When Reverend Edward Pinkney counts the places in Benton Harbor, Mich. that truly belong to its residents, he comes up with one: the downtown barbecue joint.
“Basically, we have nothing here that belongs to us, the residents of Benton Harbor,” Pinkney said.
Not the gas station. Not the grocery stores. Not Whirlpool's headquarters. Certainly not the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Harbor Shores, which will host the Senior PGA Championship this May and again in 2014.
While the international sports spotlight shines on Benton Harbor, residents plan to raise a ruckus about the state's push to remove elected leadership from failing Michigan towns. Pinkney calls the May 22-27 protests “Occupy the PGA.”
Senior PGA officials did not return calls seeking comment, as of Monday afternoon.
Under Public Act 4, state officials can appoint emergency managers to local governments or school districts if the financial conditions are dire. Benton Harbor is one of a handful of Michigan cities run by an unelected emergency manger. Like Benton Harbor, other entities with emergency managers – including Flint, Pontiac, Ecorse and the Detroit Public School System - have a largely black population. There's even talk of appointing an emergency manager to Detroit.
“If it happened in Detroit, more than half of black people in Michigan would be under emergency rule – no voting rights,” said Marcus Muhammad, a powerless city council member in Benton Harbor. “This is, at least, borderline racism. Given this issue has arrested and grabbed national attention, it would be wise for them to find another location to host their tournament, given the gravity of the social and legal issue that's taking place in Benton Harbor.”
Many of Benton Harbor's woes are typical of modern rust belt cities. The city houses Whirlpool's corporate headquarters. But since the 1980s, the home appliance manufacturer has sent factory jobs overseas. The company still pumps money into town amenities, including the Boys and Girls Club, building new homes for more than 300 people living in housing projects and a golf program for local students. Whirlpool is also a major sponsor for the Senior PGA tournament. Still, that aid has not replaced lost income for residents.
Census data shows a city that's not only hemorrhaging jobs, but residents, too. The city was once home to more than 25,000; now roughly 10,000 people live there. More than 60 percent are unemployed and 90 percent live below the federal poverty line.
A recent independent audit shows evidence that emergency manager Joe Harris has not improved much – if anything – in the city. With Harris as its leader, the city didn't account for the fact that its assets – like buildings and vehicles - lose value as they age. Recording that depreciation is a standard practice for accounting in the United States. The omission indicates that what the city owns is worth less than reported.
“We want people to know we have issues here that aren't being corrected,” Pinkney said. “The state wants to use Benton Harbor as a reason you should have an emergency manager.”
Benton Harbor residents and community leaders have joined marches to the governor's house and other actions to show their disapproval for Public Act 4, Pinkney said.
The emergency manager is not the only problem, said Muhammad, who classifies the golf course and surrounding homes as a ploy to force black residents from the city. Since council members can't vote on city business now, their primary task has become teaching residents about Public Act 4 and working to overturn the law, he said.
“Their ultimate goal is gentrification,” Muhammad said of the emergency manager and large businesses in the community. “Because as it currently stands, all of their moves and their plans are pointing to that direction.”