Published Jun 2, 2012
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Benton Harbor, Mich.
Occupy the PGA was held May 23-27 to coincide with the Senior Professional Golfers’ Association Championship. People from as far away as New York City and Fresno, Calif., Vermont and Colorado in the U.S.; and Denmark, Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica traveled to Benton Harbor, Mich., to protest alongside local organizers from that city and around the state of Michigan.
The PGA games, held in this city of 11,000 in southwest Michigan, are a national event with media coverage and advertising sponsorship by such leading corporations as Mercedes-Benz and KitchenAid.
In Benton Harbor, a city with 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 majority African-American community has been driven out and disenfranchised by the construction of a golf course, expensive homes and a revitalized beach in the lakefront area of the city.
The Whirlpool Corporation based in Benton Harbor has been the driving force behind the gentrification. The major investor in this process is Harbor Shores Development, which took control of Jean Klock Park — a public site — and turned it into the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course.
Two participants in Occupy the PGA, Mary M. Morgan and Jan Griesinger, had been involved in a demonstration at the PGA tournament in August 1969 in Dayton, Ohio. Both women recounted how they disrupted the event due to the involvement of golfer Gary Player from then-racist South Africa.
Demands of Occupy the PGA
Occupy the PGA organizers issued a series of demands to the tournament’s sponsors, including the transfer of 25 percent of the profits from the games to Benton Harbor residents. These demands were designed both as a rallying point for the people of Benton Harbor and also to expose the plight of the residents to a broader national and international audience.
Occupy the PGA also demanded public acknowledgment at the tournament of the “theft of public park land for private profit.” The group pointed 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, May 9)
According to the 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 … 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].”
The Rev. Edward Pinkney and Dorothy Pinkney, leaders of the local NAACP Chapter and the Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers, view the tournament as an affront to the largely working-class and poor city. They questioned the benefits this project would bring to the jobless and impoverished residents, who are being systematically removed from the city.
The Rev. Pinkney told the press assembled for the demonstrations, “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.”
The major event of the five days of activity was a “Death March” through the city to the grounds outside the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course. Participants gathered on May 26 outside Benton Harbor City Hall. After a brief rally, people lined up in 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, 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, the major employer in the region for many years, has largely been idled, with most of its production outsourced and its investments diversified into other sectors of the economy.
Nonetheless, when the marchers got closer to the Harbor Shores Development they saw new homes, refurbished properties and the new golf course. The beach, where the march ended, had a new shed, benches and reconstructed embankments.
Heavy police harassment
There had been a struggle over the march route between Occupy the 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 events.
Police presence was heavy during the entire march. The rally on the beach was monitored by city and county cops.
On May 25, the Rev. Pinkney led a group of 10 Occupy the 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 emphasized their right to proceed on the sidewalk. One person was given a ticket for supposedly sounding a bicycle horn in the park.
The Rev. Pinkney says he will file a lawsuit on 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 and shipping of household appliances, the city has fallen on hard times as a result of capitalist overproduction 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 U.S. history at the time.
Benton Harbor exploded again 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.
The 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. His first trial ended in a hung jury. However, when Berrien County authorities tried him again, they gained a conviction, with a sentence of one year in jail and five years’ probation.
Later, while under house arrest, the Rev. Pinkney was charged with threatening a judge after he quoted biblical scripture in an article published in the Chicago-based People’s Tribune. He was given three-to-10 years in prison for probation violation.
After an international campaign demanding his release, a Michigan appeals court overturned the conviction. He recently completed his probationary period.
Benton Harbor was placed under emergency management in 2010. Public officials have no authority, while residents are overtaxed and left voiceless through official political channels.
However, events such as Occupy the PGA indicate that the struggle is far from over. The increasing state repression leaves the residents no alternative but to organize and mobilize in defense of their political and economic interests.