‘The Water Crisis Is a Manifestation of Jim Crow Politics’

Janine Jackson interviewed the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition’s Makani Themba about Jackson, Mississippi’s crisis for the March 3, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: So this is CNN on February 17: “And ahead, the plan to create a court system for the wealthy and mostly white parts of Jackson, Mississippi, and separate from the system for the mostly Black community.”

It’s hard to know how to respond. For sure, it’s good that CNN is choosing to point its national audience’s attention to what’s happening in Jackson. But at the same time, if it’s not too much, why is a deeply anti-democratic, racist action just a sort of blip on the evening news, like a new drink at Starbucks?

Mississippi Bill 1020 gives the state of Mississippi the control to appoint systems, and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba says it would be less than honest to call the effort “anything other than racist.”

 In Mississippi’s Capital, Old Racial Divides Take New Forms

New York Times (2/20/23)

Which leads us to headlines like the New York Times on February 21: “In Mississippi, Racial Outrage at Court Plan.” Well, CounterSpin listeners will likely be attuned to the difference when journalists use “racial” when “racist” would be the more appropriate word, and framework, to use.

So what does all this mean in the story of Jackson? And what questions and conversations would help us understand what’s going on there, and point us in the direction of a useful response?

Makani Themba is a Jackson resident and a volunteer with the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition. She’s also chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies, which is based in Jackson. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Makani Themba.

Makani Themba: Well, I’m so glad to be back. And I’m so grateful that CounterSpin is still going strong. Thank you.

JJ: Absolutely. You know, we keep on keeping on.

I just feel, in this case, that a lot of folks would appreciate some story, some understanding, about what’s actually happening, and how we got to this point.

If I read reporting today, it’s about water treatment, and then about governance. But how would you bring somebody up to speed, who was maybe just looking at the latest headlines?

 Jackson vs the Mississippi State Legislature

IBW21 (3/2/23)

MT: I think one of the most important things to understand is that HB 1020, which I know has gotten most of the media attention, is one of about a dozen bills, a dozen bills, that the state legislature and the governor have really, it feels like a sort of gun. It’s like artillery pointed at our city, to be honest. It’s like legislative weaponry.

And these bills, which include 1020, do all kinds of damage. 1020, I think, got a lot of folks’ attention, because it basically creates a new governance structure in the middle of the city that’s a predominantly white area, northeast Jackson. It also includes our downtown, where the Capitol is, and all the way up to the border of Ridgeland, Mississippi, which is the neighboring city, and actually into a portion of Ridgeland—a new jurisdiction which is called the Capitol Complex Improvement District.

It originally came out as a way to make sure that the Capitol had resources to do, you know, gardening, and some improvements for beautification. And the state came back after the City of Jackson, the residents of Jackson, the mayor of Jackson, had fought really hard to get federal dollars to finally come directly to Jackson to address our water issues. Because money was coming into the state for water infrastructure, but that money was not getting to Jackson, even though it was a primary reason why the money was coming in.

So that was the context, right, that we were able to work with Congress to come around the state, because they were blocking the resources; they even created a special process, just for the City of Jackson, to have to have approval for the use of funds that were dedicated to the city.

And so we were able to get around that, and get a sizable appropriation, about $600 million, actually, to address what is about a $2 billion problem. But we were excited. We were planning, we were there.

And it seems like this is not only revenge for figuring out a way to be resilient, and just address the problem without having to deal with the state and all of their shenanigans, but the set of bills, taken together, not only create this governance structure, [they] take away revenues from the city.

There are other bills that restrict our use of our sales tax revenue to only water infrastructure. So we’re not able to fix roads, or do anything else with it. And there’s no other city with that kind of restriction, where they say this is what you spend with your revenue, right? That’s not something happening anywhere else in Mississippi.

It also creates a police force that has jurisdiction over the city of Jackson, and over the Jackson Police Department. And they say the reason why they’re doing all this is to try to address the crime in Jackson. But that doesn’t seem to be true, because crime, one, is actually going down, and when crime was at the record high that it was at a couple of years ago, the state was not engaged at all, except to use it as a way to talk bad about us.

The other thing I think people should understand is that Jackson, like many majority Black and majority brown cities, folks denigrate those cities and defame those cities as a way to devalue, not only the people, but the property, the business, the commerce that happens there, because they don’t want the competition. So I think that’s important for people to understand.

So this whole array of bills—they even have a bill that restricts how the mayor can veto things or not. It’s not just about the water, because then I think it would be a different kind of response.

And the other thing is another bill that actually seizes the money that Congress allocated to the city, and creates a Regional Water Authority that is not responsible for addressing the problems in Jackson, it’s only responsible for receiving the money.

And the governor will have three votes on this commission. The lieutenant governor, who they’re in lockstep, has two votes. And this is a nine member commission. The mayor has four appointments, but two of them are dedicated to two other cities, so really Jackson has two votes on a nine-member regional handoff for money that was allocated directly to the city.

So they’re seizing those funds, as they have done other federal monies. What I also want people to understand is, there’s no law against this. There’s no law against this.

JJ: Exactly. So if we had a conversation about community needs, what would that look like? Who would be in that conversation? The conversation is like, oh, the community failed. But that’s not the story. And if we were going to talk about ways forward, we would, I believe, include different voices. And I just want to ask you, what could that conversation look like?

MT: First of all, I would love to see more investigative reporting and less punditry about it.

JJ: Say it.

     Racism and Discrimination    Environment<br />
<p>Apartheid American-Style

The Nation (2/16/23)

MT: That’s important. Because it’s easy to make this, and I know in my own writing I talk about this, as a David versus Goliath story. And it is, in a way.

Jackson doesn’t have the votes. This is a supermajority Republican state house that does all the kind of ill they want, even though, because of the pressure from outside the state and within the state, there’s been some negotiation, but we’re still facing the brunt of the awfulness that all of these bills combined contain.

But yes, so what happens with the money when the federal government gives money to Jackson? Who uses it? Why don’t we see it? And why is that OK? And also, we’re not the only state that experiences these kinds of shenanigans, this kind of misappropriation of funds. All over the place—Michigan’s an example, Texas is another example.

States make applications to the federal government, using the problems of their communities of color, that basically happened because of the lack of investment, which is the first step. And then the extraction—because it’s one thing to not invest, but in Mississippi, they literally extract what they want from the city.

So when this money comes in, they extract that money and say, OK, well, great, we’ve got this money, we talked about the problems. And now we’re going to take this money and make communities that already have smooth roads smoother, already have good water infrastructure even better. We’re going to keep up with that, and then blame the folks—for what they’ve stolen from us.

Where’s the investigative reporting that looks at the documents, that FOIAs the application, that tracks it? And I’m so grateful for the work that the Clarion Ledger has done around the welfare scandal, because that would have never been uncovered had it not been for investigative reporting.

Makani Themba

Makani Themba: “If there was really investigative reporting around what happened in Mississippi, folks would see a pattern of theft and extraction from the low-income people, from Black people, from brown people.”

But I think if there was really investigative reporting around what happened in Mississippi, folks would see a pattern of theft and extraction from the low-income people, from Black people, from brown people. It isn’t even that the white communities in Mississippi are benefited, because many of them do not.

I think that they would discover that a few businesses, a few people, a few politicians are benefiting from this, and most people are not. And how do you have a state that’s against Medicaid? Right? I mean, healthcare for their folks.

I think that more investigative journalism would nail these kinds of stories, and that it’s been investigative journalism in the past that’s helped lift up what’s happening in places like this.

And you know, like you think about, we would not know who Fannie Lou Hamer was, if folks weren’t telling the story outside of Mississippi. Because if it was up to them—I mean, this was a state that was trying to keep Sesame Street from coming on the air because it was too forward, too progressive, who actually had to be sued by folks in Mississippi—including the late Everett C. Parker, who media activists actually get an award in his name—they sued television stations in Mississippi in the ’60s, because they would literally not show anything about the civil rights movement, or the marches, or what was going on on the news.

And they had to sue to force that, and they would actually block out national news coverage in Mississippi of these stories. So we’re dealing with a long legacy.

So journalism is critical, good journalism, investigative journalism, or some people would say actual journalism, is critical to exposing this kind of theft and dishonesty.

And also just the issues of democracy. What does it mean to be in a state where there’s a Republican supermajority that does not reflect the proportions of who lives here at all?

 The Mayor of Jackson, Miss. Had a 'Radical' Vision for His City. The Water Crisis May Have Put It Out of Reach

Time (9/13/22)

JJ: When I see a headline, like Time magazine’s, “The Mayor of Jackson,” I guess it said, “Had a Racial Vision for His City”—OK, all right, whatever—“but the Water Crisis May Have Put It Out of Reach.”

So when I see that headline, what I hear that telling readers is, we tried to do it, and we failed. And so stop thinking about that.

So you can only talk to people who are interested in change, and media are just maybe not the way to do that. And yet so many people that we talk to, their agenda, their understanding of what is politically possible, is set by media, and it’s media saying, oh, hey, the mayor of Jackson wanted to do something, but he can’t. And that’s their understanding of, well, I guess we shouldn’t even try.

MT: Fortunately, Time magazine is not going to dictate to us what we might do, thank God. And I think, in many ways, the world was captivated by Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s vision around Jackson being the most radical city in America. And that radical vision for the world was very compelling, and also the story of Mississippi, right? The story of Mississippi is everybody’s, deep down.

I think that him articulating that, when he was first elected, gave folks a different view for a moment, right, of this is a place where there’s been resistance. He’s not the first person to articulate that.

In fact, Mississippi’s radical legacy has roots in Reconstruction. The state had the most radical constitution in the country during Reconstruction, and a majority Black legislature, all those things. And then, when the Confederacy took back the state in 1890, that’s the kind of governance we’ve been dealing with ever since. But they don’t represent the majority of the state, and they never have.

And so I think that it’s not true that the water crisis threatens our—and I would say, collectively, Jackson’s—radical agenda, because another convention of corporate media, and oftentimes storytelling, is to reduce it down to one person, when he was always part of a movement and a legacy and a history that many, many, many, many people are involved in.

That what threatens the agenda, so to speak, has been Jim Crow politics, and that the water crisis is a manifestation of Jim Crow politics.

You have a water crisis because there’s no investment in infrastructure when there should be, and those decisions are racialized.

I think that’s the other piece of the story, is that folks are not dealing with how deeply racialized the work, the legislature’s agenda—and I shouldn’t say the whole legislature, let me be clear, the Republicans, because it’s interesting, in Jackson, almost all the Democrats in both houses are Black. Guess why.

So we have this essentially apartheid approach to governance that has been in effect since 1890, with some breakthroughs, with some fights, and the Voting Rights Act was really critical to helping things move forward.

And it’s really been the folks in Mississippi and Alabama, whose blood was on the line, who made that legislation happen, and I want to be clear about that. The whole nation owes Mississippi and Alabama a debt for the elevation of democracy. That’s critical to understand.

And so we look at that, and I want to see reporting about that racialization, right? I want to see reporting about how this paradigm of whiteness and anti-Blackness is driving the policy agenda.

You know, people want to call it “Trumpism.” But this was Trumpism before Trump. This is where he got it from.

JJ: This is not new.

MT: And Jeff Sessions in Alabama, and from this Jim Crow legacy.

And that’s the crisis that we’re in. There would be no water crisis if there was equity. There would be no water crisis if the state of Mississippi had any kind of ethics, and allocated the money which they received from the federal government to the places where there is a problem.

And you think about it, how crazy is it that you won’t invest money where the problem is, and fix the problem? But that is kind of politics as usual—not just in Mississippi, but all over. And that ought to be the crime.

Look for the hashtag #jxnundivided. You’ll see that online. That will let you know where the petition is, and also IBW21.org.

I have an extensive piece that has how people can get involved, as well as a link to the petition site. So there’s an article there that has a link to the petition drive.

We’re asking everybody to please sign and share it. And it also goes through the list of bills, and there’s two petitions listed in this piece. One is a petition to the state around this attack on Jackson.

The other, and this is, I think, really important as well, is a petition by the family of Jaylen Lewis. Jaylen Lewis was a 25-year-old Black father of two who was killed by the Capitol Police, basically execution-style. And his family is still looking for answers.

It happened in September. There was a witness, who is why we know what we know. But the police themselves have not released any findings, and are supposed to be investigating it. And so there’s a petition there as well for Jaylen Lewis.

And that’s one of the reasons why we’re so concerned about the Capitol Police having jurisdiction. They have a police chief who’s not accountable to anyone in the city of Jackson. They’re appointed by the attorney general of the state.

And so there’s a whole range of issues that are just so problematic about this, so that not only will we have this unelected, again, governing body over a big part of what will then not be a part of Jackson, but still in Jackson, right, where we go to downtown, where we shop, all of these kinds of things.

But we’ll have this occupying force that’s not accountable to any of the residents at all, that’s already shot several folks, and killed one in just the last few months.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Makani Themba. She’s a volunteer with the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, as well as chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies. Thank you again, Makani Themba, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MT: Thank you.