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Mahmoud Al-Qudsi English 252 Mr. Meyers 5 January 2004 Twin Cities, Twin Races A book usually follows a set of standards and guidelines that make it a great read; the obvious details include an introduction to the settings and characters, rising action, the climax, the dénouement, and the conclusion. Some authors however can still create an excellent story while skipping one or more of these parts; and these legacies still live on. However, it is a rare find when an author starts with the climax on the very first page, and makes the dénouement last until the final page, and still has a great book. Alex Kotlowitz accomplished this in The Other Side of the River by bringing in other elements and stories involving poverty, race, safety, and more; literally using the death of Eric McGinnis as an excuse to tell a story yearning to be untold, one of the lives, deaths, and mentalities, of thousands of people, white and black alike. On the very first page, Kotlowitz identifies the climax: the murder of Eric McGinnis and the effects it had on the inhabitants of the two affected communities: Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, both in Michigan, separated only by a small river. These two towns were physically only two and a half miles apart, and the river between them is only a quarter of a mile wide; however, Kotlowitz described the two cities as being worlds apart. From the beginning, the dichotomy was evident: ninety-two percent of Benton Harbor’s population is black, and ninety-five percent of St. Joseph’s population is white. St. Joseph is rich and an excellent place to live in while Benton Harbor is

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impoverished, and was voted as the worst place to reside by many magazines and researches. The uncharismatic appearance of Benton Harbor had long cast its shadow on St. Joseph, whose denizens carried a grudge against their counterparts for that. Simultaneously, the citizens of Benton Harbor were ashamed of the segregated mentalities present in St. Joseph. Most ironically, these two towns are collectively referred to as the “Twin Cities” in the story, and in real life too. Eric F. McGinnis, an African American inhabitant of Benton Harbor and only 16 years old, “died” on May 17, 1991. There were many speculations regarding his death, apart from the hundreds of baseless rumors circulating throughout the Twin Cities. The two major theories were as follows. The residents of Benton Harbor held the belief that Eric McGinnis was murdered by one of the many white inhabitants of St. Joseph, supposedly because he was dating a white girl from that city, something highly looked down upon by the whites. The African American story went on to say that the county’s only detective, Jim Reeves, and the County Prosecutor, Dennis Wiley, were hiding facts, and harboring white criminals. To them Eric McGinnis was a hero, and served as an outlet for years of anger and prejudice, as well as a representation of all the crimes that the white race had perpetrated against the African American “family.” The White side of the story showed much less anger towards the blacks they were not necessarily any less racially prejudiced in their attitude. This can be attributed to the fact that they did not need words to express their feelings to the Blacks, their actions spoke both loud and clear enough. The White population referred to Eric McGinnis’ drowning as a freak occurrence on the wet and muddy slopes of the St. Joseph River, and not in any way a violent crime. The investigators approached this from the White point of

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view, doing only a very basic autopsy, and not bothering to verify their work with experts in that field. The government labeled McGinnis’ death as accidental on his death certificate. This nonfiction novel came about as the result of the introduction of yet another character into this investigation: Alex Kotlowitz. He took it upon himself to tell the story of the unlucky child, and to attempt to discover the truth for the satisfaction of Eric’s parents, himself, and the Twin Cities. What originally appeared to be a relatively simple investigation soon turned into a six-year obsession for Kotlowitz, who swore to achieve justice. He questioned everyone in Benton Harbor, and all the Whites that McGinnis ever met, but he never came to a conclusive answer. Evidences clashed, scandals were abounding, and the truth was to be never recovered. Some of the interesting discoveries that Kotlowitz makes in his search for the truth is that the Twin Cities do have much in common, including the pressing issues of safety, police, socio-economic inequality, and most importantly, race. When Kotlowitz begins his search for the true story behind the death of Eric McGinnis, he questions many people from both cities, to discover that both Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are saddened by the death of a 16-year-old black, but not for the same reasons. The residents of Benton Harbor are saddened by this death, because he was one of their numbers, but are simultaneously angered at what they believe was a racist crime, with clear motives. They refuse to believe that McGinnis had stolen $44 from a white man’s parked car; and they expressed their belief that this was not just a crime against one teenager and his family, but also a crime against all African Americans. To them, this atrocious sin was not committed because of who McGinnis was, but rather what he was.

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The White citizens of St. Joseph believed that McGinnis had died accidentally, and viewed his death as a fatal accident. The “sad” part of his death to them was that Blacks had “infiltrated” their community, and were spreading vice throughout it. They took his death in without a flinch, and to them it was a routine incident. However, they were taken aback by the manner, and in a way even saddened, by the Black reaction to his death, and the intense and immediate animosity that came about. Kotlowitz investigated yet another problem in the existing societies: the police force. He had become a great friend with the head officer in this investigation, the police detective Jim Reeves, who provided him with many inside facts, and let him understand the different attitudes that the police department could take on one issue. He noted that the investigation that was done in response to this death was carried out in a most superficial manner, and in what he considered an almost indifferent attitude. The police were apparently content at labeling this an accident, and considering the case closed. Kotlowitz referred to this by noting that the autopsy done at St. Joseph was nothing. The St. Joseph police had been in a position to send in Eric’s body to a specialist, Dr. Stephen D. Cohle, who lived only miles away and was renowned for his thoroughness, but they buried him without any further attention. Kotlowitz also related an incident upon which he had visited Dr. Cohle during one of his autopsies. The deceased was a Chinese man who had committed suicide after threatening to do so for many years. His wife testified to his depression, and the case was extremely clear. Yet the county police had taken it upon themselves to make sure that there was no outside cause or hidden motive, and sent the body to Dr. Cohle.

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The third issue unearthed by the investigation was the poverty prevalent in Benton Harbor in contrast to the wealth and riches of St. Joseph. The history of Benton Harbor shows that it was originally an all-white community and an extremely well to do neighborhood, with an excellent education system. As Blacks started entering the city because of their escapades from slavery northward, the Whites tried to expel them, but they failed, so they decided to move out instead. They left several Whites their, the “slave-masters” to run Benton Harbor, and then they moved out to St. Joseph. Soon enough, the social standards set a barrier between the two cities, and blacks only visited St. Joseph, and almost never resided therein. However, the generalization that Benton Harbor was poor did not hold for all its members. For one, the McGinnis family was relatively rich, and Eric could afford many things that even some of his white “friends” said they could not. It may have been for this reason that Eric managed to visit St. Joseph, and attend clubs there regularly without too much trouble for quiet a long time. Many people did not realize this until Kotlowitz approached them point-blank. It became too hard to determine who was at fault, especially since it was clear that neither party was innocent. The fruit of all this research proved that the fault was two-way, and there was no clear answer. The final issue discussed in The Other Side of the River was naturally race. With a 92% Black community and a 95% White community only two miles away, race is naturally going to become a crisis, one that must be dealt with quickly, cautiously, and covertly. What becomes clear as the story unfolds is that Benton Harbor viewed race as an obvious problem, and struggled to end it, even if through violent means. Not many people today would consider the approach the Blacks chose as being necessarily

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incorrect. Most would view protests and claims of scandals over this topic to be completely allowed and within the “rules of the game.” However, compared to the views the Whites were taking, it may not have been the best of ideas. The White citizens of St. Joseph in the 1990s did not see race as the reason for the separation, but they used the geographic locale, or the city that the people were from, as an excuse for their hatred. Unlike the Blacks, they did not look at it objectively; rather they took it from the point of view that they would appear most innocent under the limelight thereof. To them, as it was to many others in a sense, Blacks were naturally the way they are, and that their attitude did not help them succeed, and not that the Blacks were in their situation because of their being Black. Another point, implied and not spoken, was the effect these Twin Cities had in the larger scope of reality. Throughout the story, the Twin Cities were only mentioned in relativity to one another. They were never compared to anything else, and were treated only in accordance to one another. However, a closer look reveals that every single crime perpetrated by either party, Blacks or Whites alike, has a comparable counterpart in the larger scheme of things. The Twin Cities can be looked upon as being in reality the Twin Races, the Black Race and the White Race, the Twin Cities act as a microcosm displaying a wide variety of attitudes, ranging from hatred and anger to melancholy helplessness. From this microcosm, an example can be taken for those who wish to learn, understand, comprehend, or solve. By following the guidelines offered in this story, it becomes possible to achiever something greater than what most had hoped.