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We sat down with Kali Akuno, director of Cooperation Jackson, at the Fearless Cities conference to discuss the challenges of movement building in Jackson, Mississippi

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JAISAL NOOR: Across the nation, the progressive movement has increasingly turned its attention to seeking gains at a local level. In 2017, Jackson shot to the top of the list of cities with progressive leadership with the election of Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who’s been called America’s most radical mayor. We recently sat down with Kali Akuno to learn more. He recently was a headliner at the Fearless Cities 2018 North American Conference. He’s the founder of Cooperation Jackson, and author of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi. We started off by discussing the challenges of building an independent progressive movement.

KALI AKUNO: You have to have a counterbalance, you know, to the very institution of the state itself, and the conditioning that the institution brings upon people. And I don’t say that lightly. I mean, I’m saying that very, you know, as deep as I can to try to get people to understand it if you haven’t worked on that side of the equation. And I had the, you know, experience which you I, you know, I’m grateful for, working in the administration of Chokwe Lumumba. The late Chokwe Lumumba. Working on the inside, trying to figure out, you know, how do we implement our program? And then trying to figure out how do you overcome the internal barriers that you don’t necessarily see.

And there’s not many, you know, left books that describe to you, you know, how do you fight against the bureaucracy? How do you fight against the rules? How do you fight against, you know, the limitations of the zoning? And you think you can just come with good policy and institute good policy, and then things automatically will move you away when there are so many institutional barriers both inside and outside the very act of governance that, you know, on that level, through that institution, that I think you really have to master.

So having candidates and people in office who go through a very systematic training, I think I would say from my experience over the last eight years, has really highlighted that to me in a particular way. That, you know, our movement- and the social movement I think is a good school to generate a certain level of skill. But there’s a deeper level of skill if you’re actually going to get into that administrative stuff, to the act of governance, that I think the left still doesn’t fully grapple with and I think our theory is not fully equipped to deal with now, particularly how the state has been changed, you know, in the neoliberal era. That I think we have to build new institutions, new capacities, new political parties to do a different type of orientation and training than I think we’ve done before.

And to me it speaks to a deeper level of political transformation in this country that we have to have. And what do I mean by that? What I mean by that in this country, for the most part we vote on individuals, right. And so the very nature of the electoral platform elevates individuals than it even does moreso really than parties. The parties are just kind of like a broad menu that people can choose from or abandon whenever they’re in office, and there’s no real mechanisms to hold those individuals accountable, you know, during the period after you elect them, be it a two-year period or a four-year period. The only real accountability measure within the actual structure is just unelect them two or four years later. But how do you actually hold them true to following a decision that he or she allegedly ran on is very difficult, just given the nature of the system itself.

And I think building the kind of vehicles that I’ve been trying to describe of late of these new kind of electoral party formations that progressives are going to and radicals and revolutionaries are going to get into this endeavor we have to build these institutions and not just leave it to the good graces of an individual, because they’re going to run into a mountain of organization soon as they get in there which is all about no, and all about, you know, that’s a great idea, but if it doesn’t fit this financial regulation, this financial code, it can’t go any further. I think there are ways around that, but you’ve got to have a social pressure and a social movement and a detailed knowledge and understanding of the rules and regulations within that aspect, I think for us to be able to tackle this and go deeper where we say we want to go.

JAISAL NOOR: There’s popular assemblies in Jackson. You know, sounds great on paper, but how is that- talk about how that’s actually coming together.

KALI AKUNO: I want people to not over-romanticize certain things about Jackson. Jackson has its fair share, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the people’s assemblies, you know, I think right now folks should know that in Jackson there are several groups who are doing something akin to an assembly, or they’re calling it that. And I think, you know, while many people are challenged by this kind of popularization of the notion of people’s assemblies in Jackson, I think it’s actually a positive thing. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything that all of the folks who now call themselves, having those assemblies, are doing. But what I do think it speaks to is a cultural shift, and that there, we’re moving forces more to the left and getting them to have to accept including people in a participatory way, or at least giving lip service to it, you know, in how they’re making their decisions, in how they’re trying to implement whatever level of governance they exercise within their organization or within the social movement.

But now you have many different models of what that looks like in Jackson. So you can’t say that there’s one model, you know, to answer your question. You can’t say that there’s one model that now exists. I think there are contending models that are there. And I think that’s a good thing. I think there’s a way in which the, some of the differences can be very generative, you know, in the sense of producing new dynamic practices, raising questions that in other space may not be able to be raised, not be able to to engage. But in a different space under a different leadership, a different confluence of forces, ew questions emerge. New issues emerge. New ways of approaching people emerge.

But the traditional model, that we have been employing traditionally in kind of the Jackson sense, you know, most of what I see is we’re called around particular issues. And they always have kind of, like, really three components. The first component would be an education component, to make sure everybody in the community was aware. Like, hey, there’s something going down about the water, there’s a new commission or there’s a new threat to privatize it, or whatever the situation may be. So to hear the different voices in the community that have some level of in-depth knowledge or experience directly about this issue bring them to the forefront, have them speak on a range of different issues, raise different questions. Then there will be a general open discussion about, you know, this is what we think. Asking for more information and more clarity. Then there’s a third phase, which is what are we going to do about it? You know, the action phase. And folks having an open discussion about that, and then figuring out how do we self-organize our ways in terms of committees, a program, set a demands, a timeline, or implementation platform that the Assembly and the folks who are in the assembly are then going to execute.

That was the basic kind of format, and I think it remains the format- or at least the ones that Cooperation Jackson is involved with, with the Jackson Human Rights Institute, trying to maintain that type of format. But also the ones that that the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Lumumba administration also administering, I think those two are still kind of remaining within that trajectory, and trying to elicit the broadest level of support for different issues, some of which overlap; some of which are separate and distinct at this point. But that’s the general format. And I think in both cases the overall goal still is, you know, to build a dual power. You know, so that the way that we can, the community itself can check the repressive apparatus of the state, but also institute its own programs for how to manage its own affairs, how to govern its own affairs at the level of the community absent of the state. Those are the two aspects of building this dual power that I think both narratives, both efforts are still are trying to project and maintain.

JAISAL NOOR: Stay tuned to part two of this interview. For The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor.

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Kali Akuno 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 Resistance and wrote the preface to the report Operation Ghetto Storm. He is an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) (, 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.