Racist cop brutality sparks
outrage in Michigan town
Benton Harbor residents condemn
police for death of Black motorist
Top, sheriff's deputies stand with armored vehicle in Benton Harbor, Michigan, June 18. Death of Terrance Shurn in high-speed police chase sparked widespread outrage and antiracist protests. The local cops were reinforced by Michigan state police and National Guard. Bottom, resident at June 20 meeting in Benton Harbor community center at which Democratic Party politician Jesse Jackson spoke. In addition to Shurn, sign lists Arthur Partee, who died in April at the hands of cops, and Trenton Patterson, 11, a bystander who was killed during cop chase in September 2000.
BY ILONA GERSH
BENTON HARBOR, MichiganIn mid-June this town in southwestern Michigan was the scene of angry protests against racist police policies that resulted in the death of 28-year-old Terrance T-shirt Shurn. The young African-American man died around 2:00 a.m. on June 16 when his motorcycle crashed into an abandoned house after city cops pursued him at more than 100 miles an hour.
Benton Harbor, with 11,000 residents, has wide streets full of potholes. Boarded-up stores and closed businesses line Main Street. Everywhere there are vacant lots and abandoned houses. Ninety-two percent of the residents are Black. The official unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent, but Black ministers state the true figure is higher. Some 40 percent live below the official poverty level, and the median annual family income is $17,471. Only 60 percent of adults have graduated from high school.
Just across St. Josephs River from Benton Harbor is the town of St. Joseph. The two are dubbed the Twin Cities, yet there is not much resemblance between them. The neighboring town has clean streets edged with well-kept lawns and flowers. The population there is 90 percent white. Unemployment stands at 2 percent. The median family income is $38,000, with only 4 percent below the poverty level. Ninety percent have graduated from high school or college. Much of the land surrounding the Twin Cities is unincorporated Benton Township, with a mostly white population.
In 1971, U.S. District Court judge Douglas Hilman ruled in favor of a NAACP-initiated lawsuit against the segregated public school system in Benton Harbor, and 10 years later ordered the city to begin a voluntary school busing plan. He released the city from court supervision in 2002, and the busing program was shut down.
They call this the Twin Cities, Willie Young told the Detroit News in an interview published June 22. He gestured toward a street corner filled with rubble and the empty foundations of two abandoned houses burned the previous week. If I had a twin that looked like this, I dont want it.
How police provoked trouble
On the morning of June 16, friends and neighbors gathered at the site of Shurns death with candles to create a memorial. Evette Taylor, who lives nearby, said she and other people had been putting flowers and other items at the motorcycle crash site and trying to grieve Shurns death when police told them to move. He was a sweet person, and he didnt deserve to die this way, she said.
Residents angered by police abuse and racism crowded into the regularly scheduled City Commission meeting that evening. They condemned the police practice of conducting high-speed chases within residential neighborhoods. At one point, the crowd shouted down Police Chief Samuel Harris. The chief aint from here, one man yelled, according to the June 17 Herald Palladium. He dont know nothin. We dont need no chief, another said, we can chief ourselves. Harris and Benton Harbor mayor Charles Yarbrough passed responsibility for the death onto Benton Township police.
Benton Harbor has seen racist killings before. Just three years ago, an 11-year-old boy was struck on the sidewalk and killed during another high-speed police chase. In 1991, a 16-year-old was found dead in the river with rope marks on his neck. Both youths were Black.
Massive rebellions rocked this town in 1966, when Benton Harbor cops made racist slurs while breaking up a group of Black youth gathered at a roller-skating rink.
Jesse Brown, who works as a powder technician in an auto shop, told these reporters, We dont have any places to go, to do, so in the summertime the youth get on their motorcycles. The cops harass young people because theyre riding down the street, or standing around. If they have a beer in their hand, they must be a troublemaker. Eighty percent of this town has been arrested for something. That makes it hard for them to get a job. Anthony Harvell, 25, who grew up in Benton Harbor, stated, Were fed up with the police. Theyre all crooked. They bully us. They think they can run this town.
On the evening after Shurns killing, hundreds of protesters gathered at the site of the killing, residents said, and tried to burn down the unoccupied crash site after the police told them they had to leave the memorial they had built. When cops stopped them, they turned to a vacant residence across the street, which neighbors called a former drug house. No arrests were made, according to various news reports, because the cops were outnumbered. Police cars were pelted with bricks and bottles.
The day after the deadly high-speed chase, 70 people packed into a meeting of Benton Township officials to question them about the death of Terrance Shurn. City officials cut off discussion after 25 minutes under the pretext of a speaker using profanity when arguing that Benton Township cop Wesley Koza, who had pursued Shurn, should be suspended. He was put on paid sick leave instead. Township police chief James Coburn said that they would re-evaluate their policy on high-speed chases.
Two years ago a boy was killed by a cop in a chase, a Benton Harbor woman told the Militant, asking that her name not be used. They made a statement that it wouldnt happen again. And here its happened again. My house is right here and I saw the whole thing, she said. Most cops stopped and one kept going after him. The cop car hit the motorcycle wheel, and he crashed. They took his body out and laid it on the street. There was blood all over the cop. While State police said they didnt know why Shurn had fled the police cruisers, they claim that his drivers license had been suspended and that they found a small amount of marijuana on him. Some people say Terrance wouldnt stop because he feared for his life, said Nanette Partee, who explained that many are fed up with the Benton Township cops.
Governor declares state of emergency
As protests continued on June 17, Benton Harbor and Berrien County authorities declared a state of emergency for the area, with Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm signing off the declaration later that day. Hundreds of cops were rushed to the scene from cities and towns across southwest Michigan. The Berrien County Sheriff Department ordered its Peacekeeper, an armored vehicle, into the neighborhood that night.
The local police department reinforcements were accompanied June 18 by about 200 Michigan State Police, outfitted in riot gear, gas masks and helmets. The Michigan Army National Guard sent in three guardsmen with an armored personnel carrier that can hold up to 10 people.
More than 300 cops from Benton Harbor, neighboring communities, and the Michigan State Police filled the streets late June 18 near the site of the earlier rebellions. They patrolled in caravans of 20 vehicles, three cops per vehicle, going through city streets, block by block, looking for youth breaking the 10:00 p.m. curfew for those under 17 years old. Overhead, a police helicopter lit up the streets.
Governor Granholm said she didnt want to overreact and cause an unintended consequence, which is community backlash even greater than the one weve seen.
The armed occupation of the town continued through the time this article was written June 23. The state police helicopter continues to circle the area at night. Every two hours or so the state police on the ground pile into patrol cars, three per vehicle, and switch locations with other troopers. They drive in single file, with the flashers lit.
Protests have also continued. On June 19, a group of 100 people gathered at the Bobo Brazil Community Center to protest segregation, police brutality, conditions at the schools, and lack of summer activities for youth. Jesse Jackson of Operation PUSH led a march June 19 down the street where the killing took place.
Shurns funeral took place June 23 at the Greater Faith Apostolic Church in Benton Harbor. At least 700 people attended, with standing room only. A large number of youth participated, many wearing T-shirts silk-screened with a photograph of Terrance Shurn.
Osborne Hart, a meat packer in Detroit, and Chessie Molano, a garment worker in Chicago, contributed to this article.