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Many across the South—and the nation—find themselves asking a revolutionary question: how can Black working class people flourish in a former slave state that still struggles to dignify Black lives?
But in Mississippi, an answer is being put forth by Cooperation Jackson (CJ), a scrappy radical Black empowerment collective in the state's capital founded by Kali Akuno, Sacajawea Hall and others. May 1 of this year marked the sixth anniversary of the group's founding. The group celebrated the possibility and progress of their vision with a powerful call to action, "The People's Strike: Fighting for Our Lives, Forging Our Future…"
"We'll struggle to live out our vision of the solidarity economy laid out in the Jackson Kush plan. We'll form community land trusts, create makers' spaces and manufacture our own modular housing, plant community gardens to get fresh organic produce into the mouths and bellies of our people and work toward food sovereignty and security by bringing forward a food co-op to solve our food desert. We'll engage in political education about the struggles and movements that have carried us, study specifically radical Black history to fill our tactical and rhetorical arsenals, have movie nights for inspiration, serve vegan options in all public meals. We'll dream, we'll drum, we'll pour libations to the ancestors and make offerings of mutual aid and protection to those with whom we share space and time in all times but especially those of existential crisis. And when things get dire enough, as they have in this worldwide pandemic, we'll deploy our community production capacity for mask-making, we'll engage in mutual aid efforts, and we'll put out an international call for a General Strike and lead the online organizing, reaching back into our own history of resistance to recall slave strikes of cotton pickers and incipient labor organizing of washer women in the Reconstruction Era."
Cooperation Jackson's invitation to socialist, cooperative, radical and Black liberation groups to form an international coalition of working class advocates willing to come together (online for now) to do organizing work necessary for mass mobilizations was embraced in Italy, the UK, South America, Germany, Palestine, and beyond. Their immediate goal is a race against the clock toward "determined mass, non-violent direct action conducted in a coordinated campaign [that] can transform the institutions of governance and upend the power of the banks and the multi-national corporations to address the immediate needs of workers and peoples throughout the world." Regular online calls, work groups, coordinated monthly actions and communications are on the menu until the time is ripe to act in concert, and the list of participants is ever expanding as word continues to spread about the People's Strike.
"This is a moment for inherent contradictions to be shown because of the crisis of COVID-19," said Joshua Dedmond, CJ's national outreach coordinator. "It's an extraordinary time to further captivate and galvanize folks in coalition to be leading out in front toward global general strike."
Even before precautions against COVID-19 infection pushed Cooperation Jackson toward a People's Caravan for their local May Day 2020 People's Strike demonstration, the caravan was a celebrated maneuver in the epic story of Black empowerment in Mississippi. The tale of the 1971 Land Celebration Day Motorcade is told in Jackson Rising, an essay collection subtitled The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, about CJ's ideological origins and aspirations for Black and working class liberation. It's the stuff of testament, legends, and miraculous-seeming breakthroughs.
Members of the New Afrikan Independence Party were almost at their destination 20 miles west of Jackson—a tract of land promised to them for purchase where they'd planned to build a retreat center. They were stopped by a Klan barricade, where an inflammatory sign was posted:
NIGGERS, THERE WILL BE NO MEETING HERE SUNDAY. FREE SIX-FOOT HOLES
Chokwe Lumumba, deceased former mayor of Jackson, recounts the day in the collection.
"There were five hundred of us, and we said, 'We come in peace, but we come prepared.' We had old people, we had young people, we had babies. We were praying. Hard revolutionaries driven back to prayer! Looking for God wherever we could find Him. I know it's hard for a lot of you to believe this—that roadblock opened up. Just like the Red Sea."
Miracles would not be unwelcome in the context of present day Jackson. According to Akuno, the municipality and Hinds County, where most of the COVID-19 cases are, are experiencing a dizzyingly accelerated consolidation of state power under cover of COVID-19, to the extreme diminishment of the City of Jackson, now led by Lumumba's son.
Governor Tate Reeves has deliberately and specifically upended Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba's authority several times with respect to certain provisions of the city's stay at home order e.g. reversing a sick leave pay provision and redefining essential businesses to include gun stores. It's a power struggle akin to war, that Akuno says has likely resulted in COVID-19 casualties, counted and uncounted.
"It's part of a long-term campaign that the Republicans have been waging against the City of Jackson, particularly its Black leadership, to undermine and strip it of all its power and authority," Akuno explains.
The day before the May Day "No Turning Back" People's Caravan the mayor let expire his April 1 ban on open carry during the coronavirus pandemic, issued under his executive order. He'd been the target of relentless condemnation and ridicule from the moment he asserted his executive authority, refusing to succumb to public pressure that included a lawsuit.
"I didn't agree with that particular ban," said Akuno, wearing a sidearm for the protection of the community as he explained his position to Scalawag. "I understand and support the rationality of trying to curb gun violence in the city, but not by the route they suggested. They don't live in this community and are not subject to the things that go on because of the economic hardships that exist and the conflicts that creates. Our people are trying to survive."
Wearing a large black gun at his waist is not something Akuno relishes having to do, but he has his reasons. On Friday armed right wing forces were rallying at the capitol in support of forcing the state open. And even more specific to Cooperation Jackson, on April 29, their People's Strike webinar was hacked and disrupted by Nazis who broadcasted Nazi motorcades with the N word scrawled in yellow crayon.
"We took it as a warning," he said. "Folks, not just myself, wanted to make sure that we'd be able to defend ourselves, if necessary."
For over an hour and a half the twenty or so cars in the People's Caravan filled with mostly young people traveled a route in alignment with the General Strike's Demands, riding by the offices of decision makers—those who have the "official authority" to issue stay-at-home orders and to provide people with the protection they need. The demands call for protections and rent, eviction and debt relief in the face of COVID-19, but also for structural change in the fundamentals of affording human life: housing, income distribution, universal healthcare, food sovereignty, environmental justice and an end to punitive foreign policies (sanctions and blockades) and the closure of foreign military bases. They vow not to return to work or end physical distancing until health experts deem that it's safe.
"They are not following the scientific rationale or evidence," Akuno said, noting he's heard reports from folks in the community of ten deaths since the end of February; unhoused people who died of COVID-like symptoms but who are not counted as COVID-19 deaths.
"These folks died where they stood and where they rested without any access to medical care or attention and were found by their friends," he said. "So we know we have undercounting. We also know we have community spread right here in West Jackson, and if we have it here, it's likely throughout the city."
The caravan made sure to travel to the hospital corridor to honor frontline medical personnel who cannot strike in order to send them a clear message of love and solidarity. "We want them to know they are recognized and we understand how strategic and important they are and the vital role they're playing. They need to be given ALL the protections that they deserve and all the resources they deserve, all the medicines, the ventilators, the masks. At this point, that should be provided directly by the government either by the State of Mississippi or the federal government," Akuno said.
The cars looped around the courthouse and the jail where business seemed to be booming.
"Arrests have not slowed," Akuno said, and the prison population is at particular risk.
Precarity is the general condition for many of the caravan participants.
Jasmine Wells, 23, born and raised in Jackson, is a communications student at Jackson State University. She's lost her job because of COVID-19 but did not qualify for unemployment insurance. "I have missed some meals," she told Scalawag.
She says she's not really worried because "any given day on earth I know my Creator got me. I may not always be able to get a whole meal, but I can always find an orange or something, or eat a Hot Pocket. I ain't eating like I used to eat. I used to eat three meals a day, breakfast lunch dinner and a couple of snacks. Now I'm eating one and a half meals. It's okay, because now I'm losing weight, getting slimmer," she jokes.
"It definitely has brought the idea of rationing into several households where it wasn't before," explained her friend Kalif Wilkes, 24, also born and raised in West Jackson. "We can't really trust the economy. We come from backgrounds where our parents weren't in a position to really help us out all that much financially. They'd tell us, 'Go out there and get it!' And that's what we have to do."
Maddie Coates, 17, is attracted to cooperatives and collectives because "everyone deserves to have a better experience of life." She says it's really hard times now.
"When all this is over, no one really knows what normal will look like," she added. "I just hope it's comfortable and we're not super broke and we can't do anything. That's what fuels my fears, that we remain impoverished even after this. The working class needs liberation, and I expect it in my lifetime. I do. I just can't imagine me being old, like 50, and it's exactly the same. I just can't imagine that. I just wish people would wake up and realize corporations are not your friend, and billionaires are not your friend."
"We're looking down the road to the longest extent possible," Akuno said. "We have 30,000,000 newly unemployed people; now they're joining the ranks of a lot of people in West Jackson who've been permanently unemployed for decades. Long-term and even in the mid-term, this crisis does not bode well for working people if we don't get organized. With that many people unemployed they're going to dictate the terms and people will have to take it. If there's no major demand they'll be able to force wages down, working conditions will be deplorable, unions will probably be eviscerated. And if we're not on our guard they'll bring us back a century, all the gains that were made could be eviscerated. People need to understand that very clearly.
"One of the beauties of being an African in this society is that viewing things from below often times gives you a real clear picture of what's going on. And what might be coming down the pike. We're trying to give fair warning. If we don't get our stuff together, we're going to be in for a rough ride.
"To me it makes perfect sense that those who are being most directly impacted, those who've been totally excluded from the infrastructure to protect ourselves, that we have to raise our voices and speak up to demand the real structural change. For me, too many people died and shed bled for me to even think about going back in any form or fashion. That's why we issued the call, that's why it's important that it come from the South."
Photographer Ahmad White is a traveler on the journey for eternal peace and unity. He stands in the truth of the stories he tells.