Democracy has been usurped in Benton Harbor, Michigan, according to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Last Friday, Maddow reported on attempts by a state-appointed emergency financial manager to sell the economically distressed city’s public radio station on eBay. She said the station was the last place for residents of the predominantly African American city to hear from elected officials who currently have no power to act.
The Facts and the Players
The story is not new. The New York Times Magazine took it up in December, offering an in-depth look at how the situation evolved. In that article, readers learn that Whirlpool has its headquarters in Benton Harbor and that an aggressive redevelopment plan was sidelined by the Great Recession in 2008.
The Times described the EMF, Joseph Harris, as “a 67-year-old African American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache,” and outlined his job and how he got it like this:
“He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor [Rick] Snyder and the state’s Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor’s approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. Snyder has even made it clear that Detroit is a strong candidate for takeover.”
Maddow isn’t the only person with a national platform to address the situation. The Times reported that the Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Benton Harbor to Selma, circa 1965, “because of the disenfranchisement of its largely black electorate,” and that comedian Stephen Colbert “offered a mock tribute to Harris: ‘I say good for him, because the people of Benton Harbor brought this on themselves. . . . Benton Harbor’s elected officials are incompetent, therefore, by electing them, the voters are incompetent. So they should lose their democracy.'”
Harris isn’t bothered by the attention, according to The Times. “Blissfully free of the checks and balances of democratic governments, he is living the dream of every frustrated city administrator.” He has fired numerous city employees, merged the city’s police and fire departments, and prohibited elected officials from doing anything other than calling meetings to order, recording their minutes, and adjourning them.
The Rev. Antoine Headspeth: "I don't think it's a stretch to say it's a dictatorship."
UrbanFaith talked to three people who are deeply invested in the city. The Rev. Antoine D. Headspeth is senior pastor of Bethel Christian Restoration Center and a lifelong Benton Harbor resident. He said although times have been worse there — particularly when rioting took place in 2003 and when unemployment was at an all-time high in the 1980s — he’s never seen the kind of political instability that exists now.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s dictatorship at its worst in terms of taking the voice away from the people,” said Headspeth.
Because years of “financial irresponsibility” and “incompetence” took a heavy toll on the city, Headspeth believed bringing in the EMF was a good idea, but he didn’t expect Harris to wield unilateral power to the degree he has.
“He can buy and sell as he chooses. He promised that at the beginning of the 2012 year, there would be a balanced budget. That has not happened. He promised that we would have a surplus. That has not happened. And so, when you do things that seem more personal that don’t benefit the city, then I have a problem with that,” said Headspeth.
In particular Headspeth sees Harris’s attempt to sell the radio station license and its equipment on eBay as “a slap in the face of the people” that is motivated by a desire to “shut people down” who were critical of him and his actions.
“To me that is unfair and just not right,” said Headspeth.
Dawn Yarbrough: "Change comes when people are informed."
Dawn Yarbrough also grew up in Benton Harbor, where her father once served as mayor and where both her parents have served as city commissioners. Although she has lived in Milan, Italy, for many years, on visits home three years ago, Yarbrough took note of various programs for youth that she thought deserved attention, like the Boys and Girls Club and glassblowing and martial arts programs. She began videotaping positive aspects of city life.
“They were stories that needed to be told, because lots of people who live here don’t realize what’s going on. They don’t the see the good things, because when you’re involved in your everyday life, you just hear the big picture,” said Yarbrough.
The local PBS affiliate, WNIT, has agreed to air her eight-part video series, Harbor Lights TV, and she is currently fundraising to make that happen.
“The objective is actually to help effect change. Change comes when people are informed about what exists, when they know there are programs that can help them or their children, and when they are encouraged to come out and participate in those programs,” said Yarbrough.
She declined to discuss the city’s problems, other than to say, “It is clear that our city needs assistance. If I am sick, then I am going to find a good doctor and I’m going to go to him and do my part in working with him to get well. … I hope that both sides: the emergency financial manager as well as the people who need to … find a spirit of collaboration so that we can all do what is best for our city and our citizens.”
The Rev. Brian Bennett: "A lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically."
The Rev. Brian Bennett has lived in Benton Harbor since 2005. He is pastor of Overflow Church and executive director of the Overflow Christian Community Development Assocation. Bennett thinks the attention Benton Harbor is receiving is “well-deserved, given the historic nature of the transformation that’s happening.”
“There are very few places where the long-standing residents of the community have a voice any longer,” said Bennett. “I think large portions of the community that used to have a voice just no longer do, or the voice that they had has been compromised by being a part of the change. As a result, I think [the attempted radio station sale] is a striking metaphor.”
“The EMF was probably within his rights legally with the sweeping power he’s been given, but I don’t think that what he did was right. There is a difference,” he said. “Some of what is being felt here is, ‘Yes, there needs to be change, but how we’re getting there is happening with such audacity. The word that is coming to mind is velocity. It is happening so quickly.”
Bennett sees broken relationships as the heart of the problem in Benton Harbor and said the EMF’s actions are an example of that.
“When you look racially and economically at our area, a lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically,” he said. “Our ministry is focused on unifying and being a place for all people and building bridges. That’s happening, but it takes time.”
The ministry focus at Headspeth’s church is also community building. “We believe if we build a strong community, we’ll build a stronger church and ultimately we’ll build stronger people,” Headspeth said. “I know the hearts and the passion of the constituents of the city of Benton Harbor and the people are not going to bow out easily.”
What do you think?
Is it undemocratic for states to unilaterally exercise power over “failing” cities?
1 U.S. POLITICS IS THE MEDIA THE APPROPRIATE REFEREE FOR POLITICS
The Federal Election Commission approved Stephen Colbert’s request to form a Super PAC. In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled decided that corporations, unions and individuals coulddonate unlimited funds to groups not associated with a candidate for campaigning purposes. This group is called a Super PAC. The decision is known as “Citizens United.” More interesting than Colbert’s approval to form a Super PAC, is the role Viacom can play. Viacom will not be required to disclose the financial information related to using Colbert’s airtime or staff to create TV ads. However, if the Super PAC’s TV ads appear during another show or on another network, Viacom will be forced to disclose the expenses involved. We live in a world where the media is influential in determining how a candidate is received and what information is made popular. The FEC’s decision to approve of Colbert’s Super PAC will open the floodgates for other media personalities to sway public opinion in the direction of their liking. Soon every talk major talk show host will have their own Super PAC.
2 WORLD WHAT IS PLANKING?
Planking has gone viral since it started in Australia, but still people are asking; what is it? Planking is the act of lying down face down with your arms to your side as shown below. But, the craze is based on the creative ways people are doing it. Even celebrities have joined the party; Orlando Magic ballers, Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas recently released photos of themselves planking. However, not everyone thinks planking is just a silly fad. Some have linked planking to the way that slaves were packed into the slave ships on “planks.” I doubt this is what anyone had in mind when they snapped their photo, but what do you think?
3 SATIRE ESQUIRE SUED OVER BIRTHER SATIRE
When Jerome Corsi released his book, Where’s The Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President, Esquire Magazine figured it was fair game to target the less than factual title with a satire of their own. Esquire’s Mark Warren then published an article titled “Breaking: Jerome Corsi’s Birther Book Pulled from Shelves!” Joseph Farah, the CEO of WorldNetDaily.com and Corsi have filed suit against Esquire Magazine and writer Mark Warren for over $200 million dollars for defamation and causing loss of book sales. I do not think this suit will hold up, but perhaps, comedians should steer clear of those with egos this large.
4 MUSIC MC CARTNEY: THE 1ST SUPERSTAR TO DIGITIZE HIS ENTIRE LIBRARY IN THE CLOUD
Cloud storage is new enough that I’m going to assume a lot of readers don’t even know what it is yet, but at 69-years-old, Paul McCartney is already on board. Instead of keeping a library of video-tapes, cassettes, and CD’s of all his music and videos, he stored them on a cloud with the help of Hewlett-Packard. The mysterious cloud, is a virtual library of files. It is not stored on your computer, but rather on the internet, and can be accessed anywhere in the world. The cloud is the future. Soon…we won’t even have computers as we know them. We’ll simply have screens that access clouds.
5 EDUCATIONNEWSWEEK’S 7 ONLINE COURSES WORTH THE MONEY
Here’s the short and skinny on the best courses, school, price, and avg. salary. Click the link above for more.
1. Paralegal Certificate – Boston University – $3,995/14 weeks – $46,916
2. Certificate in UNIX/Linux System Adminstration – UC Berkely Extension – $5300/240 credit hrs – $112,210
3. Master of Science in Forensic Pharmacy – University of Florida – $14,720/ 22 months – $100,000
4. Registered Nurse to BS Program – UMass Boston – $38,400/ 5 semesters – $62,450
5. Professional Certificate in Nutrition – Educational Facility Solutions – 10wks to 2 yrs/$1000-$1300 – $100,000
6. Healthcare Management Certificate – Excelsior College – 14 months/$7,280
7. Library and Information Science Degree – Drexel University – 3 yrs/$14,400 – $53,000
6 MONEY GEITHNER’S POTENTIAL RESIGNATION MAY HELP OBAMA ON ECONOMY ISSUE
While congress is being pressured to meet the August 2nd deadline for raising the debt ceiling, there is talk that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will be leaving his position. Geithner’s family is moving from DC to New York and he has stated that he will be a commuter. Geithner led the response to the 2009 finical crisis, but high unemployment rates and slow economic growth will plague him and the White House in the 2012 presidential election. If Congress meets the August 1 deadline and Geithner resigns, theWhite House will have to begin looking for a new Treasury Secretary while Washington is consumed with the 2012 election. This could help President Obama send the message that he is able to put together a team that will turn the economy around. If Congress does not meet the deadline, Geithner will have the difficult responsibility of paying the country’s bills without using borrowed money. This means the government would be forced to either default on obligations or raise taxes by several hundred billion dollars. Either way, the economy will be the number one issue in the 2012 election.
7 TECHNOLOGYHTML5 MAY PUT ANDROID AND APPLE APP STORES OUT OF BUSINESS
Android and iPhone are the primary gatekeepers in the app world, but all of that may soon change. Recently, Financial TImes and ESPN released application for smartphones and tablets that run in your browser window. The apps were created in HTML5 which allows “video, offline reading, touch and gestural interaction.” Developers look for HTML5 to eliminate their need to build native apps for different devices which each have their own programming language. This also means that developers will no longer have to share their profits with Apple or Google, who “take up to a 30% cut of the revenue.”
8 TV ‘REED BETWEEN THE LINES’ STILL ON OUR RADAR
I gave our readers a heads up about BET’s Reed Between The Lines in The Pendulum a few months ago, but I’m back with more to share! BET recently released an ad campaign about the series and I have to admit that it is looking good! My interpretation is that the show is a 2011 version of The Cosby’s with a 30-something edge. It features a loving married couple, played by Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Unfortunately, they have yet to put the trailer online, but stay tuned!
9 MOVIES CHRIS ROCK TO STAR IN ROMANTIC COMEDY ABOUT PREGNANCY
Chris Rock will star in an upcoming Lionsgate film, What To Expect, When You’re Expecting. The film is an adaptation of a pregnancy manual and will provide “a modern look at love through the eyes of four interconnected couples experiencing the thrills and surprises of having a baby, and ultimately coming to understand the universal truth that no matter what you plan for, life doesn’t always deliver what’s expected. ” Rock will advise a group of expectant fathers on the importance of fatherhood. Ironically, the film will star Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Brooklyn Decker, and Anna Kendrick, none of whom are black women. Since Rock is a father in the film as well, I’m slightly bothered that they couldn’t show a functional black family in the midst of this comical piece.
10 CELEB OH NIA!
Nia Long has a tender spot in my heart but she has to be the beautiful glowing pregnant woman in Hollywood right now! The father is San Antonis Spurs foward Ime Udoka. Although this is her second child, she has expressed that she was shocked when she became pregnant. She called the unexpected news, “the sweetest surprise ever.”