The city of Jackson, in the heart of staunchly Republican Mississippi, might seem an unlikely place for a municipal revolution. Yet Jackson’s radicalism has been forged in the crucible of massive disinvestment, both by private industry and by a conservative state legislature. Led by the Black nationalist organization Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, organizers in Jackson have backed experiments in everything from worker-owned businesses to participatory, neighborhood-by-neighborhood democracy.
A leader of this movement, Jackson Councilman Chokwe Lumumba, helped start people’s assemblies in the city, inviting residents to hash out the kinds of changes they want to see. He was elected mayor in 2013, only to pass away months later.
In an effort to carry on his father’s legacy, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, 33, ran to succeed his father and lost. Now, with his second run, he hopes to continue the work his father began.
Lumumba spoke with In These Times in April about the challenges Jackson faces, the role of electoral politics in building movements, and how radical democracy is practiced in a red state. The May 2 Jackson primary is widely expected to result in a runoff. [Update: Lumumba won the primary outright, and is expected to win easily in the general election, making him the likely next mayor.]
Why are you more optimistic about your prospects this time around?
I’ve had the benefit of having time to grieve. In a two-month time span, I laid my father to rest and ran a campaign for the first time, and my wife gave birth to our first child. So it was a whirlwind. That experience prepared us for what we’re taking on now.
Where do you see electoral politics in the bigger picture of making change?
We need to re-envision the electoral process. For far too long we’ve approached it backward. We wait on someone to indicate their political ambition, and we accept their promises and their agenda, only to find ourselves disappointed. The reality is that the onus is on us. As a community, we have a responsibility to be the authors of our own agenda, and then draft leadership that represents that agenda. I see electoral politics as a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The people’s platform I helped author alongside my father came from years of community organizing. One of the lessons we learned is that not everyone is going to buy in, so you have to start by addressing people’s immediate needs and concerns. Fixing a pothole may not seem like a means to change the world, but we have to connect pothole to pothole and community to community. A community in Jackson can understand why a community in Chicago or in Gary, Ind., suffers from the same conditions when they understand that none of them have control over the process that fixes the pothole. A people’s platform, then, is one rooted in self-determination, rooted in experience and frustration, and one that gets into the weeds of what people deal with every day. It’s ever-evolving and continues to incorporate individuals’ critiques and concerns.
How does the people’s assembly fit in?
The people’s assembly grew out of an idea my father had as a city council person for Ward 2 in Jackson. At that time, the assembly moved between community centers and churches within the ward. When he became mayor, it expanded to citywide. We’ve dealt with issues ranging from school board appointments to racial profiling. What is happening in the city dictates the turnout. Sometimes we have one to two hundred people, sometimes more.
The beauty of the people’s assembly is that, though it’s government related, it is meant as a way to apply outside pressure to those in government. Assemblies are strategically placed throughout the city, so we can give information to the community and get information back from the community about what issues are facing them.
One of my father’s big victories as mayor was to pass a 1 percent sales tax solely to fund infrastructure projects. Ninety percent of the population of Jackson voted in support of that tax, which is amazing to me. I can’t think of another place in recent memory where 90 percent of the population voted to tax themselves. That happened not because of a stroke of luck, but because we got on the radio, and anywhere we could, and said that we didn’t have the resources to pay for fixing the pipes and roads and needed to take some drastic measures. Thousands of people came to the assemblies about the tax. When you give people the right information, they make the right decision.
In what ways do you see Jackson as a model for similar communities around the country?
Many of the issues in Jackson stem from the fact that there are so many with so little and so few with so much. Almost all of the country’s wealth is controlled by 1 percent of the population. So we have to start exploring creative economic development measures for underserved communities. Jackson has no problems producing wealth, but it does have problems maintaining wealth.
Businesses that have made good money in Jackson are leaving, and new businesses that come here are not invested in staying in the city. To fix this, we have to start looking to structures like cooperative businesses, where the community can decide what it wants to own.
Another one of the primary issues people discuss in Jackson is our crumbling infrastructure. Our roads are in a horrible state, worse than when my father was in office. How do we turn this crumbling infrastructure into an economic frontier that not only develops roads and fixes pipes, but creates jobs?
How do you keep from essentially having to administrate an austerity agenda handed down from Mississippi’s Republican state legislature?
A marriage without respect won’t produce much. If we have a clear agenda that we want to see, and a leadership that is willing to stand on that agenda, people will be more likely to respect our position. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy road.
What do you hope to include in that agenda?
The city outsources too much work, and our budget is bleeding because of it. If you put more money in the hands of people who live and work here you’ll recover more money as a city. But we fall prey to companies that say they can do the work more cheaply. That diminishes the capacity of the city, though, and we lose the workforce and expertise to do that work. I want to create a better balance between in-house and outsourced work. My goal is seeing 60 percent of the boots working on the ground being Jacksonian, and 50 percent of the subcontracters being minority subcontracters. Jackson is more than 80 percent African-American. If more than 80 percent of your population is left-handed, then you need some left-handed jobs.
What is the value of doing this sort of work in a red state like Mississippi?
When people ask me how I felt after the November election, I tell them that I woke up in Mississippi. No matter whether Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George Bush or Bill Clinton is in office, we’ve always been at the bottom. It’s a forgotten place. The Republican Party has taken Mississippi for granted. The Democratic Party has abandoned Mississippi. I think we can erase people’s blind allegiances when we can show that someone cares about them, by dealing with their day-to-day concerns.
With its gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots, Jackson really is the belly of the beast. If we can change things in Mississippi, then the hope is that we can serve as a model for the rest of the world. We believe the change has to happen where it’s most unlikely, where people are living with the worst of conditions.
We’re trying to create a more inclusive process of governance, where the people demonstrate that they’re no longer going to accept what others tell them. Strong people don’t need strong leaders. We’re trying to create strong people.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.