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11 years before Ferguson, there was outrage in Benton Harbor. Have things changed?

Aug 27, 2014

Part of the new arts district in downtown Benton Harbor.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

It’s not a new story:

A young black man dies after an encounter with police. A community takes to the streets to demand answers. Their protest turns violent, and the national media takes notice. When calm is restored, there are promises. This time will be different. This time things will change.

That was the scene 11 years ago in Benton Harbor, a scene not unlike today in Ferguson, Missouri.

In Benton Harbor, his name was Terrance Shurn. Everybody called him T-Shirt, they still do.

He died in a motorcycle crash while being chased by police at high speed. His initial crime was speeding on the highway.

Benton Harbor residents were livid. Just three years earlier another young boy was killed by a car being chased by police. They wanted the high-speed chases in their neighborhoods to stop.

A protest began. It turned violent. Protesters threw rocks. They started fires. After the second night, the governor’s office made calls to local ministers.

On the third day, ministers including Bishop James Atterberry of the Church of God in Christ went out. The ministers urged calm. They promised change to the people on the streets.

"'We’re going to get something done,'" Atterberry says he told people. "'Something’s going to happen. Give us some time. We’re going to make sure that justice is served. And we need you to back down.' And the people listened."

"We still have a long ways to go because we still have a lot of poverty in our community," says Bishop James Atterberry, who co-chaired a state-appointed task force after the violence in Benton Harbor in 2003. "But we are seeing some steps being made."

That third night, things calmed down. Then Governor Jennifer Granholm visited not long after. Atterberry was appointed co-chair of a task force. They held community meetings. By October, they released an 85-page report with recommendations for how to improve Benton Harbor.

Atterberry says since that time things have changed. He says the city received federal grants, built new housing, cleaned up and revitalized downtown and built a world-class golf course to attract tourists.

"We still have a long way to go because we still have a lot of poverty in our community," says Atterberry, who now runs the local chapter of the NAACP. "But we are seeing some steps being made."

Out in the neighborhood where T-Shirt died, it's a different story.

"I don’t see it changing man," says Tyrone Hitchcock, who lives near the intersection of Empire and Pavone where Shurn's motorcycle crashed.  "But if they really want to know, get to some of the core of the problems, man, you can’t go to the preachers. You have to come out here, to folks that have to deal with it every day, like us."

Hitchcock and another friend, Perry Clemons, tell me the changes that have happened in Benton Harbor since 2003 haven’t really improved this neighborhood. Across the street from us is a house with boarded-up windows, one of many in the neighborhood. There are some newer homes, built by Habitat for Humanity in 2005 during an event that brought former president Jimmy Carter to the city.

"Tired of living like this," says Krishna Harding, a 26-year old resident of Benton Harbor. "Section 8, government-based houses, Medicaid and stuff like that. I’m tired of it."
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

But the same old problems of poverty, drug use and crime still affect the neighborhood.

"Nothing changed, nothing changed," says Krishna Harding, a 26-year old father and aspiring rapper. "They spent more money on ... the golf course. There’s no money in Benton Harbor."

Harding says he sees the improvements downtown. But in his neighborhood, streets are crumbling. In the schools, recently the state declared a financial emergency for Benton Harbor Area Schools. And outside of school, Harding says in the summer time he tries to keep his kids inside the house, and out of trouble.

"What do you worry about?" I ask.

"Us making it," he says. "Getting up out the 'hood. Tired of living like this. Section 8, government-based houses, Medicaid and stuff like that. I’m tired of it."

Today, despite half a billion dollars invested in the Harbor Shores golf course related development, Benton Harbor remains one of the poorest cities in Michigan, based on average family income.

In the city’s newer, cleaner downtown, there is no doubt things have changed since 2003. But in the rest of the city, many residents are still waiting.