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The River: The divide (Part 2)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- One of the most striking things we found as we talked to people for this story was the fear.

Many Benton Harbor residents, particularly young black men, are actually afraid to cross the river into St. Joseph.

And while the water may only be a couple hundred yards across, the racial, economic and social divide can feel as wide an ocean. That divide was evident as dozens of Benton Harbor residents gathered for a candlelight vigil Thursday night on Pavone Street, with a handwritten sign listing what organizers call "unsolved murder” victims.

Six of those names belonging to people who wound up dead in the St. Joseph River over the course of nearly three decades.

Neighbor Tevin Johnson told us, " We just wanna know what happened to our people."

For those at the vigil, they aren’t just names; they’re family, friends, classmates and neighbors.

Some of them, including 16-year-old Eric McGinnis who died in 1991, 44-year-old Timothy 'Bulldog' Allen, who wound up in the river in 2011, and Michael Williams who drowned in May, were last seen across the river in St. Joseph. That fact is fueling both suspicion and fear. In fact, many black Benton Harbor residents say they don't feel safe in mostly white St. Joe, including Calvin Brimite.

"We don't even go over there. We don't go over there and they don't come over here because we don't feel comfortable. They be like what's this black man doing walking in St. Joe?!" Brimite said.

Reverend Edward Pinkney runs a community church and, depending on who you ask, is either an inspiring civil rights leader or a criminal rabble rouser.

He has spent time in prison in a voter fraud case, but his conviction was eventually thrown out. Rev. Pinkney says, "We definitely don't trust law enforcement" he also maintains St. Joe is not a safe place for some.

"If you go over there be aware of your surroundings, be careful... I think it's very unsafe."

Reverend Pinkney and many others say even the architecture sends a message as you cross over the bicentennial bridge from downtown Benton Harbor into the heart of St. Joe because the first thing you see is the Berrien County Jail.

"That big old jail just sittin up there waiting on you, it’s designed to intimidate you,” says Pinkney.

Michael Hoyh is the founder of the Benton Harbor historical preservation society. He too feels the separation.

"They're scared. There’s so many youths and even adults in their 70's that have never even crossed that bridge," Hoyh told us.

He still shakes his head when people call his hometown and St. Joe the twin cities saying, “Twins, huh, but you know what we were not identical we never have been we never will be."

St. Joe is a prosperous, 86 percent white, beach community, full of tourists in the summer. Downtown Benton Harbor is full of crumbling vacant buildings. The population 85 percent black with a median household income of less than $19,000 a year.

"There's no secret there are racial tensions between the two communities," says St. Joe's interim public safety director Steve Neubecker, who also understands how the river divides the twin cities in more ways than one.

“I worked 10 years in the city of Benton Harbor on the violent crime task force and heard stories from individuals that they were scared to come to St. Joseph,” adding “St. Joseph is an extremely safe community and we welcome any and all races to our community." He said.

And when it comes to Benton Harbor residents turning up dead in the river, Neubecker maintains there's no killer out there targeting African Americans.

"The water is beautiful, the river is beautiful but we also have to remember it is very dangerous. Since 1991 in our records, 30 people have drowned off the South Pier, the North Pier and In the River which is a substantial amount of people and the majority of those individuals did not know how to swim." He said.

Longtime Berrien County Sheriff, Paul Bailey, says times have changed and relations between the communities have improved, "There's a lot of African Americans that come to St. Joe and there's no issues. Those are old mindsets. There’s no issue why anybody can't come to St. Joe."

Cecil Houston grew up and still lives in Benton Harbor but now works in St. Joseph. He says point blank, "I don't think St. Joe wants Benton Harbor over there."

And he says officers still hassle him for no real reason, “First thing the police do is like 'where you going what's your name?”

Cecil still walks to and from work regularly, but only during the daytime telling us, "I won't walk across that bridge at night, that's a no, no...being over in St. Joe at night when the sun goes down, things happen."

Click here to read past stories from The River: A Real Time Investigation and listen to the podcasts.


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