Benton Harbor, Michigan is the backdrop for the reenactment of a familiar storyline, one where powerful corporate interests use immense financial resources and political might to exploit a community and appropriate its resources.
The southwest Michigan town draws parallels to the monied interests in the Silicon Valley and gives us an example of taking them on. There the world’s largest appliance manufacturer Whirlpool, ruthlessly imposes its will. The company enjoys a cozy relationship with city officials. So much so that in 2014 then mayor, James Hightower, was known as nothing more than a “yes man” for the corporation, publicly backing the company while helping it dodge taxes.
The behavior drew the fury of community members and outspoken founder of BANCO (Black Autonomy Community Organization) Reverend Edward Pinkney. In response to the corruption, the reverend initiated a petition to recall Hightower, in return Pinkney was arrested on charges of tampering with dates of signatures collected. It was a clear sign of conditions in Benton Harbor, when even after evidence was lacking, the courts ruled against Pinkney. What’s more, in a town with a population that is more than 90% African American, juries are void of any representation from these communities and are typically made up of whites from outside the city’s borders that can be handpicked and manipulated.
Many have dared to challenge these systems that exploit and oppress the poor and working class communities all over the world. An example at our Southern border is the struggle of farmers and other communities in Mexicali Valley against a local & state government backed Constellation Brands (Corona, Modelo, Pacifico) brewery that is threatening the water supply in the midst of a severe drought. During these confrontations the veils masking corporate corruption are lifted and we see just how far the tentacles reach.
According to Reverend Edward Pinkney these corporate dictatorships can be beaten if people can resist the “divide & conquer” tactics they employ.
According to Reverend Edward Pinkney these corporate dictatorships can be beaten if people can resist the “divide & conquer” tactics they employ. A small man in stature, Pinkney is David, fighting a Goliath in Whirlpool for over a decade. In and out of prison on dubious charges such as “smoogling” and placing 3-way calls Pinkney, now free, spoke to a room of around 50 people at Sacred Heart Community Service in San José in late February. He came with a message that was simple… we don’t have to like one another to work together.
This “enemy of my enemy” approach is hardly a new concept, but one that isn’t tested enough. Describing a period where he was in 10 prisons in 4 months, Pinkney spoke of how he found common ground with anyone to solve problems for all. To address the lack of quality meals he was able to unite the many ethnic & religious groups who do not traditionally cooperate within the prison walls. This earned him stints shackled alone in a moldy cell, and meals full of maggots. Meanwhile, pickets were organized outside the prisons to protest his unjust incarceration, but even under the public pressure a judge once told Pinkney that he made rulings based on “how I feel.” It was a horrifying account of the treatment many – who Pinkney is adamant are innocent – receive in the prison system; but a clear indication of the fear these institutions feel when people come together and threaten their authority.
Here in San José, a community not known as a hotbed of activism, we can learn much from these struggles. Too many in the Bay Area are hurting in ways directly attributable to tech corporations and the shadow they cast on all aspects of daily life. Like Benton Harbor, where Whirlpool infamously privatized a public park and turned it into a golf course, here in the Bay increasingly more terrain is being redeveloped for tech and private interests. People are being priced out of their homes and communities, while city governments sell off public resources and land with little resistance from overburdened and overworked communities who are led to believe redevelopment will bring jobs and prosperity and that the public interest is at the forefront of these actions.
But if as Reverend Pinkney was saying, our diverse working classes came together, we could in fact tip the scales in our favor. Our common ground here is a lack of housing and jobs that pay living wages to working class and poor people. The tech industry thrives by furthering inequality and suffering. Similarly to Pinkney’s story, it isn’t difficult to imagine anti-war groups that would oppose any research on behalf of the US Military, and anti-charter public schools aligning themselves against a Google development in San José. Above all a movement to fight off tech needs the voice of the average community member, the one working four jobs and spending nights in a car. Their stories, which speak to the struggle of so many Bay Area residents, must be heard. It’s up to those of us with the capacity to organize, to engage these folks and help bring their messages to the world, but also to make the movement accessible to them. Collective power is the only edge poor communities have and as Pinkney stated “there are more of us than them” as he told of his call for this advantage to be pressed in an international boycott of Whirlpool products.
In today’s social media age trends and ideas spread almost instantaneously. It is often just a matter of the right individual or brand taking a position on something. We have many recent cases from H&M to Snapchat and Facebook where profits plummeted due to public backlash. Equally appalling examples and practices in tech exist in abundance, but also greater obstacles to organizing a boycott of tech products. Tech is everywhere and depended on by many sectors of society like health and education. But without question, consumers could significantly damage tech companies by weaning themselves off of their products and services. Believe it or not, there are alternatives to Google and Facebook. Giving up these services might seem impossible, but with a greater understanding of global corporations’ detrimental impacts, including the potential for harm to physical and mental health, it could begin to feel like less of a sacrifice of entertainment & social status, and more of a necessity.
We can move in this direction by debunking many myths that these are benevolent industries and that these services are doing things for society that it can’t already do. This can start at home. We can log off of Facebook for good, use something other than Google search and resist the urge to upgrade from functioning tech devices. Parents could force schools to reassess the need for excessive tech in the classroom and demand a more well-rounded education for their kids. The low tech emphasis in education has borne fruit in Finland, where playtime for young students is sacred and the ethos is that competition isn’t as important as cooperation. The nation of 5.5 million has built one of the top education systems in the world and done it with a ratio of 1 tech device for every 5 students. By contrast, in the United States that ratio is almost 1 to 1.
Tech and capitalism can and should be linked to the harm they inflict all over the world. From enhancement of drone technology for the military, to tax evasion and worker exploitation at home and abroad, companies should be accountable for and rejected for abuses. The bottom line is the driving force behind the behavior of these companies, and if communities understand the self-inflicted wound that is buying from small-business-killing Amazon or searching on data-collecting Google, we can build towards damaging the profitability of these corporations and divesting altogether.
Knowing there are communities not just facing
this sort of extinction, but also resisting it
restored some hope.
People like Reverend Edward Pinkney should continue to share their stories as well. As I left Sacred Heart after listening to his story, there was a renewed sense of purpose with respect to local struggles against corporate interests. In Silicon Valley a person on the outside-looking-in at the tech industry can feel isolated. The increasing number of tech workers who live all around us, combined with unwavering support of local and state governments are constantly shifting the culture to a point where non-participation in it, strips the individual of a sense of belonging. Knowing there are communities not just facing this sort of extinction, but also resisting it restored some hope. The presentation also reinforced the need for community building, not just with the obvious groups or people with common interests, but those representing diverse issues in terms of where agreements can be found. We need to find each other at all costs and light the way forward for our communities.
Veronica Eldredge contributed to this article.