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Other River

The Other Side of the River, Revisited

A few weeks ago, about thirty people assembled under cloudy skies on a bluff overlooking the St. Joseph River, in downtown St. Joseph, Michigan. Eric McGinnis, a Black teen-ager from Benton Harbor, the next town over, mysteriously drowned in the river thirty years earlier, on May 17, 1991, and the people had gathered to honor…

A few weeks before, about thirty individuals constructed under overcast sky on a bluff overlooking the St. Joseph River, in downtown St. Joseph, Michigan. Eric McGinnis, a Black teen-ager from Benton Harbor, the next town over, inexplicably disappeared in the lake thirty years before, on May 17, 1991, and the people had gathered to honor his memory. At one point, the names of others who’d died in unresolved situation in the region –all of these Black people, many the victims of road violence, and some of whom were found in the river–were read ; among the rally’s organizers rang a bell for every title. Afterward, Pastor Duane Seats, who’s a city commissioner in Benton Harbor, talked to the audience. Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are both small towns, and therefore it was unsurprising that Seats had attended junior high school with McGinnis. “That was a cold day when they told us Eric had died,” he said. “They’ve been telling me since the seventies, if you go over there”–to St. Joseph–“you might not come back.”

McGinnis’s death and these two towns were the topic of my novel”The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma,” published in 1998. The night that McGinnis disappeared, in age sixteen, he had been seeing a teen nightclub at St. Joseph, a town of about eight thousand that sits across the coast of Lake Michigan. St. Joseph gets the texture of a hotel town: it is predominantly white and prosperous, and boasts one of the most-visited shorelines in the region, Silver Beach. On the other side of the lake sits Benton Harbor, with almost ten million inhabitants. It is predominantly Black and economically distressed. The two cities are, without irony, known as”the Twin Cities.” I was drawn there many years back not because they were an anomaly, but rather because they seemed emblematic of just how most of us live, separate and deeply unequal.

An hour or so before the vigil, a local TV station had reported that the St. Joseph authorities had reopened the case into McGinnis’s death. Someone had come forward claiming to have observed his last moments. My reporting for the book revealed some information about that evening. McGinnis was also dating a white girl with whom he had danced in the club. It was a slow night, and McGinnis drifted out, ultimately entering an unlocked car. He grabbed forty-four dollars from the glove compartment. The car’s owner, a middle-aged white man, came upon him and briefly chased him down State Street, past an off-duty detective with the sheriff’s department who had been entering a restaurant. (The detective called the police but didn’t join in the pursuit.) McGinnis soon outran the man, however, five days later, men from the Coast Guard Station St. Joseph discovered McGinnis’s bloated body floating in the river. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.

For a number of years, I was obsessed with McGinnis’s departure. I read and reread authorities records, and interviewed his friends and his family. (Both his parents have passed away.) I spent hours with the chief detective on the case. I talked with adolescents in St. Joseph. I tracked down people who claimed to have observed McGinnis that night. I reviewed the autopsy reports using a renowned forensic pathologist. I canoed the river to measure its currents. Virtually everyone I spoke to in St. Joseph, the white city, was convinced that McGinnis, knowing that the authorities might be searching for him, had tried to float the river to find home or had fallen in while trying to cross a railway bridge. Everybody I talked with in Benton Harbor was convinced that McGinnis had died as a result of foul play, probably because he had been dating a white woman. It was like a Rashomon of race, in which people came to the singular moment with a feeling of certainty that had to do with their own personal encounters –with which side of the river they came out of –than the facts of the situation.

The new development broke a few weeks ago. A man from St. Joseph, who was a contemporary of McGinnis’s, came ahead to some nearby TV anchor, Brian Conybeare, claiming to have witnessed McGinnis’s being chased by a small group of white teens and young guys. The name of the witness seemed familiar. As soon as I went back through old e-mails, I found that, in 2014, he had reached out to me with the subject line:”Please Help Me!” He wrote, in part,”It seems like it just happened yesterday. It hurts the most when I think of how Eric McGinnis gestured to my friend & I for help as he was being chased… . I am tortured on a constant basis by my conscience.” He inquired if I could help him locate an lawyer. I wrote to him to state that, if he thought he could spot the Men and Women who’d chased Eric, then might

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