Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: 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?
Kali Akuno: 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 it long it takes, in many respects, to build a base and organise for something to emerge and grow. One of the oldest foundations of the Jackson-Kush plan, which is strategy underlining the operations Cooperation Jackson, was the birth of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (PG-RNA) – nearly 51 years ago now. The PG-RNA was launched in Detroit in March 1968, and it came out of the Black Power movement era and was devised to be a means to realise self-determination for Black people. Black people in the United States were being confronted and out of this struggle was a declaration of independence that lay 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.
JGF: In the Jackson-Kush plan you outline the intention to build ‘dual power’, primarily through people’s assemblies, but also though ‘engaging electoral politics on a limited scale’. Could you explain this reluctant relationship with electoral politics?
KA: 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.
JGF: 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?
KA: 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 employer 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.
There 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.