Comment on this article |
Email this article |
Fire in Benton Harbor (english)
17 Jul 2003
RW ONLINE: Fire in Benton Harbor
Fire in Benton Harbor
Police Murder Terrence Shurn and Why the People Rose Up
Revolutionary Worker #1207, July 20, 2003, posted at rwor.org
The RW received the following report from
On June 17 and 18, the first
major rebellion on U.S. soil since September 11 burst onto the
scene. It took place in Benton Harbor, a city of 12,000 in
western Michigan close to Lake Michigan. It was sparked by the
police murder of Terrence Shurn, a 28- year-old Black man. The
rebellion involved hundreds of people and cast a spotlight on
the brutal poverty, racism and police brutality that had been
inflicted on the people of Benton Harbor for years. It led to
worried articles in the major Detroit newspapers about how many
cities, including Detroit, have similar tinder-box conditions.
But it inspired the people of Detroit, a city which has the
highest rate of police killings in the country--many of them
involving high-speed chases.
A crew of us decided to go out to Benton Harbor to express
our support and interview people for the RW. Two of us, a
revolutionary communist and an African American community
activist and videographer, are involved in the Detroit October
22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality (part of the October
22nd national coalition). The third member of our crew was a
youth from India, an environmentalist who has worked with
Arundhati Roy and is active in the Michigan Committee Against
War and Injustice (MECAWI).
We drove to Benton Harbor the Saturday after the rebellion.
We weren't sure where to go or who to talk to, but we were so
determined we decided to go ahead. When we got to Benton
Harbor, you could see right away the poverty of this city,
where most of the residents are African American. We stopped at
a gas station, where the first person we asked directed us to
the intersection where Terrence was killed. What we saw when we
drove up jolted even us seasoned activists. There were police
everywhere, lined up on all four corners of the intersection,
some in riot gear and with automatic weapons. We could see that
police were stopping people driving through the intersection.
Later we would see armored vehicles and pickups full of cops
driving around. It reminded me of the police clampdowns during
the anti-globalization protests and it reminded us all of
Palestine. We could also see that the building where Terrence
had been killed had been bulldozed and a big crater was there
in its place. We parked our car and got out and started
Going through the streets, it reminded me of Detroit: lots
of abandoned houses and vacant lots, which gives a countrified
feel to the city and seems almost to express the rural roots of
many of the Black people who live there. As bleak as the
landscape was, you could feel the vitality of the people right
away, especially in the groups of youth playing basketball and
walking boldly down the street. In this particular area, the
only businesses we could see, what looked like a restaurant and
a party store, were on the intersection held captive by the
We talked to individuals and
groups of people walking about, riding bikes, sitting on their
porches. They ranged in age from teenagers to people in their
60s and 70s. A couple of things were striking. Almost everyone
we talked to had served time, including a young woman who
looked barely out of her teens. And people were so eager to
talk, it was like a dam had burst! We had the feeling that
these were people who had rarely or never been asked for their
opinions before the rebellion. We showed people
Worker , and also a copy of the Stolen Lives Book
(documenting police murder around the country) and some
literature from the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police
Brutality. This brought out peoples' feelings about police
brutality--as well as all the conditions they suffer, and the
system that produces them. People were determined to have their
stories told, and we were determined to tell
The following is our report
from our trip to Benton Harbor.
In the early morning of June 16, 28-year-old Terrence Shurn,
called "T-Shirt" by everyone who knew him because he always
wore white T-shirts, was driving his motorcycle back to Benton
Harbor, Michigan, from the town across the river, St. Joseph.
Terrence had an 18-month-old baby and another one on the way.
He had enrolled in college to study motorcycle repair and was
looking forward to turning his passion for bikes into a career.
It looked like he had a future ahead of him. But behind him
were police. The cops chasing Terrence included cars from
Benton Township--a mostly white township of which St. Joseph is
a part--and the Sheriff's department.
The police from Benton Harbor knew Terrence. They told the
other cops to call off the chase--they had Terrence's license
plate and would pick him up later. The Sheriff's department
vehicle started to slow down. But a car from Benton Township
pulled ahead of the Sheriff's car. According to more than 40
witnesses, the Township car bumped the back of Terrence's bike,
sending it out of control and into an abandoned house.
We talked to one of Terrence's uncles who said, "Police hit
the back of his bike and he lost control. They say he lost
control, but he was an expert motorcyclist. Why would he crash
into a building knowing it would kill him? And then they moved
the body before the evidence people came. They wasn't supposed
to do that. He was still alive till they pulled him out of the
building, he was moaning. They pulled him by the arm, that
could have killed him, pulled the artery away from the heart.
Lots of people saw them hit the back wheel of his bike. He was
getting ready to go to college. Why would he crash into a
building, knowing that would be suicidal?"
Other witnesses said police repeatedly kicked Terrence while
he lay on the ground and high-fived each other over his
A young woman who saw the crash said police didn't even
check to see if Terrence was alive, just pulled up and threw a
sheet over him. Medics came and tried to revive him for about a
minute and a half, then put the sheet back over him. She told
us, "I was there from the beginning to the end. Township was
chasing him and we were chasing Township. So we saw
everything." She was furious because the media and the mayor
were trying to discredit her testimony and that of other
witnesses. "They're saying what I said wasn't true, that there
wasn't no skid marks on the police car, wasn't no blood on the
police car. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to see he was
hit--if he sideswiped the building, it wouldn't have done so
much damage. If they weren't guilty, why would they be taking
pictures after everyone went away? If the car wasn't in the
accident, why were they taking pictures of it?"
She was also furious about police tampering with evidence.
"They moved his body parts around and then marked it as
evidence. They moved everything around. I didn't think it was
fair." She described how the next morning, the huge hole where
Terrence's bike had crashed into the house was boarded up.
"They covered up the evidence once they boarded up the hole in
the house. You cannot investigate a crime scene in just inside
of four hours, it takes 3 or 4 days. Why is that being all
boarded up and cleaned up the next day?"
Anger to Rebellion
The rebellion didn't jump off immediately when Terrence was
killed. One thing the media never mentioned was what happened
when people held a memorial service for Terrence the night of
People had built a memorial at the site where Terrence died,
with teddy bears and flowers like you see in many oppressed
neighborhoods when someone is killed, often by the police.
There were ministers with the people, and some were praying.
One man described it, "All people were doing was having a
memorial, at that spot. About 100 people, paying their last
respects. Police came and told them, `Just leave, get out of
here.' People were drinking, but not rowdy. They were paying
their last respects in their own way, and the police come
rowdy. People living next door, across the street.... They
weren't outside their community, not causing friction. They
were having prayer and everything. But after the police tried
to run them away, all it takes is one--one got smart, the next
one say, `We ain't goin' nowhere.' But that was disrespectful
Another woman said, "They tried to tear the memorial down.
The people had put flowers and teddy bears. That upset them. He
was a friend to a lot of people. They had to show their
memorial in a way they felt they were going to be heard."
The rebellion lasted for two nights. Hundreds and hundreds
of people confronted the cops; rocks and bottles flew,
buildings burned and at least four police cars were trashed. By
Wednesday, local officials declared a state of emergency for
the area. A 10 p.m. curfew was declared and the streets were
patrolled by at least 200 police officers in riot gear--a small
army that included Michigan state police and cops from
The house where Terrence was killed was burnt down, along
with several other abandoned houses. The fire spread to some
occupied homes. Some 20 houses burned in a four mile square
area. Several police cars were turned over and torched. People
threw rocks and bottles at the cops, and there were reports of
shots being fired at the cops, too.
It took a pouring rain the third night, and flooding the
neighborhood with hundreds of cops from as far away as the
Detroit suburbs to quell the rebellion.
One man put it powerfully, "People were scared. These people
are not violent or brave people. A lot of young guys got
together and said `let's do this' and other people supported
them. Believe it or not, the Church was even involved in this.
Churches were out there. We're tired of this, tired of laying
down. It's like being a female, and someone constantly raping
you. You get tired, you're gonna do something. And that's what
One youth we talked to said, "Benton Harbor, if we go back
in time, I'd say we would have to do the same thing over, it's
about time we stood up for ourselves, cause ain't nobody else
doing nothing.' This ain't the first time, the second time, or
even the third time this has happened. We finally took matters
into our own hands because nobody else was doing nothing about
it... People are going around saying the riots was about
T-Shirt. It wasn't just because of T-Shirt--that was the last
straw, the straw that broke the camel's back. We couldn't take
no more after T-Shirt, there wasn't any more to take. Everybody
just said, `We're not going to put up with this any more.'
Those two nights, that was hell. I didn't like that at all. I'm
sitting up on Empire just watching it. Damn, is that what we
got to go through to be heard? Why do we have to do all this
shit -- people should just listen to us. We have to tear up our
own neighborhoods, burn down our own city just to be heard?
What kind of system is this?"
History of Brutality
People in Benton Harbor have had way too much experience
with police brutality, including high-speed police chases. In
2000, an 11-year-old child, Trenton Patterson, was killed in a
high- speed chase involving Benton Township police. Wes Koza,
the cop who witnesses say bumped Terrence's bike, was the
back-up officer in the chase that led to Trenton's death.
Because of broad outrage, an ordinance was passed prohibiting
high-speed chases in Benton Harbor.
One woman explained, "That little boy got killed because
Township wouldn't give up on a chase. Didn't nobody stand up
and say nothing then, but now, since it happened again,
everybody is speaking up and got the little boy's name in
there. It has to happen more than once sometimes. So this time,
first thing people said was, `You all said no more high-speed
chases when that little boy got killed.'... The law says, `no
more high-speed chases.' What right do they have to come in our
jurisdiction when Benton Harbor called off the chase... Benton
Harbor called it off, and said they had the license plate
number, and then you do the chase anyway. It's like you were
meant to kill him."
Many people in Benton Harbor have stories about brutality at
the hands of the police. A man told how he moved to Benton
Harbor looking for a better life. "I got locked up 58 times in
two years, six times in one month by the same cop. It was pull
him over, lock him up, pull him over, lock him up. It was
crazy." He said in one of the incidents, a cop maced his penis.
He went to the City Council, the NAACP, and got the cop fired.
But he has never forgotten it. "I teach my little son to be
scared of the police. I tell him, `Don't trust them.'"
A woman told us of another incident, "We had a boy. They
come to the wrong apartment house looking for the wrong person.
He was scared and jumped out his apartment and ran. You know
they shot him dead in the back. They wasn't even looking for
him. Then they planted a bagged-up gun on him." There have also
been a number of unsolved murders of prostitutes over the past
couple of years that appear to be the work of a serial killer.
Because these crimes have gone uninvestigated, and because of
where the bodies have been dumped, many people suspect the
police. One man said he saw a prostitute get into a police car
and the next day she was found dead.
But the roots of the rebellion in Benton Harbor run even
deeper. Police brutality and murder serve an apartheid-like
setup that is notorious. Alex Kotlowitz wrote a book about this
called The Other Side of the River . It tells of the
unsolved murder of a young Black man from Benton Harbor, found
dead in St. Joseph more than a decade ago, and how this
incident was tied to the relationship between 92% Black Benton
Harbor and 90% white St. Joseph.
Unemployment in Benton Harbor is 25%, but for the youth it
is closer to 70%. In St. Joseph, the unemployment rate is
In Benton Harbor, 40% of all households are below the
poverty line. In St. Joseph, only 4% of households are below
the poverty line.
Schools in Benton Harbor receive $6,700 per student. In St.
Joseph schools receive $12,000 per student.
The median household income in Benton Harbor is $17,000. In
St. Joseph it is $37,000.
And on top of all this is the stark differences in the whole
way "just us" is dispensed.
According to Reverend Edward Pinckney, a Benton Harbor
minister and community activist, Black men aged 14 to 28 in
Benton Harbor, are 14 times more likely to be killed by a
police officer than the national average. Benton Harbor, the
poorest city in Michigan, has the highest per capita rate of
individuals in prison of all cities in Michigan. Six or seven
people (out of a population of 12,000) are sent to jail per
week. The jail is located in St. Joseph -- it is the first
building one sees when crossing the bridge from Benton Harbor.
Just four months ago the Ku Klux Klan marched on the lawn of
the courthouse in St. Joseph. That day the bridges from St.
Joseph to Benton Harbor were closed, as one man said, "to keep
people from Benton Harbor from going over there."
One of the many ex-cons one meets in Benton Harbor
eloquently described some of the history and conditions he felt
had fueled the rebellion. "Before St. Joseph was established,
it was Benton Harbor. We had the world's largest fruit market
on the lake, we had everything. It used to be white, everybody.
But once they moved it across the bridge, the equality went
out... You look at Benton Harbor and as soon as you get across
the bridge in St. Joes you see the difference. If you're a
minority, you can't get a job in St. Joes unless they getting a
tax break. They got a lot of jobs in St. Joes, but once you go
apply for them they look at your color, and they throw your
application right in the trash.... They took everything from
here. Big factories went South, Clark Equipment, companies
moved and took some of the people. They're dogging people out,
you work 10, 20 years, they go bankrupt, move to another
He continued, "A lot of people have scars, a lot of people
getting sick. No medical. A young man can't afford health
insurance. These houses they live in, the landlords don't care.
There are two parks. You can't go to one of them because the
police hang out there and harass you. Young Black men are
already labeled. They can't afford to go to college, can't get
a job. Then when they hang out in front of old people's houses,
they call the police on them. It's hard for the young women
too... The single parents, they can't leave their children at
home to go to work. The kids can't cut grass because there are
older people looking for work. They closed all the recreation
centers. These kids would clean up the city, cut every lot, but
there's no money for them. They want something to do. The
police don't hear these kids crying for help."
He summed up, "It's the government. All in all, there's only
gonna be rich and poor. Rich people are so poor in spirit,
their only joy is to take things away from other people. They
teach you their ways, to be slaves, to serve them.... It's all
about control. It's ugly. Ain't no justice here."
For a few days, authorities lost control of this small city
of 12,000 people. They struck back, with a heavy police state
presence. For days after the rebellion, armored vehicles,
pickup trucks full of cops, and lines of cop cars snaked
through the streets. They were stopping everyone going through
the intersection where T-Shirt was killed, and in the
neighborhoods, period. There were a lot of arrests and
harassment. A man carrying a four-inch pocketknife was arrested
for carrying a concealed weapon. One youth described coming out
of a bar with a bunch of friends and being forced to lie down
with guns pointed at their heads. He said, all this was just
"pouring fuel on the fire."
Besides cops, an army of politicians invaded Benton Harbor
after the rebellion. Governor Granholm, Jesse Jackson and many
others came with the usual tired promises. One person asked,
"Why didn't they come when we were just poor and hungry?" There
were also numerous ministers and lay religious people going
through the neighborhood, urging people to chill, in the name
of "peace." When one such young Christian woman told a group of
women on a porch that anger wouldn't get them anywhere, one of
the women snapped back, "It got you here!" Another woman
said sarcastically: "They keep telling us `We shall overcome.'
We ain't overcame yet."
If the flood of police was meant to intimidate people in
Benton Harbor, it didn't look like it the day we were there...
People were barbequing, having graduation parties, hanging out.
And talking. And talking some more.
The rebellion seemed to have made everyone feel like
speaking out, as some said, because no one had ever listened to
them before. People were making all kinds of connections,
between what happened in Benton Harbor and the system as a
whole, between the war on Iraq and the way people are treated
One man said, "The war [in Iraq] is bullshit. They ain't
found weapons of mass destruction. How can they rebuild another
country when this one is failing."
Another man told us, "I'm not a public speaker. But I know
when enough's enough. If I had a podium, I'd tell everyone...
We need a revolution in Benton Harbor."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on
Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
http://rwor.org - Revolutionary Worker Online
http://rwor.org/resistance -RW resource page on resisting the juggernaut of war and repression
http://2changetheworld.info - Discuss revolutionary strategy and the RCP's Draft Programme