Benton Harbor, Michigan: ground Zero for the Future
In times of immense social conflict, there comes a moment — and a place — that becomes Ground Zero for the future. Such was Flint, Michigan, with the historic sit-down strike in 1937. Such was Selma, Alabama, in 1965, when the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Such today is the small town of Benton Harbor, Michigan.
The battle for Benton Harbor, Michigan reveals the future that the capitalist class has in store for us. It reveals that the old political alliances have failed and that we can and must take the offensive with a new politics of class and power. Finally the veil is lifting.
Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the town of Benton Harbor — the home of the Whirlpool Corporation — is separated by the St. Joseph River from the town of St. Joseph on the river’s northern bank. Benton Harbor has a population that is 93 percent African American, with a per capita income of $8,965, while St. Joseph is 90 percent white with a per capita income of $24,949.
Whirlpool has dominated the economy of the region since the 1920s. By the 1980s, Whirlpool was closing factories and outsourcing jobs, and the great industrial heartland became the Rust Belt.
The financial crisis of 2008 created a depression across America. The fruits of financial speculation and a more than 16 trillion dollar bailout of the corporations created an immense budget crisis in every state. The capitalist class began to take advantage of the situation and go directly on the attack.
Public Act 4 & the Emergency Financial Managers
What appears to be a local struggle in Benton Harbor reveals the very nature of political power in American society today. The ruling class is nakedly attacking democracy — using methods such as “voter identification” to disenfranchise the poor, and enshrining corporate power in the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision, which allows corporations to spend unlimited funds to control the elections.. The people of Michigan and Benton Harbor are a key battlefront for democracy in America.
In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 4 — the Emergency Financial Manager Act. Under this law, the state usurps the power of a town or local government and turns it over to an appointed “manager,” which can be a person or a corporation.
Public Act 4 also allows this “manager” to take over public assets and sell them off to the highest bidder. This includes water, public beaches and parks, libraries, hospitals and even fire departments. The law allows the manager to void union contracts and privatize city services without bargaining or approval of elected officials.
Benton Harbor was the first city to use the enhanced powers under the new emergency manager law in 2011. On the same day, the Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit’s schools laid off over 5,000 teachers — every teacher in the system.
Since last year, emergency managers have also seized control of Pontiac, Ecorse, and Flint.
Some 50.7 percent of Michigan’s African American population now lives under the control of emergency managers.
The law’s sponsor was Benton Harbor’s state representative, Al Pscholka, a former vice-president of a community non-profit organization funded by Whirlpool. Whirlpool had been trying to seize Benton Harbor’s beachfront Jean Klock Park to turn it into a luxury golf course, and the Harbor Shores development, with million dollar homes. Whirlpool is building a $68 million campus for their “knowledge workers” in the city, even though the corporation has paid no taxes since 2008.
When the emergency financial manager came in, he finished the deal. The people of Benton Harbor protested by calling for a Constitution Week in the city. However, the emergency financial manager summarily cancelled it.
Suddenly Benton Harbor was big news, featured on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine (December 16, 2011.) No mention was made of the years of resistance to Whirlpool in the article, which predicts that Benton Harbor is “a window into one possible future for towns across the country, places that can no longer support their own economies or take care of their citizens and may ultimately have no choice but to turn their fate over to private industry and nonprofits. The way things are going, more and more states may start to look like Michigan, and more and more towns may start to look like Benton Harbor.”
The merger of corporations and government offers new prospects of corporate-run super-gentrification. Now that the manufacturing base is gone, converting Benton Harbor into a resort town will affect the population of both Benton Harbor and St. Joseph as the cost of living rises and jobs are limited to low-paid service work.
Lessons for America
For 30 years corporations have demanded greater tax breaks, while destroying the tax base of cities large and small, as they downsize and relocate where they can pay miserable wages. The emergency manager system cannot solve the problem the “managers” claim to be solving — making cities solvent. They are selling off everything and the cities are still broke.
And this step in the merger of corporations and State power doesn’t even maintain a pretext of democracy. The Michigan law sets a precedent that once established could be generalized throughout the country to deal with city and state budget crises everywhere. Similar attacks are occurring both openly and secretly in many cities in this country.
Under the ever-more direct control of corporations, states are systematically eliminating their legal responsibility to their people, wreaking havoc on higher education, K-12 education, and assistance to the poor. The success or failure of the emergency manager law will have implications for the entire country. The ruling class operates politically. It fosters a culture that accepts these fascist legal changes — as in Michigan — and agitates a mass base to call for them.
Decisive industrial union battles were won in Michigan in the 1930s. Unions, particularly the United Auto Workers, secured pensions, health care and good wages for industrial workers that led the way in improv-ing the quality of life for the working class. Now that the State is being reconfigured in a new post-industrial era, Michigan is a new model to assert a corporate dictatorship over people.
All the old political alliances from the expansion of the industrial era were based on the idea that collective bargaining and electoral politics could deliver more jobs and better wages. But now that electronic production is replacing human labor with computer-controlled machines from Detroit to Shenzhen, China, the “good old days” of living well from work in semi-skilled production are over. The compelling drive for profit means any and all “job creation” must be part of a process of driving down labor costs.
The enactment of Public Act 4 and the installing of emergency managers robs people of the ability to use the voting booth to redress grievances. They allow the state to get rid of the public sector unions entirely, not just to void individual union contracts. The reconfiguring of the State which is taking place in Michigan, this shift to a fascist form of political control, is polarizing the traditional organizations such as the civil rights groups and the unions. The question that faces us all — and separates the proverbial men (and women) from the boys (and girls) is — who will be able to take up the challenges of this moment and who will not?
The old institutions that the working class in places like Michigan relied upon in the past to serve its interests — institutions like the Democratic Party and the unions — are trapped in old relationships and old ways of thinking. As the struggle sharpens, people are beginning to understand that they have to look beyond the old forms of struggle to resolve their problems.
While the traditional “leadership” of the working class falters, the new environment is spurring new forces to step forward, forces that may not have been involved in previous battles. In Michigan, the attack on democracy has been so blatant — and that assault so repugnant to the deeply held democratic sentiments of the vast majority of workers — that it has galvanized new forces such as white workers in the rural northern part of the state. Having been dismissed by many political observers in the past as hopelessly conservative, their active participation in the current struggle against Public Act 4 is of tremendous strategic significance.
In Michigan, the moves by the ruling class to completely destroy democracy are forcing those cast out by the system to move beyond simply reacting to the economic situation and to address broader political questions. The long fight waged by the embattled population of Benton Harbor and other economically devastated towns has now been joined by a significant section of Michigan residents who have no choice but to resist the denial of their rights. A harbinger of what will develop soon throughout the country, the lesson of Benton Harbor is that the old forms of struggle will not suffice. Today, we need to confront the question of which class has political power and how we ultimately wrest that power from its hands in order to transform society.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011