Just over 11 years ago, riots protesting the deaths of two black men took place in Benton Harbor Michigan. With the recent events in Ferguson, and around the country it is important to remember these events. Reading an article on Benton Harbor today, not much has changed since the riots.
My hope is that what is happening in Ferguson spurs a movement that is long standing and doesn’t die. A movement that really does result in change. A movement that won’t be forgotten. The only way not to let history repeat itself is to know it.
The Benton Harbor Riots of 2003 in Michigan started after a pair of suspicious deaths of Black men that allegedly involved the police. The town, which rests on the west side of the state by Lake Michigan, was plagued by riots in the past. The 2003 riots just escalated the rising tensions.
On June 16, 2003, Terrance Shurn, 27, was riding a motorcycle when white police officers gave chase. In the high-speed pursuit, Shurn crashed into a building and died.
Though Shurn’s death touched off the riots, in April of that year, police came to arrest Arthur Partee at his home on an outstanding traffic warrant.
In an ensuing struggle with police, he died. Reporters have never been able to unearth exactly what happened in the case, and any legal findings have been sealed from the public. Even Partee’s family declines to clear up any confusion in the matter.
Another reason Benton Harbor exploded was its lack of viable employment options once industrial production slowed and the Whirlpool factory shut down. Adding to that frustration is its proximity to wealthy St. Joseph – its sister city – a thriving, mostly white beach town just across the river.
Shurn and Partee’s deaths fueled the anger of rising unemployment and alleged mistreatment from police. Black residents began burning buildings, overturning cars, and smashing windows.
Governor George W. Romney dispatched the Michigan National Guard to stop the rioters. Over 300 state police troopers were called in, launching tear gas and other crowd control methods. The large police presence and heavy rains quelled the rioting after two nights.
Benton Harbor’s history of mistreating Blacks and riots in response is a storied one. Other riots in to the town in 1960, 1967, and 1990. In 1966, riots broke out after a white man was accused of killing a Black person.
In 1991, Eric McGinnis, 16, was killed. When he was found in the St. Joseph’s River, he had rope burns on his neck and residents believed he may have been lynched as reprisal for dating a white girl.
As a result of the 2003 riots, the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project built homes in the town, and also in Detroit, in 2005.