Benton Harbor — Here are some of the things the Rev. Ed Pinkney has been called — charlatan, narcissist, conspiracist, racist, felon.
But that was before Benton Harbor residents learned their water was contaminated with lead.
For some, Pinkney now sports a new moniker — hero.
He was one of the first people who warned residents about the water in 2018. He also formed a group that collected samples for testing and distributed filters and bottled water door to door.
After 20 years as a voice crying in the wilderness, he was being listened to. The water crisis gave him something he never had before — credibility.
“The only thing I’m trying to do is accomplish something. That’s it,” he said. “And it’s by any means necessary.”
But Pinkney, 73, wasn’t done yet.
In October, he helped start a campaign to recall the mayor for what he saw as his lack of action on the water issue.
The last two times he tried to recall a public official — in 2005 and 2013 — he ended up in jail.
In March, Pinkney said he was visited by two detectives from the Michigan State Police. But they didn’t want to talk about the recall. They wanted to ask about the water.
He said the police told him they had received reports he tampered with the water samples collected by his group, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council.
The police also asked whether Pinkney was selling bottled water the state had donated to residents.
The state police, which declined to discuss the investigation, forwarded its findings to the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office. Berrien County Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli declined to comment.
Pinkney dismissed the allegations, saying this is what happens when you ruffle feathers.
“To get something done, you have to challenge the powers that be,” he said. “Of course, they’re going to get mad. Of course, they’re going to send the state police to your house. That’s what they do.”
Pinkney has a lot of concerns about Benton Harbor, some of which are shared by residents.
One example is Harbor Shores, a resort development built in 2010. More than a few locals worry the neighborhood, with its $1.5 million homes and lakefront golf course, is part of an effort to gentrify the city.
But Pinkney begins to lose people with some of his more extreme views.
He argues that Whites are the devil and Black leaders who work with them are sellouts. He said Blacks have never been truly free, and are beholden to a racist power structure.
“These White folks, they’re something else,” Pinkney said on his weekly podcast in May. “They have just one intention: that’s to destroy Black folks. They will lie, they will cheat, they will even kill.”
He also alienates people with his vitriol.
According to the Gospel of Pinkney, local judges are a lynch mob in black robes, a city commissioner is like the Scarecrow in the “The Wizard of Oz” — “no heart” — and a police chief is as spineless as Barney Fife, the hapless deputy sheriff on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
City Commissioner Ron Singleton said Pinkney’s insults make it hard to believe he’s a man of the cloth.
“I’ve been around a while. I know quite a few reverends,” said Singleton, 65. “But come on, man, what kind of reverend is that? He says he’s Christian. I never saw anything like that taught in the Bible.”
Like many officials, Singleton was a former ally whom Pinkney turned against for allegedly being too cozy with Whites.
‘Stand up and fight’
Pinkney took a circuitous path to heroism, one that ran through several jails. Born and raised in Chicago, he was convicted of theft and assault when he was young.
In 1999, he pleaded guilty to embezzlement and served 11 months in jail. He was an insurance agent for Mutual of Omaha who was charged with keeping premiums he received from customers. He also was charged with making himself the beneficiary of some policies.
After his release, Pinkney reinvented himself as a radical minister. He received a degree in theology from Liberty University, the private school in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell. He is pastor of God’s Household of Faith in Benton Harbor.
In 2003, a Black motorcyclist being chased by the police died when he crashed into a home in Benton Harbor. Residents rioted for two nights, shattering store windows, overturning cars and burning down 13 buildings.
Residents of the predominantly Black town, one of the poorest in Michigan, were long frustrated with violence, bad schools, and crumbling infrastructure. Nearly half of the residents live in poverty.
Pinkney said at the time he was sorry about the damage caused by the rioting but that it served a purpose. He said society will never change until Blacks rise up and demand better. Anything short of confrontation is doomed to fail, he said.
This would be his guiding principle for the next 19 years.
“If you have to beg another man to be free, you will never be free,” he said. “You have to stand up and fight. If you can’t take it, you won’t get it.”
His best example is himself.
In June, he moderated a meeting between residents and lawyers who filed a lawsuit against the city and state over the tainted water.
“Y’all got somebody pretty special here — me,” he told 90 people at a Hilton conference room in Benton Township. “I’m a man of action. And I don’t take no prisoners. People don’t like the way I do things. But you do. I play to win. I don’t play to tie.”
In 2005, Pinkney won a campaign to remove City Commissioner Glenn Yarbrough from office. He was upset with Yarbrough for supporting the leasing of a city park to the developer of Harbor Shores.
But the recall was reversed by a judge when it was discovered Pinkney had paid residents $5 to cast absentee ballots. He told some of the people, who couldn’t read, that they were signing job applications, they testified in court.
Pinkney paid another person $20 to recruit the voters at a soup kitchen, according to testimony.
Convicted of influencing voters with money and improper possession of absentee ballots, he was sentenced to a year in jail. But the judge allowed him to serve the sentence at home on a tether.
In 2013, Pinkney wanted to recall Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower for his opposition to a city income tax.
Pinkney supported the 1% tax to get money from Whirlpool, whose headquarters are in Benton Harbor. He describes the appliance maker, which supported Harbor Shores, as “the evil, evil, wicked empire.” (The tax was eventually approved in 2017.)
Before the recall vote was held, Pinkney was accused of changing the dates on five of the recall petitions he had circulated, according to court testimony. Signatures on a petition must be obtained within 60 days of the petition’s filing.
Pinkney was convicted of five counts of election fraud and served 2.5 years in prison. After his release, it was discovered that he had been incorrectly charged.
In 1954, the Michigan Legislature had inadvertently removed a provision of the election code that outlawed fraud but retained the part describing the penalty. Pinkney was charged under the punishment provision. The Michigan Supreme Court vacated his conviction in 2018.
Pushing for action
After lead was discovered in Benton Harbor’s water in 2018, the city and state began working on the problem but not fast enough for Pinkney.
The activist, joined by a growing number of environmental organizations around the country, was alarmed by estimates it would take 20 years to replace all of the city’s lead pipes.
The final straw came in July 2021 when testing showed the amount of lead in the water remained far above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion for the third year in a row.
“There was no end in sight. It was becoming a significant problem,” said Nick Leonard, executive director of Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Detroit. “We wanted bottled water, new pipes, robust services.”
Pinkney, Leonard and 18 other advocacy groups filed a petition in September asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.
One day before the request was made, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed spending $20 million to replace all the lead pipes in the city. Instead of 40 years, she said it would be done in five years. A month later, she shortened it to 18 months.
In late September, the state decided to distribute filters and bottled water because the water was unsafe to drink.
Earlier this month, state regulators announced that lead in the water had dropped below the federal action limit of 15 ppb for the first time since 2018. Also, 78% of the lead pipes have been replaced or verified to be free of lead through Tuesday, according to a state dashboard.
“These water lines are being fixed because he went and made it an issue,” resident Emma Kinnard said about Pinkney. “He knew there was a problem, so he went out to solve the problem.”
Kinnard, 79, was the homeowner who told Pinkney about the problem in 2018. She refers to him as “chief” because he’s a leader, she said.
Targeting the mayor
Pinkney and Marcus Muhammad, the mayor of Benton Harbor, have little in common.
The activist is short while the 6-foot-6 mayor is a local basketball legend who led the high school to two straight appearances in the state finals.
Pinkney favors sneakers while Muhammad is often draped with silk ties, French-cuffed shirts and suits with pocket squares.
The minister has a tart tongue while the mayor couches his criticisms with biblical references.
Muhammad, 47, is a car salesman who joined the city commission in 2009 and became mayor in 2015.
Pinkney was unhappy with him before the water issue. He feels the mayor is too supportive of Whirlpool. It’s the same reason he has turned against most mayors and commissioners.
When Pinkney tried to recall Hightower in 2013, the candidate he was going to replace the mayor with was Muhammad.
Pinkney said Muhammad failed to respond to the water issue with sufficient urgency.
As recently as March 2021, the mayor was quoted in the local paper saying the problem was overblown and rejected comparisons with the lead issue in Flint.
Muhammad told The Detroit News last week that he immediately held a press conference to warn residents about the water when the problem was discovered in 2018. The city had little money but began pursuing grants to resolve the issues, he said.
“Everything I said I was going to do I have done,” Muhammad said.
As for Whirlpool, Muhammad said the company has spurred redevelopment in the city by building a corporate campus in downtown Benton Harbor and contributing $1.5 million a year through the city income tax.
Muhammad openly questions the veracity of the water samples collected by Pinkney and his water group from spring 2020 to summer 2021.
Before the organization began gathering specimens, the highest level of lead collected by the city water department was 72 parts per billion, said the mayor. But Pinkney’s samples soared into the triple digits, reaching as high as 886 parts per billion.
After the collection was taken over by a city contractor, the highest level was 48 parts per billion, said the state. Actions are required when lead concentrations exceed a level of 15 ppb in more than 10% of customer taps sampled, according to federal rules.
The state said 14 of the 64 water samples collected by Pinkney in 2021 didn’t meet its standards. The city’s consulting firm ordered another 14 samples from previously tested sites — a practice that experts labeled as “cherry-picking.”
The city water department had asked Pinkney to help collect the samples because it was having trouble gathering as many specimens as the state wanted.
Muhammad said either the testing was faulty or something was added to the samples.
“The numbers were flying off the chart,” he said. “There’s a saying that figures don’t lie but liars can figure.”
Recall bid fizzles
Sponsors of recalls must be registered to vote in the district of the official they’re trying to remove from office. Pinkney lives just outside of Benton Harbor so he uses residents to file the petitions while he seeks the signatures.
Five of the six petitions filed seeking to recall the mayor were rejected for false information, lack of clarity or citing actions by Muhammad during a previous term in office.
As for the one valid petition, the May 31 deadline passed with no signatures ever submitted to place the issue on the ballot
Pinkney said he advised the sponsor to drop the recall because it would have caused turmoil in the city and gotten in the way of fixing the water problem.
But others contended he had trouble obtaining enough signatures. Duane Seats, 45, a pastor who is the mayor pro tem, scoffed at the notion of Pinkney not wanting to cause a commotion.
“All he does is raise chaos,” Seats said. “He feels every mayor has been wrong, every mayor has been corrupt. What has he contributed? What has he done to have such a great opinion about other people?”
Calling out residents
Pinkney’s public comments turned darker in the final weeks of the failed recall.
In May, he announced on his podcast he was holding a Sambo of the Year contest. Sambo is a derogatory term for a Black person who sold out his race.
One of the candidates is Muhammad. Pinkney referred to him as Marcus Singer, which was his name before he joined the Nation of Islam after graduating from DePaul University. Pinkney said Muhammad lost the right to carry a Nation name because of his actions on the water issue.
Pinkney also said he was going to collect all of Muhammad’s bowties, which are favored by Nation members, and mail them back to the organization.
“Somebody has to call these Sambos out,” he said. “There’s nothing worse in this old world than a Sambo. Nothing.”
Muhammad told The News his long tenure in public office has made him impervious to such insults.
“I’ve acquired alligator skin,” he said. “It would be hard for even a snakebite to penetrate it.”
Pinkney also has turned on city residents.
Every other year the Senior PGA Championship is held at Harbor Shores, and every other year Pinkney holds a demonstration against it.
During the latest protest, which was held in May behind his church, Pinkney told 70 people that the mayor and city commissioners were sellouts and anyone who supported them was a sellout, too.
He criticized residents for saying they don’t have the time to get involved in local issues.
“My brothers and sisters are the busiest people in the whole wide world,” he said. “There’s nobody busier than my Black brothers. All we do is sit around all day and talk. We’re talking as people are destroying the world.”
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