After Death of Radical Mayor, Mississippi's Capital Wrestles With His Economic Vision
Rebuilding infrastructure—and the economy
Two years ago, a consent decree signed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice committed the city of Jackson to raising and spending an estimated $1.2 billion over the next 17 years to repair and upgrade its infrastructure.
Lumumba’s first order of business after taking office on July 1, 2013, was raising water and sewer rates and building support for a 1 percent increase in the sales tax on certain items, to be spent specifically on the infrastructure project. In a citywide referendum held this January, an astonishing nine of out 10 residents voted "yes."
Even as Lumumba replaced those leaky pipes, he planned to stop city money from draining away.
While he initially opposed the sales tax as regressive—and especially the special commission that the state set up to spend the sales-tax dollars—Lumumba eventually agreed to raise the people’s taxes but pledged that his administration would put as many of those dollars as possible back into the people’s pockets.
To accomplish that, he laid out clear principles: buy local and hire local people. According to the census, whites, who make up just 18 percent of Jackson’s population, own nearly 70 percent of businesses in the greater metro area. Under Lumumba, major employers would be required to hire 60 percent or more of their employees from within the city limits. To further expand the economic base of the majority population, he wanted half of project subcontractors and partners to be so-called “minority” developers.
“We want the wealth that is going to be generated here to stay here,” Lumumba often said in speeches.
To ensure the commission’s spending stayed local, he sought to change the city’s laws.
“We have to have rules,” he said. “One of the rules is, if you come to Jackson, you have to hire the people of Jackson.”
As a first step, the city changed its own hiring practices. City data showed 635 nonresident city employees, whose salaries totaled more than $20 million a year. Even as Lumumba replaced the city's leaky pipes, he planned to stop city money from draining away and supported legislation to change the residency requirements for city workers. This January, Jackson's City Council voted to ensure that the money the city pays in wages stays within the city limits. All new city employees will have to be city residents. It was to have been only a beginning.
The city is now facing its future without Mayor Lumumba. Chokwe Lumumba died of reported heart failure at the age of 66 on Feb. 25, less than two weeks after we talked.
Next week, on April 8, Jackson will elect a new mayor. The crowded field of candidates includes Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar, a graduate of Tuskegee University in Alabama and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas. Chokwe Antar Lumumba worked on both his father’s campaigns—for Jackson City Council in 2009 and for mayor in 2013—and has the support of his father’s grassroots political machine behind him, not to mention his name’s deep resonance.
But Lumumba’s supporters aren’t hanging their hopes solely on the next mayor. “The vision that he represented—the People's Platform and the solidarity economics, were all social movement pieces," says Kali Akuno, director of special projects in the late mayor’s administration. "They weren't framed by him alone.”
Lumumba’s plan for economic democracy was backed by the Jackson People’s Assembly, a self-organized process of local consultation that took off during Lumumba’s 2009 run for city council. Attended by voters and vote-seekers alike, the assemblies were held across the district and are expected to spread citywide in 2014.
“We started by going out into the community asking people, ‘What do you want government to do for you?’” Mattie Wilson Stoddard, vice chair of the Jackson People’s Assembly, told me.
The Jackson People’s Assembly is one of the sponsors of “Jackson Rising: New Economies,” an international conference taking place in May which was to have been a launching pad for Lumumba’s solidarity economy project.
“Jackson Rising is more important than ever,” says Akuno, the late mayor’s point-person on the conference, which focuses heavily on education and organizing around the development and incubation of cooperative enterprises. “We can’t build economic democracy alone.”
In different hands, the city’s infrastructure spending could trigger a development gold rush of the sort seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in disastrous speculation and permanent displacement, especially of low-income residents. Jacksonians need to know their options, says Akuno. Members of worker-owned enterprises in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Basque region of Spain have been invited to come share strategies for creating and keeping wealth in the community.
“We need to make sure we’re not robbed again, but get something that's going to benefit our children and our grandchildren,” Akuno says of the infrastructure fund.
The best way to do that, Akuno and the other organizers of Jackson Rising believe, is by capturing and concentrating wealth in the hands of local people through solidarity economics and worker-owned cooperatives. It is not a new concept in these parts. Far from it.
When asked if co-ops were a “hippy” thing, Mayor Lumumba’s patrician face cracked a grin and he replied, “There’s a little hippy in all of us. And I think the hippies probably got a lot of it from what used to happen in Africa.”
That means, we rely on support from our readers.
Independent. Nonprofit. Subscriber-supported.