Reporter's Notebook

Fire in Benton Harbor

Police Murder Terrence Shurn and Why the People Rose Up

Revolutionary Worker #1207, July 20, 2003, posted at

The RW received the following report from Detroit:

On June 17 and 18, the first major rebellion on U.S. soil since September 11 burst onto the scene. It took place in Benton Harbor, a city of 12,000 in western Michigan close to Lake Michigan. It was sparked by the police murder of Terrence Shurn, a 28- year-old Black man. The rebellion involved hundreds of people and cast a spotlight on the brutal poverty, racism and police brutality that had been inflicted on the people of Benton Harbor for years. It led to worried articles in the major Detroit newspapers about how many cities, including Detroit, have similar tinder-box conditions. But it inspired the people of Detroit, a city which has the highest rate of police killings in the country--many of them involving high-speed chases.

A crew of us decided to go out to Benton Harbor to express our support and interview people for the RW. Two of us, a revolutionary communist and an African American community activist and videographer, are involved in the Detroit October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality (part of the October 22nd national coalition). The third member of our crew was a youth from India, an environmentalist who has worked with Arundhati Roy and is active in the Michigan Committee Against War and Injustice (MECAWI).

We drove to Benton Harbor the Saturday after the rebellion. We weren't sure where to go or who to talk to, but we were so determined we decided to go ahead. When we got to Benton Harbor, you could see right away the poverty of this city, where most of the residents are African American. We stopped at a gas station, where the first person we asked directed us to the intersection where Terrence was killed. What we saw when we drove up jolted even us seasoned activists. There were police everywhere, lined up on all four corners of the intersection, some in riot gear and with automatic weapons. We could see that police were stopping people driving through the intersection. Later we would see armored vehicles and pickups full of cops driving around. It reminded me of the police clampdowns during the anti-globalization protests and it reminded us all of Palestine. We could also see that the building where Terrence had been killed had been bulldozed and a big crater was there in its place. We parked our car and got out and started walking.

Going through the streets, it reminded me of Detroit: lots of abandoned houses and vacant lots, which gives a countrified feel to the city and seems almost to express the rural roots of many of the Black people who live there. As bleak as the landscape was, you could feel the vitality of the people right away, especially in the groups of youth playing basketball and walking boldly down the street. In this particular area, the only businesses we could see, what looked like a restaurant and a party store, were on the intersection held captive by the police.

We talked to individuals and groups of people walking about, riding bikes, sitting on their porches. They ranged in age from teenagers to people in their 60s and 70s. A couple of things were striking. Almost everyone we talked to had served time, including a young woman who looked barely out of her teens. And people were so eager to talk, it was like a dam had burst! We had the feeling that these were people who had rarely or never been asked for their opinions before the rebellion. We showed people theRevolutionary Worker , and also a copy of the Stolen Lives Book (documenting police murder around the country) and some literature from the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. This brought out peoples' feelings about police brutality--as well as all the conditions they suffer, and the system that produces them. People were determined to have their stories told, and we were determined to tell them.

The following is our report from our trip to Benton Harbor.


In the early morning of June 16, 28-year-old Terrence Shurn, called "T-Shirt" by everyone who knew him because he always wore white T-shirts, was driving his motorcycle back to Benton Harbor, Michigan, from the town across the river, St. Joseph. Terrence had an 18-month-old baby and another one on the way. He had enrolled in college to study motorcycle repair and was looking forward to turning his passion for bikes into a career. It looked like he had a future ahead of him. But behind him were police. The cops chasing Terrence included cars from Benton Township--a mostly white township of which St. Joseph is a part--and the Sheriff's department.

The police from Benton Harbor knew Terrence. They told the other cops to call off the chase--they had Terrence's license plate and would pick him up later. The Sheriff's department vehicle started to slow down. But a car from Benton Township pulled ahead of the Sheriff's car. According to more than 40 witnesses, the Township car bumped the back of Terrence's bike, sending it out of control and into an abandoned house.

We talked to one of Terrence's uncles who said, "Police hit the back of his bike and he lost control. They say he lost control, but he was an expert motorcyclist. Why would he crash into a building knowing it would kill him? And then they moved the body before the evidence people came. They wasn't supposed to do that. He was still alive till they pulled him out of the building, he was moaning. They pulled him by the arm, that could have killed him, pulled the artery away from the heart. Lots of people saw them hit the back wheel of his bike. He was getting ready to go to college. Why would he crash into a building, knowing that would be suicidal?"

Other witnesses said police repeatedly kicked Terrence while he lay on the ground and high-fived each other over his body.

A young woman who saw the crash said police didn't even check to see if Terrence was alive, just pulled up and threw a sheet over him. Medics came and tried to revive him for about a minute and a half, then put the sheet back over him. She told us, "I was there from the beginning to the end. Township was chasing him and we were chasing Township. So we saw everything." She was furious because the media and the mayor were trying to discredit her testimony and that of other witnesses. "They're saying what I said wasn't true, that there wasn't no skid marks on the police car, wasn't no blood on the police car. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to see he was hit--if he sideswiped the building, it wouldn't have done so much damage. If they weren't guilty, why would they be taking pictures after everyone went away? If the car wasn't in the accident, why were they taking pictures of it?"

She was also furious about police tampering with evidence. "They moved his body parts around and then marked it as evidence. They moved everything around. I didn't think it was fair." She described how the next morning, the huge hole where Terrence's bike had crashed into the house was boarded up. "They covered up the evidence once they boarded up the hole in the house. You cannot investigate a crime scene in just inside of four hours, it takes 3 or 4 days. Why is that being all boarded up and cleaned up the next day?"

Anger to Rebellion

The rebellion didn't jump off immediately when Terrence was killed. One thing the media never mentioned was what happened when people held a memorial service for Terrence the night of June 16.

People had built a memorial at the site where Terrence died, with teddy bears and flowers like you see in many oppressed neighborhoods when someone is killed, often by the police. There were ministers with the people, and some were praying. One man described it, "All people were doing was having a memorial, at that spot. About 100 people, paying their last respects. Police came and told them, `Just leave, get out of here.' People were drinking, but not rowdy. They were paying their last respects in their own way, and the police come rowdy. People living next door, across the street.... They weren't outside their community, not causing friction. They were having prayer and everything. But after the police tried to run them away, all it takes is one--one got smart, the next one say, `We ain't goin' nowhere.' But that was disrespectful to them."

Another woman said, "They tried to tear the memorial down. The people had put flowers and teddy bears. That upset them. He was a friend to a lot of people. They had to show their memorial in a way they felt they were going to be heard."

The rebellion lasted for two nights. Hundreds and hundreds of people confronted the cops; rocks and bottles flew, buildings burned and at least four police cars were trashed. By Wednesday, local officials declared a state of emergency for the area. A 10 p.m. curfew was declared and the streets were patrolled by at least 200 police officers in riot gear--a small army that included Michigan state police and cops from neighboring areas.

The house where Terrence was killed was burnt down, along with several other abandoned houses. The fire spread to some occupied homes. Some 20 houses burned in a four mile square area. Several police cars were turned over and torched. People threw rocks and bottles at the cops, and there were reports of shots being fired at the cops, too.

It took a pouring rain the third night, and flooding the neighborhood with hundreds of cops from as far away as the Detroit suburbs to quell the rebellion.

One man put it powerfully, "People were scared. These people are not violent or brave people. A lot of young guys got together and said `let's do this' and other people supported them. Believe it or not, the Church was even involved in this. Churches were out there. We're tired of this, tired of laying down. It's like being a female, and someone constantly raping you. You get tired, you're gonna do something. And that's what happened."

One youth we talked to said, "Benton Harbor, if we go back in time, I'd say we would have to do the same thing over, it's about time we stood up for ourselves, cause ain't nobody else doing nothing.' This ain't the first time, the second time, or even the third time this has happened. We finally took matters into our own hands because nobody else was doing nothing about it... People are going around saying the riots was about T-Shirt. It wasn't just because of T-Shirt--that was the last straw, the straw that broke the camel's back. We couldn't take no more after T-Shirt, there wasn't any more to take. Everybody just said, `We're not going to put up with this any more.' Those two nights, that was hell. I didn't like that at all. I'm sitting up on Empire just watching it. Damn, is that what we got to go through to be heard? Why do we have to do all this shit -- people should just listen to us. We have to tear up our own neighborhoods, burn down our own city just to be heard? What kind of system is this?"

History of Brutality

People in Benton Harbor have had way too much experience with police brutality, including high-speed police chases. In 2000, an 11-year-old child, Trenton Patterson, was killed in a high- speed chase involving Benton Township police. Wes Koza, the cop who witnesses say bumped Terrence's bike, was the back-up officer in the chase that led to Trenton's death. Because of broad outrage, an ordinance was passed prohibiting high-speed chases in Benton Harbor.

One woman explained, "That little boy got killed because Township wouldn't give up on a chase. Didn't nobody stand up and say nothing then, but now, since it happened again, everybody is speaking up and got the little boy's name in there. It has to happen more than once sometimes. So this time, first thing people said was, `You all said no more high-speed chases when that little boy got killed.'... The law says, `no more high-speed chases.' What right do they have to come in our jurisdiction when Benton Harbor called off the chase... Benton Harbor called it off, and said they had the license plate number, and then you do the chase anyway. It's like you were meant to kill him."

Many people in Benton Harbor have stories about brutality at the hands of the police. A man told how he moved to Benton Harbor looking for a better life. "I got locked up 58 times in two years, six times in one month by the same cop. It was pull him over, lock him up, pull him over, lock him up. It was crazy." He said in one of the incidents, a cop maced his penis. He went to the City Council, the NAACP, and got the cop fired. But he has never forgotten it. "I teach my little son to be scared of the police. I tell him, `Don't trust them.'"

A woman told us of another incident, "We had a boy. They come to the wrong apartment house looking for the wrong person. He was scared and jumped out his apartment and ran. You know they shot him dead in the back. They wasn't even looking for him. Then they planted a bagged-up gun on him." There have also been a number of unsolved murders of prostitutes over the past couple of years that appear to be the work of a serial killer. Because these crimes have gone uninvestigated, and because of where the bodies have been dumped, many people suspect the police. One man said he saw a prostitute get into a police car and the next day she was found dead.

Apartheid, Michigan

But the roots of the rebellion in Benton Harbor run even deeper. Police brutality and murder serve an apartheid-like setup that is notorious. Alex Kotlowitz wrote a book about this called The Other Side of the River . It tells of the unsolved murder of a young Black man from Benton Harbor, found dead in St. Joseph more than a decade ago, and how this incident was tied to the relationship between 92% Black Benton Harbor and 90% white St. Joseph.

Unemployment in Benton Harbor is 25%, but for the youth it is closer to 70%. In St. Joseph, the unemployment rate is 2%.

In Benton Harbor, 40% of all households are below the poverty line. In St. Joseph, only 4% of households are below the poverty line.

Schools in Benton Harbor receive $6,700 per student. In St. Joseph schools receive $12,000 per student.

The median household income in Benton Harbor is $17,000. In St. Joseph it is $37,000.

And on top of all this is the stark differences in the whole way "just us" is dispensed.

According to Reverend Edward Pinckney, a Benton Harbor minister and community activist, Black men aged 14 to 28 in Benton Harbor, are 14 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than the national average. Benton Harbor, the poorest city in Michigan, has the highest per capita rate of individuals in prison of all cities in Michigan. Six or seven people (out of a population of 12,000) are sent to jail per week. The jail is located in St. Joseph -- it is the first building one sees when crossing the bridge from Benton Harbor. Just four months ago the Ku Klux Klan marched on the lawn of the courthouse in St. Joseph. That day the bridges from St. Joseph to Benton Harbor were closed, as one man said, "to keep people from Benton Harbor from going over there."

One of the many ex-cons one meets in Benton Harbor eloquently described some of the history and conditions he felt had fueled the rebellion. "Before St. Joseph was established, it was Benton Harbor. We had the world's largest fruit market on the lake, we had everything. It used to be white, everybody. But once they moved it across the bridge, the equality went out... You look at Benton Harbor and as soon as you get across the bridge in St. Joes you see the difference. If you're a minority, you can't get a job in St. Joes unless they getting a tax break. They got a lot of jobs in St. Joes, but once you go apply for them they look at your color, and they throw your application right in the trash.... They took everything from here. Big factories went South, Clark Equipment, companies moved and took some of the people. They're dogging people out, you work 10, 20 years, they go bankrupt, move to another state."

He continued, "A lot of people have scars, a lot of people getting sick. No medical. A young man can't afford health insurance. These houses they live in, the landlords don't care. There are two parks. You can't go to one of them because the police hang out there and harass you. Young Black men are already labeled. They can't afford to go to college, can't get a job. Then when they hang out in front of old people's houses, they call the police on them. It's hard for the young women too... The single parents, they can't leave their children at home to go to work. The kids can't cut grass because there are older people looking for work. They closed all the recreation centers. These kids would clean up the city, cut every lot, but there's no money for them. They want something to do. The police don't hear these kids crying for help."

He summed up, "It's the government. All in all, there's only gonna be rich and poor. Rich people are so poor in spirit, their only joy is to take things away from other people. They teach you their ways, to be slaves, to serve them.... It's all about control. It's ugly. Ain't no justice here."


For a few days, authorities lost control of this small city of 12,000 people. They struck back, with a heavy police state presence. For days after the rebellion, armored vehicles, pickup trucks full of cops, and lines of cop cars snaked through the streets. They were stopping everyone going through the intersection where T-Shirt was killed, and in the neighborhoods, period. There were a lot of arrests and harassment. A man carrying a four-inch pocketknife was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. One youth described coming out of a bar with a bunch of friends and being forced to lie down with guns pointed at their heads. He said, all this was just "pouring fuel on the fire."

Besides cops, an army of politicians invaded Benton Harbor after the rebellion. Governor Granholm, Jesse Jackson and many others came with the usual tired promises. One person asked, "Why didn't they come when we were just poor and hungry?" There were also numerous ministers and lay religious people going through the neighborhood, urging people to chill, in the name of "peace." When one such young Christian woman told a group of women on a porch that anger wouldn't get them anywhere, one of the women snapped back, "It got you here!" Another woman said sarcastically: "They keep telling us `We shall overcome.' We ain't overcame yet."

If the flood of police was meant to intimidate people in Benton Harbor, it didn't look like it the day we were there... People were barbequing, having graduation parties, hanging out. And talking. And talking some more.

The rebellion seemed to have made everyone feel like speaking out, as some said, because no one had ever listened to them before. People were making all kinds of connections, between what happened in Benton Harbor and the system as a whole, between the war on Iraq and the way people are treated here.

One man said, "The war [in Iraq] is bullshit. They ain't found weapons of mass destruction. How can they rebuild another country when this one is failing."

Another man told us, "I'm not a public speaker. But I know when enough's enough. If I had a podium, I'd tell everyone... We need a revolution in Benton Harbor."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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