10 years later, looking back at Benton Harbor riots

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Ten years ago terrible riots rocked Benton Harbor, Mich. after a police chase ended in a motorcycle crash that killed a young black man.

According to Benton Harbor commissioner, Trenton Bowens, not much has changed since June 16, 2003. At the time Bowens was only 14 years-old and living on Pavone Street—the very street where the riots ignited.

“I lived right there across the street and we kept seeing a lot of people driving up and down the street,” Bowens recalled.

“We happened to look outside and it was a big cloud of smoke and fire. And we looked down the street and the house right down the corner from us was on fire, we kind of got scared, we didn't know what to do,” Bowens added, “It was a time of urgency, you didn't know what to do. The state police were driving up and down the street five or ten deep, helicopters were flying over and everything.”

Some 21 buildings were torched, most of which were vacant homes.

Rioters flipped cars and hurled rocks and bricks at police officers and firemen as they attempted to quell the crowds. Over the course of two days some 300 officers dressed in riot gear and prepped with armored cars regained control of the city.

Then-police chief, Samuel Harris addressed the media during the riots, saying parents to control their children if the city wanted to move forward.

“Because these were not adults out there, these were young teenagers out this evening causing the problems."

Some blamed racial targeting in the police chase that ended in Terrance Shurn’s death on his crashed motorcycle, but many say the problems ran deeper.

In a media statement in 2003, Kevin Hunter, who was present at the riots said it was an attempt to garner attention to the problems plaguing Benton Harbor: "their intent was not malicious, their intent was not to do bodily harm, their intent was to garner the attention of adults, of the media, of anyone who would listen to them.”

The neighborhood around Pantone St. has since seen many of abandoned homes turn into vacant lots. Bowens says the tension that erupted ten years is still present in the community today.

“It was also a cry of racism and a lot of other problems,” said Bowens, “the residents just got frustrated and after a while when somebody gets frustrated so much they retaliate.”

Bowens says he has not seen the improvement and communication promised in the aftermath of the riots. He blames lack of employment and opportunity, as well as the systemic problems in the criminal justice system as contributing to the cyclical nature of Benton Harbor's poverty.

Even though a decade has passed Bowens says the climate remains very similar.

“We’re the highest tax in the state, we have the highest unemployment and we have more residents leaving Benton Harbor than coming,” Bowens explained. Frustration remains high, said Bowens, because there remains a disparity between the upgraded downtown and the impoverished inner city.

What do the people of Benton Harbor want now?

“The citizens want today, they want to feel included, they want jobs, they want adequate and affordable housing and they want to be treated with respect,” said Bowens.

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