Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 30th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
In 2013, radical attorney Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, on a platform of economic self-determination for the people of Jackson, a plan that community organizer Kali Akuno described as aimed at “transforming the economy, creating a democratic economy leading towards 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 outside of political power, founding the organization Cooperation Jackson to create a network of worker cooperatives in the city. Now, Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, also an attorney, is running for mayor of the city, to expand on the work that began years ago.
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 Malcolm 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 seeing human rights for human beings. What we have been engaged in are initiatives to see a solidarity economy come into fruition for the people of Jackson and give people more control over their destinies. [We are] looking to do it in a comprehensive fashion through the engagement of electoral politics and a number of other community-based initiatives that we believe will change the order of the world, in terms of giving people more control over their governance, more control over their conditions, and not only changing the order of Jackson, but the order of the world.
Tell us a little bit about how the campaign is going. You have got a couple of weeks before the election?
Yes, we are right at the edge of this thing. The election is May 2. We announced our candidacy nearly a year ago. To this point, it has been going strong. We are performing well. The response has been great. We are, by most accounts, the likely victors. However, we don’t put all of our faith in polls and such. It is not a substitute for working. We are trying to make certain we don’t get complacent and that we see this thing all the way through.
What are some of the issues people have been most concerned with while you are out campaigning?
The primary issue that you hear about most is the infrastructure. Our roads are in a horrible state. We have our pipes, which are over a hundred years old. They are decaying and corroded and breaking throughout the city. Those are the issues that you hear most about. But there are also budgetary issues with the city. Our city employees are furloughed at this time. We have a lack of economic development. Our school system is suffering and crime is high. All of which — there is a symbiotic relationship, there is a nexus between those things. We believe there are some steps we can employ that we believe will really help bring a change in the city of Jackson.
Talk about Cooperation Jackson and its roots in the period when your father was briefly mayor.
Cooperation Jackson actually was founded after my father passed, shortly after he passed. Cooperation Jackson came out of the Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, which is named after my father. What we are trying to achieve is creating a solidarity economy and empowering underserved communities economically and having economic justice and exploring new and creative measures of how we do that. Jackson, like a number of cities, is not a city that has a problem producing wealth. It is a city that has a problem maintaining wealth.
We have to create a better environment that helps aid in the retention of wealth within underserved communities. We have had business come — it takes the idea of a need for business development and looks at the best practices to do so, making certain that we invite and create and nurture and have an incubator for small home-grown businesses that are needed in the community, but also that we create businesses that by their very nature are owned by and support the community.
We are looking at the cooperative business model, where a cooperative business could essentially be anything you could imagine. One thing people are frustrated about, even though we are a city of 175,000+, there is no movie theater in the City of Jackson. All the movie theaters are in the bedroom communities. We feel that where we see a void, where we see a need, we can create it for ourselves and create a cooperative movie theater. Therefore, the community is able to fill its gaps, fill its voids, and at the same time the people who work and labor have the opportunity to dictate what their labor will be and dictate what the fruits of their labor will be.
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.
There are different forms of opposition. There is the opposition from the big power brokers who have benefited from the way the system currently exists. We have a situation that is much like the nation where you have so many with so little and so few with so much. They represent those interests and want to fight against any type of change that might level a playing field. That is on one hand.
Then you have misinformation. You have confusion. You have people who are being told that it is not in their best interest…. We just have to make certain that we really are clear in our message and clear in the delivery of what we are trying to accomplish. That we are not trying to push anyone from the table, we are trying to bring more people to it and expand and broaden the tent. That is what we really want to do and we believe that there is opportunity to do so.
When we talk about creating wealth, one thing that I have as a stated goal is that on city contracts, if I am fortunate to be elected mayor, I want to see 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, as it is a question of economics. If 85 percent of your population is left handed, then you need some left handed jobs.
That is an excellent way to put it. I like that. When I talked to Kali back in January, he was talking about a couple of the challenges being that the state could potentially take over both the school system and the water system. Can you talk a little bit about that?
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 in a place like Detroit, before Detroit when 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 have to be prepared and share information so that we can stop those efforts being employed on our community and other communities similarly positioned. There is an effort to stress a need to regionalize our water, which I am against. One [among] our clientele is a bedroom community, the West Rankin community, which is a client to 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. They are looking for a 50/50 split or even greater on their side in terms of the decision-making from the board. I believe that makes no sense. 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. However, the airport is in Rankin County. It is in a plot of land that the city purchased of more than 3,000 acres, of which, 800 of those acres the actual airport sits on. All of which is owned by Jackson and some of which has been incorporated into the City of Jackson. A lot of development has gone on in the area and it is prime real estate. There is an effort to steal it from Jackson so that they could develop 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 leadership that knows how to advocate. People have often said, “You need those friendships in order to get the job done and to make certain that you aren’t stepped on.” I think friendships are important; however, beyond just relationships, is respect. A marriage without respect won’t produce much. They need to understand that Jackson will have leadership that — when it comes to the table — 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.
We live in Trumplandia now. For somebody who has been in Mississippi and working and organizing in Mississippi for a long time, what have you been thinking watching the last couple of months of the Trump administration and what advice do you have for people who are — Kali said to me — “Everybody woke up in Mississippi on November 9.”
Yes, that has been my statement 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 on a 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 in this space. I think it is a real opportunity to develop, because if you take a place like Mississippi (which 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 the 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 fashion. If we can change that dynamic here, then it makes it unsafe for them to go to any place to do that. We start 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.
Anything else you want people to know about your campaign or the work in Jackson?
I want people to understand that this is sincere work. I do not believe that 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 Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson. It is why we have been engaged in a number of efforts throughout the years in order 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, but it is important to the world that we have things like people’s assemblies where we try to pressure the leadership and receive information from the leadership and at the same time, get the leadership information. That 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, listen to how they are going to do all these great things for us, only to find ourselves disappointed in the end result. We need to start creating the agenda for ourselves as a community and draft the leadership that represents the agenda we have created, draft the leadership we know is fully committed to that, even if people hadn’t envisioned themselves being in electoral politics, such as myself. But, I understand that our leadership must come less out of political ambition and more out of necessity.
I want to encourage your audience to look at our website. Go to www.lumumbaformayor.com. We are on social media, @lumumbaformayor on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Engage in the campaign. If people want to join us and help in the effort, come on down. If people cannot come and be a part of what we are building, send some resources. You can donate to the campaign on our website.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.