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Unbowed by Politically Motivated Punishment, Michigan Activist Jumps Straight From Prison Back Into Fight Against Corporate Giant Whirlpool

“They thought they had defeated me. … Matter of fact, they thought they had buried me. When someone throws dirt on you, they don’t ever expect you to rise again. But they didn’t bury me, they only planted me, you see, because when you plant something, you expect it to rise again.” —Rev. Edward Pinkney, in a July 3, 2017 interview with Black Agenda Report

The Reverend Edward Pinkney is back. Just like he said he’d be.

After 30 months in prison for a highly-questionable petition-altering conviction, the 68-year-old community activist is wasting no time resuming his fight against Whirlpool Corporation, the international appliance giant dominating his mostly Black hometown of Benton Harbor, Mich. In December 2014, Pinkney was convicted with little to no evidence of tampering with election documents upon spearheading an unsuccessful effort to recall the town’s former mayor, James Hightower. A vocal critic of Hightower’s “puppet” relationship with Whirlpool and his refusal to equitably tax the multibillion dollar corporate inhabitant of their impoverished city, the popular community leader now looks to reignite the conflict he feels got him imprisoned in the first place.

“We’re gonna let them know that Reverend Pinkney is back and it is business as usual,” says Pinkney. On July 11, the paroled minister is demonstrating at the Berrien County courthouse to let officials know his advocacy for the employment and fair treatment of Benton Harbor residents will continue, before heading over to the Whirlpool Corporation to do the same.

“They don’t hire Black people from the city of Benton Harbor,” says Pinkney, noting “less than a half a percent of the 4000 people that work inside the Whirlpool Corporation home office” live in town. The company, which is headquartered in Benton Harbor, is the primary employer in the county. My thing, says Pinkney, is to “make them start hiring people from our community. It makes no sense to me. Why would you not hire people from our community?”

“Our workforce has to reflect our customer base, and we’ve made a commitment to those values,” said Whirlpool vice president Jeff Noel, in an April 2016 interview with Crain’s Detroit Business journal. “We attract great employees, and they’re helping shape this community.”

Pinkney scoffs at such statements. “All they want to do is take, take, take, and they don’t even pay taxes,” he says, stressing “they just built their new building inside the city of Benton Harbor with a ten-year tax break where they won’t pay any taxes at all.” On top of that, “For reasons unknown, they literally refuse to pay their water bill. If I don’t pay my water bill for one month, my water gets cut off. They haven’t paid their water bill for years.”

Pinkney feels he has personally paid for years for challenging a company he believes exerted its massive influence within Berrien County to get him incarcerated in the first place. Prior to his imprisonment, he organized and led residents within and outside of his Michigan Green Party in numerous demonstrations against Whirlpool over tax, water, hiring issues and the company’s backing of the conversion of a public park into a golf course and upscale community.

At his 2014 trial, the lack of evidence supporting the charge of altering a petition document was apparent as the signatories were accounted for and testified they signed the documents willingly on the appropriate day. Consistently, a forensics expert for the prosecution testified there was no way to determine who changed dates on the documents. Nonetheless, an all-white jury found Pinkney guilty of altering a petition document, commonly a misdemeanor offense, but somehow determined a felony for Pinkney.

Prior to his December 2014 sentencing, Benton Harbor Commissioner Mary Alice Adams described the case to the People’s Tribune as “a modern day lynching,” asserting “the decision was made before the trial began.” At the time, Adams reported, “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.” The commissioner offered what she felt the case was really about. “When you stand up against the largest manufacturer of appliances in the world, of course there will be a backlash.”

Despite characterizing his prison experience as one he’d rather not repeat, Pinkney acknowledges the valuable lesson he took away from it. “I learned we can actually communicate with young people if we have something of value to give them,” he says, noting, “I had something to offer these young guys and we became friends.” Pinkney conducted math lessons and Bible study for many young inmates at several facilities, including the state’s Marquette Branch Prison. He recounts the value of these relationships, given several in-prison slayings occurred during his incarceration, and given that his outspokenness was an apparent nuisance to the corrections officers. Those inmates, he says, “became my protection, and may have saved my life because those COs [corrections officers] were on me. They wanted me dead.” Since the reverend maintained his activism in prison and commonly communicated with media contacts outside to inform them of abuses, this protection from younger inmates was vital. “Marquette Prison has a history of killing people and getting away with it,” says Pinkney.

After being locked up for two and a half years, Pinkney is not letting Whirlpool get away with what he feels is the corporate neglect of the citizens of Benton Harbor. Despite being on parole and going up against one of the most powerful corporations in the world, he is reinvigorated by the opportunity to hold the industrial giant accountable.

“I know I can’t force them to hire us, but I am certainly going to try,” pledges Pinkney. That said, if Whirlpool just “pays its fair share of taxes and its water bill, that would generate enough funds to keep the city flowing, and that’s one of my main goals.”

If they just do that, adds Pinkney, “they would never have to worry about me.”

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