Political Sandtrap: Critical Moment interviews Benton Harbor Activist Rev. Edward Pinkney about the Occupy the PGA protests

by Dave Sands

The golfers, caddies and spectators attending the 73rd Senior PGA tour in Benton Harbor found themselves getting more attention than usual from the non-golf crowd. The tournament area was quickly flooded by protesters who arrived to Occupy the PGA because it was held at a controversial golf course in Benton Harbor, Michigan’s poorest city. The protests, which called for boycotts of PGA sponsors Whirlpool and KitchenAid, drew over 100 people including Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein.

Benton Harbor was the first municipality to come under the control of an Emergency Manager under Michigan’s Public Act 4. That law allowed this manager, Joesph Harris to hand over control of about 22-acres of the public Jean Klock Park to a private golf course.

Reverend Edward Pinkney is President of the Benton Harbor NAACP chapter, the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization and Stop the Takeover in Benton Harbor. He helped organize Occupy the PGA and has fought for years to keep Jean Klock Park under public control. Rev. Pinkney is currently involved in a legal dispute with leaders of the state and national NAACP who he claims are trying to remove him on behalf of the Whirlpool Corporation. He told Critical Moment that during the protests police harassed and ticketed protesters and that becaus of this he plans to file a lawsuit with the ACLU against Benton Harbor Police chief Roger Lange, The Benton Harbor Police Deptartment, the PGA, Whirlpool, and KitchenAid.

Pinkney spoke with Critical Moment about Benton Harbor, the PGA protests and Public Act 4.

CM: What were you trying to achieve with Occupy the PGA?

RP: We laid out the demands. We wanted 25 percent of the profits, which included the TV revenue also — and the reason that we demanded that was that for years they had came in and taken over the city of Benton Harbor and the Benton Harbor residents have received nothing. Right now, Whirlpool pays no taxes in the city. Harbor Shores with the Jack Nicklaus golf course is pumping water out of the Paw Paw River for free rather than pay their normal water bill with the city of Benton Harbor.

[Editor’s note: Whirlpool received a 12-year $3.9 million dollar tax break from the city in 2010, according to a WNDU-TV report (“Benton Harbor Commission approves tax abatement for Whirlpool”) from October 18, 2010.]

CM: And this golf course is using land from a public park?

RP: It still is a park on public property. What they did is took the 6th, 7th, 8th holes placed on the beach and they just ran from the beach and made this golf course. They took 22 acres.

CM: What do you think of the outcome of the protest?

RP: The PGA was a total flop — all because of Occupy the PGA. I realize now that even though they didn’t want to sit down at the table and discuss the issues that we were concerned about… they should have… because when they have the one in 2014 we’re asking for 50 percent of the profit. And I think that everyone should know regardless of what they say the PGA of America, the Senior PGA was a total flop for the year 2012. The merchants are very disappointed. The vendors are very upset and they voiced their opinions in all the newspapers.

[Editor’s note: An article entitled “Businesses: PGA impact was subpar” that ran in the Herald-Palladium on May 29th lends some credence to this allegation. It reports that businesses in Benton Harbor and nearby St. Joseph did not meet their sales expectations for the event.  PGA Championship Director Jeff Hintz told the paper in another article that appeared in the paper the same day (“Tournament organizers say it was mostly smooth sailing”) that his organization was “very happy” with the attendance at the event. However, according to the publication, the PGA would not release any information about the numbers of people attending the event.]

CM: What impact has Public Act 4 had on Benton Harbor?

RP: What it has done is demoralized the residents here. Right now we have … Joseph Harris, an emergency manager. He’s not just an emergency manager. He’s a dictator. What he has done is he has sold off property. The water bills have tripled here in the city of Benton Harbor. I mean it’s just so many things have happened here it’s unimaginable.

CM: Tell us a little about the social and economic environment in Benton Harbor.

RP: Benton Harbor is about 94 percent African-American, and we have over 60 percent of the people who live in Benton Harbor are unemployed. … Over 75 percent of the people who live there live below the poverty level and that is one of the main things that has occurred here that is driving the people. We’ve got a court system that don’t believe in justice, and which is more important than anything else. We’re fighting just to keep our heads above water here.

CM: Any advice for Detroiters on the the state’s recent consent agreement with the city?

RP: Do not allow that emergency manager to come in whatever you do. No matter what they’re doing you can not get rid of ’em, so my suggestion is that you fight this consent agreement. I believe they should continue to fight. Keep them out of all these cities because once they get there you can’t get rid of them.

To learn more about Occupy the PGA or to get in touch with Reverend Pinkney call him at 269-925-0001 or email him at banco9342 (at) sbcglobal.net.