[News] Did the Death of a Mississippi Mayor End a Great Experiment in African American Liberation?

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Apr 14 10:18:12 EDT 2016


*http://www.vice.com/read/free-the-land-v23n2*


  Did the Death of a Mississippi Mayor End a Great Experiment in African
  American Liberation? | VICE | United States

By Nathan Schneider <http://www.vice.com/author/nathan-schneider>

April 18, 2016

On February 21, 2014, 49 years to the day after Malcolm X's earthly form 
fell to assassins' bullets in Harlem, Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of 
Jackson, Mississippi, came home to find the power out. The outage 
affected only his house, not any others on the block. He phoned friends 
for help, including an electrician, an electrical engineer, and his 
longtime bodyguard—each in some way associated with his administration. 
They couldn't figure out the problem at first. They called the power 
company, and waited, and as they did, they talked about the strange 
notions that had been circulating. At the grand opening of Jackson's 
first Whole Foods Market a few weeks earlier, a white woman said she'd 
been told at her neighborhood-association meeting that the mayor was 
dead. He'd been coughing more than he should've maybe, and his blood 
pressure was running high, but he was very much alive. He gave a speech 
at the grocery store that day.

In a time of outcry for black lives across the United States, Lumumba 
had come to office in a Southern capital on a platform of black power 
and human rights. He built a nationwide network of supporters and a 
local political base after decades as one of the most radical, outspoken 
lawyers in the black nationalist movement.

Earlier that February, Lumumba had given an interview to the progressive 
journalist Laura Flanders, host of GRITtv. Flanders pressed him on his 
goals on camera, and the mayor was more forthcoming than he'd been since 
taking office that previous July. He discussed the principle of 
cooperative economics in Kwanzaa, Ujima, which guided his plans for 
upending how the city awarded its lucrative infrastructure contracts; he 
wanted to redirect that money from outside firms to local worker-owned 
businesses. He also spoke of the idea of the Kush District, starting 
with 18 contiguous counties with large black populations around Jackson, 
which he and his closest allies wanted to establish as a safe homeland 
for African American self-determination. Jackson was to be its capital. 
Implied in this kind of talk was a very tangible transfer of power from 
the white suburbs to the region's urban black majority.

At the time, Black Lives Matter was still nascent, more a hashtag than 
an on-the-ground movement, and DeRay Mckesson 
<http://www.vice.com/read/baltimore-son-v23n2>—the activist now running 
for mayor of Baltimore—was still working for the Minneapolis Public 
Schools between sending off tweets. But those paying attention were 
coming to see Jackson as a model, the capital of a new African American 
politics and economics, a form of resistance more durable than protest.

Four days after the outage at Lumumba's home, he phoned his 30-year-old 
son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. He felt tightness in his chest. Chokwe Antar, 
an attorney like his father, was in court, but he rushed over to the 
house, eased his father into the car, and drove him over Jackson's 
cracked and cratered roads to St. Dominic Hospital. There were tests, 
and there was waiting. Nurses brought Lumumba into a room for a 
transfusion around 4 PM. They weighed him. After they finished, he 
leaned back on the bed, cried out about his heart, shook, trembled, and 
lost consciousness. Less than eight months after he had taken office, 
Lumumba was dead.

As word of what had happened began to spread through city hall, Kali 
Akuno made calls. Akuno had been one of the mayor's chief deputies. He 
set in motion the local and national security protocol of the Malcolm X 
Grassroots Movement, the organization to which he, Lumumba, and many of 
the others in the administration belonged. He saw clerks rummaging 
through the mayor's office, and downstairs the city council was already 
jockeying to fill the power vacuum. The administration, together with 
Akuno's job, was already all but over.

"I'm glad he's dead," Akuno remembers hearing someone say the day Mayor 
Chokwe Lumumba died. "I don't know what the hell he thought he was 
doing. He was trying to turn this place into Cuba."

That evening, Akuno himself started feeling something strange in his 
chest. He'd been having heart problems of his own, a clotting issue. He 
checked himself into St. Dominic near 10 PM and was taken not far from 
where the mayor's body lay. As Akuno waited to be seen for whatever was 
happening in him, he heard voices down the hall.

"I'm glad he's dead," Akuno remembers hearing. "I don't know what the 
hell he thought he was doing. He was trying to turn this place into 
Cuba." There is a way of doing things in Mississippi, and Lumumba wasn't 
playing along. There are lines you don't cross, and he was crossing 
them. One county supervisor wondered aloud on TV what a lot of black 
people in Jackson were thinking: "Who killed the mayor?"

Louis Farrakhan helped pay for an autopsy by Michael Baden, who had also 
performed autopsies on Michael Brown in Ferguson and the exhumed body of 
Jackson's most famous martyr, Medgar Evers. Supporters had their 
suspicions of foul play, but the cause of death was an aortic aneurysm, 
likely enough a consequence of the mayor's tendencies for overwork and 
undernourishment. He had been trying harder than was healthy to make the 
most of the opportunity, to do as much as he could with the time he had 
left.

As Akuno, off camera, watched Lumumba give his interview with Flanders 
that February, he felt like his boss was ready to stop playing nice with 
the Establishment, as he had been so far. The honeymoon was over; the 
gloves were coming off.

"Mayors typically don't do the things we're trying to do," Lumumba said. 
"On the other hand, revolutionaries don't typically find themselves as 
mayor."

***

At the center of Jackson's civic district, Mississippi's former capitol 
building looms over Capitol Street, which has been subject to a variably 
successful renovation effort seeking to replicate the urban revival that 
has lately been sweeping hollowed-out cities across the country. 
Intersecting Capitol Street to the north, the segregation-era black 
business district, Farish Street, now stands nearly empty. Historical 
signs are more plentiful than pedestrians. The Old Capitol Museum 
presents slavery and Indian removal—the city was named after Andrew 
Jackson, in gratitude for his role in the latter—as quandaries to be 
pondered rather than obvious moral disasters. After all, these were law; 
there were treaties and contracts. The same could also be said of the 
predatory mortgages that, in the Great Recession, wiped away what gains 
civil rights had brought to African American wealth, especially in 
places like Jackson.

Capitol Street changes abruptly after crossing the railroad tracks on 
the west end of downtown as it heads toward the city zoo. Lots are empty 
and overgrown, right in the shadow of the refurbished King Edward Hotel. 
Poverty lurks; opportunity for renewal beckons. And right there, at the 
gateway of this boarded-up frontier, is a one-story former day-care 
building newly painted red, green, and black: the Chokwe Lumumba Center 
for Economic Democracy and Development. Standing guard against the 
gentrification sure to come, this has become the most visible remnant of 
the mayor's four-decade legacy in the city.

Lumumba first arrived in Mississippi when he was 23 years old, in 1971. 
He had been born Edwin Finley Taliaferro in Detroit, but like many who 
discovered black nationalist movements in the 1960s, he relinquished his 
European names and took African ones—each, in his case, with 
connotations of anti-colonial resistance. While at Kalamazoo College, in 
southwest Michigan, he joined an organization called the Republic of New 
Afrika (RNA). Its purpose was not to achieve integration or voting 
rights, but to establish a new nation in the heartland of US slavery, 
one where black people could rule themselves, mounting their own 
secession from both the Northern and Southern styles of racism alike. 
This quest was, to its adherents, a natural extension of the 
independence struggles then spreading across Africa.

Local authorities did not prove welcoming. That August, the RNA endured 
a shootout at a house they were occupying in Jackson. Police officers 
and FBI agents came armed with heavy weapons and a small tank; the 
resulting confrontation left an officer dead. Lumumba himself wasn't 
present that day, but supporting his comrades kept him in Jackson a few 
years longer. A 1973 RNA document in the archives of the Mississippi 
Sovereignty Commission—the state's segregationist Gestapo—records him as 
the republic's minister of justice. The document calls for reparations, 
in this form: "We are urging Congress to provide 200 million dollars to 
blacks in Mississippi for a pilot co-op project to make New Communities, 
jobs, training, fine free housing, and adequate food and health for 
thousands."

Lumumba soon returned to Detroit, where he graduated from law school at 
Wayne State University in 1975. Malcolm X wished he could become a 
lawyer; Lumumba's aspiration, he'd later tell his son, was to be the 
kind of lawyer Malcolm X would have been. He defended Black Panthers and 
prison rioters. For Mutulu Shakur—who was facing charges of bank 
robbery, murder, and aiding the jailbreak of Assata Shakur—Lumumba 
unsuccessfully argued that Shakur was entitled to the protections of the 
1949 Geneva Convention as a captured freedom fighter. (He would later 
also defend Mutulu's stepson, the rapper Tupac Shakur.) He became 
renowned to some, and notorious to others. A federal court in New York 
held him in contempt for referring to the judge as "a racist dog." Then, 
in 1988, he persuaded his wife, Nubia, a flight attendant, to move with 
their two children back to Mississippi. He wanted to continue what he 
and the RNA had started years before.

The change that came over Jackson after Lumumba's first sojourn in the 
1970s was a cataclysmic but also entirely familiar story of American 
urban life. ("As far as I am concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of 
the Canadian border," Malcolm X once said.) The advent of civil rights 
inclined most of the city's white residents to flee for the suburbs, 
while maintaining their hold on political power and the economic 
benefits of city contracts. To many of them, the city's subsequent 
decline was a case in point. To Hollis Watkins, a local civil rights 
hero, the story of the city's transformation after white flight was 
simple: "intentional sabotage."

Lumumba had helped found the New Afrikan People's Organization, in 1984, 
and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement grew out of that in 1990. MXGM, 
whose first chapter was in Jackson, set out to bring black nationalism 
to a new generation of activists; adults organized and strategized, 
while kids joined the New Afrikan Scouts and attended their own summer 
camp.

Safiya Omari, Lumumba's future chief of staff, came to Jackson in 1989. 
At rallies, they chanted the old RNA secessionist slogan, "Free the 
land!"—three times, in quick triplets with call-and-response—followed 
by, in dead-serious unison, its Malcolmian addendum, "By any means 
necessary." Their names and message were foreign to local black folks, 
and scary to many whites, but as years passed, they became part of the 
landscape.

***

Since Lumumba's passing, Kali Akuno has become the chief spokesman for 
what remains of their movement. As I sat with Akuno at his makeshift 
desk at the Lumumba Center's large multipurpose room last summer, he 
described his world as a confluence of "forces." In a generation whose 
radicals tend toward impossible demands and reactive rage, he is the 
rare strategist. He thinks in bullet points, enumerating and analyzing 
past mistakes as readily as future plans, stroking the goatee under his 
chin as his wide and wandering eyes look out for forces swirling around 
him.

Akuno came of age in California—Watts of the 1970s and 80s—immersed in 
the culture of black pride and power, descended from Garveyites and New 
Afrikans. "Akuno" came later in life, but his first name was Kali from 
birth. People he grew up around talked about cooperative economics, 
about businesses controlled democratically by the people they serve. 
They talked about Mondragón, the worker-owned conglomerate co-op in the 
Basque Country that arose under the thumb of the Franco dictatorship. In 
college at UC Davis and after, Akuno drifted from one experiment in 
cooperative living and organizing to another. After Lumumba and his 
comrades founded MXGM, Akuno gravitated to its Oakland chapter. He would 
become one of the organization's chief theorists.

Hurricane Katrina brought him down to the South. When it became evident 
how the storm had devastated black neighborhoods of New Orleans, and the 
government response only made matters worse, MXGM mobilized. Lumumba's 
daughter Rukia, then in law school at Howard, began flying down every 
chance she could to organize volunteers. Akuno moved from Oakland and 
took a position with the People's Hurricane Relief Fund.

"We were trying to push a people's reconstruction platform," said Akuno, 
"a Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast, where the resources would be 
democratically distributed." But mostly they had to watch as the 
reconstruction become an excuse for tearing down public housing and 
dismembering the public schools. It was not rebuilding; it seemed more 
like expulsion.

"Katrina taught us a lot of lessons," Rukia Lumumba said. The group 
started to think about the need to control the seats of government, and 
to control land. "Without land, you really don't have freedom."

Lumumba proposed a "critical break with capitalism" through three 
concurrent strategies: assemblies to elevate ordinary people's voices, 
an independent political party accountable to the assemblies, and 
publicly financed economic development through local cooperatives.

Akuno and MXGM's theorists around the country began working on a plan. 
What they developed would become public in 2012 as The Jackson-Kush 
Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Democracy, 
a full-color, 24-page pamphlet Akuno authored, with maps, charts, 
photographs, and extended quotations from black nationalist heroes. It 
calls for "a critical break with capitalism and the dismantling of the 
American settler colonial project," starting in Jackson and 
Mississippi's Black Belt, by way of three concurrent strategies: 
assemblies to elevate ordinary people's voices, an independent political 
party accountable to the assemblies, and publicly financed economic 
development through local cooperatives. Each would inform and reinforce 
the others.

By 2008, the scheming led to talk of running a candidate. MXGM had been 
organizing in Jackson for almost two decades, and it had a robust base 
there. Akuno suggested that MXGM should run Lumumba and begin training 
Chokwe Antar—who was then finishing law school in Texas—to run for 
office in the future. Both father and son were reluctant, but Lumumba 
came around.

In 2009, he ran for a city council seat in Jackson, and with the help of 
MXGM's cadres and his name recognition as an attorney of the people, he 
won. On the council, he cast votes to protect funding for public transit 
and to expand police accountability. But it became clear that, in 
Jackson, the real power—in particular, power over infrastructure 
contracts—lay with the mayor's office. Those contracts were still going 
largely to white-owned firms in the suburbs. Black people had long been 
the majority of Jackson's population, but the MXGM felt its land wasn't 
really free until it benefited financially, too.

Few among Jackson's small, collegial elite bothered to notice the 
Jackson-Kush Plan when Lumumba ran for mayor in 2013. He was just one in 
a crowded pool of candidates. And the plan was still little more than a 
series of ambitions. The co-ops didn't exist; the assemblies, when they 
actually happened, were small and populated mostly by true believers. 
Yet Lumumba understood his role as an expression of the popular will, 
which the co-ops and assemblies would someday represent. At important 
junctures, he would often say, "The people must decide."

The mayoral race was a testament to what Lumumba had built in Jackson 
and elsewhere. Rukia Lumumba gathered support from MXGM supporters 
across the country. The $334,560 raised in 2013 by Jonathan Lee, the 
young black businessman Lumumba faced in the runoff vote, was still much 
more than the $68,753 Lumumba's campaign raised that same year. Lee, 
however, was mostly unknown in town, except to his friends on the 
state's chamber of commerce. MXGM's organizing efforts, combined with 
Lumumba's long-standing reputation, resulted in a landslide. On May 21, 
he won 86 percent of the Democratic primary vote, guaranteeing him the 
mayoralty. The Lumumba campaign's slogan, "One city, one aim, one 
destiny"—an homage to an old Garveyite saying—seemed to be coming true.

"The spirit behind Chokwe was high," said Walter Zinn, a local political 
consultant. "It was probably the highest it had been in twenty years."

Not everyone was on board, however. "I remember getting all these calls 
when he was elected mayor from white business owners—they were 
terrified," City Councilman Melvin Priester Jr. told me. "They were 
afraid that he was going to treat them like they had treated a lot of 
black people, like a Rhodesia situation."

***

For Lumumba and his new administration—full of MXGM partisans—the first 
order of business was damage control. The city's roads and pipes had 
been allowed to deteriorate to the point of disfunction. An EPA consent 
decree loomed over the crumbling wastewater system. Funds needed to be 
raised for repairs; perhaps, afterward, the money could be used to seed 
cooperative businesses for doing the necessary work. Lumumba used the 
political capital he'd won in the election to pass, by referendum, a 1 
percent sales tax increase. He raised water rates. Practical exigencies 
won the day.

"We didn't win power in Jackson," Akuno said. "We won an election. It's 
two different things."

To pass the 1 percent tax, Lumumba had to accept oversight for the funds 
from a commission partly controlled by the State Legislature—a 
concession that not even his more conservative predecessor would accept. 
He hoped that, later on, he could mobilize people in Jackson to demand 
full control over their own tax revenues, but the city was in an 
emergency, so for the moment the commission would have to do.

 From his new position, as director of special projects and external 
funding, Akuno tried to keep the Jackson-Kush Plan on track. However 
long the administration would last, he wanted to set up structures that 
would outlive it. He drew up plans for a $15 million development fund 
for cooperatives, using money from the city, credit unions, and outside 
donors. He wanted to create worker-owned co-ops for all the city's 
needs—for collecting garbage, for growing the food served at schools, 
for taking on the plentiful engineering challenges. To help, Lumumba 
called for rules to direct more contracts to local businesses. And there 
were plans to roll out a participatory budgeting process, based on 
experiments in Brazil and New York, through which Jacksonians could 
decide how to allocate public funds directly.

Ben Allen, president of the city's development corporation, started 
getting to know the new mayor, and he was pleasantly surprised. When he 
invited Lumumba to a garden party at his country club, the mayor made an 
appearance. "Our fears were gone," remembered Allen, who is white. "He 
wanted to work with us."

Jackson's troubles, by 2013, were more than black and white. An 
investment firm in Santa Monica had bought up more than half of the 
private buildings downtown. Israelis and Chinese were getting in on the 
action, too. Far from the RNA's old secessionist strategy of the 70s, 
Lumumba was forming coalitions where he could, with whoever would work 
with him. Co-ops and assemblies took a backseat to balancing the budget, 
at least as far as official business went.

Two miles from downtown along Capitol Street, however, just blocks from 
the entrance to the zoo, another germ of the Jackson-Kush vision was 
beginning to sprout. In early 2013, MXGM members Nia and Takuma Umoja 
moved with their children from Fort Worth, Texas, into a small wooden 
house next to the local junkyard. Slowly befriending their new 
neighbors, they started clearing the garbage away, replaced it with 
raised soil beds, and declared an eight-block section of the 
neighborhood the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson. They began 
putting their neighbors, many of whom grew up as sharecroppers, to work 
on a construction crew and growing food. Discreetly, they bought up more 
and more property within the territory, intending to transfer it to a 
community land trust. They renovated abandoned houses and painted them 
with bright colors. It was all part of the plan—the same plan that put 
their old friend Lumumba into office. And, like the mayor, the Umojas 
were making new friends as well.

They started building relationships with power brokers in town, 
including developers, pastors, and politicians—people who had their own 
plans for sprucing up the area around the zoo. Back in Fort Worth, the 
Umojas' community center fell victim to eminent domain, and they didn't 
want to see anything like that happen again. As renewal progressed 
around them, they would need powerful supporters. But where they saw 
necessity, Akuno saw an effort to swallow up the movement.

"Our enemy saw an opportunity," he said. Both the mayor and MXGM's 
flagship cooperative project were teaming up with the likes of Ben 
Allen. If divide and conquer was the intent, it succeeded; a rift 
between Akuno and the Umojas deepened until they were acting more like 
competitors than comrades. According to Allen's email signature, 
"Downtown redevelopment is like war." (Last month, Allen was indicted 
for embezzlement of his organization's funds.)

"We knew, when we got here, what we'd have to do to make sure that we're 
at the table when decisions about development are being made," Nia Umoja 
told me. "Our folks are never at the table."

The forces that have kept #BlackLivesMatter trending are not exactly 
what one might expect from the headlines of black men killed by police. 
In reality, it's primarily a queer- and women-led movement. It is also 
only marginally interested in whether cops wear body cameras. Its 
leaders are not afraid to use the word "capitalism," and they do so 
derisively. (That slogan, "Black Lives Matter," originated with Alicia 
Garza, an organizer of domestic workers.) They feel that black lives 
will not matter in this society until it adopts a different system for 
determining what and who matters. In this movement, as in so many 
movements before, only a tiny sliver of its variform lifeblood gets into 
the news.

The civil rights struggle of the 1960s was no exception, for it was 
never about civil rights alone. Malcolm X preferred to speak of "human 
rights," and it was in those terms that he wanted to bring a case 
against the US before the United Nations. Martin Luther King Jr. marched 
for "justice and jobs"; he died supporting sanitation workers. "Black 
power," "black liberation," "black lives"—these betray demands more 
comprehensive than either headlines or mythic hindsight allow. And they 
were never far from economics.

Cooperatives have a long history in black American life. There were 
co-ops for sharecroppers seeking better markets for their produce, 
co-ops for townspeople who wanted better prices for basic commodities, 
and cooperative communes that tried to create a new world apart from 
white supremacy.

Twenty years ago, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a political economist at the 
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, began to notice a hidden economy 
at work in African American life. Again and again, people were 
organizing themselves in creative forms of cooperative enterprise, 
democratically owned and managed by those who took part. Starting with 
the co-ops listed in W. E. B. Du Bois's 1907 book Economic Cooperation 
Among Negro Americans, she began reconstructing a history, eventually 
published in her 2014 book Collective Courage: A History of African 
American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, that, before, had 
only been told in bits and pieces, passed down through families but 
rarely seen as significant. There were co-ops for sharecroppers seeking 
better markets for their produce, co-ops for townspeople who wanted 
better prices for basic commodities, and cooperative communes that tried 
to create a new world apart from white supremacy. Where white banks 
wouldn't lend money, credit unions arose. These efforts faced sabotage 
and repression. But they were always around. "There's really no time in 
US history when African Americans were not doing cooperative projects," 
Nembhard told me.

In the mid 1960s, Black Power first became a force among a group of 
landowners and co-op members in Lowndes County, Alabama, before 
expanding to the country's urban centers. "The Black Power concept came 
into being because of those farmers who were independent in and of 
themselves and understood the value of collective organizing and 
collective ownership," Wendell Paris, a civil rights activist and 
cooperative developer in Alabama and Mississippi at the time, told me. 
In cities, the movement took the form of the Black Panthers' 
rifle-toting demonstrations, along with their food, housing, and health 
programs.

For years, Paris traveled around the South helping black farmers hold on 
to their land and build wealth cooperatively. Black farmers in Louisiana 
weren't getting paid fairly for their sweet potatoes, so they started a 
sweet potato cooperative and found their own markets—in many cases up 
north. In Alabama, farmers who were getting a raw deal on fertilizer 
formed a co-op to buy it in bulk from elsewhere. Paris assisted in 
forming the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1967. Black activists 
during that period visited co-ops in Africa and Israel. After years of 
agitating for voting rights, Fannie Lou Hamer organized the Freedom 
Farm, a cooperative meant to secure the gains of civil rights with—to 
use the now-fashionable term—food sovereignty. Today, this tradition is 
in a period of renaissance.

"Since the Great Recession, there has been a huge amount of interest," 
Nembhard told me. "Everybody's figuring out that there's not a lot for 
them in the main economy and that they need to find some viable 
alternatives." Cooperatives, she has found, can thrive at the economy's 
margins, at the sites of market failure and exclusion. Their 
participant-ownership structure keeps wealth in local communities and 
acts as a bulwark against financial crises. "Co-ops can address almost 
every economic challenge we have," Nembhard said.

Elandria Williams is an organizer at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, 
a historic base camp for agitators and activists. (A photo of King at 
Highlander, with a caption describing it as a "Communist Training 
School," became a notorious piece of anti-civil rights propaganda.) 
Williams studies examples like the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy, where 
co-ops enjoy tax benefits and have flourished in sectors from 
agriculture and handicrafts to high-tech industry. Cooperatives don't 
just happen one business at a time; they require an infrastructure to 
thrive, an ecosystem. That's why she has been working to create the 
Southern Reparations Loan Fund, an investment vehicle for the new 
generation of co-ops.

"We're trying to figure out what an economy would look like, not just 
what enterprises look like," Williams told me. That's part of why 
Lumumba's election mattered so much.

"When we thought we had the mayor in Jackson, and that we were going to 
have a real example of a black municipality that was embracing the 
totality of a cooperative commonwealth, we were really excited," 
Nembhard told me. It encouraged black-led co-ops around the country.

For instance, followers of the late James and Grace Lee Boggs have been 
planting a network of cooperative enterprises on the abandoned lots of 
Detroit. In New York, the city government is investing $3.3 million in 
creating new worker cooperatives alongside the existing ones in 
industries like home care and catering. A cooperative security company 
has started in a Queens housing project. Charles and Inez Barron, 
longtime movement friends of Lumumba's, want to use their positions in 
the state assembly and the city council in New York State to set up 
co-ops in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods.

Cooperatives take time, and this new economy is coming along too slowly 
for those who need it most. The generation of farmers that organized 
under the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in the 1960s and 70s is 
aging out of existence, and the new generation of black co-ops is still 
emerging. The story of black cooperatives, as much as it is one of 
"collective courage," in Nembhard's words, is a story of loss. The loss 
once came in the form of Governor George Wallace's Alabama state 
troopers pulling over a truck full of cucumbers until they turned to 
mush in the summer sun; then it was a police raid with a tank; then an 
aortic aneurysm.

***

When Chokwe Antar first looked at his father's body in the hospital 
room, he made the decision to finish what had been begun. He didn't say 
anything; there still had to be discussions in MXGM about the next move. 
His wife was pregnant. Some still felt he wasn't experienced enough, but 
ultimately, the movement's decision echoed his own, and he ran on a 
promise to continue what his father had started. Throughout the country, 
MXGM members mobilized again. But by the time of Lumumba's death, the 
Jackson-Kush Plan was secret no more, and the city's business class was 
better prepared to oppose it.

Socrates Garrett is Jackson's most prominent black entrepreneur. He went 
into business for himself in 1980, selling cleaning products to the 
government; now, he and his nearly 100 employees specialize in 
heavy-duty environmental services. The story of his success is one of 
breaking through Mississippi's white old-boy network, and to do that his 
politics have become mainly reducible to his business interests. He is a 
former chairman of the chamber of commerce and serves on the boards of 
charities. He's a self-described progressive who supported the last 
Republican governor, Haley Barbour. He became a political force—by 
necessity, and with less ideological freight than the partisans of MXGM.

"I had to have relationships with politicians," Garrett told me. "If 
you're not doing business with the government, you're not in mainstream 
America."

Garrett became a Lumumba supporter when it became clear who was going to 
win the election, but he grew disillusioned quickly. The MXGM-led 
administration didn't play his kind of politics. "They started putting 
people in from different walks of life," he recalled. "They had a lot of 
funny names, like Muslim names." He was informed that he should not 
expect special treatment. Safiya Omari, Lumumba's chief of staff, 
insisted that he was being treated like any other contractor, but 
Garrett perceived it as a snub—right when the militant black mayor 
seemed to be bending over backward to assuage the White Establishment.

"Here you are, a black man—you start from scratch and work your way up, 
thirty years out here struggling—and there's something wrong with my 
business model?" he said.

Garrett couldn't wrap his head around how cooperatives were going to 
take on big city contracts, with all the bonding and hardware such work 
requires. Mississippi law doesn't even have a provision for worker or 
consumer cooperatives; those that do exist must incorporate out of 
state. "In my opinion, it was going to produce chaos," he said. He set 
about looking for a new mayor to raise up, and before long came upon 
Tony Yarber, a young bow-tied black pastor and city council member from 
a poor neighborhood. (Yarber's LinkedIn profile still lists his 
profession as a motivational speaker.) What he lacked in age and 
experience was more than made up for in his willingness to collaborate.

Garrett and Yarber quietly set out to organize a run against Lumumba in 
2017, but when the mayor died, their chance came sooner than expected. 
The white business class that had tolerated and even liked Mayor Lumumba 
wasn't ready to risk his young and little-known son. Jackson Jambalaya, 
a straight-talking conservative blog, ridiculed him as "Octavian." 
Chokwe Antar's posters, between plentiful exclamation points, made 
promises of "continuing the vision"; Yarber, for his part, told the 
Jackson Free Press, "I don't make promises to people other than to 
provide good government." Garrett was his top individual donor.

The result was a reversal from the election a year earlier. Jackson's 
population is 80 percent black, and Chokwe Antar won a solid majority of 
the vote in black neighborhoods. But the white minority turned out in 
droves, urged by last-minute canvassing in more affluent areas, which 
voted 90 percent for Yarber. Narrowly, on April 22, Yarber won.

Yarber removed almost all the members of the previous administration. 
Even Wendell Paris, who'd been working part time to develop community 
gardens on city land since before Lumumba's administration, was 
dismissed. When I visited city hall a year later, Yarber's sister, a 
police officer, was sitting by the metal detector at the entrance, 
pecking on the same iPhone that was once issued to Lumumba.

"The whole sense that we're going to do something great has sort of 
dissipated," Safiya Omari told me.

Sitting on his front porch, wearing a faded T-shirt from the first 
mayoral campaign and a black cap with Che Guevara inside a small red 
star, Akuno tried to explain to me the experience as he slathered his 
two small children in natural bug repellent. With the 1 percent tax and 
the water-rate hikes, they'd alienated part of their base. But 
capitalism didn't leave them a choice. He was following the news of 
Syriza, the leftist party in Greece, as it tangoed with the Troika. "I 
feel like I know exactly the conversations they are having behind the 
scenes," he said. "I've been there."

Across town, Garrett was feeling blessed. Mayor Yarber put things back 
to what he was used to. "Every time, God sends an answer," he told me. 
"But I can assure you that that movement is alive and well. And I can 
assure you that unless Yarber is razor sharp, they'll be back."

In May 2014, just months after Lumumba's death, hundreds of people came 
to the Jackson State University campus from around the country and the 
world for a conference called Jackson Rising. They learned the history 
of black-led cooperatives from Nembhard and took stock of what might 
have been in Jackson—and what might be. Lumumba's image appeared on the 
cover of the program, and on the first page, he spoke from the grave 
with a signed-and-sealed resolution from the mayor's desk. "Our city is 
enthused about the Jackson Rising Conference and the prospects of 
cooperative development," it said, as if nothing had changed. In fact, 
city hall's expected support for the event lasted no longer than 
Lumumba's tenure.

MXGM was meanwhile hatching a new organization, Cooperation Jackson, to 
carry on the work that had been started. Akuno enumerated a four-part 
agenda: a co-op incubator, an education center, a financial institution, 
and an association of cooperatives. Plans were soon underway to seed, 
first, three interlocking co-ops: an urban farm, a catering company 
named in honor of Lumumba's wife, Nubia, who died in 2003, and a 
composting company to recycle the caterers' waste back into the farm. 
Akuno raised money from foundations, entertainers, and small donors, and 
the Southern Reparations Loan Fund would be pitching in as well. 
Cooperation Jackson started buying up land for its own community land 
trust. Its members restored and painted what would become the Lumumba 
Center.

Jackson's hot summer seemed especially apocalyptic last year. In South 
Carolina, Dylann Roof had murdered nine African American worshipers in a 
Charleston church; day after day, there was news of black churches 
across the South burning. Calls were mounting to take down the 
Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina Capitol, but 
comparatively few were talking about the stars and bars that still cover 
a substantial portion of the Mississippi state flag everywhere it 
appears. The Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage the law of the 
land, overturning the Mississippi Constitution's marriage amendment, and 
the preachers who heavily populate the radio spectrum in Jackson 
declared the United States of America definitively captive in the talons 
of the devil. In the Lumumba Center's backyard, Cooperation Jackson's 
Freedom Farm consisted of a few rows of tilled earth, and in the 
kitchen, Nubia's Cafe was having its first test run. Akuno and others 
were planning a trip to Paris for the UN climate summit. Down the road 
at the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson, Nia Umoja and her 
neighbors had bought 56 properties for their land trust. "We've taken 
almost all the abandoned property off the speculative market," Umoja said.

Socrates Garrett was Jackson's most successful black entrepreneur when 
Lumumba became mayor. "Here you are, a black man—you start from scratch 
and work your way up, thirty years out here struggling—and there's 
something wrong with my business model?" he said.

In the wake of Roof's shooting spree, Chokwe Antar helped organize a 
rally at the state capitol to demand changing Mississippi's flag, 
alongside local politicians, activists, and hopefuls. The actress 
Aunjaune Ellis, flanked on either side by guards in black MXGM T-shirts, 
called for "rebranding our state" and "a different way of doing 
business." Chokwe Antar led a chant: "Stand up, take it down!" "Free the 
land!" followed. Then, of course, "By any means necessary."

Chokwe Antar's name was in the national news a week later. In Clarke 
County, a police officer stopped Jonathan Sanders, a black man with a 
horse-drawn buggy, and he wound up dead after the cop put him in a 
chokehold. Chokwe Antar took the case. The incident became a possible 
flash point for the Black Lives Matter movement's roving attention, but 
the story soon faded, and in January, a grand jury declined to indict 
the officer. The rebel flag still flies over Mississippi. The state, 
also, has been vying to wrest control over Jackson's valuable 
airport—another blow to self-rule for the black-majority city. And the 
decision has been made: Antar will run for the mayor's office again in 
2017.

The flag campaign was the subject of conversation over grilling 
vegetables and chicken for dinner at the Lumumba Center in late June. 
Akuno, pacing back and forth over the grill, led the discussion. "I 
think with some of this Confederate stuff—that's a distraction," he 
said. "Is that really our agenda? Did we define it, or did the media 
define it, saying that this is within the limits?" He'd been saying as 
much to Chokwe Antar. Akuno wanted to keep the focus on the co-ops and 
the assemblies and elections—real counter power, backed by 
self-sufficiency.

"Nothing don't change, whether the flag comes down or not," said New 
Orleans housing activist Stephanie Mingo, from the other side of a 
picnic table. "There's still going to be red, white, and blue."

"I'm not a fan of the Black Lives Matter thing—because, to be honest 
with you, they don't," Akuno went on. "Your life did matter, when you 
were valuable property. You were very valuable at one point in time. 
We're not valuable property anymore." His pacing took him and his gaze 
back to the grill, where he flipped over a hunk of chicken.

"My argument is to tell other black folk, let's start with the reality."

/This article appeared in the April issue of VICE magazine 
<http://www.vice.com/magazine/23/2>. Click HERE 
<https://checkout.subscriptiongenius.com/vice.com/> to subscribe./

-- 
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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