Jackson’s Rise: Revolutionary Dreams in the Deep South

Jackson’s Rise: Revolutionary Dreams in the Deep South

by Kayla Diliza and Eric Ribellarsi

State Funerals & Revolution

We sat amongst thousands of people, almost all Black, some in dashikis or traditional African garb, others in their Sunday best. Throughout the service, the person to the left or right occasionally raised their fist, tears rolling down their face. They cheered for references to revolution from the stage.  Speakers called on the crowd to join in chants of, “free the land, by any means necessary!” We hummed to freedom hymns, embraced one another, and cheered to denunciations of capitalism and white supremacy.

This was the memorial service of Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. And these are the people of Jackson.

Standing in contrast to the swell of genuine popular sentiment was the all Black contingent of cops who carried in Chokwe’s casket, and the traditional military horn bugling that followed. After all, this was a state funeral, for a state official. Among the movement itself, this very scene was a note of controversy: did it bring legitimacy to the movement, or did it create confusion about friends and enemies (and dishonor a fallen comrade)?

Just imagine: the Mississippi state flag, which bears the ugly symbol of the confederacy, flying at half-mast for the death of a known Black revolutionary.  Former Mississippi governor William Winter spoke about Chokwe at the memorial as a unifying character between the forces of Black liberation and white supremacy. Winter said that initially he “was afraid” of Chokwe’s election, but then he “was relieved” by Chokwe’s actions in office. It was a well-known game. This was a “Nelson Mandela-ization” of Chokwe, said a comrade in Jackson who opposed the inclusion of such figures in the memorial. Winter sought to assume the mantle of Chokwe and disappear his revolutionary contributions.

It was an amazing sight: the funeral of a popular Black revolutionary, who had briefly served as mayor of a state capital, in the heart of the deep South. Chokwe’s funeral captures the contradictions and turmoil developing in Jackson. And it’s no secret that these contradictions exist within the movement as well.

Jackson is a place of profound contradictions–waiting to explode.

 

Chokwe Lumumba

It was an incredible thing that the people elected Chokwe Lumumba as the mayor of Jackson. Chokwe, whose adopted first name literally means “warrior,” was a communist-inspired Black nationalist who grew up in Detroit. He made a decision to dedicate his life to the oppressed, and very early on he joined a revolutionary nationalist organization, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). That organization demanded independence from the US and sought to fight for a socialist society in the Black-belt South. He was known as a people’s lawyer, and defended Black Panther leaders like Geronimo Pratt and the Black Liberation Army’s Assata Shakur. He was the founder and leader of the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO), the parent organization of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).

Chokwe moved to Jackson in 1988, with the aim of developing a Black liberation movement in one of the most bitterly oppressed and poor regions of the U.S., where people live in desperate poverty and the infrastructure is virtually abandoned. And the people of Jackson, knowing this, voted him in.

Chokwe’s move to Jackson was part of a much larger plan, called the Jackson Kush Plan.

 

The Jackson Plan

Jackson-Kush-Plan

The full text of the Jackson Kush Plan

The Jackson Kush Plan of the New Afrikan People’s Organization began in 2008. It brought that organization’s cadre from all over the country to be a concrete alternative to NGO pulls on the Black liberation movement, and to build Black working class power in the heart of the deep south.

This plan seeks to combine mass movements, people’s assemblies and other organs of popular power, together with an electoral entryism. It has three primary components: building people’s assemblies; building a network of progressive political candidates; and building a broad based solidarity economy.

For revolutionaries in the movement, this was conceived as a plan to create a dual power-type of scenario in the south of the United States that ultimately would trigger a showdown with the federal government.

 

Jackson’s Reality

When we drove into Jackson the first time, we weren’t sure what to expect. We knew Jackson was located in the deep South in a stripe of majority Black counties called the Kush. The Kush runs from Louisiana, through Mississippi, up to Tenessee. It is over 80% Black in cities like Jackson, and surrounded by powerful white supremacist forces. We knew Jackson was a capital city, but it looked nothing like a capital city. It more closely resembled images of Detroit, with abandoned houses stacked one by one, some just charred remains of homes that had burned down.

jackson-poverty

Hard life in Jackson

Jackson is located at the center of the old slave system. Through the 50’s and 60’s, much of the early Black radicalism that developed in the Civil Rights Movement developed in Mississippi, before radiating out into the country-wide Black liberation movement. People fled as part of great migrations into mega-cities where Black people were exploited in the inner cities and factory production. We’ve been told by Jackson organizers that since big-city production moved elsewhere, Black families that moved North are now returning to the South. It remains to be seen whether large sections of people might return to cities like Jackson, where a new movement is attempting to take hold.

The official unemployment numbers paint a picture of around 6% unemployment, but those numbers are worthless. Just ask Kali Akuno, a leading member of Cooperation Jackson, an organization rooted in the Jackson Kush Plan. Kali Akuno says that those numbers don’t include the roughly 50% of the people who’ve given up on finding employment altogether. Walking around Jackson, you’ll see people hanging out on their porches in the middle of the day. Some simply don’t have porches; they live in shanties. The census shows almost one-third of people living below the poverty level, despite the misleading employment figures. Jackson has the third highest HIV rate of any city in the country.

U.S. capitalism has basically two contending plans for how it will deal with Jackson.

One plan is for a Detroit-style gutting of the city, including massive capital flight and the complete economic devastation of the city, forcing its people to disperse across the country. Many major businesses have already pulled out of the city.

A contending plan is for the gentrification of the city overseen by familiar models of Black centrist mayors managing the dynamics and flows of capitalism, but in which the basic workings of the system are kept intact. This is what some refer to as the neo-colonial model.

And there is a third model, proposed by the writers of the Jackson Plan, based on creating a parallel economy, people’s institutions, and a mass movement that would give people the material basis to stay and fight.

 

Dual Power Strategies

A radical wing of the movement in Jackson proposes to build this third model on a road to building dual power.

Dual power describes a situation in which a parallel ruling apparatus exists–one that’s able to compete with, in the hopes of eventually replacing, the ruling state. Dual power strategies draw on experiences like the Naxals in India, where revolutionary forces are the main authority on matters of land and law. In Venezuela, autonomous zones, such as La Piedrita, refuse to adhere to state authority and threaten to fight back if any state police attempt to enter. In Russia, the Soviets held competing political power leading up to the October Revolution.

So what would it look like to build dual power in Jackson? This idea is itself controversial.

Some people in Jackson believe that getting Chokwe elected into a local government is itself a form of dual power; that the act of holding the office transfers social benefits to working class people (or Black businesses in the minds of some).  In opposition to this view, others, like Cooperation Jackson’s Kali Akuno, argued that the elections were an “experiment” and “a tactic.” As a tactic, elections can serve as agitation or a means by which to funnel government resources into existing people’s movements.  In order for that to happen, a deeply rooted revolutionary movement first has to actually exist.

Kali Akuno

Kali Akuno

Kali Akuno explains:

“[The Jackson-Kush Plan] was based upon an analysis that is very critical of any and all Black electoral engagement. Myself and most others in that group came fundamentally from a position that electoral politics is a dead-end strategy. But we kind of took a hard look and said – ‘in this context, what can be gained from doing this?’ There were a couple of things we identified – being able to sit in that office, if you would. You can move some policies that would get the state off your back a little bit and create some space for the people’s motion to gain some strength and give it more democratic space to operate.There was an attempt to have elections be in service to the movement. Whether we accomplished that – in some areas I think we did and in some areas there were some mistakes made during that short nine month period in office.”

During the elections themselves, it was clear that Chokwe had the support of small business owners and sections of the middle class, who may have had more unity with the idea of Chokwe as an experienced lawyer than a revolutionary. The campaign presented Chokwe as legitimate–a smart choice for progressive people. To this crowd, Chokwe had campaigned on the idea of bringing in a Whole Foods, since major businesses, like Wal-mart, were moving to the white enclave north of Jackson, called Madison. These sections of society had unity with the idea of healthy food in the grocery stores. They also wanted the opportunity to develop Black-owned businesses.

nissan auto workers

Nissan auto-workers at a rally of Chokwe Antar and the United Auto-Workers

Going door to door with campaigners, we also witnessed the support of working class Black people. “I know the people’s assembly and Chokwe,” said one resident wearing a red, black and green armband, and raising his fist like so many other working class Black people had at Chokwe’s funeral.

But, it felt like this electoral campaign was mobilizing activists to campaign, and that the people themselves were in a role of passive support. One comrade visiting Jackson remarked that it “felt like service the constituency, rather than serve the people.”

Chokwe’s electoral campaign necessarily diverted much of the concrete energy of the organizers on the ground. The People’s Assemblies, the proposed political engine of people’s power which was supposed to direct and command Chokwe, remains a primitive contribution. Chokwe was elected: a people’s mayor, but without first having a basis for the people to command him.

chokwe-antar

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of Chokwe Lumumba

In the days after Chokwe’s death, Chokwe’s son, named Chokwe Antar, ran in the interim elections to succeed his father. Ultimately, he was defeated in a sweeping electoral defeat by neo-liberal Tony Yarber. Racist white voters were mobilized in record breaking numbers, amid psychological warfare and images of Jackson becoming Detroit. Commercials sniped Chokwe Antar as not really being a Christian. Funding on a national level was rapidly mobilized for Yarber. And many people abstained from the elections, which some in Jackson believe is a result of how little had changed from Chokwe’s election.

In building dual power, there’s an immediate need to delegitimize the old state and legitimize the new power. With no new power emerging, agency and people’s aspirations ended up confined to the halls of the old power. Many people who voted for Chokwe had sat back to watch the wheels of the government turn, hoping that their leader might bring the change they were looking for. “Give him time”, people would say.

Chokwe was stuck in an arduous situation, encircled by powerful and hostile forces of the old order–of both Southern white boy and threatening FBI types. We can’t know how far Chokwe would have ultimately gone, or whether he could have fought through these contradictions.

What we do know is that Chokwe had significant broad support–but of the kind that was trained and accustomed to passively support him in the electoral arena. What he didn’t have, what revolutionaries didn’t have, was a political base that was preparing to confront and fight the federal and state governments for legitimacy and power.

Sometimes people believe our challenge is purely one of gaining a mass base, but an even greater challenge is to fuse revolutionary ideas with that mass base. There were ways in which Chokwe’s radical edge had to be curbed by the experience of what it takes to become elected, who one has to make alliances with, and which social class one ultimately has to serve in absence of a revolutionary moment.

Chokwe’s electoral slogan was a burning example: “One City! One Aim! One Destiny!” However, “it is really not just one city with common aims and a common destiny” an organizer in Jackson said. Southern Mississippi white boys and the national apparatuses of corporate wealth and power have a different destiny in mind for Jackson’s people. Massive capital flight from Jackson has left Jackson’s people with no future. They are planning police offensives against Black youth, wrapped in Tony Yarber’s gospel-based neo-liberal rhetoric.

If Jackson’s movement is to fight through hostile encirclement without surrendering dreams, militants there must be able to speak publicly as revolutionaries, in their own voice, and they must have deep roots among the people on a basis of fighting to overthrow the old order.

If one conceives of a  strategy with electoral tactics, those tactics would have to rely on an existing revolutionary movement. Without that, the strategy will ultimately be forced to subsume its goals to whatever is possible within this system.

 

An Attempt to Develop a Partisan Base: The Cooperatives Plan

In May 2014, three months after Chokwe’s death, our crew took another trip down to Jackson. Organizers were hosting the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. The conference was one part of a larger initiative to attempt to implement a parallel economy characterized by workers’ cooperatives.

Like elections, the question of workers’ cooperatives in Jackson is a debate about tactics and strategy. There is nothing inherently anti-capitalist about workers’ cooperatives, and workers’ cooperatives are themselves not dual power. But when workers’ cooperatives are combined with preparations for confrontation and plans of building up alternative, competing institutions of political power, they may have the potential to be radical.

Jackson’s revolutionaries are informed by the experiences of the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children program that combined the fulfillment of a concrete need with armed defense and organization of communities. The cooperative and farming aspects of the Jackson Plan seek to both satisfy needs of the community and organize the Black working class. If successful, the movement in Jackson could serve as a catalyzing force for class struggle throughout the country.

The conference itself brought a diverse audience, hundreds of activists, organizers, radicals, and working people. People came in from both Jackson and around the country to be a part of it.

The movement in Jackson is uniquely positioned to be able to speak to (and potentially transform) this country’s political terrain.

The events in Ferguson have shown a great many people the beginning of a new Black liberation movement in the U.S. It’s worth noting the experience of the Panthers’ own project: they didn’t do patient base building for decades. Catalyzing moments allowed them to absorb an entire mass movement, coming off the experiences of the murder of Martin Luther King, SNCC, and RAM.

We are eager to see what effect the rebellion in Ferguson will have on the movement in Jackson, and we hope that they will seize the national stage in a radical way as these critical events continue to unfold.

 

A Model Cooperative

The heat was sweltering as we packed into around two dozen vehicles, leaving the Jackson Rising conference to visit Cooperation Jackson’s first cooperative farm. On the drive over, organizers briefed us.

The neighborhood we were going to visit, West Jackson, was one of the poorest in the city. Some people in the movement had argued that it was a mistake to start in a place like this, that the community was too broken by petty theft and drug peddling to make possible the kind of project they were aiming for. But Cooperation Jackson organizers said they “had decided to start here out of love and faith in the people,” and belief in the ability of the people themselves to take up the project.

As we stepped out of the cars, the Cooperation Jackson cadre walked us down the road to the farm. Such a large Black and white crowd of radicals and activists roaming through the neighborhood was a bizarre sight for the community. Curious neighbors came out of their homes. As we walked down the road, Cooperation Jackson organizers introduced us to each neighbor by name and told us about their many backgrounds and the contributions they were making in the community.

As we walked through the neighborhood, the stories of the neighborhood we heard were incredible. A friend of the movement had just purchased what was listed as a vacant plot of land near the farm . In reality, the land was so overgrown that a house built in 2008 had been obscured from sight when the real estate agent had driven by, leading it to mistakenly be listed as a vacant plot of land. This new house and the land surrounding it had been purchased for only $4000.

Cooperative farming in Jackson

Cooperative farming in Jackson

When we arrived at the farm, it was humble, sitting on just two acres. The land, along with a house, had been purchased for only $2000. The farm was still under construction, using methods of sustainable permaculture (1)Permaculture is a school of farming that aims to create sustainable ecosystems of plants and animals as opposed to reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.. So far, they had constructed fences using wood debris left on the land, and begun clearing trash and debris from the site, and had created a blueprint for what the farm would ultimately look like.

Cooperation Jackson organized meetings with the community, and together they decided which animals they would be raising and which vegetables they would be growing. The manure from the animals would be used to fertilize the land, and the vegetables would be grown together with grasses and insects for the animals to eat. The small plot of land would rely on vertical farming methods using structures that would best utilize the small plot of land to feed the community.

A clearly unresolved debate was going on among the participants in the cooperative over whether the food should be produced to feed the community in a self-sustaining way, or whether it should be a cooperative business and sell its product for compensation to the community. “First, we have to feed ourselves,” insisted an older brother who had moved to Jackson from Brazil to be part of the Jackson Plan. He believed that focusing on selling the crops for compensation would reduce this project to one of Black owned business.

There were clearly other sharp debates going on as well: how should this project interact with the anti-people Tony Yarber administration that was now in office? Should the cooperatives attempt to tie themselves to him? Or should they be building a parallel power structure and movement at a distance from the institutions of power, with the aim of challenging the legitimacy and “right to rule” of those institutions of power?

Some in the movement argued that they can get much needed resources and support from this administration, and are seeking its support, including attempts to get the Yarber administration to support the cooperatives in Jackson generally. The Yarber administration, meanwhile, tried to shut down the Jackson Rising conference; later, seeking legitimacy, the administration tried to take credit for the conference.

 

First Steps and Needed Leaps

It is clear that the movement in Jackson has made a significant leap: it has garnered support among sections of the people, on the path to building real roots. But establishing roots is not the only task. Those roots must ultimately take the leap to challenge the system itself in a contest of strength. Sometimes developing a revolutionary political base means that we lose a section of the movement, whose class interests and political aims were ultimately in contradiction with that movement’s aims. Such shifts are inherently risky.

Our comrades in Jackson undoubtedly face profound challenges: encirclement by powerful reactionary enemies, splits and crises in the movement, all kinds of political questions and differences among the people themselves. What happens is bound to impact the path towards revolution throughout the U.S.  Communists in Jackson see it as a potential sparking point.

This is a bright movement that is still at the beginning of its journey, not the end. Communists in the US need to engage with what’s happening in Jackson: to investigate it, learn from its experience, and stand with it in decisive moments.

 

 

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Permaculture is a school of farming that aims to create sustainable ecosystems of plants and animals as opposed to reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.