Ground Zero – Benton Harbor

We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back – never. ~ John Steinbeck, America and Americans

What do you think Steinbeck would have to say about Benton Harbor, Michigan? I think he would say democracy is in a tailspin looking at ground zero. Grab the joy stick and pull!

After 9/11, we, as a nation, raised up patriotically and militarily and challenged the entire world against any act that would imperil the American people or the assurances of our democracy.

So, what happened to that?

The people of Benton Harbor have to be wondering where all those patriotic people are today, and the rest of the world must be wondering too. What could ever make democracy expendable in America?

The answer is poverty. Not just any poverty, but the sort that is planned in advance. The takeover of Benton Harbor and the concept of “financial martial law” was implemented by Michigan lawmakers in cooperation with corporate leaders while other local stakeholders organized a public land grab.

Political commentator, Rachel Maddow, a recent recipient of the The John Steinbeck Award, has championed this cause, but the national public outrage it deserves has yet to be seen. Consider what she has to say in this video:

The one thing we seem to hold most dear, that which ensures our freedom, is being considered expendable in Benton Harbor, and the same neoliberal pattern being used to privatize the public good across our nation is clearly observable in the process.

First, break it –

Sucked Down the Whirlpool
Whirlpool, which has its global headquarters in Benton Harbor, has long controlled the city. In 1986, at the behest of business leaders, Benton Harbor was designated as an “Enterprise Zone” to give tax exemptions to the private sector. Whirlpool quickly ate up the exemptions.”

“By 2010, nearly 99 per cent of Benton Harbor residents were receiving food stamps, while Whirlpool reportedly banked more than $18 billion in global annual sales.”

Benton Harbor’s population is 92% African-American and deeply impoverished by the de-industrialization of the city and surrounding area. Whirlpool’s plant shutdown is the most recent, crushing blow as the corporation continues to expand significantly in low-wage plants in Mexico, despite taking $19 million in federal recovery funds. Benton Harbor is plagued by the lowest per capita income in Michigan ($8,965), with 42.6 percent of the population living below the poverty line, including a majority of kids under age 18.”

Get paid to rebuild it in your image –

To skeptics of the redevelopment of Benton Harbor, Whirlpool looks less like a good corporate citizen than another company manipulating the system, leveraging its power to maximize its tax breaks and taking advantage of the town’s access to federal and state grant money. (It’s worth noting that Whirlpool hasn’t paid any federal corporate income taxes in the United States for the last three years (…)
The juxtaposition of Benton Harbor’s impoverished population and its two rising monuments to wealth — all wedged into a little more than four square miles — make it almost a caricature of economic disparity in America.
“I felt almost as if I were at a resort in a third-world Caribbean country: beyond the boundaries of Harbor Shores is the poorest city in all of Michigan. (…)

The contrast is deliberate, part of a strategy of social engineering that’s central to the plan to save Benton Harbor.” (Mahler, NYT)

Then, funnel the money to the top –

Whirlpool’s central role in the town and redevelopment plans has led many Benton Harbor residents to feel that the corporation views them as distinctly disposable and mainly a barrier to their plans.

“It’s being converted into a resort town for wealthy weekenders and Whirlpool employees that, when all is said and done, its struggling black population will either be driven out by the development or reduced to low-wage jobs cleaning hotel rooms, carrying golf bags or cutting grass.”(Mahler, NYT)

If elections and representation are now just a passé sort of thing, tolerated in some places but not in others – fine. We’re set. But if we still value the democratic process that we raised up and swore to protect, the people in Benton Harbor need help. They’ve been stripped of every semblance of democracy and left with no voice of their own.

I think it’s safe to assume that if corporations manipulating our government can successfully take over one little American town by getting democracy out of their way, they will expand that effort and try to “save” the rest of our country in due time.

This is a non-partisan fundamental issue. When powerful people and elected officials of any political persuasion decide to slap our hands and take the democratic process away from us, we have to find the courage to stand up to corrupting power and protect democracy with the utmost vigor.

Harbor Shores Golf Course, Benton Harbor, Michigan (photo, Mark Peterson)

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