Democratic Underground  

T-Shirt Justice
June 25, 2003
By Wilhelmina Sims

You've probably seen that poster for the movie JUNGLE FEVER that shows the two entwined hands of a black man and white woman. What I see is one hand saying "I feel pain" while the opposite hand is saying "I feel your pain." But reality is quite different...

When you hear the words "Benton Harbor" what might come to mind is an elegant town with scenic marinas, manicured lawns and beautiful homes. Ideal living that consists of art galleries, rolling vineyards, wide sandy beaches, a superb array of dining choices from the fastest of food to candlelit elegance. But not many were familiar with the real town of Benton Harbor - located along I-94 just 90 miles from Chicago and Grand Rapids - until last week, when national television beamed "breaking news" footage of homes engulfed in flames while angry African-American residents threw rocks and bottles at the Benton Harbor police.

Anger erupted after Terrance "T-Shirt" Devon Shurn, a popular black resident of Benton Harbor, was killed during a high-speed police chase. A Benton Township patrolman pursued "T-Shirt" into neighboring Benton Harbor - where the police are prohibited from carrying out high-speed chases - and bumped his motorcycle into a building. He died at the scene.

A massive explosion of anger hit Benton Harbor's black residents with a vengeance. This was the third death in two years caused by a police chase, and the incident, along with allegations of police brutality and racism - most of Benton Harbor's 12,000 residents are black - set off two days of rioting, leaving a dozen people injured. Indeed, it was the scene of the worst rioting in the United States in recent years.

Governor Jennifer Granhom (D) visited the riot scene and beseeched the crowd to make their pursuits "through peaceful channels, not destruction". Yet, last Monday and Tuesday nights, violence was the hand hundreds of African-American residents used in their pursuit of justice. It was 1960's style "burn baby burn".

Now consider St. Joseph - the real harbor, just across the bridge from Benton Harbor. It is a town that is affluent and segregated. Its population of 8,200 is mostly white. It is in St. Joseph where tourists and residents browse in quaint stores, ride on a trolley, shop for yachting gear and dine in elegance. Flower baskets hang from lampposts as a road sign on the outskirts welcomes visitors to "A Special Place On The Lake" - a reference to the beaches along Lake Michigan. This trendy lake shore community serves as a summer destination for many affluent Chicagoans, who have set up second homes and dock their boats in the harbor.

Benton Harbor and St. Joseph draw an invisible racial line of segregation. Or, as the Reverend Jessie Jackson characterized it last Friday "a bridge" that defines the disparity between the two towns. The "bridge" symbolism is so very apparent as one side represents something that the other side wants. In spite of the physical proximity of the two cities, when you arrive in Benton Harbor you might think you are in another continent.

The visual evidence of Benton Harbor's decline is shocking. Pipestone Street is lined with grand, plantation-style clapboard houses, all in poor repair with gaping holes where window frames once were. Abandoned houses, boarded storefronts and crumbling hotels line the street. The streets themselves are in horrific disrepair, and city services barely function . Only 15 new houses were built between 1999 and March 2000, and 68 percent of the city's housing was constructed before 1959. Residents complain of a lack of education caused by the collapse of the school system stemming from the industrial decline.

It is a town that was created for reasons that no longer exist, according to Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute, at California's Pepperdine University, until "something like [the Benton Harbor riots] happens and people are suddenly reminded of their existence".

Benton Harbor in the early 1960's was a bustling steel town that has withered into an empty shell and its decay is evidenced by "white flight," unemployment, and drug abuse. The jobless rate runs over 25 percent. In St. Joseph it is 2 per cent. The town is part of the depressing era of once proud mid-western industrial cities that have now been corroded by the decline of the rustbelt steel, lumbar and coal industries. Over the course of U.S. history, blacks from the south moved north in significant numbers only to find that the whites who were already there gradually started to move over to that "other side of the bridge."

The Reverend Russell Baker, whose church is one of the two remaining white congregations in Benton Harbor, reflects on one of the most tumultuous weeks in Benton Harbor's history. "Nothing is guaranteed in life. I pray we can come together and our friends across the river can help us. It all starts with people, and I believe people on both sides of the river do care about what happen here."

Well to begin with, why not initiate some "T-Shirt" justice. All it takes is one Benton Harbor black hand and one St. Joseph white hand, entwined, for peace. Or at least, that's a start.


Wilhelmina Sims is a Civil Rights Activist and freelance writer. She can be contacted at Wilhelmina99@earthlink.net

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