Michigan riots: Tales of two cities and the gulf between

Behind the week's fury, race tensions and an opportunity gap fueled a crisis of trust.

It's been called the longest bridge in the world. Not that the St. Joseph River is particularly wide, but the gulf of status, stereotypes, and distrust it represents needs more than steel and cable to cross it.

On one side lies St. Joseph, an Eden-like beach town, brimming with barbered lawns, boutique coffee shops, and summer art festivals. Cross to Benton Harbor, and everything changes. White becomes black, and affluence turns to poverty. Frustrated residents sit on sagging stoops and walk by boarded-up businesses.

When Benton Harbor erupted in violence this week, the trigger was ostensibly a high-speed police chase through a residential neighborhood. It was the second such pursuit in three years, and the second to result in the death of a young black.

But as with most riots, this is a story that goes much deeper than the immediate event that lit the fuse. It's about years of pent-up frustration over that gulf that separates Benton Harbor from St. Joseph. Over the sense most Benton Harbor residents have that a fair trial is impossible in Berrien County, which encompasses both towns, and that the police force engages in practices - like high-speed chases - that would be unheard of across the river. Over the accumulated anger of being pulled over by cops too often, of having job applications rejected before they were glanced at, of the assumptions that if you live in Benton Harbor, you must be a drug dealer, a criminal, a drop-out.

"What's going on now goes back way further than my age, than your age," says Sammie Kemp, a young black man with a large silver cross around his neck, as he watches police in riot gear and assault rifles swarm his neighborhood. Mr. Kemp lives just a few blocks from where the two nights of rioting occurred, in which hundreds of people burst into the streets after a tense City Hall meeting, burning as many as a dozen buildings, overturning cars, and clashing with authorities.

He knew Terrance Shurn, the young man on a motorcycle who died in the chase. But he and his friends are mostly upset about what they see as past miscarriages of justice - and their struggle to get jobs.

"What happened last night I don't agree with," he says. "But stuff like that can happen, and even worse, if they don't come up with ways for people to work here.... A lot of [the people in St. Joseph] automatically judge you. You're a drug dealer, you carry a gun. It's a lot of racial profiling."

Echo of the past

When journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz wrote "The Other Side of the River," about another divisive death here in 1991, the undercurrent then, too, was the gap between the two towns.

To this day, Benton Harbor residents remain convinced that the black boy found in the river, who was dating a white girl, was murdered by whites, while St. Joseph residents insist he drowned accidentally.

As a Benton Harbor resident, "all you have to do is look on the other side of the river and you suddenly recognize your place in the world," says Mr. Kotlowitz. "There's an element of self-destruction that takes place."

Still, some residents say, things have started to change in recent years. On the front page of the local paper Monday, the headline was about the new apartments springing up in Benton Harbor's once-decrepit downtown, notes Scott Elliott, a long-time white resident who owns a local art gallery and has worked tirelessly to improve race relations and the fairness of the criminal-justice system.

"We've been working for years and years to dispel the old stigma [about Benton Harbor], and now it's back again," says Mr. Elliott, sitting in the renovated State Theater, once boarded up itself and now an art-house success.

Still, while he's pleased with the strides the downtown has made - and hopeful that progress will continue despite the rioting - Elliott believes that true change will require vast reforms in the way police and the local justice system operate.

Local residents are still particularly raw, for instance, about the police chase in 2000 that resulted in an 11-year-old boy being run over inadvertently. But they also cite perceived miscarriages of justice, such as the case of Maurice Carter. He was convicted in 1976 in the nonfatal shooting of a white police officer, but many people here believe he is innocent, especially since a key eyewitness has insisted he was not the right man.

"This is the thing that has to be addressed before there can be any healing," Elliott says.

A bridge too far?

Located on the southern edge of Lake Michigan, Benton Harbor is one of the poorest communities in the state. It's average unemployment rate last year was 25 percent. Though appliance maker Whirlpool is headquartered here, it sits on the outskirts of town. Most of the other manufacturing jobs that attracted blacks to the area from the South in the past century have long since left.

The town of 11,000 is 92 percent black. Federal figures show that the average income is $17,000 a year.

By contrast, St. Joseph (population 8,800) is 90 percent white. Bustling with clothiers and cafes, its average unemployment rate last year was below 2 percent. Indeed, most of Berrien County is white, conservative, and affluent.

While some of the tensions playing out in this small community are rooted in local grievances, much of the anger heard here on the streets echoes that of African-Americans who have rioted in major cities in recent years. In that sense, Benton Harbor could be South Central Los Angeles or the Over the Rhine section of Cincinnati.

"Race relations in America are characterized by distrust. Historically, blacks have a rational reason to distrust whites, and especially white authority figures as represented by the police," says John Dovidio, a professor who studies race relations at Colgate College in Hamilton, N.Y. Just a few episodes can bring the distrust to the surface. A lack of jobs contributes too. "We look at the Middle East and say, why do they keep reliving the past? But that's what's happening in our cities."

Still, Mr. Dovidio says flare-ups such as the one in Benton Harbor can be helpful, if they become a force for change and coalitionbuilding. A few people here harbor similar hopes.

"We have those who are committed to positive change, those who are disenfranchised, and those who are sitting on the sidelines, and I think this action will be the catalyst to pull all three groups together," says Jeff Noel, president of the Cornerstone Alliance, a community-development group active locally. "I believe you'll see a stronger community come as a result of this."

Though anger remains high at the moment, some locals do, in fact, see at least the possibility of a racial rapprochement.

"My address is still Benton Harbor, and I have no desire of changing that," says Carolyn Graves, who moved here from Arkansas in 1971, raised two children, served for 15 years on the school board, and now works at Union Memorial A.M.E church. Ms. Graves is plenty frustrated - with local blacks for not voting or working for change, with whites across the river for being all talk and no action - but she believes in her town.

"It's a good city. It's got a rich history, and there are some good people here, black and white. And one day, we're going to come together and mean it from our hearts, and not from our heads."

Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

Two towns, together but divergent

Benton Harbor St. Joseph

Population 11,182 8,789

White/black racial mix 6% / 94% 90% / 5%

Median household income $17,471 $37,032

Median home value $38,700 $100,000

Adults* who are high school grads 60% 90%

Adults* who are college grads 4% 32%

Source:Census 2000 * Among those over age 25

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