This story is part of Sarah Jaffe’s new series Interviews for Resistance, which we will feature on BillMoyers.com. In it, Jaffe speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.
In 2013, attorney Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi on a platform of economic self-determination for the people of Jackson, a plan that as Kali Akuno explained (in Interviews for Resistance #1) focuses on “transforming the economy, creating a democratic economy leading toward the creation and construction of a socialist economy, but through a democratic bottom-up process.” Lumumba’s untimely death less than a year into his term put some of those plans on hold, though the movement continued its work through the organization Cooperation Jackson to create a network of worker cooperatives in the city. Now, Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Jackson attorney, is again running for mayor to expand on that work. I spoke with him about his campaign, the deeply-entrenched problems facing Jackson and his late father’s legacy.
Sarah Jaffe: For people who don’t know the history of what has been going on in Jackson, Mississippi over the last several years, give us a little bit of a background on the movement you come out of.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba: I am a member of the Malcom X Grassroots Movement and also a member of Cooperation Jackson, the Coalition for Economic Justice and the Human Rights Collective, which are organizations steeped in the idea of creating self-determination and human rights. We have been engaged in initiatives toward a solidarity economy for the people of Jackson, to give people more control over their destinies. We aim to do this in a comprehensive fashion through engaging electoral politics and other community-based initiatives that we believe will give people more control over their governance and their conditions.
SJ: Tell us a little bit about how the campaign is going. You have got a couple of weeks before the election?
CAL: The election is May 2. We announced our candidacy nearly a year ago, and the response has been great. We are, by most accounts, the likely victors. However, we don’t put all of our faith in polls. It is not a substitute for working. We are trying to make certain that we don’t get complacent and that we see this all the way through.
SJ: What are some of the issues people have been most concerned with?
CAL: The issue I hear about most is the infrastructure. Our roads are in a horrible state. We have pipes that are over a hundred years old that are decaying, corroded and breaking throughout the city. There are also budgetary issues with the city. Our city employees are furloughed right now, and we lack economic development. Our school system is suffering and crime is high. There is a symbiotic relationship between those things. We believe there are some steps that will really help bring change to the city of Jackson.
SJ: Talk about Cooperation Jackson and its roots in the period when your father was briefly mayor.
CAL: Cooperation Jackson actually was founded shortly after my father passed. It came out of the Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, which is named after my father. We are working to create a solidarity economy, empower underserved communities economically and achieve economic justice. Jackson, like a number of cities, is not a city with a problem producing wealth. It is a city with a problem maintaining wealth.
We have to create a better environment that helps retain wealth in underserved communities.
We are looking at the cooperative business model, which could essentially be anything. One thing people are frustrated about, even though we are a city of about 175,000 people, is that there is no movie theater in the city of Jackson. All the movie theaters are in bedroom communities. Where we see a void, where we see a need, we can create something for ourselves — in this case, a cooperative movie theater, so the community can fill its own gaps and at the same time give the people who work the opportunity to dictate what their labor will be and what the fruits of their labor will be.
SJ: This would be pretty big, radical change for the city of Jackson. Tell us a little bit about the opposition to all of the work you’re doing.
CAL: There is the opposition from the big power brokers who have benefited from the way the system currently works. Our situation is much like the nation as a whole, where you have so many with so little and so few with so much. They want to fight against any type of change that might level a playing field.
Then you have misinformation. You have confusion. You have people who are being told it is not in their best interest. We just have to make certain we really are clear in our message and in the delivery. That we are not trying to push anyone from the table; we are trying to bring more people to it. That is what we really want to do, and we believe that there is opportunity to do so.
We talk about creating wealth. My stated goal is that on city contracts, I want 60 percent of the boots on ground to be Jacksonian. Fifty percent of the subcontracting I want to be minority subcontracting. Jackson is 85 percent African-American. My vision is not even a question of color; it is a question of economics. If 85 percent of your population is left-handed, then you need some left-handed jobs.
SJ: That is an excellent way to put it. I like that. When I talked to Kali back in January, we were talking about a couple of the challenges — like that the state could potentially take over both the school system and the water system. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CAL: What we are seeing throughout the country is that there is communication between different oppressive institutions. We are seeing a lot of what took place in Detroit [ with the emergency managers] Now there is an effort to implement that here in Jackson. What took place in Charlotte, North Carolina where they tried to take over the airport, is now underway here in Jackson. There is an effort to do so. Many people don’t know that before Detroit went bankrupt, they lost control of their water.
There are lessons learned and battle stories being exchanged on both sides. We have to make certain that we are prepared and share information so we can stop those efforts on our community and other similar communities. There is an effort to regionalize our water, which I am against. The West Rankin community is a client of our water system, and they are threatening to get off of the system and create their own water treatment facility. They represent less than 25 percent of our clientele, and they are looking for a 50/50 split or an even greater say in decision-making on the board. That doesn’t make sound, rational sense to me. I think we have to fight that effort.
The city of Jackson owns its own airport. Jackson is in Hinds County, but the airport is in Rankin County. It is on a plot of land of more than 3,000 acres. The actual airport sits on 800 of those acres — all of which is owned by Jackson, and some of which has been incorporated into the city. A lot of development has gone on in the area and it is prime real estate. There is an effort by Rankin County to steal it from Jackson so they can develop it for their needs, as opposed to what meets the needs of the citizens of Jackson.
We are trying to fight those things. Part of that requires leaders who know how to advocate. People have often said, “You need those friendships to get the job done and to make certain that you aren’t stepped on.” I think friendships are important, but beyond relationships is respect. A marriage without respect won’t produce much. They need to understand Jackson will have leaders who will find the points of leverage, will find the points that highlight our strengths versus their weaknesses and negotiate for things that are amenable to both sides. If you don’t have that posture, if you are not willing to do what it takes to rescue your sales, then no one else is going to come in. The cavalry isn’t coming to save you.
SJ: We live in Trumplandia now. For somebody who lived in Mississippi and organized there for a long time, what have you been thinking about when watching the last couple of months of the Trump administration, and what advice do you have for people who — as Kali said to me — “woke up in Mississippi on Nov. 9”?
CAL: When people ask, “How did you feel the Wednesday after the election?” I said, “Well, I woke up in Mississippi.” What that means to me is that no matter whether Trump is president or whether Obama was president, in Mississippi if you were poor before Obama, you were most likely poor after Obama. Mississippi has not had the opportunity to feel great booms or big busts in the financial market of our country, because no matter whether the country was excelling or in decline, we still were at the bottom. We have always been at the bottom. Mississippi has been largely neglected by everyone.
The real opportunity to win Mississippi or to organize in Mississippi is to address the needs of the people. It is a real opportunity to develop, because a place like Mississippi has been the haven of oppression in many regards, whether we are talking about racially, culturally, socially or even economically. It is a haven for bad employment practices. If you can change conditions in Mississippi, right here in the belly of the beast, then it speaks to what we can achieve across the globe. We no longer want Mississippi to be the refuge for companies that want to pay low wages and create conditions in which employees are treated in a devastating way. If we can change that dynamic here, then it makes it unsafe for them to go to any place to do that. We start by creating an agenda and creating the model for what we can achieve as a people, and what principled leadership can achieve, so there is no safe space for that type of oppression.
SJ: Anything else you want people to know about your campaign or the work in Jackson?
CAL: I want people to understand that this is sincere work. I do not believe electoral politics is the end; it is the means to an end. We have to make certain we have a comprehensive and holistic approach to how we change conditions for people. That is why we have organizations like the Malcom X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson. It is why we have engaged in a number of efforts throughout the years to really address where people are hurting most. But it is also why we see a unique opportunity to expand our approach, and to bring more people into the fold and really start addressing what people are dealing with.
I want people to understand that what is happening in Mississippi isn’t exclusively important to Mississippi; it is important to the world that we have things like people’s assemblies where we try to pressure leadership, receive information from leadership and at the same time give information to leadership. We are always engaged in the process.
We want to change the way we look at electoral politics. No longer should we just buy someone’s agenda and listen to how they are going to do all these great things for us, only to find ourselves disappointed. We need to start creating the agenda for ourselves as a community and draft the leadership that represents our agenda.