Campaign builds to free Rev. Pinkney

Berrien County support for Pinkney, Dec. 15.WW photo: Abayomi Azikiwe

Berrien County support for Pinkney, Dec. 15.
WW photo: Abayomi Azikiwe

Michigan political prisoner the Rev. Edward Pinkney, now being held in Jackson State Prison, remains in good spirits despite the racist injustice that has landed him there. He was sentenced to up to 10 years for supposedly changing the dates on five signatures on a petition to recall Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower.

No material or circumstantial evidence was presented at the trial that would implicate Pinkney in the purported five felonies. Many believe that Pinkney, a Berrien County activist and leader of the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO), is being punished by local authorities for opposing the corporate plans of Whirlpool Corp., headquartered in Benton Harbor.

In 2012, Pinkney and BANCO led an “Occupy the PGA [Professional Golfers’ Association of America]” demonstration against a world-renowned golf tournament held at the newly created Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The course was carved out of Jean Klock Park, which had been donated to the city of Benton Harbor decades ago.

Berrien County officials were determined to defeat the recall campaign against Mayor Hightower, who opposed a program that would have taxed local corporations in order to create jobs and improve conditions in Benton Harbor, a majority African-American municipality. Like other Michigan cities, it has been devastated by widespread poverty and unemployment.

Statements of support pour In

This is not Pinkney’s first imprisonment for political activities. In 2007, he was convicted in a second trial — the first ended in a hung jury — for “mishandling” absentee ballots during a recall election involving two Benton Harbor city commissioners. The election results, which would have removed the officials, were overturned after criminal charges were filed against the BANCO leader.

Pinkney was sentenced to one year under house arrest and four more years of probation. Later in 2007, he was charged with violating the terms of the sentence by allegedly threatening a judge in Berrien County.

The threat charge stemmed from an article he wrote in the People’s Tribune newspaper, based in Chicago, in which he quoted scriptures from the Old Testament. He was sentenced to three to 10 years. The charges were overturned in late 2008 by the Michigan Court of Appeals after Pinkney received widespread support from civil liberties, ecumenical and academic communities across the country. He was released at the end of 2008 and successfully completed his probation, returning to full-time activism in Berrien County.

In 2008, while still in prison, Pinkney had run for Congress on the Green Party ticket in Michigan. He received 3,500 votes in a challenge to Fred Upton, a Republican incumbent and heir to Whirlpool corporate wealth.

A statement issued on Dec. 17 by Green Party Watch says: “The overt targeting of an African-American activist for a politically motivated prosecution is reminiscent of recent episodes involving Chuck Turner and Elston McCowan, both Greens who challenged the power structures in their communities. In a system where police officers regularly kill unarmed African-American men without facing trial, it is especially galling that the same system sentences an African-American activist to up to 10 years imprisonment on trumped-up, politically motivated charges.”

Black Agenda Report, a well-known media outlet opposing the corporate influence over African-American politics in the U.S., wrote in a Dec. 17 editorial: “This may seem like an Old Jim Crow story, about a preacher from a small, mostly Black town who wanted only to help his people through the voting process, but is set upon by backward whites determined to maintain their monopoly on political power. And, it is true; Old Man Jim Crow is alive and well on the banks of Lake Michigan.”

It continues: “But it is the New Jim Crow, the Mass Black Incarceration State, that has snatched 66-year-old Rev. Pinkney away to what could become life in prison. The judge and prosecutor said that Pinkney’s 12 past and present felony convictions make him a career criminal, even though each count stems from an elections process. The Old Jim Crow would have unapologetically sent Pinkney to the chain gang for being an uppity Black man, but the New Jim Crow simply piled on a bunch of felonies to put him away as a serial criminal, allowing the system to claim that race had nothing to do with it.”

A national conference call was held on Dec. 18 to build a defense campaign. Former Vermont state senator, Ben-Zion Ptashnik, initiated the call through the People Demanding Action organization.

The conference call included activists from the clergy, electoral reform organizers, former Green Party candidates, progressive Democrats, the People’s Tribune newspaper, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition and others. It provided an update on the case and made plans to publicize the plight of Rev. Pinkney and the people of Berrien County, recruit a legal team and raise funds to proceed with an appeal.

Ptashnik and Victoria Collier wrote on on Dec. 16: “Concerned activists and clergy associated with People Demanding Action, a national social justice organization, are circulating a petition to ministers and various organizations. The petition is to be forwarded to the U.S. Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for an investigation into the circumstances of Pinkney’s trial and sentencing.”

To sign the petition in support of the Rev. Edward Pinkney, log on to Contributions for Rev. Pinkney’s defense can be sent to BANCO at 1940 Union St., Benton Harbor, MI 49022.