Interesting and thorough article about some shit going down in Benton Harbor, Michigan. I snipped a lot out, hope it still makes sense. If not, you can read the whole thing at the link...
“One of the great gifts we can give our children is to make sure they connect with the amazing natural resources we have in Michigan. Whether we take them fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain-biking or simply let them discover the beauty of nature, helping our children connect with the outdoors is essential to making sure our natural resources are protected and respected in the future.”
- Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, March 2007 (Niles Daily Star, 2007)“Here is another case of the rich taking from the poor, while those we have elected to protect our best interests, including our governor, tout what a great thing it will be for the community….The rich will get richer, while the working class and poor lose a little more of what they already have little access to: the lake. Soon, if developers have their way, there will be no such thing as public parks or scenic lake views in Michigan for the masses to enjoy.”
- Michigan resident Mary Smith, August 10, 2007 (Smith 2007)“For the Children”: Class, Race, Place, and Late Capitalist Eco-Enclosure in Benton Harbor“We’re using economic development to change people’s lives.”
- David Whitwam, former CEO of Whirlpool, July 2007
by Paul Street
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle ... emID=13855
”BECAUSE OF EVERYTHING’S THAT’S BEEN GOING ON FOR YEARS”
A smaller example can be found in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a desperately poor and 92 percent black town directly adjacent to Lake Michigan. Containing 11,000 people and located 100 miles east of Chicago, Benton Harbor is an especially graphic reminder that concentrated racial oppression lives beyond the metropolitan core. The town was designated “the worst place to live in the nation” by Money Magazine in 1989. Even at the end of the long 1990s “Clinton Boom,” more than half of Benton Harbor’s children and 40 percent of its families lived in official poverty. The city’s poverty rate was three and a half times that of the U.S. as a whole. Median family income in Benton Harbor was $19, 250, just more than two-thirds of the minimum basic family budget (the real cost of being poor, as meticulously calculated by The Economic Policy Institute) for one single parent and two children living there: $28, 422. According to one Benton Harbor minister, less than one in three adult Benton Harbor males was employed in the spring of 2003 (Koltowitz 1998; U.S. Census 2000; Boushey et al. 2001)..
The concentrated misery in Benton Harbor stands in sharply incongruous contrast to the picturesque lakefront properties, beaches and rustic terrain that surround the town in scenic Berrien County. That 80 percent white county’s family poverty rate (9 percent) and median family income ($47,000) are roughly proximate to those of the nation as a whole (U.S. Census 2000).
The last time that Benton Harbor received national media attention came in the second week of June 2003. That’s when it hosted the second significant racial disturbance to occur in the United States since the September 2001 terror attacks supposedly united all Americans in opposition to terrorist enemies (the first occurred in Cincinnati late in the same month as the jetliner attacks, in response to the acquittal of a policeman who killed an unarmed black youth (Walsh 2001). For two nights following the death of a young black motorcyclist, Terrence Shurn, in a police chase, hundreds of Benton Harbor residents roamed an eight-block area, some setting fires and attacking passers-by (Wilgoren 2003, Mastony and Quintilla 2003, Christoff and Hackney 2003, Guerrero 2003; Street 2003). As the New York Times reported in a front page story, “rioters were chanting, ‘no justice, no peace,’ as they overturned vehicles, tossed small firebombs into houses, and shattered windows with bottles and rocks, injuring 12 people” (Wilgoren 2003). The rioting “was so intense,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “that fire trucks and squad cars were peppered by several shotgun blasts, and were pelted with bricks before they retreated. Benton Harbor Township police said they fired several shots into the crowd, but no one was struck” (Mastony and Quintilla 2003).
Within two days, Benton Harbor was under governor-ordered military occupation. A large police force including hundreds of officers from the Michigan State Police and other local jurisdictions stormed the town in full riot gear, with armored vehicles, tactical units, assault rifles, and a helicopter with a sweep light that continually circled the riot zone. According to the Chicago Tribune, the scene “was reminiscent” of the 1960s, “when major cities such as Chicago saw some neighborhoods burn in a wave of urban violence.” On Chicago television screens and newspapers, pictures of the confrontation between the forces of order and angry mobs in occupied Benton Harbor were juxtaposed with similar images from occupied Iraq, suggesting dark connections between the war (on poor people) at home and the war (for empire) abroad. Just miles away, the waves of the great inland sea Lake Michigan lapped up onto a beautiful shore. Vacationers there struggled a bit more usual with trying to continue ignoring the tragedies of daily existence in abandoned communities like Benton Harbor.
"There have been these forgotten places of America since the 1960s - towns that are left out because they were created for reasons that no longer exist," Pepperdine University researcher Joel Kotkin told the London Financial Times. "Then something like Benton Harbor happens and people are suddenly reminded of their existence" (Grant 2003).
“Years of Frustration”
At the same time, nobody familiar with the racially disparate facts of life in and around Benton Harbor was exactly shocked to hear that significant violence had broken out there. As Ashley Black, Shurn’s cousin, told the Chicago Sun Times, “this isn’t just because of what happened Monday. This is because of everything that has been happening in Benton Harbor for years…you are talking about years of frustration” (Guerrero 2003).
Benton Harbor had been in dire straits for more than a generation. Prior to the Vietnam era, it was a thriving community, host to what Alex Kolotowitz called (in his widely read 1998 book The Other Side of the River) “a flurry of manufacturing activity, most of it centered on the automobile – foundries and parts plants primarily” There were enough decent blue-collar jobs in and around Benton Harbor to attract a modest local black working-class, which accounted for a quarter of the town’s population in 1960 (Koltowitz 1998)
In the Sixties and Seventies, however, Benton Harbor lost its downtown department stores to a newly constructed mall outside town. Corporate globalization and domestic de- industrialization eliminated many of its foundries and part plants. As one local historian puts it, “in the late 1960s and 1970s, Benton Harbor began to lose its longstanding manufacturing base to cheaper labor states” (Friends of Jean Klock Park 2007a) The city’s biracial working class lost its economic lifeblood to capital’s quest to boost profit rates by finding more readily exploitable workers and lower taxes in other places.
At the same time, “urban renewal” scattered Benton Harbor’s black population, previously concentrated in a low-lying area next to the St. Joseph River. “Whites, uneasy with their new neighbors, fled,” notes Koltowitz, “many of them simply skipping over the river to St. Joseph. Institutions followed, including the newspaper, the YMCA, the hospital, even the local FBI offices. Each had its own reason, which at the time made sense, but in the end, after they’d drifted off, like geese going south, the reasons sounded more like excuses” (Koltowitz 1998, p. 31).
It’s a familiar story for those who study race, class, and industrial relations in post-WWII America: the burden of corporate disinvestment’s negative social consequences falling with racially disparate weight on blacks, who lack the same resources and freedom as whites to move up and out of communities and occupations rendered obsolete by the supposedly benevolent workings of the “free market,” sold to us as the solution to all problems social, political, and personal by the architects of American policy and opinion (Massey 1993, Wilson 1987, Wilson 1996, Street 2007).“THE DREAM OF DEVELOPERS AND WHIRLPOOL EXECUTIVES FOR MORE THAN A DECADE”: RIOTS AS A BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY
Business decisions contributed significantly to the latent racial and socioeconomic frustrations that exploded in Benton Harbor four summers ago. More than merely creating critical background for the riots, however, key private-sector decision-makers have been busy since seeking to turn the 2003 disturbances into a business and leisure-class opportunity for the privileged white few. Their effort takes special aim at natural and recreational resources that hold special value for many among the town’s predominantly black populace. It is spearheaded by the multinational appliance corporation Whirlpool, which maintains its global headquarters in Benton Harbor and is a specially prized asset in the eyes of Michigan state officials starting with Governor Jennifer Granholm – a relevant fact to which we shall return.
“A Gift for the Children”
If there has ever been any significant and distinctive local compensation for the difficulty of black life in racially Benton Harbor, many residents report, it is Jean Klock Park (JKP). In 1917, John Nellis Klock and his wife Carrie purchased and then deeded a pristine 90-acre parcel of Lake Michigan frontage property to the City of Benton Harbor. The terms of the deed require that the property be used exclusively and forever as a public park and bathing beach. The splendid stretch of land was dedicated “For the Children.” It was named “Jean Klock Park” in memory of the Klocks’ deceased daughter, who died in infancy (Friends of Jean Klock Park 2007). As the local organization “Friends of Jean Klock Park” (FOJKP) notes in a carefully researched history of the unique lakefront park, “it was never intended to be a profit center” (Friends of Jean Klock Park 2007a). The Klocks’ intent is remarkably well-know and kept in community memory. Everyone knows the story.
Reflecting the broader pattern of racial separatism that infects Southwest Michigan as well as most of the rest of the U.S., JKP has developed over time into the area’s one and only “black beach.” Revered as a special recreational, therapeutic and spiritual haven by numerous long-time black residents, it has been demonized by local whites as an “underclass” menace. A recent issue of Midwest Real Estate News summarizes conventional Caucasian wisdom in Benton Township when it refers to JKP as “an underutilized Lake Michigan beachfront gem. The property,” this developer organ says, “is fairly isolated and when it developed a reputation as a site for dogfights and drug deals, most of Benton Harbor’s residents stayed away.” (Brody 2007).
Business, City, and Media Machinations
But one person’s place of beauty and serenity is another person’s (or corporation’s) commercial prospect. And one environmentalist’s concern for sound and beautiful ecology is another person’s barrier to “development.” Given its potential as a profit center for real estate interests and its strategic position between two stretches of favored, upper-end real estate inhabited by Benton Township’s and City of St. Joseph’s staunchly Republican and heavily white business elite, the all-too black, poor, and public JKP has long been targeted for Caucasian enclosure. A number of key local business players, aided by compliant city managers and elected officials, began planning during the middle and late 1980s to convert a large section of the park into some version of a massive, commercial development, changing through the years to the current plan – three holes of a privately owned golf course that would primarily serve affluent white residents and visitors. The leading agents of this endeavor in recent years include former Whirlpool CEO and onetime corporate globalization guru David Whitwam (see Maruca 1994) current Whirlpool CEO Jeff Fettig and the “Cornerstone Alliance” – an inter-municipal Southwest Michigan chamber of commerce founded by Whirlpool to “generate economic growth and promote civic development” (Cornerstone Alliance 2007).
The Cornerstone Alliance (hereafter “Cornerstone”) describes itself as “an investor-driven organization committed to improving the economic wealth of our community” and “supporting the preparation of local business leaders to sustain positive change” (Cornerstone Alliance 2007As far as local activists affiliated with Friends of Jean Klock Park (FOJKP) are concerned, Cornerstone is “Whirlpool, Junior” and its mission statement has a useful translation: “an investor-driven organization dedicated to creating a veneer of community concern to cloak corporate assault on public property, the environment and non-affluent peoples’ right to enjoy nature.”
“To Change the Image from an Industrial Kind of City”
According to Benton Harbor City Manager Dwight Mitchell, the dismemberment and privatization of Jean Klock Park is “the key to changing the city’s future. We want,” Mitchell recently told Michigan Radio, “to change the image from an industrial kind of city to a tourist kind of location that people want to visit and stop because of the amenities that we have here so that’s going to change the whole complexion of the community” (Duffy 2007). Never mind that cutting-edge corporate globalizer Whirlpool – which markets in 140 countries, maintains 13 manufacturing facilities throughout the world (see Martin et al. 2000) and retains only one factory (employing 300) in Benton Harbor (where its large-scale manufacturing operations were concentrated through most of the 20th century) – long ago helped change the town from “an industrial kind of city” to a center of extreme poverty and joblessness. “Complexion” was an interesting word choice on the part of the technically black Mitchell, who is “working with Whirlpool, developers and some non-profits not to promote the park, but to build a resort on and around it. Harbor Shores,” Michigan Radio notes, “will be a $500 million golf course, hotel, marina, and luxury home development….a lakeshore resort just 90 miles from Chicago, perfect for a second home [emphasis added], and with a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course” (Duffy 2007). The design plan is an essentially gated community (FOJKP 2007c), setting up forbidding barriers of race and class to keep the city’s disproportionately black and poor residents away from the privileged white visitors and home-buyers that Whirlpool and Cornerstone (whose treasurer is Whitwam’s son) wish to bring to the city’s charming western shore, which contrasts so poignantly with the vacant lots, boarded-up buildings, and dilapidated first (and only) homes in the downtown and the adjacent hyper-segregated neighborhoods of inner Benton Harbor.
“The golf course,” Michigan Radio adds, “has been the dream of Whirlpool Executives and developers for more than decade, but getting all the necessary permits and approvals to build on the park land was difficult” (Duffy 2007). Fittingly enough, former Whirlpool CEO Whitwam (who enjoys a sumptuous mansion close to JKP) is the head of Harbor Shores, which is candidly described as “the pet project of Whirlpool Corp” by Midwest Real Estate News (Brody 2007). Also fittingly enough, Nicklaus is something of a globalizer himself. He is the head of Nicklaus Design, which operates 316 courses in 30 countries as well as 38 U.S. states (Arend 2007).
“No One Uses the Park”
Whirlpool and its allies seek to justify this notable act of racialized commons enclosure with four basic arguments. The first rationalization claims that “no one uses the park,” as Cornerstone and (just for the JKP heist) City attorney Geoff Fields, told the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board (MNRTFB) while seeking that agency’s approval (granted in the October 2006) for the assault on JKP. Fields tried to “prove” this claim by showing the MNRTFB an enlarged photograph of a momentarily empty portion of the park (FOJKP to Granholm 2006).
As a group of residents told Governor Granholm in September of 2006, “this blatant lie is a disgrace. We use Jean Klock Park for recreational activities of all kinds, for church suppers, family reunions, picnics, senior citizen outings, weddings, baptisms, school field trips, festivals, concerts, and of course general public use of the beach. The dunes are an important part of the park, providing a peaceful setting for these activities and an environment for our children to explore nature” (FOJKP to Granholm 2006)
What Fields really meant to say was that “no one who matters in profit-focused white America uses the park.” JKP might hold critical cultural, social and ecological use value for the mainly black residents of Benton Harbor and the natural environment we all share. But for Whirlpool and allied regional business interests, it is an idle “brownfield” loaded with untapped exchange and leisure value and excessive blackness – a dysfunctionally “undeveloped” piece of illegitimate commons that needs to be “saved” for profitable use by great white men of capital
The second justification claims that only 25 percent of the park would actually be enclosed for the golf course, leaving the rest for public use. The problem here is that all the rest of JKP except the sandy beach would be circled by golf holes and therefore unusable.
The third justification is that Harbor Shores would replace parkland taken from JKP with replacement parkland for an “expanded” JPK. The project would donate eight such allotments with a total of 47 acres (Because state and federal money was used to develop the park in the past, the city is required to donate land to the city to replace lost parkland.) One difficulty here is that the “mitigation parcels” are scattered and non-contiguous. Many of them are landlocked within the broader golf course (15 holes of which are beyond JKP’s original boundaries) and some of the “mitigation” parkland” is located in St. Joseph and consists, the Detroit Free Press reports, “of walkways through the middle of a proposed marina-townhouse development. All but one of the parcels,” reporter Tina Lam adds, “are contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals (Lam 2007). Some parcels are already owned by the city, being sold to Harbor Shores only to be donated back to the city in a transparent scam. The residents would lose valuable parkland and get nothing in return. The “mitigation math” behind the process is based on an appraisal that severely underestimates the value of the park, which is priceless to begin with.
And of course no amount of superficially green “mitigation” can make up for the lost ecological benefits of destroyed marshes and wetlands or for the considerable ecological damage that will be inflicted by the construction and maintenance of a large, heavily fertilized golf course, which can be counted on to pour a large and steady stream of noxious, nitrogen - intensive run-off into local water supplies. In addition, an eighteen-hole “state of the art” golf course can be counted on to require and wastefully use tens of millions of gallons of water each year (see Burke, Luecke, and Young 2003).
The park’s proposed “conversion” (theft and privatization) is still under consideration by the National Park Service – the one federal agency that has a major say in the park’s fate.
“To Benefit the Community”
The fourth and most important justification is that Harbor Shores would provide jobs and development that would alleviate the misery and oppression that gave rise to violence in the spring of 2003. “After riots in 2003 garnered international attention,” Midwest Real Estate News reporter Megan Brody claimed last July, “it was obvious to local leaders that the Lake Michigan community was in dire need of change. The town has remained popular as a traditional summer destination, but many year-round residents never repeated the benefits of the seasonal dollars.” Harbor Shores and its golf course are “designed,” Brody wrote, “to jump start the economy in a struggling Michigan town” (Brody 2007).
Brody deepened her service to Benton Harbor’s business-based powers that be by uncritically quoting Harbor Shores chief Whitwam on Whirlpool’s supposedly benevolent intentions in the following passage: “ ‘We’re using economic development to change people’s lives,’ says David Whitwam, trustee and chairman of Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment Inc. [HSCRI], the project’s nonprofit developer. The hope is it will bring temporary construction jobs, permanent jobs and an increased tax base to the community…‘We’ve been thinking about this to benefit the community’” (Brody 2007). According to the Herald-Palladium, in an admiring story honoring Nicklaus’ visit to Benton Harbor in the summer of 2007, Harbor Shores – whose full success is supposedly contingent on the invasion of JKP – will create 4,000 jobs over five years of construction and 2,000 permanent positions thereafter (Arend 2007).
HSCRI started with a $12 million loan from Whirlpool. The “nonprofit” has recently received a $9.2 million tax break from Governor Granholm.
To buttress its curious claim of altruistic concern, Whirlpool has included a number of supposed social service organizations it has largely created in the partnership of groups that “comprise Harbor Shores.” These intriguing institutions include a mysterious, Cornerstone-affiliated entity called “The Alliance for World Class Communities (AWCC),” whose vision statement calls for “an inclusive environment where the richness of our differences are viewed as strengths and where all citizens are prepared and contributing to our interdependent, world-class communities.” The Benton Harbor-based AWWC includes among its partner organizations a Berrien County outfit called “The Council for World-Class Communities,” which describes itself as “a nonprofit community development organization guided by the principles of collaboration and diversity with inclusion.” Another ACCW partner is a Cornerstone-linked organization called “The Center for Progressive Change” (CPC). CPC’s mission is to implement the vague, pro-“development” and –“inclusion” recommendations of Governor Jennifer M. Granholm's Benton Harbor Task Force, another arm of the Harbor Shores developers, formed in the wake of the riots (all of these groups and their mission statements are linked off Cornerstone’s website: www.cornerstonechamber.com).
But Whitwam, Brody, and Whirlpool’s statements of loving community kindness sparked by the disturbances of 2003 are more than a little disingenuous. Desperately poor and predominantly black Benton Harbor stopped being a “popular summertime destination” many years ago. As one former Benton Harbor resident who prefers to remain anonymous notes, moreover, “we have proof that Whirlpool has been after the park and waterfront since at least 1987.” In a section marked “Jean Klock Park” from a 1987 document titled Waterfront Redevelopment Study, City of Benton Harbor, Michigan, Consultants' Final Report, Study completed for City of Benton Harbor and Southwestern Michigan Commission, an “outside expert” hired by the city wrote the following:
“Detailed recommendations for these two sections are difficult to formulate at present since the future of these lands depends to some extent on the nature and extent of the developments undertaken by the Whirlpool Corporation in the adjacent St. Joseph Special Development Area. However, an essential principle of the redevelopment must be that Section 8, the lake front section, should remain a public park. High priority should be given to developing a master plan for this section which will balance the need to preserve the fragile dune landscapes with the growing demand for beach recreation opportunities and associated vehicle circulation and parking facilities. Section 9, the eastern third of Jean Klock Park and adjacent interchange lands have good potential for a hotel-convention center whether developed by the City of Benton Harbor acting independently or as part of a comprehensive development plan involving the adjacent City of St. Joseph Special Development Area. No similar site exists in the City of St. Joseph so a cooperative plan involving the Whirlpool Corporation and the two cities appears to be a good possibility. A major hotel and convention center with a view of the lakeshore, access to the beach, and a good golf course would be a powerful attraction for tourism and convention business....”
In part, JKP would be sacrificed to an exurban version of the highly racialized gentrification that is displacing disproportionately black poor people from central city Chicago neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are being systematically “up-scaled” to house and entertain elite professionals required to handle tasks of legal, organizational and economic coordination that are being concentrated in that increasingly “global metropolis” (Street 2007). Residents being pushed further to the metropolitan margins are supposed to be pleased with the low-wage and generally non-union service jobs generated to meet the living and recreational needs of the predominantly white urban professionals who stand atop the “global city’s” increasingly bifurcated, post-industrial labor market.
Whirlpool’s assault on Jean Klock Park is partly a curious form of globalization-related gentrification – one that takes place beyond the metropolitan core and targets ecological and recreational resources, not housing.
It is unlikely that Harbor Shores will create many good jobs for which Benton Harbor’s large number of poor and black unemployed will be qualified and hired. Local activists report that the project’s authorities are already beginning to hedge on promises to set aside a significant number of employment slots for local residents. The remunerative construction jobs involved in building Harbor Shores will go to predominantly white skilled workers in regional building trades; the 2003 riots may have been sparked partly by black anger over whites’ monopoly of construction jobs in downtown Benton Harbor, interestingly enough (see Wilgoren 2003a). Conventional local wisdom holds that the prestigious caddy jobs will go “rich white college kids form [the adjacent town of] St. Joseph,” not Benton Harbor kids. The jobs that open for lesser-skilled local black residents – waiters and waitresses, cleaners and the like – will pay low wages and lack benefits. They will be particularly inhospitable to the large number of residents – including a remarkable 70 percent of Benton Harbor’s black males 17 to 30 years (Wilgoren 2003a) – who carry felony records (industrial work is the type of labor most friendly for ex-offenders ). Many of those positions can be expected to go to cheap immigrant (Latino) labor, widely available on Michigan’s western shore thanks to the presence there of large fruit and vegetable farming operations.
Harbor Shores will offer little relevant substitute for the livable wage employment that Whirlpool and other manufacturers removed from Benton Harbor in the last third of the 20th century. Carefully guarded design plans at first depicted a commercial district that purportedly would provide Benton Harbor residents with locations for small businesses. A later version, revealed after city leaders approved the leasing of the park, now shows only gated-community residential areas – what one local activist calls “a classic bait and switch.” It is sadly ironic, then, that many Benton Harbor residents have been “afraid of speaking out” against the loss of their park “in fear of not obtaining the jobs that the Harbor Shores project can provide.”“To Keep Whirlpool in Michigan”
Granholm’s refusal to side with Benton Harbor activists and their environmentalist allies stands in curious contrast with her previous advocacy for the preservation of Michigan’s Arcadia Dunes in Benzie County. In that earlier struggle, Granholm supported efforts to “keep” – in her own words – “one of the most the most scenic and picturesque places in Michigan open for the public to enjoy for generations to come” (as quoted in FOJKP to Granholm 2006)
The keys to explaining these seeming contradictions are the extreme poverty, isolation and related powerlessness of Benton Harbor’s black residents and the structurally super-empowered position of Whirlpool within Michigan. Relatively middle-class and white communities like 96 percent white Benzie County, Michigan possess the political capital required to procure state support in successfully resisting development plans for their public lakefront parks. Deeply poor, black and demoralized Benton Harbor does not.
”Recently, Jack Nicklaus came to tour the golf project and finalize design plans. He would not meet with the public. Prior to his visit, on August 10th, I and others discovered a 75-100 foot long linear pile of neatly laid out trash – 13 toilets, tires, furniture, etc., in an area adjacent to the park. I knew this trash had been dumped and was staged for Jack’s visit. TV news broadcasts were highlighting the trashy areas of the proposed golf course and reporting that a golf course was the only solution to stop the dumping and clean up contaminated land [emphasis added].”
“We Knew if we Moved or Said a Word we Would be Arrested”
It isn’t just the local media that Whirlpool has in its back pocket. By Drake’s chilling account, which merits lengthy quotation, it also owns the local police – the people who so locally famous for prematurely ending the lives of young black males from inner Benton Harbor:
“On the 10th, I met with a fellow member at the park. Upon leaving, a Benton Harbor police officer drove into the intersection with lights flashing. Then came a four-wheeler with more Benton Harbor officers. I knew that Jack was on his way. I went back to warn the other member. Two Benton harbor police officers and two members of the Cornerstone Alliance approached us. One officer said, ‘Ms. Drake, you aren’t hear to cause problems for Jack are you? You aren’t going to yell and scream are you?’ I told him I had no intention of doing so, but did not appreciate being harassed. I was told that they were there for ‘my protection.’”....
A DEVIL’S CHOICE AND A FALSE DICHOTOMY
Like most of the rest of the nation’s best natural and recreational resources, the Indiana and Michigan dunes are a predominantly white preserve. People of color and poor black people especially rarely enjoy the sort of proximity to such cherished geography as been afforded by rare historical chance to black Benton Harborites. Now even that is slated for elimination as “the world’s leading appliance manufacturer” claims that its special love for “community,” “diversity,” and poverty alleviation – a curious declaration claims in the historical wake of its crippling industrial near-abandonment of Benton Harbor – compels it invade and enclose Jean Klock Park and turn into a rich Republican white man’s “golf paradise” that would function as a formidable barrier between the poor black town and the great blue inland sea. The intense poverty of Benton Harbor – a legacy of decades and indeed centuries of combined and cumulative race and class oppression within and beyond the town – provides an ironic and cruel pretext for Whirlpool to realize longstanding and aristocratic sporting and real estate “dreams” at the expense of the city’s lower and working class.
It’s one of many painful local episodes in a larger historical drama. No longer capable of combining private-accumulationist wealth acquisition with the development of U.S. productive capacities, post-industrial capital increasingly goes back to the capital system’s ugly genesis by increasing its reliance on “accumulation by dispossession” (David Harvey) of social and environmental resources (Harvey 2007, pp. 137-182)
In the process it tries to force a vicious either-or choice on those sitting on the wrong side of the nation’s great and interrelated divides of race, class, and place: “jobs” (any jobs) or ecology. “I care about jobs,” one black Benton Harbor City Commissioner has said, “if you want to go to the beach, go to (the adjacent and 95 percent white town of) St. Joseph.”
But for Benton Harbor’s poor black residents, this is a devil’s choice and something of a false dichotomy. The assault on their beachfront emanates from the same perverse profit-focused and private-accumulationist logic that has stripped their community of remunerative employment and community stability. With the help of some allied environmentalists, the more courageous of them assert their simultaneous rights to environmental and economic justice against the authoritarian logic of an at once white-supremacist and business-dominated political economy that drowns the common good, livable ecology, and popular use value in the icy waters of egotistical calculation, exchange value, and the opulent narcissism of the privileged and globally connected few.
Paul Street's latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis:A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). Paul can be reached at email@example.com