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More than 300 Police Officers Take to the Streets in Benton Harbor Michigan to Control Rioting

June 19, 2003

A state of emergency and curfew has been declared in the city after violence erupted following the death of 27 year-old African American, Terrence Sturm, who was killed in a police chase.

*DEMOCRACY NOW!, June 19, 2003 — *In Benton Harbor, Michigan yesterday more than 300 police officers took to the streets following two nights of riots.

A state of emergency and curfew has been declared in the city after violence erupted following the death of 27 year-old African American, Terrence Sturm, who was killed in a police chase.

Officers — who came from Benton Harbor, neighboring communities and the Michigan State Police — were in riot gear, armed with semi-automatic weapons and tear-gas launchers.

Hundreds of residents took to the streets, smashing windows, overturning cars and setting buildings ablaze. One person was shot and fifteen injured in the melee as police tried to control the crowds.

While the rioting in Benton Harbor is being portrayed in the media as a response only to Strum’s killing, one author who has spent extensive time in the community doubts this.

"I am certain that it must go far beyond that," says Alex Kotlowitz whose book "The Other Side of the River" tells the story of the death of Eric McGinnis, a 16-year-old African American from Benton who dated a white girl and used to frequent a nightclub on the St. Joseph side of the river. Eric disappeared while fleeing police and five days later his body was found floating in the river.

Kotlowitz told Democracy Now!: "I can’t imagine that people would take to the streets over one incident and over an incident in which there is clearly some ambiguity about what happened. And I know when I was there that there had been a long simmering sense of distrust, if not anger, towards the criminal justice system from the courts on down. A sense that residents in Benton Harbor had at times been treated unfairly. And I think those memories linger."

Benton Harbor and it’s neighbor across the river, St. Joseph are a study in contrast. Where Benton Harbor is predominantly black and poor, St. Joseph across the river is 95 percent white and mostly middle class.

In 1992, Kotlowitz went to Benton Harbor as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal to cover the McGinnis case. "It’s community that is desperately poor, it’s a community in which work is virtually disappeared," Kotlowitz says. "A community in which the underground economy flourishes and the guise of the drug trade and being wrecked by violence."

Kotlowitz says that in the early 1990s it had the highest per capita murder rate in the country. "It is not an easy place to live, to raise a family," he says. "I think of Benton Harbor as kind of one of our forgotten communities. It’s a place that we have no reason to pay any attention to except of course when we have such things as what happened earlier this week."

Guest appearing in this segment:

  • Alex Kotlowitz, author of "The Other Side of the River"

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