Jackson, Mississippi, remains gripped in an ongoing water crisis. The task of distributing water to local residents has been largely taken up by community organizations like Cooperation Jackson and Operation Good. Organizer, writer, and educator Kali Akuno joins The Marc Steiner Show to explain how the current crisis is a reflection of capitalism’s failures and decades of institutional racism. Though Jackson today is more than 80% Black, this is a recent demographic development created by white flight and capital flight from the city. The state’s prolonged neglect of Jackson’s infrastructure is a consequence of an entrenched far-right politics in Mississippi’s public institutions. And what’s happening currently in Jackson is a sign of things to come around the country. To fight back, Akuno emphasizes the need to build mass movements and grassroots networks capable of exercising real political power.
Kali Akuno is a co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, and an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). Formerly, he served as the coordinator of special projects and external funding for the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi. Akuno is the author of “Let Your Motto be Resistance,” and co-author of “Operation Ghetto Storm” and “Every 36 Hours: Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of 120 Black People.”
Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on the Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with this once again. Now, I know we’ve all been aware of what’s happening in Jackson, Mississippi: the floods, the storms that destroyed their water system that was already on its last legs and plagued with problems for decades. What happened in Jackson is just madness, unnecessary, and didn’t have to happen. It’s the dangerous intersection of racism, infrastructure collapse, and the political turmoil of our nation that defines and paralyzes our future. Today, we begin a series of conversations about Jackson, Mississippi, and how it’s emblematic of what plagues our nation and what we can do about it.
Jackson, Mississippi is the capital of the state, 150,000 people, 85% are African American. It was at the heart of our struggle when I was a young civil rights worker in the ’60s. Now, segregation may now be illegal, but a new oppression is taking its place. And we talk with Kali Akuno, a longtime activist, co-founder, co-director of Cooperation Jackson, an organization that worked to democratize the economy and empower the Black community. And Kali, welcome, good to have you back with this once again.
Kali Akuno: Good to be here.
Marc Steiner: One day, we’re going to do this when there’s some good news [laughs].
Kali Akuno: [laughs] I’m waiting for that day, brother [inaudible 00:01:24].
Marc Steiner: So, let’s talk a bit about what I said in the opening: this intersection of deep history of racism, our infrastructure collapse, lack of investment, and the political battles in this country that kind of, in some ways, undermine Jackson and, actually, was at the root of what happened there. So, talk a bit about that and how you look at that.
Kali Akuno: Well, where to begin.
Marc Steiner: Really? [laughs].
Kali Akuno: Which point? What’s the jump off point? Let’s just start with this infrastructure. I think a couple of key things that I think need to get out there to kind of both set the record straight, but also to put this in context.
Marc Steiner: Sure.
Kali Akuno: So, one of the things I want everybody in the audience to know and understand, Jackson didn’t become a majority black city until the 1980s, so it was late in the game. If you look at a place like Detroit, you look at a place like Baltimore, if you look at a place like Newark, that transition kind of happened 20 or 30 years before, either in the 1950s or the 1960s. It happened late in Jackson, Mississippi because the initial migration, particularly out of the Delta, went to places like Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Oakland, Los Angeles. And it wasn’t until the 1970s, really, once the jobs started to dry up in those Northern and Western cities, that there started to be a migration into Jackson, Mississippi proper from the Delta and from other areas in Mississippi.
And, this is critical in this story that you’re hearing because Jackson’s first major water crisis happened shortly after it became majority black, which was around 1985, 1986. And the first major crisis of the water system beginning to have the type of collapse we’re experiencing now was in 1989. So, it was within that very critical kind of 10 year stretch, where it flipped from being majority white to majority black. That means that during the transition period, it was already collapsing, in fact, the EPA had already issued some warnings to Jackson going back to 1982, saying that the system had some problems that needed to be updated, needed to be modernized. Well, it was during that transition period where the various kind of instruments of capital, mainly the industries that were situated in Jackson, Mississippi, they started to migrate out, leave, go to the suburbs.
So, there’s capital flight, which adjoins the white flight, and it just totally starts to divest from any infrastructure repair in the capital city of Jackson. So, this kind of intersection of race where you see a buildup of the urban environment that is Jackson that begins roughly at a kind of major breakneck piece around the Great Depression in all of the programs that came with that electrification, stuff that happened particularly with the Tennessee River Valley development, which was what really brought a lot of electricity to Mississippi, into large parts of the south. So, you had this rapid kind of period of growth from basically the 1930s to the 1960s. Black migration begins to start happening at that particular time in the 1960s where there’s some critical growth, then all of a sudden the resources stop coming in to develop the city, to take care of its infrastructure, to expand, and incorporate all these new poor black working class people that are coming in from the Delta in some very extremists and very rough conditions up that way.
But, you need to understand the history, because the narrative there, particularly that’s being put out there by the governor, particularly our president governor, Tate Reeves, is that this is just gross negligence and mismanagement, poor management on behalf of Jackson, when he knows good and well that this is something that the black political class that has managed Jackson since 1997. So, we didn’t get a black mayor, even though the city became majority black in the 1980s, we didn’t get a black mayor until 1997. So, that means the first crisis was on the white mayor’s watch, Kane Ditto, if folks want to go look it up. That happened on their watch and it wasn’t the same narrative then, wasn’t the same story, and it wasn’t so much of a deep denial of aid or resources, as you see now. So, this narrative that he’s telling that it is like a recent problem, or it was something that the mayor neglected to do, is a complete and utter lie.
Marc Steiner: Right, because he was saying things like the mayor mismanaged it, that they didn’t ask the funds in time, and putting all the blame on-
Kali Akuno: No, Mayor Lumumba has been asking for funds every single year, basically since he’s been in office and that was in 2017 when he first took office, and he’s been asking for and requesting this from the very beginning. And we should let everybody know his father was the mayor in 2013 for a short period in 2014, the EPA slapped us a decree about repairs to our system, to the water system, in 2012. So, this is something that we already knew, was something he already knew about, coming in to assume. It was something that anybody who was going to occupy that seat knew had to be dealt with. And, the request from state officials to federal officials for critical support for infrastructure development has been number one on everybody’s agenda since 2012. That’s Chokwe Lumumba, that’s Tony Yarber, and that’s Chokwe Antar Lumumba. So, that’s a complete another lie.
Marc Steiner: So, the question I have, then, for people to really get a sense and understand this, I think the other day, Chokwe Lumumba, Mayor Lumumba said, it will take billions to begin to repair this – begin to repair this, not even finish it. So, let’s talk about the reality of what’s faced here because, right now, as we’re talking together on this day, the taps are back on, but the water is still not-
Kali Akuno: In some places, in some places, not everywhere.
Marc Steiner: Let’s talk about that, but where it is on, it’s still not fit to drink.
Kali Akuno: That’s right, that’s right.
Marc Steiner: So, we talk about the reality people face in Jackson, or places like Jackson, and what it’s really going to take to change it, what people have to understand what it means to rebuild the infrastructure. I read a piece the other day that the old lead pipes in Jackson are a hundred years old and they’re all crumbling, you touch them and they fall apart. And Jackson can’t afford to do that by itself, so let’s deal with reality and what this means.
Kali Akuno: That’s right, that’s right. Yeah, I mean, another piece – you talking about the structural piece – so folks understand, Jackson, fundamentally, and most municipalities, all municipalities in the state of Mississippi, are fundamentally barred from raising their own taxes. If we want to tax ourselves to try to deal with our situation, that has to get approved by the state legislature.
Marc Steiner: They’re not going to give you the money [laughs].
Kali Akuno: There you go. And, keep in mind, the logic of this is the logic of the Redeemer governments. And for those who don’t know what I mean, the Redeemer movement was a White Supremacist movement that ended basically Reconstruction and instituted the parts of our constitutions and laws that then governed the South up until the 1960s.
Marc Steiner: 90 years of terror gave us a black world. That’s what it unleashed.
Kali Akuno: That’s right. So, the constitution that we are living under is the constitution of 1890, a Redeemer state constitution. That movement is what kind of gave birth to this notion of state’s rights while their notion of state’s rights denies local autonomy on a municipal level. And it did so because, even then, there were certain municipalities that were majority black and they wanted to make sure that none of the experiments that happened in kind of Black autonomy, Black self rule, Black self determination that briefly existed for a five, in some cases, a 10 or 15 year period, in parts of the south, including in Mississippi, to make sure that that never happened again. So, Mississippi bars, Jackson, or any place, from raising its own taxes. And so, Tate Reeves and the state legislature, they know this damn well that we don’t have the ability, even if we so choose, to raise these resources on our own.
And then, when we go to you for approval, you tactically just deny it. And, that has happened over the course of the last couple of years. There’s been a couple of proposals that have gone forward to try to enable us to raise some resources and then been strategically blocked and denied – this is within the last five years. And then, the other piece to this, which is also, critical even when they are federal funds that have come down the pipeline, particularly from the Biden Administration and some of the infrastructure legislation that’s been passed on, Governor Reeves has either taken those resources and re-shifted them to the suburbs, to the areas that don’t need them because the resources get allocated to the states, rather than allocated to the municipalities, so he gets to distribute that where he wants, or he just doesn’t take the money saying that, what’s his word? That he doesn’t want to create a culture of people that just expect that there’s free money or that there’s welfare.
Marc Steiner: I mean, he just gave back millions, right? He just gave back millions.
Kali Akuno: He sure did, he sure did
Marc Steiner: Because he said people to be lazy and not work, so he gave money back. That’s what he said when that wasn’t the reality at all, for those people.
Kali Akuno: That’s what he said, that’s what he said. So, this narrative that we’ve mismanaged the city government or the community that we’ve somehow wasted this resource and mismanagement – complete lie, based upon a racist narrative. So, that’s the piece we want people to clearly understand, this is a historical narrative. The words have gotten a little bit more coded, a little bit more sweet, but the real concrete material affect is that it’s Black and Brown people who are denied access, denied resources, denied the right to live, and the resources that do get spent and allocated, serve communities with far less Melanin in their skin, very strategically and deliberately.
Marc Steiner: And, I would add to that, you know, there are also places that are white, like Eastern Kentucky, that have been destroyed in the same way. And so, the question I have is, and that’s not to detract from or belittle the notion and the idea that the racism in this country underpins all the madness that people face and the dislocation. So, the question becomes, so what now? I mean the water, the infrastructure, is still ancient, it could fall apart at any moment, water can still poison people, kill people. And, you’re living in a state that is run by a really white racist mob, for one of a better term.
Kali Akuno: That’s the exact term.
Marc Steiner: Okay, fine [laughs].
Kali Akuno: [laughs]. That’s the exact term.
Marc Steiner: That’s the exact term.
Kali Akuno: That’s the exact term.
Marc Steiner: And so, the question is, how do you see what has to happen? What has to unfold for Jackson, Mississippi, for all the Jackson, Mississippies across the country? And what we have to begin to talk about to change what’s happening, make people realize what it is people facing is not just Jackson in isolation, it’s across the nation. Right? So, talk about what do you think has to happen from the Jackson perspective?
Kali Akuno: I think this will require a couple of shows to do.
Marc Steiner: Well, we can do that, but let’s just start it now [laughs].
Kali Akuno: [laughs]. In the short term, we got to build the political movement in our urban areas that deals with this crumbling infrastructure, we got to build a mass movement to do so. And in order to do that, this movement is going to have to challenge both parties, in terms of moving resources and dealing with certain priorities, and we’re going to have to win battles at every level of government. This is the critical part that I think folks need to understand because where the MAGA movement, if you want to call it that we call them a Neo Confederates and neo fascists-
Marc Steiner: [laughs] Right.
Kali Akuno: They have done an excellent job, completely out flanking the liberals-
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Kali Akuno: By, first and foremost, monopolizing the county and the state level politics to gerrymander guaranteed results for their political agenda. So, there’s places now all throughout the United States, which have been gerrymandered in such a way that it’s going to ensure that a minority actually becomes a constituted governing majority in the houses of power through the legislatures, in particular. And it’s a situation now that they’ve practically constructed – which the US Constitution is always kind of granted for racist reasons – where land actually counts more than people, in certain respects, within the constitutional framework that got set up, particularly with a certain people, people who look like me got discounted as on the three fifths of a human being, but also rendered available for a certain segment of the population to kind of count as a property or something to control. That framework still exists.
That’s the framework that already underscores the electoral college. And so, if we’re serious about dealing with this, we got to build movements that seize power back on these local levels, everything from the school board – and if you don’t believe me that that’s important, look at all the censorship which is taking place throughout 24 to 25 states. I mean, at the 50 states at the very least where they’re just banning Tony Morrison and James Baldwin and anybody else who raises any kind of critical questions. That’s happening because of how well they’ve advanced this movement on the local level and more left progressive forces have primarily just concentrated on the national level, particularly the presidential campaigns. That’s a failure of us understanding how to utilize power, how to build power, how to attain power, how to exercise it. So, we have to build a movement that really is going to deal with that.
And that’s a long term solution, that’s not going to happen overnight. Now, in terms of what we need to have, what we’re pushing right now, we’ve issued a statement called the Justice for Jackson, and it’s got two components to it. One speaks to this political response that has to absolutely happen in the immediate sense because Governor Tate reasons already started to roll out the agenda of potentially prioritizing Jackson’s water system. I want everybody to know that this has been on their agenda for a while. There’s two choices that they’ve been pushing hard for the last decade around Jackson’s water. One is the privatization option, the other one is the regionalization option. Both of these forces like us have been fighting for one reason and one reason alone: Jackson’s annual revenues are largely dominated by the collection of services rendered for the sale of water, to the tune of 40% annually of Jackson’s budget, if not more, is generated from the sale of water. So, if we lose control-
Marc Steiner: To the people outside of Jackson?
Kali Akuno: To people inside Jackson and outside Jackson.
Marc Steiner: Okay. Yeah, just to be clear.
Kali Akuno: So, if we lose control of the water and we lose control of those revenues, we won’t have a municipality in reality to speak of. If you lose roughly half your budget from them kind of seizing control of this particular public asset and turning into something private, we won’t have a municipality to speak of. We won’t be able to fix the road we won’t be able to provide other essential services or do some portions of even public education, that’ll be totally up ended and destroyed if they get their way, if they remove us of this kind of remaining municipal autonomy. But, this is been on their agenda for a while. So us knowing that, we put out this statement demanding number one, that the federal government and the state government assume responsibility for completely overhauling the water treatment and the water delivery system – and it has to be both, it cannot be one or the other.
And what they’re talking about, what Tate Reeves right now is talking about, is just overhauling two, or really just one, DB Cooper, of the water treatment facility. That’s just a bandaid on a deep crisis, it won’t solve it, and as everybody is seeing – I think I have to give Mayor Lumumba credit on this one, but consistently elevated on every platform he asked – that if you just stick with a bandaid solution, it will be a situation where we’re asking ourselves again and trying to prepare for when the system ultimately will crash again. Not if, that’s an inevitable piece. Now, the other component of what we’re pushing, and you asked what’s our solution, we have to act at the one time – we call this the build and fight kind of perspective and formula, that’s something from Cooperation Jackson.
And on the one hand, we have to fight with the instruments of the state and the instruments of capital for what we need and to open up as much democratic space as possible for social movements to intervene. That’s the critical kind of fight side. The build side, we have to kind of act that we are saying as if the federal government, the state government, are not going to deliver and intentionally won’t. So, we have to build up some autonomous infrastructure while we’re waging this fight to be able to deal with ongoing crisis and their acceleration through the climate change, because we’re going to be facing more of these, not less, on a repeated basis as a result of the drastically changing weather cycles that are happening right now. So, what we are starting to pull for and starting to call for support and resources to help us do, is start building our own water storage and filtration systems on a community level.
At first, the kind of community institutions, churches, mosques, synagogues, et cetera, to build up their capacity, to be able to distribute some of these resources out in times of crisis which, in our city, like in most cities, for some segments of the population, are always. Particularly, the houseless, folks who are struggling for steady employment, and folks on fixed income, those are those who are hardest hit by any and every crisis in Jackson, and almost any and every city that you go to. And so, we would start there, but we want to build this out so that it becomes more ubiquitous throughout our communities, because even if they start to really try to implement something, it’s going to be a while, and we can either be left to suffer or we can work together on a community level to build up some alternative to this.
And, that’s the two critical pieces that we are really pushing for: federal and state response, for them to really uphold their human rights obligations. They have the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill our human rights, and, fundamental to those, is the right to water and the right to health and things that make us healthy and healthy access. So, we got to build these two movements. That’s what we’re calling for.
Marc Steiner: So, Kali Akuna, let’s call this just part one of this conversation. There’s much more to talk about and you’ve raised a lot of issues here, and I think they’re really important because to hear what could happen in Jackson, and what is happening in Jackson, is emblematic for the entire nation, and I think that it’s really important to people to understand that, historically and in present. And, I want to thank you A) for your work and B) for taking your time, I know you’re in the middle of a lot of stuff, for taking this time with us today, at The Marc Steiner Show, The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you and we’re going to do this again very soon.
Kali Akuno: Look forward to it. Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Me, too. And, I want to thank you again and I want to thank all of you out there for watching and listening to this on The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. And thank the folks here, Dwayne Gladin, Keela Guevara Stephen Frank and others, making the show possible. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll write right back to you. And while you’re there, slide on over and click some other buttons and become a monthly donor for The Real News. So, I’m Marc Steiner here for The Marc Steiner Show on The Real News saying thanks for watching or listening, whatever you’re doing. Take care and stay involved.