Joined: 27 Apr 2004
|Posted: Fri Sep 20, 2013 8:05 pm Post subject: America's Most Revolutionary Mayor
|On July 1, Chokwe Lumumba, an attorney with a long record of black radical activism, took office as mayor of Jackson. His inauguration took place in the gleaming convention center that sprang up four years ago in the state capital’s mostly deserted downtown.
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Jackson’s new mayor is a former vice president of the RNA and a co-founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), a national group born in 1993 that seeks self-determination for African-Americans — whom it calls New Afrikans — “by any means necessary.” Like many shaped by the Black Power era, Lumumba long shunned formal politics, until a successful run for City Council in 2009. Now, as mayor, he is seeking to apply the tenets of the black radical tradition to the duties of running a city.
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Lumumba’s core supporters espouse a program called the Jackson Plan, which the MXGM posted on its website in 2012. The plan’s aim is to “build a base of autonomous power in Jackson that can serve as a catalyst for the attainment of Black self-determination and the democratic transformation of the economy.” Many of the specifics are practical, even business-friendly — improving Jackson’s paltry recycling program; bringing hothouses and pesticide-free techniques to community gardens; building cheap, energy-efficient housing.
When I asked Lumumba how he planned to build a solidarity economy now that he is mayor, he gave a measured answer.
“You have more affluent folks who have businesses; we want to challenge them to invest in the less fortunate, to try to get people homes they can live in, to give them jobs,” he said. “Show them that they’re likely to get more city contracts, for instance, if they bring more subcontractors who they are developing and helping to expand our economic base, as opposed to the regular old suspects. We think we can do some solidarity with that too.”
Lumumba’s top challenge is Jackson’s infrastructure crisis. The roads are rutted and buckled. The water and sewer systems are beset by capacity issues, decaying pipes, and obsolete metering and billing systems. Water-main breaks and flooded streets are chronic. Poorly treated sewage spews into the Pearl River; last year the city signed a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency that binds it to a $400 million investment program to restore compliance. In January 2010, a cold snap caused 70 water breaks and the whole city had to boil water. Even in normal times, tap water often runs brown. Addressing these problems has been difficult in part because Jackson’s tax base is anemic. The population has shrunk by 12 percent since 1980, due to both white and black middle-class flight to suburban Rankin and Madison counties. Over 27 percent of city residents live in poverty.
By August, Lumumba was defending his proposed budget before the City Council. At $502 million, it represented an increase of 43 percent over the previous year, mostly due to capital expenses on infrastructure. One proposed source of funding was a large increase in water rates, by 29 percent, and sewer rates, which would more than double. “We can no longer kick the can down the road,” he told the council.
To raise funds, Lumumba has also set aside a campaign pledge. Under Johnson, the city asked the state Legislature to approve a one-cent sales-tax surcharge to go toward public works, but the plan stalled when the Republican-led Legislature demanded that a joint city-state commission control the funds. During the campaign, Lumumba opposed the commission, but as mayor he has agreed to the arrangement.
He had also objected to a $90 million contract that the outgoing administration had awarded to Siemens for water-system improvements, arguing that its costs were inflated. But it appears that he’ll likely let the contract stand.
“We’re not only worrying about Siemens; we’re worrying about the people that are going to be hired because of Siemens,” he now says.
Lumumba’s pragmatism has pleasantly surprised some skeptics. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve been impressed by this guy,” said Allen, the downtown development advocate. “He’s appointed some of his biggest rivals to his economic-development advisory team. I’m one of them. He’s a good listener. We’re hopeful.”
Lumumba’s focus on infrastructure investment is consistent with the core goal that has run through his political life, beginning with the RNA: self-determination. His emphasis on local empowerment and suspicion of outside authority are representative of his leftist politics, but when applied at the level of a city government, they’re compatible with some varieties of conservative thought as well.
“Dealing with infrastructure is a protection against being robbed of one’s self-determination,” Lumumba said. “We’ve seen what’s happening in Detroit, where the whole city has been taken over by the state. We don’t want that to happen here, so we want to conquer those problems. And we’re trying to expand the base of the population and the alliance which is trying to fight for this avenue for self-determination. We aren’t trying to create more enemies.”