The Rev. Edward Pinkney of the Benton Harbor/Berrien County Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO) spoke in Detroit at the invitation of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition and the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice at their weekly Monday night meeting on June 23.
Moratorium NOW! Coalition and MECAWI members have been heavily involved in the fight against the imposition of emergency management in Detroit and the forced bankruptcy of the municipality, the largest of such actions taken in U.S. history. Benton Harbor recently emerged from emergency management, yet Berrien County’s corporations and racist authorities still disregard the African-American community’s concerns.
Benton Harbor and Detroit
Several weeks ago, both the Moratorium NOW! Coalition and MECAWI passed a resolution calling for the dropping of criminal charges against Pinkney that stemmed from a recall campaign aimed at removing Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower. A grassroots effort had collected enough valid signatures to hold an election that may have removed Hightower. But then Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic ordered Pinkney indicted on five felony and six misdemeanor charges, staying the vote.
To a standing-room-only audience on June 23, Pinkney described in detail the conditions facing residents of Benton Harbor. This southwest Michigan city has been severely affected by the corporations’ institutionally racist policies, compounded by the impact of the economic crisis that has plagued Michigan for well over a decade.
Representatives of many other organizations, including the People’s Tribune newspaper, the local chapter of the National Action Network and Detroit Eviction Defense, attended, as did former Detroit mayoral candidates Jean Vortkamp and Tom Barrow; the two claimed that massive fraud in the Detroit 2013 municipal elections led to Mike Duggan’s victory.
Barrow had spearheaded efforts that successfully removed Duggan from the official ballot based on his violation of the residency rule. Later, Duggan ran as a write-in candidate and was declared the victor in both the primary and general elections.
Vortkamp said she witnessed monumental duplications of signatures and other irregularities that the Detroit and Michigan state electoral commissions never investigated.
Duggan, the first white mayor in Detroit since 1974, was a resident of suburban Livonia until he recently moved to Detroit to run for mayor. He is closely allied with the corporate community and emergency manager Kevyn Orr.
Like Detroit, Benton Harbor has experienced a drastic decline in population directly related to predatory mortgage lending. A representative of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition reported that 237,000 people were driven out of Detroit between 2000 and 2010 after being subjected to racist predatory lending. In addition, egregious municipal financial dealings have taken billions of dollars out of the city and driven Detroit into financial ruin.
Rev. Pinkney reported Benton Harbor’s population “down below 10,000 people from an earlier 45,000.” He noted, “like in Detroit, people were driven out through lack of jobs and home foreclosures.”
Whirlpool Corporation is a major economic force in southwest Michigan. Most local politicians appear to serve big business and kowtow to the courts.
Build an effective defense
Rev. Pinkney called the case against him totally fabricated. “Berrien County is the only place in Michigan where you can be bound over for trial without any evidence,” he said.
“I attend the courts every day. … People are not receiving justice in these courtrooms,” Pinkney continued.
A trial on the five felony counts against him is scheduled to begin on July 21. Pinkney wants to file an appeal, based on lack of evidence, against presiding Judge Sterling Schrock’s decision to proceed with the trial. If this appeal fails, it would mean Pinkney’s defense lawyer, Tat Parrish, would have inadequate time to prepare for the trial.
Resources are needed to purchase a copy of the court transcript from the evidentiary hearing. According to the testimony, no one witnessed the defendant changing any of the petitions submitted to the Berrien County election office.
If there had not been criminal charges filed against Pinkney, the recall election against Mayor Hightower would have taken place in early May. Local, county and state law-enforcement agents surrounded Pinkney’s home on April 24, when the BANCO leader was not at home. Pinkney turned himself in the following day.
He was immediately placed on a tether, barred from using his computer and from hosting his weekly radio program, “Pinkney to Pinkney.” He was prevented from exiting his home and garage for six weeks until after the June 6 decision of the Berrien County Court to move forward in prosecuting the case.
After having these draconian measures of house arrest removed, Pinkney is continuing to organize. He asked that people continue to support his defense campaign and to attend the trial if it is held in late July.
BANCO has initiated a Change.org petition against corruption in Berrien County, calling for the removal of prosecutor Michael Sepic. The organization can be reached by writing to BANCO, 1940 Union Street, Benton Harbor, MI 49022 or logging onto its website at bhbanco.org or by email at [email protected]