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What Ferguson, Mo., Could Learn From A Small Michigan Town


Next we report on what may be an uncomfortable truth. It concerns the effect of political protests. Sometimes violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, prompted people to say violence won't improve anything, which is naturally what we would prefer to believe. Who favors violence? Reality can be more complicated. Let's look now at the actual aftermath of another city that saw violent protests - Benton Harbor, Michigan. In 2003 a black man died during a police chase there. The death set off two nights of violent demonstrations and afterward there was a real effort to change the city. Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio reports on the lessons of Benton Harbor.

DUSTIN DWYER, BYLINE: It was June of 2003. Terrance Shurn was riding his motorcycle on the highway when a police officer tried to pull him over for speeding, Shurn fled, the officer pursued. At the intersection of Empire and Pavone in Benton Harbor, Shurn hit a curb, flew off his motorcycle and died. Residents in Shurn's Benton Harbor neighborhood were outraged. Their anger turned to protest, which then became more violent than anything we saw this summer in Missouri. James Hightower, the city's current mayor, remembers what it was like.

MAYOR JAMES HIGHTOWER: The house next door to me during that time was set on fire. I mean, I remember the neighbors waking us up at 2:30 in the morning, knocking on my door, screaming, saying get out, get out.

DWYER: After the second night filled with fire the governor pleaded with local pastors to step in to urge calm. James Atterberry was one of those pastors. Here's what he remembers telling people.

JAMES ATTERBERRY: We're going to get something done, something is going to happen, give us some time. We're going to, you know, make sure that justice is served and we need you to back down, and the people listened.

DWYER: Soon it was policy maker's turn to listen. In city after city when people's anger spills into the streets the message is always that violence or destruction of property won't achieve anything. But in Benton Harbor it achieved this much - it forced people to pay attention, people like the governor who appointed a task force. A task force that actually accomplished some things. Atterberry chaired the task force and says after it issued recommendations the city received federal grants, built new housing, cleaned up and revitalized downtown and built a world-class golf course to attract wealthy tourist. But in the neighborhood where Terrance Shurn died, change is hard to see.

TYRONE HITCHCOCK: Look at the streets, man. There are all these houses boarded up. Look at the grass ain't cut, man, you know what I'm saying? You know, you just look at it.

DWYER: That's Tyrone Hitchcock. He's sitting on a bicycle around the corner from where Shurn died leaning on the handlebars. He says he's heard a lot of talk of change since 2003.

HITCHCOCK: But don't nothing change. This town is still as raggedy and run down, unemployment, people ain't working, you know, drugs everywhere.

DWYER: Benton Harbor remains one of the poorest cities in Michigan, much poorer than Detroit, much poorer than Ferguson. And standing next to Hitchcock, a man named Perry Clemons says people in this neighborhood are as suspicious of police as ever.

PERRY CLEMONS: Whenever they see more than three young, black men together they figure something is wrong. And they say something or do something, move along, or get out and search them or pat them down.

DWYER: And Clemons says those pat downs make a lot of people around here nervous. A few years ago two Benton Harbor police officers were convicted in federal court for falsifying police reports. Now Clemons says people in the city worry that any officer could be corrupt and could frame them for a crime. Here the mistrust of police and of city government goes well beyond race. One of the officers convicted in federal court was black, but the police force still looks more white than the neighborhood. Everyone in charge from the Director of public safety, to the members of city Council and Mayor Hightower all are black. Though Hightower agrees the police officers on the street should look more like the community they serve.

HIGHTOWER: I always think we can do a lot better.

DWYER: But Hightower maintains that Benton Harbor is indeed a better place than it was 11 years ago. In large part because of the political activism that followed those two, fiery nights in June of 2003. Before then Hightower says he had never even been in City Hall, now he's Mayor.

HIGHTOWER: It's about changing people. And I think that for Benton Harbor to progress, or Ferguson, or anywhere if it's going to change it's going to have to be the people that change it.

DWYER: A little over a month ago an incident happened in Benton Harbor that reminded a lot of residents of the Terrence Shurn incident 2003. Harold Johnson died in a car crash while fleeing from police. Hightower says he was worried the community might once again be thrown into chaos, and the anger did come, but this time there was no violence in the streets. That much at least is different. For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter for a new project at Michigan Radio that will look at improving economic opportunities for low-income children. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.