By Philip A. Bassett
A friend tells me there is “no documented evidence” of the KKK in St. Joseph, MI, right across the river from Benton Harbor, a city that is almost entirely populated by black people. But looking at the perfect, sterile beauty of St. Joseph and the boarded-up broken promises of Benton Harbor, it’s hard not to wonder what force keeps them so separate. If you consider some out-of-place actions from the government such as overturning a legitimate recall election, firing a competent city clerk, and jailing an activist church leader, then things get even more strange. In the hope of shedding some light, I offer this musing on the King, the Knave and the Knight.
The King in this scenario, Judge Alfred Butzbaugh, is probably not a bad fellow, as far as that goes. If you had seen him, as I have, wandering the halls of justice wearing a lost look and a soft yellow sweater, you might think he was just another sweet old man running late for his checker game. He’s not that much more imposing in his courtly robes, and his manner in court is quiet and seemingly rational. But I’m afraid old Alfred is slaying the truth, not necessarily by what he says or does, but what he leaves out.
To give an example, a company I’m with filmed the entire (first) trial accusing Rev. Edward Pinkney of voter fraud in March of 2006, which ended in a hung jury. We filmed other hearings and eventually ended up making a documentary. After one of the hearings, Judge Butzbaugh called me up before him, as if I were a defendant in the case, and told me my camera was no longer welcome in the courtroom. The reason, he said, was that we had showed some of the jurors in our documentary. Now technically, what the judge said was correct. What he failed to say was that they were shots of the backs of jurors’ heads, with virtually no chance of identification. The judge had kicked me out on a technicality, and I could only come up with on conclusion: He wanted my camera out of there because I had just filmed some hours of testimony detailing how Berrien County systematically excludes black and/or poor people from jury selection pools. Don’t believe me? I’ve got four Sony mini-DV tapes to prove it. And Al Butzbaugh knows it.
He knows other things too, like there are already laws on the books to prevent tampering with mail, and that absentee ballot laws tend to discourage absentee voting and to target citizens who use absentee ballots in their election strategy. He knows there is no hard evidence against the Reverend; that the piles of phone records and absentee ballots mean nothing, and that differences in writing on applications is not illegal. He knows that the prosecution has no case beyond the conflicting testimony of questionable witnesses, with some witnesses’ stories even conflicting with their own testimony from an earlier, civil trial that was to result in the firing of that impeccable city clerk, Jean Nesbitt. But most of all, he knows the only reason for this phony trial, and one to follow, was to legitimize the illegally overturned election recalling City Commissioner Glen Yarbrough.
And the election couldn’t be allowed to stand, since point man Yarbrough would then be gone and the whole deal would fall through: the Jack Nicklaus golf course, the fabulous multi-million dollar resort and control of the water treatment plant, all included in the sweetest land grab since Manhattan Island. Obviously, Butzbaugh and his corporate pals at Whirlpool, Cornerstone Alliance and Harbor Shores weren’t going to let some loud-mouthed preacher with an eye on justice get in the way of all that fun. Pinkney had to go, or it would all crumble apart.
There are other things that Judge Butzbaugh is not telling, like the fact that he and his real estate company likely stand to profit handsomely from the development that Pinkney is fighting, Harbor Shores. It smells like a conflict of interest, something judges are supposed to stay away from. But like most kings in the political sphere, Al Butzbaugh is really a pawn for a larger entity, containing more kings and queens thirsty for entertainment and baubles, and he doesn’t have time to worry about that now.
Knaves typically get forgotten in history, and ours will probably fare no differently. His main role here is to be the second “K” in the title, and thus produce the clever reference to a national group of racist clowns. Gerald Vigansky is a young prosecutor, not yet practiced in the lawyerly art of looking at the defendant with disgust and maintaining an attitude of righteous indignation. His voice doesn’t carry much conviction as he stutters and stumbles over his arguments. He muddles along though, producing piles of phone records and piles of applications that were all filled out correctly, designed to bore the jury to stupefaction so that they failed to notice he had no case, and that his star witness was a crackhead. (Sorry, it’s true.) It’s amazing that he got ten out of twelve people to believe him at the trial I attended, and all twelve jurors on the second go-round. My gut feeling is that part of the reason he was able to obtain a conviction the second time is that Rev. Pinkney is African-American, and all twelve members of the jury were palefaces like me. But how do you prove something like that?
Rev. Edward Pinkney, a Knight in every sense of the word, is my friend and personal hero. He calls me his “covenant brother”, and I’m completely, unabashedly proud of that. These days I feel like I’m never doing enough because my covenant brother is sitting in the Berrien County Jail in a cell with five other men, on a gym floor with just a blanket, or in “the hole”, depending on which story you believe. (I myself have not called the jail, even though I know the number. I’m sorry to tell you that, but I’m afraid of those kinds of places. Thinking of people in cages makes me feel like God has died.)
Edward Pinkney, like most of us, doesn’t have a perfect past. He says he got in a fight once when he was younger and went to jail for it, even though there were two guys on the other side. He also went to prison for a year and a half over an insurance fraud case, but says that he was set up because of his civil rights activities. He claims he was always a top salesman with no need for tricks. With what I’m seeing in his current case, I could easily believe that Berrien County would jail someone for being politically active.
Pinkney has other problems as well; he tends to get under the skin of public officials. He has continually spoken out against the seemingly constant corruption and police brutality in the city. He organized picketers when Belinda Brown’s niece almost got raped at gun point by that store-owner, and led the march after Terrence Shurn was run into a building on his motorcycle by police. Perhaps most frustratingly, he has sat in on court hearings on a daily basis, advising young men that they have rights and that they don’t have to plead guilty just because the lawyers tell them to. But his biggest crime of all was organizing a successful recall election against a city commissioner and his corporate backers which was handily overturned, a week or so later, by the opinion of one Judge Paul Maloney.
Some have called the Reverend a “provocateur” but, from what I gather, all that means is that he tells the truth loudly and often. My guess is the real reason Butzbaugh and Co. want him off the scene is because he has a remarkable way of exposing inequities.
What makes the Reverend’s fight even more courageous is the Goliath he faces. Whirlpool Corp. is a pioneer in designing new ways to rip people off. In 1999, according to the Multinational Monitor, a jury levied a $581 million judgment against the company for bilking unsuspecting poor people in Alabama by selling dish systems for five times their actual worth. Executives at Whirlpool expressed no remorse, of course. Nor do they now, as they lift their corporate claw to pounce on a Lake Michigan dune area known as Jean Klock Park, which was supposedly left to the residents of Benton Harbor forever. What makes the deal really stink is that Benton Harbor has to pay for the infrastructure for the golf course/development and then in twenty years, it all becomes the property of the city of St. Joseph. This is just another swat in a long series of slaps in the face for the residents of Benton Harbor, who have more than borne the brunt of the “benefits” of globalization.
Rev. Pinkney, being the man that he is, chooses to fight these manipulations at whatever level he can. As an activist, he is tireless; as a speaker, he is inspirational; as a human being, he is honorable. He has mastered the art of tough love in his dealings at the courthouse, and has a smile and a joke for everyone. He knows people change slowly and institutions even more so, but he is willing to put in the time to catch others’ attention, and hopefully, make them think. He tolerates the countless impositions on his time and health, including intimidation by police, two lengthy trials, and now sitting in jail. I believe the man would even give his life, if he thought it would change some of the awful things going on in Benton Harbor.
As it is, Pinkney and other residents remain heavily outgunned and outmaneuvered by their corporate overlords. Other alliances may be developing, though. One group in the Benton Harbor area has sent a letter with over 1500 signatures on it to the DNR, protesting the lack of a citizen comment period and other irregularities in the takeover of Jean Klock Park. Another citizens alliance from southwestern Michigan has begun to uncover and compile evidence of numerous conflicts of interest on the part of Judge Alfred Butzbaugh and other Berrien County dignitaries. Disgusted with the apparent corruption in this case, they are planning to hold press conferences across the state in the next few months. Meanwhile, Rev. Pinkney awaits his March 5th & 7th trial dates, and the chance of shedding some light on events in the land of the King, the Knave and the Knight.