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“Plantation Politics”: How White Mississippi Lawmakers Want to Seize Power in Majority-Black Jackson

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Mississippi’s Republican majority in the state Legislature has put forth a slew of bills in recent months to put the majority-Black capital of Jackson under a white-led superstructure. Under the proposed bills, the Capitol Police would be expanded and given greater authority over much of Jackson without being accountable to local leaders or residents, and a separate court system would be set up in the city, composed of judges appointed directly by white state officials. This comes after Jackson suffered a number of water crises in recent years stemming from systematic disinvestment by the state, and after the federal government approved $600 million late last year to address the city’s infrastructure problems. “These bills are an attack on Black leadership, a way to seize power of a majority-Black city which cannot be seized democratically through an election,” says Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. We also speak with community activist Makani Themba, who described the state’s plans in a recent piece for The Nation as “Apartheid American-Style.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go deeper into the southern United States as we turn to Mississippi, where white Republican state lawmakers are attempting to essentially create an unelected superstructure to oversee the Black-majority capital city of Jackson.

This week, the state’s majority-white Republican-led state Senate passed its version of a bill by the majority-white — passed last month by the majority-white and Republican-led House, that would allow Mississippi’s Supreme Court chief justice, who is white, to handpick local judges in Jackson. Prosecutors and public defenders would be selected by the state attorney general, who also is white. Jackson has the highest percentage of Black residents of any major city in the United States.

Supporters of House Bill 1020 claim it would make Jackson safer. Democratic Mississippi Senator John Horhn disputed this ahead of Tuesday’s vote on the revised bill.

SEN. JOHN HORHN: It is vastly improved from where it started, but it is still a snake, and it needs to be defeated. Senator Carter made the point that crime is on the rise in Jackson. And he’s correct. But to Senator Barrett’s point, there is absolutely no empirical data, no evidence, that adding these temporary appointed judges will do anything to stem the rise in crime in Jackson. There is no data.

AMY GOODMAN: Both versions of House Bill 1020 would expand the role of the Capitol Police, which has no oversight board and has not been transparent in reporting officer-involved shootings. Last year, the Capitol Police shot three people in a six-week period, including Jaylen Lewis, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man and father of two. His mother, Arkela Lewis, testified at a public hearing this week against expanding the Jackson Capitol Police powers, as she explained what happened to her son.

ARKELA LEWIS: And suddenly noticed that a white man was standing outside of the window with his gun drawn. He did not ask Jaylen for any information. He did not tell Jaylen who he was. Before they could do anything, the man shot Jaylen in the head through the window. … I’ve been doing everything I can to try to get information about what’s happened, but Capitol Police and MBI have not even contacted me, providing me no information, no bodycam-worn footage, no dashcam footage, no police report or autopsy report, not even a phone call to acknowledge his death.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Jackson, Mississippi, where we’re joined by two guests. Makani Themba is a volunteer with the Jackson Undivided Coalition, chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies. She writes about this bill in her piece for The Nation headlined “Apartheid American-Style.” Also with us, the mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who’s accused state lawmakers of trying to colonize Jackson.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mayor Lumumba, please start off by explaining what these bills are about.

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, Amy, simply put, these bills are an attack on Black leadership, a way to seize power of a majority-Black city which cannot be seized democratically through an election, and so state lawmakers are attempting to legislate their way into control of the city.

This bill is part and parcel of a larger effort, which not only attempts to take over the judicial process, but also we’ve seen efforts to take over our water system, now that we’ve received over nearly $800 million in federal funding to contribute towards its repair, you know, former efforts to not only take over our school district but also to take over our airport. And so, this is what we’re seeing not only in Jackson, but, in less obvious ways, there are efforts around the country to do that. I’ve talked to colleagues or comrades of mine in St. Louis and Mayor Tishaura Jones, and I know a similar effort is afoot in Kansas City, Missouri.

And so, it is apartheid, as we have called it. It is plantation politics. And it is used under the Trojan horse of public safety. First and foremost, a statistical analysis has determined that Jackson may not even have the highest crime rate in the state of Mississippi when you get into it by scale. But beyond that, if there’s a true emphasis or concern over the issues of public safety, then the state can make investments in areas where we’ve asked them to. First and foremost, their own state crime lab has a backlog that prevents cases from going forward to trial. And justice delayed is justice denied, as we have known it to be. They have not supported the request of our police department in ballistic technology that helps them associate guns involved in other crimes. They haven’t supported our real-time command center that we’ve asked them, which is a 21st century tool used to support that. Nor have they supported our efforts of credible messenger or violence interruption training. We’ve gone to Wells Fargo Bank and National League of Cities, who have actually been the ones to give us seed money so that we can make sure that we have additional interventions towards the issues of crime.

Lastly, I will say that when you do a truly intensive study of what the crimes or the violence in Jackson persist of, you find that it is largely based on interpersonal conflict, which is very difficult to police. And so, simply having an occupying force that abuses community does not make us any safer. Over the last six months, there have actually been at least seven officer-involved incidents for the Capitol Complex Police. And not only JPD but the surrounding jurisdictions over the last two to three years have not amounted to that number of officer-involved incidents.

AMY GOODMAN: This reminds me so much of what happened in Michigan, when the governor, the white Republican governor at the time, appointed emergency managers, especially for Black cities. And, of course, we know what happened in Flint with the water supply being disconnected and being wholly contaminated. The governor there was Rick Snyder. Can you clarify what you just said about you think this started with the water supply of Jackson, which has been so problematic, and now getting this influx of state and federal money, that the state wants to grab the money?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Yeah, well, it started even before that. The first effort, or obvious effort, would have been over the takeover of our airport, which we have been fighting for the better part of five to six years now.

But with respect to our water system, we have had decades of deferred maintenance and neglect. You know, this is an area where I have to give my predecessors their just due, in that they have all asked for resources in order to help with Jackson’s water system and the issues of capital improvement. We have nearly 50% loss in our system, among other capital investments that have to be made. And so, as we have gone to the state Legislature each and every year asking for support and saying that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” these things will fail, they have displayed a deliberate indifference or willful neglect of the city of Jackson.

And so, we had to go through extraordinary means to go through the federal government and working with the EPA. And giving credit where it is due, the Biden administration provided, collectively, nearly $800 million, which now we have a third-party administrator, that we’re working in conjunction with through a agreed order, to make certain that we can see the prioritization and sustainability of our system.

And now that we have found ways to solve our problems for ourselves, the state has taken a negative outlook on that. And this all comes on the heels of our ability to get those resources, where they not only attacked the effort to take over our water system, but you see simultaneously an effort to take over our judicial process. And so, it’s not just attack on the city of Jackson. It’s an attack on the Black judges in Hinds County. It’s an attack on the Black prosecutor. It’s simply stating that they want to seize control over all of the points of governance that we now have control over.

And I would lastly say that Trey Lamar, the representative who initiated or introduced the bill, when asked why he believed that these judges should be appointed rather than elected, his response was, “Well, we simply want the best and the brightest.” That feeds into the notion, to the false narrative of Black people being inferior and incapable of choosing the leadership which bests represents their interests.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Makani Themba into this converstation, volunteer with the Jackson Undivided Coalition, wrote a great piece in The Nation. Can you talk about the historical significance of Jackson? And particularly go back to — Mississippi went from having one of the most radical changes, you point out, after the Civil War, with a Black-majority Legislature, to what we’re seeing today with a white-majority super — a white supermajority running the state, and what comes of that.

MAKANI THEMBA: Well, good morning, and thank you.

You know, the history is really important. And one of the reasons why Mississippi had such a progressive Constitution and Legislature during Reconstruction was that there wasn’t the kind of interference by the white power structure that sort of came out of slavery, because Mississippi has a sort of history of having a relationship with its residents that’s more extraction. There’s no pretense around whether they’re here for the benefit of the residents of the state.

So, there’s the attack against Jackson as a Black city, and Jackson which has been a battleground, since Reconstruction, really, around who controls it. And it wasn’t until the federal government post-Reconstruction that led up to the sort of shift in 1890 with a different Constitution that was sort of grounded and rooted in white supremacy. It was the federal government, actually, that provided arms for the Confederacy to recapture the state. And it was a bloody battle, much of which took place in Jackson and Madison for the control of the state and who would do it. And it’s really only been, you know, sort of the bad reapportionment, racist lines, you know, packing districts. The only way that they are able to rule as a white supermajority is really about illegal, unjust tactics that they’ve created law around, but they’re really not just. They’re really not providing the folks of Mississippi true representation. We would never have a Republican supermajority if there was, you know, accurate Black representation by state districts.

And that said, the other issue that we’re dealing with that’s sort of part of the legacy of this relationship of extraction to the people of Mississippi from its legislators — and I should say it’s predominantly white Legislature that we’ve had since 1890 — has been the way in which the — and this is, in many ways, a federal issue. Because of state’s rights, states are not really accountable to making sure that they spend the dollars they receive on need. So, a place like Jackson, that has a lot of need around infrastructure because of the lack of investment by the state, and really not only divestment and lack of investment and neglect, but also literally creating barriers for the expenditures of money that are directed to the city. Jackson was the only city in the state that had an extra layer of rules and approvals, the only city in the state for how it would spend its federal dollars that were allocated directly. And the state has no accountability. When they write these proposals and talk about “We need money because of x this and this thing,” oftentimes they’re talking about incidents and issues that are in Black cities and Black towns, but they have no accountability to spend that money that way. And, in fact, the legislation that seeks to create the so-called regional water authority, to take Jackson out of the picture in terms of control over its resources, does not even require that authority to fix the problem. It only requires that authority to receive the dollars and spend the dollars, which is very different.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Governor Lumumba — with Mayor Lumumba. And you can tell us if you’re going to be running for governor, but that was just a slip of the tongue there. What do you demand of the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, and also the president of the United States, Joe Biden?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: We demand equity. We demand fair representation. We demand the ability to govern for ourselves and have home rule. My principal aim in my leadership, one that I personally subscribe to in my life, is one centered around self-determination. And so we want to democratize power in our city.

And so, while we are trying to make efforts to build a vision of public safety which is rooted in a foundation of community trust, these efforts of the CCID bill set to roll that back, set to create a more adverse relationship between law enforcement and our police department, one which is reflective of what we see around the nation. While I certainly would not report to you that the Jackson Police Department is perfect, I will say that we are aiming and making strides towards making sure that it is more consistent with the relationship that I just shared with you and that we’re trying to build.

And so, we simply don’t want to see that government interference that Makani was speaking of. We simply don’t want to see funds, federal funds, diverted away from Jackson, which has systematically been the practice in Mississippi for some time. In fact, the governor even boasted, at his time as secretary of state, how he was able — not secretary of state, state auditor — how he was able to divert funding from the city of Jackson and was proud of that. And so, we’re just aiming to get our fair share and no longer be under the thumb of the state of Mississippi.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and Makani Themba of the Jackson Undivided Coalition. We’ll link to your piece in The Nation, “Apartheid American-Style.”

Next up, we stay in the South. We go to Atlanta and the fight to stop Cop City. Twenty-three more protesters have been charged with domestic terrorism. Stay with us.

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