Fragile peace holds in MI

An anxious peace took hold over Benton Harbor, Mich. after two nights of riots.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BENTON HARBOR, Mich. | June 19, 2003

Volunteers from Men and Women of Action help reroof a church after Hurricane Katrina. (DNN photo by Heather Moyer)
Credit: Disaster News Network

An anxious peace took hold over Benton Harbor, Mich. after two nights of riots.

Local pastors spent Wednesday night walking the streets of a violence-torn community in an attempt to get rioters and gawkers back in their homes.

Police Chief Samuel Harris acknowledged the importance of spiritual healing in a press conference. "Well, God has blessed us," he said, commenting on the relative calm in the community.

Bishop Henry R. Griffin, founder and pastor of the Bethel Christian Restoration Center, is one of the clergymen ("the God Squad") who patrolled the neighborhood near where Terrance "T-Shirt" Devon Shurn was killed Sunday night. Shurn died after his motorcycle crashed during a high-speed police chase, and anti-police rioting erupted in the neighborhood on the following two nights, leaving more than a dozen people injured and several buildings burned.

About 250 police were called in to rein in the crowds of about 300 people, according to various press reports. However, the Rev. R. Chester Gulley, pastor of New Covenant Community Baptist Church, said the crowd was more than three times that size.

"It was closer to a thousand folk," said Gulley, whose church is located in the riot-torn community. "That's ten percent of the city. That's saying something."

What's being said, Gulley thinks, is that many African-Americans here are upset with perceived police mistreatment of residents an animosity that goes back to riots in the 1960s. Gulley said the neighborhood is about 98 percent black, while many local police officers are white.

"It's been piling up for the last forty years," he said. "You got deaths that go all the way back to the 60s."

Griffin hopes the God Squad can "let tempers cool" by placing a "buffer between the police and the residents." About 50 people suited up in yellow shirts and yellow arms bands Wednesday night and walked through the neighborhood.

Another part of the problem, according to Griffin, is the relative youth of the residents in that community about 55 percent are under the age of 18. And the angry crowds out in the streets at night are mostly made up of people between the ages of 13 and 30, he estimates.

In addition, unemployment, especially among young adults, is extremely high in this neighborhood, Gulley said.

"Most of the kids here don't have any hope," he said. "We've got streets filled with our youth that have no jobs."

Wednesday Griffin and Gulley were in meetings all day with clergy from all over this city of 12,000 making plans to bring the violence to a peaceful conclusion. Griffin's church also held a special Tuesday night service to address concerns about Shurn's death and the consequent rioting and "to help resolve any unresolved issues," he said.

Although Griffin's church is located about a half-mile away from where Shurn died, he said he is quite familiar with the situation as well as the animosity some residents feel against local police. The neighborhood plagued by the rioting, Benton Harbor's Ward 2, is also his political turf; Griffin is currently campaigning there for a city commissioner seat.

Griffin said the anger evidenced by the rioting was not caused by Shurn's death alone. There have been several other incidents, including the death of a man choked by police in April and of a young boy killed during a high-speed police chase three years ago, that created a climate of anger and mistrust toward local police, he believes.

Most of the anger is not directed toward city police, he said, although there are perceived problems with that department (the officers are young and seen as inexperienced; the department has a high turnover rate, losing young officers to higher-paying departments).

But all three fatal incidents Griffin mentioned were all connected with police for Benton Harbor township, which Griffin thinks operates by a different set of rules.

After the young boy was run over and killed during the police chase three years ago, the city of Benton Harbor changed its police chase policy for city officers (only a felony incident could initiate a high-speed chase). But that new ordinance didn't change the policy for the township police, and that left many residents upset.

"The township seems to have a different attitude toward the Benton Harbor city residents, at least that's how the people feel," Griffin said.

The rioting, however, seems to have been immediately touched off by two rumors circulating after Shurn's death. One rumor holds that Shurn's motorcycle was bumped by a squad car.

"The residents say they saw the police officer who was giving chase hit the motorcycle and cause him to lose control," Griffin said.

State police investigators have concluded this didn't happen. But some residents say there was a second police car near the scene of the accident, which they believe may have hit Shurn's motorcycle.

The other rumor: emergency responders failed to care for Shurn after the accident and deliberately let him die.

This second rumor, Griffin said, is obviously false. Shurn's autopsy indicates the cause of death as a torn aorta; Shurn bled to death on the spot.

However, regardless of the facts, "these two rumors, in connection with the death in April and other historic mishandling of people, just blew up," he said.

Right now, Griffin and his colleagues want to clap a lid back on the neighborhood, before the city decides to do so.

"We're trying to prevent a city-wide curfew, which is the next thing on the agenda," he said.

"It's my prayer that no one is killed," Gulley said. "Because if someone is killed, then they're going to have to call in the national guard."

When the rioting comes to an end, both Griffin and Gulley say they intend to work toward social justice, for example eliminating high-speed police chases, which Griffin sees as both dangerous and unnecessary.

Benton Harbor, Griffin points out, only has two main routes out of town, and is bordered on the west by Lake Michigan. Police wanting to stop a speeding motorist could easily prevent his escape by blocking off these routes.

There is no other way out of town, he said, "unless you swim across the lake."

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