Despite electoral defeat, grassroots movement in Jackson, Mississippi will continue to the fight for just economic development
Interview with Kali Akuno who was the Coordinator of Special Projects and External Funding for the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, MS. He is the author of the organizing handbook Let Your Motto Be Resistanceand wrote the preface to the report Operation Ghetto Storm. He is an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) (www.mxgm.org), former co-director of the US Human Rights Network, and served as executive director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund based in New Orleans, LA. Kali currently resides in Jackson, MS.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Many developments have taken place in the mayoral race in Jackson, Mississippi.
Now joining us to give us an update on that race is Kali Akuno. He’s an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
Thanks for joining us, Kali.
KALI AKUNO, ORGANIZER, MALCOLM X GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT: Thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Kali, let’s start off with the news that the son of late Jackson mayor Chokwe Lumumba, Antar, he actually lost the special election to replace his father. You worked for the late mayor. Can you just talk about Antar’s campaign a bit? What do you feel like he didn’t get enough votes?
AKUNO: Well, that’s the essential question that we have been studying since the election finished on the 22nd. And a couple of things that clearly stood out. Number one, Antar won over 65 percent, 68 percent to be exact, of the black voter turnout. And normally in a city like Jackson, which is over 80 percent black, that would give you a landslide victory. But the black voter turnout was low. And we’ll–going to–go into–I’ll go into a few of my own explanations as to why.
But the other kind of flipside of that was that there was a record white turnout for this particular election, and that that was really the difference in terms of the sheer numbers. It was 75 percent of the white voting age population in the City of Jackson, those who registered, turned out to vote, and it looks like only about 35 to 40 percent of the black electorate turned out. And Antar only won 10 percent of the white electorate. So that shifted the balance in the favor of now mayor Yarber significantly, who only won 32 percent of the black vote. So it was a very odd vote, but it spoke to kind of the times and conditions that exist here in Jackson, Mississippi, and the campaign, really, of fear that Tony Yarber ran on and some of the dirty tactics that his campaign used to really try to paint Antar not only as a radical, but as someone who was going to turn the city’s finances and budgets over to a number of unsavory characters was kind of how it was portrayed. And this wasn’t public, and we didn’t get all this information until a little bit after the campaign was over, but that is basically how it stood.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s go back to your first point, though, Kali. I want to ask you: why was black voter turnout–was so low? Why was it so low?
AKUNO: Well, the reason I think it was so low: number one, folks knew Chokwe Lumumba very well from all of his years of service in the community, you know, over 40 years of the Jackson community. So there’s a tremendous amount of respect, understanding who he was, his character, what he stood for. He was tried over time. So people knew that. Antar being so young, being his son, people didn’t know him just personally or know his reputation as well, and I think that hurt him a bit, particularly with the older voting population.
And then I think the other reason: there are some things that we need to look at that during our eight months in office, that I don’t really think–and this is something we want to put out to others to learn from–I don’t think we really came out as forcefully, as boldly as we could have and should have to represent black working-class interests here in the City of Jackson. That was always a part of our agenda, but unfortunately we did not have enough time in that eight months to fully unveil what that program was and what we intended it to be. And I think without really fully unveiling that in the midst of some of the water rate increases that our administration kind of put in place, which were–people have deemed them to be necessary, but they were not highly popular, and the 1 percent sales tax, which a lot of people in the community also understood to be necessary [incompr.] the resources [incompr.] I don’t think we motivated enough people to understand that this was something that was fully in their interests as working-class people. And thus the voter turnout from that sector was lower than we needed it to be.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. You also mentioned Mayor Yarber and what he ran on. I want to ask you: what interests does he represent?
AKUNO: Yeah. What Yarber represents is a neoliberal agenda, agenda of gentrification, and the forces who sponsored and support him are largely those kind of capital interests here in the state of Mississippi, particularly in the surrounding greater Jackson metro area. They threw in very heavily for his campaign. Republicans from the Tea Party and throughout the state and throughout the country, we know, put a lot of money directly into his campaign and into political action committees to support ads, to support mailings. So he really benefited from some of the recent Supreme Court rulings that allow all this money to come in, you know, unfettered and really unregulated in any substantial way.
But his agenda is to basically remove the black working-class element of the City of Jackson, and it’s being disguised in kind of popular rhetoric saying he wants to get tough on crime, that criminals, quote-unquote, need to move out of Jackson or there’s a new day in Jackson. So he’s really planning on locking a tremendous amount of black youth, both men and women, up, and he’s very open and frank about that. And that’s one of the primary ways by which you’re going to ultimately, if he’s successful, sweep out large sectors of the black working-class to make room for a more pliable population that wants to come in and exploit the resources that Jackson is going to be securing and spending over the next ten years.
DESVARIEUX: Kali, you mentioned that you guys going to be doing a bit of soul-searching after this loss. Why do you feel like you weren’t effectively able to communicate with that black working-class population and make them understand that your agenda was in their best interests?
AKUNO: I think largely it was time. One of the things that we always had on our agenda to do that spoke to that is the Jackson Rising conference, this new economies conference which is taking place this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday here in Jackson. I think if Mayor Lumumba had enough time, had he lived, this was going to be the real rollout of our broader vision of working-class empowerment and social transformation. And that message, unfortunately, did not–you know, ’cause the conference hasn’t happened, so as of yet, it did not really carry forth to say that here’s a new vision, here’s something that speaks to our direct interests, and here’s how it can be implemented, and this is how it’s going to benefit us in the future. We didn’t have enough time to do that.
And Mayor Lumumba also had a program that many questioned, but he was having some success in it, that he was really trying to create a real kind of a popular front orientation type government, wherein it represented multiple classes, it represented the different communities and races in Jackson, and it was trying to hold a number of different interests together. With him passing, you know, no one in the city right now has either kind of the political capital or more authority to bring all of those different forces together. And as soon as he died, the coalition that he had been working to build, particularly in his time in office, ’cause it wasn’t the coalition he had while he was running, but while he was in office, while he was alive, he was able to move a number of different things. But the second he died, like popular fronts a lot of times, the second that kind of force died, it split and it splintered, and folks kind of reverted back to their normal status quo agendas and positions, and those warred each other out. And, unfortunately, and because of the low turnout, the progressive side in this case lost the election.
But we still have a great deal of momentum, we still have a great deal of strength, and I think we learned some hard lessons around–collectively that we have to speak more to our base and to their needs upfront and immediately and let there be known even if you’re not necessarily able to implement it off the top, it needs to be more clearly enforced and forcefully stated I think is one of the great lessons we can take away from this election.
DESVARIEUX: I’m glad you mentioned the Rising New Economies Conference that’s taking place in Jackson, Mississippi. The Real News is actually going to be attending that conference and covering it. But I want to get a sense of the agenda. And can you speak to specifics? What is your group hoping to accomplish? What specific policies?
AKUNO: Well, in terms of policy, we know that’s an uphill climb here in Mississippi. The Republican, basically, Tea Party government that we have is on a state level not that in favor of what we’re trying to push through cooperative development at all. There was a bill that was up supporting cooperatives that they killed earlier this year. We’re going to keep fighting for that, but we know it’s going to be an uphill battle as long as the Tea Party and as long as the Republicans are in office.
On a local level, however, on a municipal level, we are looking to transform all of the procurement policies of the city, all of the environmental regulations and standard policies within the city, and particularly all of the land-use policies in the city, and have those articulated in such a way that they support and foster various means of kind of collectively engaging those different areas for productive activity that will support cooperatives. So that’s on the policy side.
On the more practical side, we are launching a new organization from this conference called Cooperation Jackson, and it is going to be the vehicle by which all of the follow-through is going to be carried out. And what we’re hoping to practically accomplish from this is the establishment of a school in an incubator to start developing more cooperative enterprises here in the City of Jackson. We’re looking to get three off the ground within the course of the first year from this conference, and with that, start building an active federation of cooperatives here in Jackson to fully implement the vision that was articulated, both in the Jackson-Kush Plan and the Jackson Rising Statement.
So we have a lot of concrete plans. It’s going to take a lot of work to fulfill them, but we’re poised and ready to do it.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Kali Akuno, thank you very much for joining us. The Real News is going to be on the ground, as I mentioned, in Jackson, Mississippi. I wish I could be there with you. But thank you so much for joining us.
AKUNO: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.