Rev. Jackson challenges riot-torn city to heal

The Rev. Jesse Jackson comforts relatives of crash victim Terrance Shurn, whose death sparked rioting. Alma White, center, is Mr. Shurn’s aunt, and Shannon Shurn is his brother.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson comforts relatives of crash victim Terrance Shurn, whose death sparked rioting. Alma White, center, is Mr. Shurn’s aunt, and Shannon Shurn is his brother.

On Thursday, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm suggested that the state should "put its arms around" Benton Harbor, which had suffered from two nights of rioting earlier in the week.

Yesterday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson physically put his arms around the city's children, hoisted up its babies, and stared into the eyes of some of the community's frustrated young men and challenged them to help rebuild the poverty-stricken city.

Mr. Jackson, who arrived in Benton Harbor at the invitation of Mayor Charles Yarbrough, visited with city and community leaders and spoke to a crowd of roughly 300 at a community center.

The civil rights leader and others then marched from the community center to the site where Terrance Devon Shurn died after crashing his motorcycle during a police chase. The residents received Mr. Jackson with open arms and affection as he asked them for silence and prayer.

He met and prayed with Mr. Shurn's family members at East Empire Avenue and Pavone Street as an emotional end to a march and walk around the neighborhood that took the brunt of the riot's violence. Mr. Shurn's death after he was chased by a Benton Township police officer sparked the revolt.

The city has been under a state of emergency since then with Michigan State Police troopers and sheriff's deputies from other counties assisting in patrols, including last night.

READ MORE: Tension in Benton Harbor

Benton Harbor police Chief Samuel Harris, who worked with Mr. Jackson while a longtime member of the Chicago Police Department, said he was adamantly against Mr. Jackson's arrival but changed his mind after meeting with the civil rights leader yesterday.

"I was not against Mr. Jackson personally," said Chief Harris, who has led the Benton Harbor department for 15 months. "I am against anyone who was not here last week and last month trying to help us with our problems and now believe they know what's best for Benton Harbor."

Chief Harris said Mr. Jackson assured him that he was there in an effort to get talks started with community leaders and not to heighten emotions about Mr. Shurn's death. Chief Harris said he didn't hear anything in Mr. Jackson's speech at the Bobo Brazil Community Center yesterday that would have concerned him.

After a nearly two-hour meeting at city hall, Mr. Jackson traveled to the community center and was greeted with applause. Masses of people and the media followed him to the front of the center's gymnasium where a podium was set up. He received standing ovations after he was introduced and after his roughly 40-minute speech.

When Mr. Jackson made it to the front of the gymnasium, he walked toward Frank Gibson, 29, who was holding a protest sign. Mr. Gibson, with his hair done in braids, wearing a white T-shirt, and a gold medallion, stared as the civil rights leader quietly talked to him as people cheered and acknowledged Mr. Jackson's presence.

"He told me I need to take this negative situation and turn it into a positive," Mr. Gibson said afterward. "He wants [young people] to be a positive force and not a negative one. I greatly respect what he says and it means a lot that he looked me in the eye like a man and told me that."

Mr. Jackson asked Mr. Gibson and other young people in front of the gymnasium to stand next to him when he spoke. He called upon federal agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Labor to bring job training and affordable housing to Benton Harbor.

He also challenged the city's largest employer, Whirlpool Corp., to hold an economic summit with other local businesses in an effort to attract new industries to the city.

Mr. Jackson called on county officials to provide recreational facilities to Benton Harbor equal to those that are in St. Joseph, which sits across the St. Joseph River.

Mr. Jackson said he knows there is underlying racial tension between Benton Harbor, which is majority African-American, and St. Joseph, which is majority white.

"The kids from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph can play football and basketball against each other, and there are no racial riots," Mr. Jackson said. "That's because in football and basketball, there is a level playing field and the rules are clear and understood. But what happens when blacks have to gain 12 yards to get a first down and whites have to only gain eight yards?"

Mr. Jackson said Benton Harbor could be a model for change if everyone in the community pulls together. He urged the youth to turn away from violence and drugs and join community leaders in solving problems.

"We want you to turn to each other rather than turn on each other," Mr. Jackson said. "Benton Harbor is a metaphor for the nation. What you need here, they could use in Muskegon. They could use it in Detroit. Every problem you have here in Benton Harbor is a national problem."

Ellis Bethea III, who said he recently started a video company in Benton Harbor, said Mr. Jackson's words were just what the community needed to hear.

"We can do things here, and things can change," Mr. Bethea said. "People have got to know that. There's a lot of talent here in this city, and what people need to know is that it can be done."

Jess Donoho-Anderson, a bi-racial former Benton Harbor resident, encouraged the audience to reach out across racial lines, saying when they are looking for solutions they will find people of all races willing to help and make a difference.

Authorities reported five arson fires in Benton Harbor early yesterday morning.

Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said the fires occurred outside the riot areas law enforcement controlled and were believed to be "opportunistic."

Authorities talked about the cost of the riots for the first time yesterday. Chief Harris said Benton Harbor has spent $5,300 on overtime for officers so far. Sheriff Bailey said his deputies officers have accumulated $14,000 in overtime. Chief Harris said damage to police and fire equipment has totaled another $70,000.

"This does not include the totals from the Michigan State Police or what we had to pay city workers to clear the debris from the fires," Chief Harris said.