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Police Hope to Fend Off Third Night of Riots

Aired June 18, 2003 - 19:09   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, ANCHOR: Well, Benton Harbor in southwestern Michigan is under a state of emergency and a 10 p.m. curfew after two nights of rioting.
The unrest follows a Monday night incident in which white police chased a black motorist they say was speeding at 100 miles an hour. The cyclist was killed when he crashed into a building.

CNN's Jeff Flock is in Benton Harbor with the latest -- Jeff.

JEFF FLOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Anderson, watching tonight I want to give you some sense of what it looks like at this hour. Very quiet city streets. Perhaps you see people patrolling -- this is Michigan sheriff's patrol. There is other state police vehicles here. Off to the left, perhaps you see this is the local county officials patrolling, as well. A lot of people out on the street tonight.

But perhaps even more important than manpower, if you wanted to make certain there wasn't going to be a riot here tonight, what you would do is send rain. I don't know if you can tell it, but in fact, it is raining.

And if you look down here, you see the kind of police presence here, compounded with the rain, I think, certainly lessens the notion that there might be any violence tonight. But this in fact is the very heart of the community that for the last two nights did erupt in violence.


FLOCK (voice-over): Michigan state troopers parade through Benton Harbor in a massive show of force. The goal, to head off a repeat of this, a man scrambling to salvage possessions from what's left of his house, some choking on the smoke from the rubble, signs of the damage everywhere.

Like the ruins the day after the riot, tension has been smoldering in Benton Harbor for years.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't want another death in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

FLOCK: An angry town meeting after a police chase ends with the death of this motorcycle rider. Many blame police, who say it was an accident. Frustrations boil, hundreds take to the street and light up the night sky. At least five cars and five buildings burned, more than a dozen injured.

(on camera) In some ways you understand what took place.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I completely understand.

FLOCK (voice-over): Even some whites in this 92 percent black town tell us they sympathize with black frustration over police treatment and a judicial system they say is not fair.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These people can't go to the police, they can't go to the courts for justice, they can't go to the politicians, they can't go to the governor. Where do they go? They're angry.

FLOCK: Many say they fear retribution from authorities and refused to talk to us on camera. These men tell us privately, "This is what happens when police kill an innocent man."

"They treat us like animals," another tells me, "so now we will act like animals."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say this is definitely not the way to solve it.

FLOCK (on camera): So there may be a problem but this isn't how to go about it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not how to go about it, to solve the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We pray to you today, Lord, that you will bring peace to our city.

FLOCK: A prayer meeting of local pastors condemns the violence, but supports the cause.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are behind them as far as protests. We are against...


FLOCK: Anderson, we can report tonight that it's not as though no one is being allowed on the streets. If we look around, perhaps you can see here some folks, local residents, just walking down the street. It is okay to walk down the street, but I think it's fair if anyone begins to congregate or looks like they're about to start any trouble, it will be headed off -- Anderson.

COOPER: Jeff, in your piece, one of the pastors talked about the cause, supporting the cause. What is the cause? What is the source of the frustration that, as you say, has been smoldering for years?

FLOCK: Well, the frustration is with law enforcement, a white justice system, predominantly white justice system, even though there is a black mayor in town, a black police chief in town, and largely a black police force. There's also severe economic hardship here. This is a town with 29.7 percent, I believe 2003 figures, unemployment. The white community, St. Joseph, just the neighboring community to the south, 2.1 percent unemployment. This is a town where homes are burned out, windows are boarded up, a lot of economic hardship. Those towns, a lot of white people, a lot of rich people come there for resort times. It is a bit of a powder keg.

COOPER: All right. Jeff Flock is going to be standing by. A lot of this violence has occurred as night has fallen. Jeff will be standing by as night falls in Benton Harbor. He'll join us for another update in the next hour or sooner if there is a major development to tell you about.


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