Meet the Left Radical Who Will Likely Be Jackson, Mississippi’s Next Mayor

If the Left can make it here, they can make it anywhere.

Kate Aronoff May 2, 2017

“Change has to happen where it’s most unlikely,” says Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a mayoral candidate in Jackson, Miss. (Courtesy of the Lumumba for Mayor campaign)

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.

If we can change things in Mississippi, then the hope is that we can serve as a model for the rest of the world.

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 Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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