Interview: Kali Akuno

Winter 2019 #24
written by
Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Andrei Nicolescu

Cooperation Jackson is part of a patient political project building an alternative economy for the city’s black-majority residents and the ‘Eastern black belt portions’ of Mississippi. Could you explain the historical background to the Jackson-Kush Plan and how it inspired the launch of Cooperation Jackson?

I think it’s important to acknowledge there were many streams that led to Cooperation Jackson. It’s also important to have a real understanding of how long it takes, in many respects, to build a base and organise for something to emerge and grow. One of the oldest foundations is the Jackson-Kush plan and the birth of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika. It was launched in Detroit in March 1968, and it came out of the Black Powermovement era to find real solutions for self- determination. Black people in the United States were being confronted and out of this struggle was a declaration of independence that laid the foundation for the provisional government. This was followed by a concrete move in 1971 where key organisers and activists looked to make a small town outside of Jackson, Mississippi, the capital of the provisional government. Many people moved here in the same year and opened a space that was immediately attacked by the US Federal Government. 

I talk about this experience because it was the beginning of the work to organise the West Jackson community. It’s not an accident that the concentration of Cooperation Jackson’s work is in the Poindexter neighbourhood, the place of the original provisional government house and where the deepest level of organising has happened since 1971. Today we represent a younger generation that are coming to build on the foundation in this neighbourhood, and we are a core of people who share the politics, are familiar with the history, and have been part of some of the sacrifices over the years.

We are an extension of this movement that is organising in the Kush District – 18 contiguous black-majority counties that span both sides of the lower Mississippi river, starting in Memphis, Tennessee to New Orleans, Louisiana. The overwhelming concentration of this district is in the Mississippi Delta, an area that is larger than Belgium. Within this region there is the legacy of chattel slavery, in particular, the heavy concentration of the production of cotton and sugar. This is, of course, why there was and still is a heavy concentration of communities of African descent. 

It is also where a quarter of all elected officials in the United States originate, so it’s not an insignificant region and the basis of why people came to this region and understood its importance. This is also why it has been considered a launching pad, a place to amass political power to help improve the overall quality of life and create more liberty for those of African descent.

To personalise this history, one of the young people who decided to take up the challenge to move to Mississippi was Chokwe Lumumba, shortly after finishing his undergraduate degree. Of course, 40-odd years later he becomes a city councillor and then becomes the elected mayor of Jackson. This was part of a 50-year project that started in 1971, and the Jackson-Kush plan was built on this run of success over the last decade.

In the Jackson-Kush plan you outline the intention to build ‘dual power’, primarily through people’s assemblies, but also through ‘engaging electoral politics on a limited scale’. Could you explain this reluctant relationship with electoral politics?

In the United States, our electoral system is winner-takes-all, there is no proportional representation. If a candidate wins one more vote than the next candidate, they assume office for two or four years, depending on term limits. The newly elected official then crafts and implements policies based on their views and opinions. That’s one dimension of our political situation. Then there’s one difference with the UK. In the UK, the Conversative and the Labour parties represent platforms, views, and traditions, and for the most part, as I understand it, UK voters are not only voting for the individual but a broader programme of policies. At the same time, UK politicians have to adhere to these policies and views to retain their seats and cabinet positions. The United States is profoundly different – the Democratic and Republican parties do not really operate as platforms. In this country you are voting for an individual as there is nothing that binds an individual politician to follow the party platform, or adhere to the party’s principles or strategies. It is really up to individual discretion. There are few mechanisms – apart from voting a politician in or out – that hold politicians accountable. In the US you are reliant on the vote, financial pressure, or flooding a campaign with election resources. Or, if you have to go another route, you can organise as many people as you possibly can to exert political impact through direct action. This is critical to the understanding of the Jackson-Kush plan within the US political system, and why we have a cautious relationship with electoral politics.

Within the context of electing politicians into government, the dominant orientation of our political system at the moment is neoliberalism. Cooperation Jackson are consciously and intentionally trying to counter this through building institutions, such as people’s assemblies. More importantly, though, we are trying to do things that governments, under neoliberalism and austerity, will not do or lack the resources to execute. 

We start with the notion that no-one is coming to save us and if we adopt this orientation – if there are critical things we want to happen – we need to make them happen with the resources at our immediate disposal. This notion of creating dual power rests on this approach. One side is holding the government accountable to the social contract, then on the other side we are actively improving our lives through self-organisation. Those are the real questions that dual power seeks to answer. These efforts, in our case, to ask a state government that is dominated by white supremacists, is a road to nowhere. We have to build our capacity and strength and execute what we want. So basically we do not ignore electoral politics but it cannot and will not meet all our needs and realise our desires. So the challenge of the dual approach, for us, is standing up for ourselves as we see fit. To get thousands of people to agree on anything is not an easy task. Our community does not have a lot of wealth or wherewithal, but there is a huge amount of talent.

Previously you were in the political administration of Chokwe Lumumba, supporting the election of the first Black mayor in Jackson, Mississippi in 2013. Black-led electoral strategies have heritage in US politics – especially in the 1970s and 80s. How do you reflect on your recent experience?

It's a mixed bag at best. One thing I had been warning about when we assumed mayoral office in 2013 was that the local economy was much stronger than in previous years. At that time the city had financial reserves for various infrastructure repair projects, to support municipal pay raises, and it was possible to use a standard business model approach to give more purchasing power and stimulate demand. In 2016/7 the economy was in a different place and state-led political forces really lined up against the city as retribution for the election of a black mayor. 

From 2016 there was a very clear and concerted effort by the Republican Party – essentially the Tea Party – to eat away at Jackson’s economic base and erode the autonomy of the municipality. The first major move was for the state government to control Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, aiming to take advantage of a strip mall development opportunity, generating more tax revenue and redirecting profits to the state government. This measure would not take the property away from the city, as it owned it, but remove administrative control and direction of profits. The proposal was put through the state legislature and it passed, giving control of these assets to the State Governor. For context, the current Mississippi State Governor is Field Bryant, the nephew of the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, which led to the 14-year old’s lynching in 1955. It was her uncle, also Field Bryant’s uncle, who was part of the lynch mob that executed Emmett Till. This is our Governor and his family heritage. 

To go back to this particular measure, it was used to strip the city of any control of these assets. This is important because most of our economy is structured around two things. Firstly, it’s the state capital of Mississippi, so the largest employers in town are the federal, state, county, and municipal governments. Secondly, for the transnational economy, it’s an important transport hub, with air freight and railroad infrastructure distributing products North, East, South, and West. The city of Jackson sits in a strategic crossroads with the 55 freeway as a trade corridor, connecting New Orleans through Jackson to Chicago. We are also on the T crossroads on the i-20 between metropolitan Atlanta and metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth. So as a transport node, if the city loses control of these assets, the economic impact is clear.

Then there were other things. We knew there was a major play to privatise our education system, and the city was put under an Environmental Protection Agency mandate, obligating major repairs to our water system. We knew that the city did not have the resources for the infrastructural overhaul, and that it was part of a major drive towards a regionalisation or privatisation of our water system. And we knew, during mayoral campaigns for the last election, that we did not have a clear enough strategy or resources. I started calling the situation a ‘Syriza Trap’: if we assumed the mayor’s office with an obligation to manage the city’s affairs, we were putting ourselves in a position to administer austerity and privatisation. Myself and others wanted to avoid this situation, especially after witnessing what happened in Greece.

In 2017 the newly elected mayor was Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the son of Chokwe Lumumba, someone who broadly agreed with the Jackson-Kush plan. As part of his new role, Lumumba experienced the Governor’s first major play on his watch – the privatisation of the school district. Even though it is now state controlled, the Governor has left the local apparatus intact. So right now we’re living through this experiment with our public system, where I have two children, and where the government can change its mind and not be accountable to anyone. We do not have local governance, only local administration. 

So it’s definitely a mixed bag. We have a mayor who shares our worldview and politics, but whose hands are tied. We are in a situation of constantly trying to push the Jackson-Kush plan to the best of their ability, and block the government and big business. The city administration are, really, caught between a rock and a hard place, and our movement, to a certain extent, is also caught here, too. Now it’s about how we figure out, under these new terms and conditions, how do we realise our programme.

The ‘new’ or ‘radical’ municipalism is a term to describe the use of electoral politics by social movements in towns, cities, or city-regions. How do you understand the relationship and tensions between local, national, and international politics?

For us, there is a long-term view that goes beyond the short-term crisis of austerity I’ve just described. We have to make international links to really counter the impositions of new technologies and global institutions and businesses, such as Airbnb and Uber. These businesses are changing the economy, who it serves and who orchestrates it. For us, similar to many world cities, thousands of people are being pushed out of their neighbourhoods as homeowners can now make more profit by utilising services like Airbnb (renting out apartments to tourists for a few days can often generate more income than a tenant’s monthly rent). So it’s rearticulating what housing is for, and this is happening all across the world and here in Jackson. 

If capital has international alliances and can dictate certain terms, we need to organise on an international level to counter these moves. This can enable us to restrict what rules these new businesses play by, and to ensure that our local communities are served by these new technologies. As part of this new municipalism, we want to create international networks that share experience, strategies, and build the organisational ties and political connections to gain more control over our lives. For us, this is the point of being involved in Fearless Cities and the whole municipalist movement. It’s an effort to say that we need to be grounded locally, but also need deep international connections to have any impact on how capital moves and dictates our lives. It’s a way of using the municipality as a concrete, tangible space where we can exercise our democratic rights to say, “hey Airbnb, hey Uber,” if you would like to offer your services in Jackson these are the rules. And you can’t just pick up your toys and play somewhere else as we have allies in London, Manchester, Barcelona, and Paris, who are also taking up the municipal mantle to place limits and boundaries on these new technologies. This is a key piece to why we, as Cooperation Jackson, engage with the broader municipal political platform. While Black Liberation Movements have often been focused on civil rights – social gains – Cooperation Jackson has been working towards a ‘democratic transformation of the economy.’ Could you describe what a solidarity economy is? 

We say, in our case, that there are two levels to the solidarity economy in Jackson. The first level is really organic: it constitutes, particularly in poor communities, the core survival strategies that people have to deploy to exist. This entails a great deal of sharing in the form of cooking meals, providing transportation, and providing childcare for each other. These acts of solidarity do not expect financial compensation or reward, and are exchanges of what we can offer and have in abundance, most often our time. 

In a place like Jackson, which has a population of roughly 200,000 people – more than 80% black – a quarter of the black population lives on or below the poverty line according to US living standards. With these economic constraints, the city’s residents have to do a great deal of sharing and this is the basic elements of the organic solidarity economy. The limits to this, often, are that it only extends to kin networks, sharing with those people you know. I’m not criticising these limits, but on a broader systemic level, and this is where Cooperation Jackson operates, we are trying to support communities to move beyond kin networks to circulate value in the economy and meet human needs through setting up institutions, such as timebanking. This means residents can share and meet needs with people they may not immediately know. This is the second element of the solidarity economy – sharing in an intentional way – that we try to bring to the table. 

When we first started in the administration, despite our radical notions and history, we adopted a traditional orientation around job creation. Even though we had a solidarity economy framework, we were trying to address unemployment. Within two or three years of trying to create jobs, though, there was no comprehensive approach. We could get new businesses started, but our local economy couldn’t support these businesses and couldn’t pay a decent living wage, so they collapsed or failed. After this realisation, we knew we had to shift our strategies, acknowledging that if we did everything that we planned successfully, it might create 20,000 jobs. But in Jackson, there is a concrete need for more than 80,000 jobs. So the 20,000 jobs, though not insignificant, would not resolve the problem. So if we couldn’t provide jobs, we asked “how do we improve the quality of life?”

So Cooperation Jackson, at our current stage of development, is working through the solidarity economy, figuring out how to use these practices to improve the overall quality of life in a way that is not explicitly tied to creating jobs. It also means that cooperatives are just part of the toolkit and not the be-all and end-all of our solidarity economy. 

Co-operatives are not just businesses, they are social movements. Is this what you mean when you’ve talked about ‘politicising’ co-ops? 

This is very important. We start with the notion that a co-operative is a means of organising working people. We infuse them with a very deliberate element of class consciousness. If you look at the history of co-ops in the US, they’ve been used in ways that are contrary to building a true solidarity economy. If you take some of the greatest perpetrators – such as the food co-ops of the 1970s and early 1980s – they were extensions of the worldview and lifestyle choices of the alternative, hippy generation who wanted to live more organically and holistically.

So they ended up creating these very specific niche, organic food markets that provided alternative goods. That had a good run for a while. But from the 1980s, sadly, to be able to afford organic products you needed an upper class income. At the time co-ops were not thinking about how you could create organic products for mass distribution at affordable prices: “How do we challenge big agriculture with affordable organic products?” 

There is a deep politicisation here as gentrification has created new dynamics in places like Brooklyn, NY, or Los Angeles, where I grew up, where people were opening new co-ops that did not serve the local community, just those with the disposable incomes to buy organic wheat or grass-fed meat. So politicising co-ops would be to ask how we can create affordable organic products that can improve our health and lives through better eating. How do we extend that type of solidarity if we do not raise political questions or think of this as a challenge you have to solve. 

This is a general example, but if we do not use politics to understand the oppression that affects our lives, we will often find as we grow and develop, our members will do well, but often at the expense of other around us. This breeds animosity and competition, which ultimately goes against our efforts to improve not only our own lives, but also those we want to work with. You have to address inequality and inequity as part of this new economic model, if we don’t, we know from experience that we will reproduce and replicate the inequalities that come from the standard capitalist business model.

Kali Akuno is a co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson. He also served as the Director of Special Projects and External Funding in the Mayoral Administration of the late Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, MS. His focus in this role was supporting co- operative development, the introduction of eco-friendly and carbon reduction methods of operation, and the promotion of human rights and international relations for the city.

Winter 2019 #24

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