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Struggle continues in Benton Harbor, Mich.

Rev. Pinkney wins sentencing reversal

Published Jul 27, 2009 9:48 PM

Benton Harbor community leader Rev. Edward Pinkney has won an appeal of his revocation of probation sentence which was handed down in June 2008. Pinkney, the leader of the Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers (BANCO), was ordered to prison for three to 10 years after a Berrien County judge ruled that he had threatened the life of another jurist by quoting scriptures in an article published in December 2007.

The Michigan Court of Appeals handed down the ruling on July 14. However, the court rendered a mixed decision when it upheld Rev. Pinkney’s original conviction by an all-white jury in May 2007. He was charged and convicted of vote fraud and sentenced to one year in jail and five years’ probation.

Rev. Pinkney was placed on a tether in May 2007 and confined to his home for one year. After the publication of an article in the People’s Tribune newspaper based in Chicago, he was taken from his home and placed in the Berrien County Jail in St. Joseph, Mich. At a later hearing he was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison. Over the course of six months Pinkney was transferred to eight different correctional facilities throughout the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan took up his appeal of the revocation of probation sentence on the grounds that this sentence violated his right to free speech. Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU, represented Rev. Pinkney in the June 9 Court of Appeals hearing held in Grand Rapids.

A July 15 statement issued by the ACLU said in part: “In its ruling today, the Court of Appeals said that the trial court’s probation condition that prohibited ‘defamatory and demeaning’ communications is unconstitutional.

“‘To the extent that the prohibition of defamatory and demeaning behavior impinges on defendant’s first amendment rights,’” wrote the judges, “‘the prohibition was not proper, as it was not directly related to defendant’s rehabilitation or to the protection of the public.’

“The ACLU of Michigan represented Rev. Edward Pinkney’s first amendment claims; however, the organization was not involved in the underlying voter fraud conviction, which was upheld today. Due to this conviction, Rev. Pinkney’s probation will be reinstated.”

Fighting racism, exploitation

Rev. Pinkney was allowed by the Berrien County courts on July 19 to attend religious services for the first time in two years. He still remains on probation for the initial conviction of vote fraud and continues to be monitored by a tether.

A statement issued by BANCO regarding the Appeals Court’s upholding of the underlying conviction makes clear: “As for the voter charges, the Appeals court denied Pinkney a new trial. The decision states that Berrien County committed 13 errors which were ‘harmless.’ Rev. Pinkney says that all of the errors were, in fact, harmful.” (bhbanco.blogspot.com, July 15)

A letter by K.T. Schmidt, published by BANCO on July 17, expresses outrage over the theft of lake-front property in Benton Harbor in order to build a golf course for the elites. Neighboring St. Joseph, the seat of Berrien County where the courts are located, is a predominantly white city that is a center of commerce and tourism. Benton Harbor is majority African American and is afflicted by high unemployment, home foreclosures and poverty.

Schmidt calls for a boycott of St. Joseph in response to the usurpation of public land located in Jean Klock Park, which is the center of the so-called Harbor Shores development project that will construct the golf course as well as expensive housing. The Whirlpool Corporation, which is connected with the Upton family, is criticized in the letter for its support of the ongoing exploitation and impoverishment of the majority African-American population in Benton Harbor.

“The promises made by the original Upton family, the founders of Whirlpool, have become a distant echo. Their fraternity heir, [Congressperson] Fred Upton, continues to parade his false face while voting against the stimulus package, against the environmental bill, against policies that would benefit the poor. He disguises himself by occasionally working on a program for children. Most people in his district are fed up with him and he was seriously challenged in the last election by a last-minute candidate. Only the elite like him,” Schmidt said.

In addition to the criticism of Whirlpool, Schmidt points to the role of the state government in perpetuating the national oppression of the people of Benton Harbor. “The governor of Michigan has lost credibility due to her allegiance with corporations, her promises to create jobs in Benton Harbor by buddying up with Whirlpool, and the recent acceptance of the people’s park land [Jean Klock Park] going to Whirlpool developers.

“No one has been hired from Benton Harbor for this heinous project. No Benton Harbor resident has been hired despite excessive promises made by the governor/developers.”

The people of Benton Harbor, while celebrating the victory of Rev. Pinkney in having one of his sentences overturned, are continuing to fight for the elimination of racism and exploitation in Berrien County.

Azikiwe attended the Court of Appeals hearing in Grand Rapids on June 9. He has traveled to Benton Harbor and St. Joseph on numerous occasions to cover events there since the Benton Harbor rebellion of 2003.