The fate of an African-American community activist in Michigan, Rev. Edward Pinkney, is at the center of a broiling political dispute about how much sway the powerful Whirlpool corporation has in Benton Harbor, the poor predominantly Black town that is home to the international appliance conglomerate.
On Monday, Pinkney was sentenced to serve up to 10 years in prison. His offense? Allegedly altering a handful of dates on a petition to recall the town’s mayor, James Hightower.
Pinkney, a member of the Michigan Green Party who has run for Congress on the Green line, loudly claimed that the mayor was too closely aligned with Whirlpool and that the mayor refused to make the company pay its fair share for city services and employees in the high-poverty town, which is 90 percent Black.
Pinkney and his supporters accused the mayor of instead agreeing to a $3.2 million loan that the residents of Benton Harbor, one of the poorest cities per capita in the United States, would have to repay—while Whirlpool pays absolutely no income taxes to the federal government or to Michigan.
Pinkney’s supporters say altering a petition document should have been a misdemeanor offense, not a felony—and there was no evidence to support the charge because no signatures were forged and all signatories testified that they signed willingly on the correct day. During Pinkney’s trial, a forensics expert for the prosecution testified that there was no way to determine who changed the handful of dates. Still, the all-white jury accepted the prosecutor’s contention that no direct evidence was required; the prosecution told the jury they only had to “believe” that Pinkney was motivated to cheat and that he “could” have changed the dates while circulating the petitions.
“Rev. Pinkney was accused of writing and changing my date on a petition when, in fact, I wrote my own date and changed it after realizing I had put the wrong date down,” Mary Alice Adams, a Benton Harbor commissioner, said.
But Pinkney was convicted anyway. His supporters from the Green Party claim it is yet another example of prominent African-American leaders being taken down by a powerful, racist system when they begin to pose a threat to the system—in this case the $19 billion Fortune 500 company, Whirlpool.
As part of the public campaign against Pinkney, his detractors point to his criminal record, which included serving time in prison on five voter fraud charges. A report on a local television station, detailing Pinkney’s “long criminal past,” told viewers that in 1990, Pinkney pleaded guilty to theft in St. Louis, Missouri and served one-year probation and also in 1990 in Oakland, Calif., he was sentenced to 25 days in jail and three years probation for assault with a dangerous weapon. The report went on to list him pleading guilty in 1991 in Kalamazoo, Mich., to false statement of financial condition and in 1999 in Benton Township pleading guilty to embezzlement, spending 14 months in prison and 2 years on parole.
In his defense, Pinkney says he was set up in 2006 during an attempt to recall a city commissioner. He told the Green Party website that he was convicted of possessing four absentee ballots, but pointed out that the women who fingered him—all members of a family—mysteriously avoided jail time for the multiple criminal charges they were facing, including a drive-by shooting and kidnapping.
“I’m not angry with them for doing that,” Pinkney said. “It’s a deal that’s hard to pass up.”
“It’s a modern day lynching,” Adams, the Benton Harbor commissioner, told the Green Party of his latest conviction. “After hearing the ‘evidence’ it would seem that the decision was made before the trial began. They are looking at Michigan as a glove for dictatorship. And the predominantly Black communities are the test tubes. When you stand up against the largest manufacturer of appliances in the world, of course there will be a backlash.”