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Organizers Are Resisting a 2-Tiered Legal System in Majority-Black Jackson, MS

Black Jacksonians plan to make this attempt at reinstating white supremacist rule “extremely difficult” to implement.

People stand next to the Confederate Mothers statue outside the Mississippi State Capitol building in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 28, 2020.

July 1, 2023 will fall on a Saturday. In Jackson, Mississippi, it’s likely to be a very hot day, or a rainy day, or both. It’s also the day when House Bill 1020 will take effect, and that the whole of the City of Jackson will be no more — at least with respect to the administration of its criminal legal system. Instead, the city will be partitioned into unequal halves: a Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID) and an unnamed nowhere land.

The bill was introduced and shepherded by Rep. Trey Lamar, a Republican and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, assisted by the house speaker who, exercising his prerogative, sent the bill there instead of to the Judiciary Committee. All but one Black representative voted against it, but they were helpless to stop the Republican supermajority from imposing minority rule on the residents of the capital city. After it passed, members of the Black legislative caucus held hands and sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

By July 1, prosecutors and judges will launch a new “inferior court,” which policy analysts at the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund say has some of the features of a municipal court. But unlike Jackson’s municipal court, where prosecutors and judges are elected, in the CCID’s schema they’ll be appointed by the state’s attorney general and the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, respectively. In practical terms, Capitol Police and court officials will be able to patrol, arrest, prosecute, sentence and dispatch those they arrest for misdemeanors to state prison (not the county jail, as is typical for municipal courts). It’s designed as a closed system without any accountability mechanism for the people of Jackson.

At the end of March 2023, the Mississippi Department of Corrections had custody of 19,455 people in its state prisons and other facilities. Though the incarcerated population was up almost 16 percent from the same time last year, without exception, all of its facilities have capacity to increase their current populations.

Kali Akuno, editor of the newly released Jackson Rising Redux: Lessons on Building the Future in the Present, co-founded Cooperation Jackson, a Black economic empowerment and democracy group in a West Jackson neighborhood adjacent to the Capitol.

“They’ll come up with some narrative that justifies Black people being disarmed and imprisoned,” Akuno told Truthout. “It’s a social reality we’ll have to confront.”

By January 1, 2024, pursuant to Senate Bill 2343, one part of the city, the part within the CCID, will only be patrolled by the Capitol Police; the other, by both Capitol Police and the Jackson Police Department (JPD). Protesting at the Capitol building, or anywhere within the CCID, including the governor’s mansion, will be inaccessible without written permission. With that addition, the state administration will be inoculated from citizen discontent, while its poor and Black residents will be doubly policed in their own neighborhoods and, if the past is prelude, violently policed when they’re in the vastly expanded territory of the CCID, doubled from when the map was first drawn.

The state administration will be inoculated from citizen discontent, while its poor and Black residents will be doubly policed in their own neighborhoods.

“We argued it was a Trojan Horse when they introduced it in 2017; we helped organize the coalition that beat it back,” Akuno said. “But they got in the ear of a certain number of Black politicians, they crafted some compromises, and in 2018, they passed it.”

Devin Branch, an organizer, policy analyst and strategist in Jackson, is working with Cooperation Jackson to neutralize the effects of the bills. He observes the undermining of municipal authority and usurpation of its resources in Jackson in part through the lens of the New Afrikan movement whose foundational tenet is “Free the Land!”

“This entire assault on Jackson has only increased as the political leadership in Jackson became more progressive, and more and more willing to move things forward in a manner that was completely contrary to the dictates of the state leadership,” Branch said.

Akuno put it even more acutely: “It’s the Empire striking back.”

He finds it helpful to think about what’s happening in Jackson as the Redeemer movement 2.0, replaying the period after Reconstruction when Democratic white supremacists regained political power in Mississippi to reinstitute racial subordination and exploitation of Black labor.

“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois.

And like the Redeemer movement spread via white terror throughout the South, the takeover of Jackson, Akuno contends, “is a checker on the apartheid checkerboard that neo-Confederates are building in Tennessee, Texas, and across the country in preparation for the ‘national divorce’ they’ll likely attempt to impose if they don’t win the 2024 presidency.”

“What they’ve done in passing these CCID bills is establish some new facts,” Akuno told Truthout. “But what they haven’t done is establish a social consensus in Jackson.”

For the fourth consecutive year, and only two days after the CCID bills were passed and the legislative session ended, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves proclaimed April “Confederate Heritage Month.”

A New Regime of Policing

May 1 will mark the nine-year anniversary of the founding of Cooperation Jackson. Grounded in the Mondragon Principles of cooperation for social transformation, Cooperation Jackson has been enacting a program of interlocking worker-owned businesses and projects in what could credibly be described as a people’s complex improvement district.

“This entire assault on Jackson has only increased as the political leadership in Jackson became more progressive.”

Cooperation Jackson now has around 40 properties in the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust, including: the Ida B. Wells Plaza, a shopping plaza and future home of The People’s Grocery; several acres under cultivation in Freedom Farms and two community gardens; 3-D printing capacity in the “Fab Lab” makers and art gallery space in the Community Production Center; and the group’s administrative center, housed in the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development, where Cooperation Jackson also conducts People’s Assemblies and political education, hosts movie nights, garden produce sales and food giveaways, and in extraordinary cases, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, provides emergency short-term shelter to evacuees from New Orleans.

All of these spaces will soon be overseen by the Capitol Police, which Akuno terms “an occupying army.” He expects policing in the CCID to be “much more brutal to those who don’t have the complexions or the connections that they will need to avoid police entrapment, police harassment and police terror from men in uniforms.”

Many of the JPD’s officers live in Jackson and have community ties. In Akuno’s experience, those relationships can sometimes mitigate police violence and certain forms of abuse.

“We can go talk to people,” he explained. “I can’t talk to the Capitol Police. They don’t live here, they don’t care about here — there’ll be no operating room.”

In 1922, the Mississippi State Senate voted to send the state’s Black residents to the African continent, in order to create “a final home for the American negro.” A century later, Black Jacksonians are still being pushed out of Mississippi. The city’s population, currently 143,776, is declining at a rate of 2.02 percent annually. Since the 2020 census it’s 5.93 percent lower. Over the next three or four years, however, Akuno fears not only that Jackson’s Black majority will be significantly diminished, but also that the city itself will be facing an existential crisis as people flee the apartheid system currently being codified.

“It’s hard to know what the city will look like,” he admitted.

Becoming Ungovernable as Primary Mode of Resistance

To those who are understandably disheartened, Akuno points out that the neo-Confederates are biting off more than they can chew in chipping away at Jackson’s home rule.

“Pretty quickly they’re going to start running into the fault lines of their own logic within the limitations of capitalism,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot more money than they’ve lined up to actually repair and rebuild the infrastructure they’ve left to rot and deteriorate for decades. But they’re committed to a narrative of ‘no new taxes,’ so they’ve put themselves in a bind.”

“We are sharing our knowledge and our experience with others, because what’s happening in Jackson today will be happening elsewhere tomorrow.”

This translates into room to fight back, Akuno says. “We can make its implementation extremely difficult. We can make it unprofitable for all those who are seeking to profit from this, in a lot of critical ways.”

Branch envisions the community formulating a multipronged plan to build up citywide, statewide and ultimately national and international resistance networks “until the entire neo-Confederate power structure in the state of Mississippi is overturned.” He credits the legislature’s partial takeover with the big boost it has seen in attendance at recent events. The weekly community meetings held during the legislative session in the Malcolm X hall at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center have been at or near-full capacity.

“At our initial meeting, we realized this is an area of struggle that we’ve neglected as a community,” Branch told Truthout. “Given its composition, the majority of what comes out of the legislature is going to be hostile to our interests.”

Branch says this work is in alignment with Cooperation Jackson’s roots, which lay deep within the struggle for democratic rights, economic justice and self-determination, particularly for people of African descent in the Deep South.

“It’s not about engaging in electoral work, at all, or legislative work, per se,” he said. “This is about educating our community about what is happening in the legislature that impacts their lives, and helping people to build the capacity to struggle.”

Branch reported that many of those who joined in the conversations had never been to the State Capitol or had never participated in a discussion about the legislative process. The conversations were so fruitful they’ll be holding similar community conversations in far-flung corners of the city.

“Now that the session is over, we’re going elsewhere instead of always asking people to come to us,” Branch explained.

Beginning later in April, Cooperation Jackson’s outreach staff will accompany a team of volunteers door-to-door to make new contacts and to reconnect with people they’ve served during multiple water crises. They’ll be conducting a deep canvass of Jacksonians from all over the city “to gain an accurate understanding of where communities stand on the issues so we have some actual hard data to work with,” Branch said. The canvass questions are still being finalized, but will get at the heart of “What actually brings safety in communities?”

In March, Cooperation Jackson’s organizers met with activists from St. Louis who are also facing interference from state legislators. Missouri Republicans have already passed a bill in their House and are moving SB 575 in the Senate to allow specially appointed state prosecutors to take over investigations in municipalities.

“We are learning from what’s happening everywhere, where people are standing in opposition to attempts to suppress or to outright take political power from our African communities,” Branch said. “We are sharing our knowledge and our experience with others, because what’s happening in Jackson today will be happening elsewhere tomorrow.”

People in Jackson already understand this will be a protracted fight, but Akuno wants them to grasp it as “a heavyweight battle.”

With that in mind, Cooperation Jackson has set up reverse osmosis rain catchment systems and gardens as autonomously as possible. After the recent crises that have plagued the city’s water system, they never want to cede control over safe drinking water and fresh produce for their community.

Losing a round or two doesn’t mean losing the fight, or that we have to lose,” Akuno counseled. “We’re the small axe, so we have to be clear about how sharp and ready we need to be to cut down the big tree.”

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