With Ferguson in the spotlight, Benton Harbor residents reflect on 2003 riots

Posted at 6:20 PM, Aug 19, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-19 18:20:32-04

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — It was a summer night in June of 2003 when Terrance Shurn led police on a high speed chase through Benton Harbor.

Shurn, 27, wound up dead after crashing his motorcycle into a building. His death ignited protests and riots in the streets that would last for several days.

As the nation watches unrest and violence unfold in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown, 18, at the hands of an officer, residents of Benton Harbor couldn't help but see similarities to what happened in their own backyards more than a decade ago.

"You don't think that's going to happen, especially something to that magnitude," said Mayor James Hightower, recalling what it was like to live in the city at the time of the riots. "A community never wants that on its resume."

Hightower admits improvements in Benton Harbor are a work in progress, but he says he has plenty of reason to be optimistic.

The number of vacant storefronts still seems to outnumber the occupied ones in town, but Hightower says development is coming back and companies like Whirlpool, which is headquartered in the city, continue to invest in the area.

"We've come a long way since that period of time," he said pointing to some of the new storefronts on the city's main street. "The street we're on right now didn't exist like this."

Shortly after the riots began in June 2003, Gov. Jennifer Granholm made a promise to change Benton Harbor for the better. "This is a community that is going to succeed, and you can see it in the faces and hear it in the voices," she said.

But talk to people like Trenton Bowens, a city commissioner who was 14 years old at the time of the riots, and he'll tell you that never quite solidified.

"You can change anything: You can put someone in a Cadillac that's been driving a Pinto, but if their mentality is not changing, you're still going to have the same results," Bowens said, "and that's what I've seen in Benton Harbor."

Bowens points to a declining population, lack of jobs, the city's recent operation under an emergency manager, and a failing school district as reasons he believes Benton Harbor is worse now than it was 11 years ago.

"Residents have lost faith in their police department," Bowens added. "It hasn't gotten better. The residents actually fear their police more."

While Bowens doesn't think the relationship between police and residents has improved much, Hightower maintains the force is working on diversity training and improving how police officers interact with the public.

When asked whether enough has changed in 11 years to avoid another riot, both Bowens and Hightower offered very different perspectives.

"It probably will happen again," Bowens said. "Until the changes happen, until our people get jobs, affordable housing, and they're respected and police brutality ends, you're going to have the same old results."

Hightower remains much more optimistic, pointing to the downtown area as an example of the progress that's been made.

"We've moved forward, and we continue to move forward. Can something like that happen again, I hope not. But I tell you what, it did give this city a serious wakeup call."

FOX 17 reached out to the director of public safety for the city as well as the Benton Harbor Police Department but never heard back.