no legal recourse exists, the people can always contemplate other actions. “When in the course of human events…” 

Perhaps there’s even a justice the future might hold in store for the citizens of Benton Harbor. May 19th marks the birthdate of Michigan’s greatest son. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the man most of us know as Malcolm X, spent most of his youth and young adult years in Michigan. Perhaps next year to honor him the poor and homeless of Benton Harbor will reclaim their park, constructing a tent city on holes 7-9 of the course that Jack built. That occupation would begin 3 days prior to the PGA Senior Championship, which is being covered by CBS Sports. Maximum exposure of the Whirlpool Foundation and its cronies  would thus be assured. Hell, by invoking Malcolm we could probably assure that Fox would cover the occupation as an instance of ”Islamic terrorism.”

But as we dream that possible development of the Benton Harbor movie, let me ease your mind with memories of another movie. Toward the end of Chinatown, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) asks Noah Cross (John Huston) how much money he has. Learning that Cross’ wealth far exceeds his expectations, Gittes asks him why, with all that wealth, must he still gobble up more. Without skipping a beat, Cross replies, trumpeting the imperative that defines the capitalist greed unleashed in Benton Harbor: “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future.”  

And for us, in reply to the gross injustices done in Benton Harbor, the words of Malcolm X, telling us we must put a stop to this, “By whatever means necessary.” Because Benton Harbor is just the beginning.

Walter A. Davis, Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University, is the author of many books, descriptions of which are available at www.walteradavis.com. He may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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