Steve Meridy sees the recent movement for racial equality as an opportunity for the Benton Harbor and St. Joseph communities to look at their respective judicial systems.
The Benton Harbor resident was among 64 participants who were present for a virtual meeting Tuesday night regarding community relations in the wake of the countless number of protests and rallies that occurred following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“The judicial systems have been directly abusive to the Black man,” Meridy said. “Growing up in the city, there were police officers who knew me by name. Not because I ever committed a crime, but because of the people I knew. We need to look at the disparity between St. Joe and Benton Harbor. This is the greatest opportunity to move swiftly as it relates to redeveloping the Benton Harbor and St. Joseph area.”
Several residents and leaders through the Twin Cities and Southwest Michigan asked questions and spoke up on ways to explore how Floyd’s death is relevant to Berrien County and law enforcement agencies.
Berrien County ALPACT, an organization which stands for Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust, and the Interfaith Action Group, a diverse group of faith-based organizations devoted to social justice, teamed up for the forum.
Sid Mohn, director of Interfaith Action Group, said Tuesday’s session was coordinated as a listening session.
Afterward, Mohn said they will consolidate themes and concerns that were heard in two to three weeks. A summary of those concerns will be provided as the two organizations will form working groups to address the problems.
“We recognize that racism is not restricted to law enforcement, but that this shows up in a aspect of community life, housing, education, employment, health care as well as law enforcement and community safety,” Mohn said. “This forum is open to your comments, your concerns and recommendations around racism in its multiple expressions.”
St. Joseph City Commissioner Laura Goos said the city has begun looking at internal policies and are taking suggestions into account.
“I want to see us address the history between St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, which has had a difficult relationship over the past decades,” Goos said. “I’m looking for how we might heal the divide and the perception of the relationship in our communities because there are so many people who want to work toward that.”
Berrien County Commissioner Mamie Yarbrough said Benton Harbor needs to first work with getting along with itself first.
She said the same can be said for St. Joseph.
“We need to fix our own house. I was born here, lived here all my life,” Yarbrough said. “There were things going on in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph in the 1950s that many people were unaware of. There were places we could not go, clothes we could not wear, meals we could not eat.”
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Sharon Henderson said the county structure has not benefited Black people.
She said she feared every time her sons would leave the house because of law enforcement.
“I am always concerned about their safety. I’m always fearful of what could happen to them,” Henderson said. “Whenever I go into a county building, I don’t see anyone who looks like me. Until we are able to do that, we have to fix that. We are over policed and completely underfunded.”
The comment section of the forum was lively as many participants who didn’t speak chose to give input in this alternative format.
Several participants spoke about how defunding the police didn’t mean getting rid of law enforcement, but diverging some of the funding toward community-focused programs.
Other topics included the culture of policing, alternatives to school of choice, and how police unions haven’t held certain law enforcement accountable.
While some residents asked what they could do, Benton Township resident Barbara Meeks said one person can’t take care of the whole problem.
“We can’t go back 400 years,” Meeks said. “There are always precautions you have to take when you are a Black male. Together, we need to put systems in place to help teach others.”
Mary Jo Schnell, executive director of The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan, said all white people have a debt to pay.
“For the injustices of people of color, our leadership is two-fold and sometimes seemingly conflicting because we have access to influence and privilege,” she said.