Insights From Mississippi on Organizing in a Right-Wing Context: A Conversation With Kali Akuno
“What can we do that would lend us towards being in a position to shape the outcome of society on a municipal scale?” That led us to the creation of the Jackson-Kush Plan. Out of that plan, there were some things that we were already working on, like people’s assemblies. We reshaped and refocused and repurposed it in a lot of ways to try to be an instrument of dual power. Something that can both press government, but also work outside of it to transform society, to really push for a new politics. The third part, which is where Cooperation Jackson comes in, is transforming the economy, creating a democratic economy leading toward the creation and construction of a socialist economy, but through a democratic bottom-up process.
By Sarah Jaffe, originally published at Truthout | Interview Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Kali Akuno speaks at Cooperation Jackson’s 2nd Annual May Day gathering in 2016. (Photo: Courtesy of Kali Akuno / Cooperation Jackson)
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. In this series, we’ll be talking with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are working to challenge both the Trump administration and the circumstances that created it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. This series will introduce you to some of them.
For this first interview, we spoke with Kali Akuno, the co-director of Cooperation Jackson, a cooperative economic project in Jackson, Mississippi. “The overall aim and intent is to create a vibrant social solidarity economy in Jackson and, more thoroughly, to use that to transform the local political economy of Jackson and the State of Mississippi,” Akuno said. In the interview that follows, Akuno shares more about Cooperation Jackson’s efforts to take over Mississippi’s political economy and move it in a more radical direction.
The Green Team Cooperative (focused on landscaping, composting and recycling) clean out a vacant house that was acquired by Cooperation Jackson for the development of its Community Land Trust. (Photo: Courtesy of Kali Akuno / Cooperation Jackson)
Sarah Jaffe: You are part of a new project called Ungovernable2017. Can you tell us about that?
Kali Akuno: The Ungovernable project started election night. There was a video chat that Cooperation Jackson [and I] hosted as part of an ongoing project that we have called An American Nightmare, which is focused on the question of disposability: labor disposability, particularly the disposability of the Black working class. It is kind of a canary in the coal mine. We wanted to have a conversation that night to really try to sharpen in on what forces throughout the United States could and should be doing in the next period, regardless of the outcome.
Now, truthfully, [many of us] thought that Trump was going to win very early on, but were really just trying to prepare ourselves and prepare others to start having an open and honest dialogue about the next four years, assuming that the democratic order will stay in place. Once it was clear that he had won the Electoral College, he was going to be the next president of the United States, a point that I raised was “Now we need to prepare to be ungovernable.” That lingered in my head.
It is a phrase that I remember picking up from my younger days, from the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s as part of their noncompliance strategy. So, drawing on that historical memory is where that phrase came from. The general idea of the project is to start propagating ideas on how to build and resist this incoming regime. There is a focus on Trump, which is necessary, but I think we miss the boat if we don’t really look at the Republican-controlled Congress, the Republican-controlled Supreme Court, which is now an inevitability, and the fact that Republicans control two-thirds of all of the state governments. We are looking at a major right-wing shift, I think, the likes of [which] this country has never seen before.
It is a minority movement and it is a minority government in every instance. I think we really need to be mindful of that. We are going to have to really dig deep and figure out how to develop a comprehensive program that enables us to survive this austerity onslaught that they are going to come hard with. How do we use it not only to pivot to resistance, but to actually create the new future that we need, and to see this as much as an opportunity to do many things that were off the table three or four years ago?
The Ungovernable project, first and foremost, [is] trying to galvanize and mobilize forces throughout the country and throughout the world to take actions on January 20. But beyond that, we really want to engage in creating a larger conversation on how to build a serious resistance program.
A member of the Freedom Farms Cooperative cleans some cabbages. (Photo: Courtesy of Kali Akuno / Cooperation Jackson)
You said that you did think that Trump was going to win. Can you talk a little bit about the analysis you had that led you to be prepared for this?
I have the benefit of living in Mississippi, as odd as that may seem. I saw the enthusiasm for Trump. I listened to a lot of right-wing and reactionary radio, in part because of political reality and the context in which I am in, but also to study what these forces are doing, how they are doing it, who they are reaching, what is their impact? I started looking in September at the Electoral College map, and the map lined up pretty favorably for Trump. I never thought that he would win the popular vote, but you don’t need to win the popular vote in the United States to win the presidency. It was very clear to me that if he could win a few key states — North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Michigan — he had a shot.
There was clearly no enthusiasm in the Black community for Hillary Clinton. I happened to be on the road when she was having events in different cities throughout the country. Even though she spent eight years really building up the infrastructure to prepare for this presidential run, she just couldn’t overcome the historic deficit in the Black community. People really just did not believe in her, nor [could they] forget what she and her husband did during their eight years in the White House. The 1990s [saw] the largest number of people in history being incarcerated under their watch. People didn’t forget her super-predator comments. Even though she did a lot to support, financially, institutions like the Congressional Black Caucus and the Black Democratic Party machine, she couldn’t turn that into votes. She couldn’t turn that into mobilization. Obama got out there and was imploring everybody to go out and vote … he was talking about the Black community and if they didn’t vote for Hillary, he would take it as a personal affront.
Despite all of that, I think they knew that they were in trouble. One of the things that clearly let me know that she was vulnerable was, by all accounts Bernie should not have stood a chance in hell at actually challenging her given how much money she had in her war chest. How she had been basically buying allegiances for over almost a decade, had the money to back it, had the finance capital and virtually almost all of Wall Street on her side, and they were struggling.
I think Trump is a very astute politician. I don’t think any of his antics are random. He comes off that way to disarm people, but he is very calculated. There were some folks who were trying to get Hillary to address issues of concern about the Clinton Foundation and its actions in Haiti — how they helped to install a very oppressive and reactionary regime and basically ignored the Haitian community. Trump very skilfully went to Florida on two occasions that I am aware of and talked to a lot of the Haitian leadership, much of which is actually left-wing. He played up on the dislike that many have for the Clinton Foundation and the Clintons and what they have been doing in Haiti. For him to go and try to get, at best, 10 to 20 thousand votes from the Haitian community means that he was doing some serious math and he realized, “Hey, this could add up. If I can just break what is typically considered the Black vote, it will help me and my chances in Florida and some other key states to turn the tide.”
He was looking at those moves, looking at that electoral map, really looking at the economic anxiety in the Black community, but also in the white community, which is very real in Mississippi, very real in the South, very real in the Midwest. I don’t think that was being heard. It wasn’t really being paid attention to. I think he picked up on it. He did everything he could on several occasions, as you remember, to very visibly and very publicly appeal to Bernie voters and say, “Hey, I am on your side. We are talking the same economic measures and concerns,” which is not true, but it was great rhetoric.
Then, I think also the reality, a deeper piece, is that there was economic populism, economic nationalism that he presented in a very crafty way; and very skilfully also [played] the racism card. I think he was a very astute follower of history. I think his analysis was very reminiscent of what Reagan did when he came down here to Mississippi and went to the site near where civil rights workers were murdered. He came out with some great slogans — Reagan did and so did Trump. “Make America Great Again”: many on the left laughed at it, but I think anybody who watches Westerns knew exactly what he was doing. I think he picked the perfect target and spoke to both concerns about racism and economics with targeting the wall and targeting Mexico. He knocked out several things all at once.
Then, the rise of Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives also presented a certain amount of angst amongst large sectors of particularly rural white America — about being excluded, overrun, isolated, marginalized, forgotten. He played all of that up. I think people need to recognize that in terms of his strategy and the lack of strategy on the other side.
Participants in Cooperation Jackson take part in a membership meeting. (Photo: Courtesy of Kali Akuno / Cooperation Jackson)
You mentioned, of course, that this was still a minority movement, that a small percentage of people voted for Trump. He won the Electoral College, not the popular vote. Why is it important to remember that when thinking about resisting Trump?
I always bring it up because people feel isolated. Neoliberalism needs to be understood as a political movement. First and foremost, what it was trying to accomplish is breaking our social solidarity. It has done a good job over 40 years, clearly. With what we are calling the Neo-Confederate States and the Trump regime, many thought there was not much more to squeeze after 2008. They have, clearly, been proven false and they are going to try to squeeze the people more, very hard and fast beginning in the next couple of weeks. We already see it with the repeal of Obamacare on the Senate floor yesterday. And Trump is not even the president officially yet.
We need to recognize that in a number of different instances, folks who actually want to see something different constitute the majority. There were the majority of people who voted against Trump if you just look there. On a deeper level, this is something that I think we need to look at more profoundly and try to address: the 50 percent of voting-age adults in this country who typically don’t vote. I don’t think that is apathy; or not all of it. I think there is a growing dissatisfaction with the façade of democracy. People feel that “Whoever I vote for, nothing fundamentally is going to change. Their economic policy is going to be what it is. A lot of the fundamental questions around society are not on the ballot. We are restricted from being included in any serious discussion of democracy and what we can vote on, so why should I vote?” I think that is begging for some more fundamental, deeper and systemic change that I don’t think the electoral strategy and the electoral focus that we — in this case being the left — have been so oriented toward touches upon.
Time and time again, particularly over the last 20 years, where we have demonstrated our greatest strength is actually in the social movement side, the resistance side. We have to find ways to build the type of organizations and institutions that can create a radical hegemonic project that is beyond episodic, beyond just Occupy or the Movement for Black Lives, but is really geared toward meeting direct needs, in the process creating new types of social relationships and the society that we want, envision and need. We have to figure out “How do we rebuild the social bonds? How do we rebuild the social solidarity that we need?”
I don’t think any of us have, by far, all of the answers, but some things are staring us in the face. I have been constantly pointing out that those of us who want and chose a different path in the means that were available were in the majority and not in the minority. We need to look toward each other, first and foremost, for the solutions that we need.
Members of Cooperation Jackson’s community production team work on a digitally fabricated model of a tiny house that the team is designing. (Photo: Courtesy of Kali Akuno / Cooperation Jackson) What you were just saying leads us pretty perfectly to talking about what you are building in Jackson. Tell us a little bit about Chokwe Lumumba’s election and what is still going on with Cooperation Jackson.
I will give the shortest version I can of the overall project and strategy. I am a long-time member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. After September 11, one of the key things that we have been working on [is] securing the freedom of our political prisoners, prisoners of war and political exiles. We recognized after September 11 that this was going to become a major challenge, if not impossible, given how the United States government was going to redefine the political terrain. We recognized that we were going to have to do some major shifts in our own orientation and strategy. One of the main things that we recognized was that the repressive nature of the United States government was going to reach new levels. The COINTELPRO program, which was devastating to Black liberation and socialist organizations, was founded as a secret program under the United States government. [It was] largely illegal by their own law and standards. We knew that after September 11 they were going to create something that would be COINTELPRO-like.
We created a strategy group and started to rethink what we were doing with the limited resources and human forces that we have. “How could we be more effective?” It took us a couple of years to narrow some stuff down. Then, after Katrina, it got sharpened and focused. We started to take climate change more seriously, particularly once we looked at the maps of the United States and recognized where major sea-level rise would impact — most of it being in low-lying communities in the South where Black people are highly concentrated. We said, “OK, where are we strongest? Where could a small radical organization really bore itself in and have the greatest amount of impact?” For a lot of different reasons we looked at Mississippi and Jackson in particular — partly because we already had a strong chapter there that had some major victories in the ’80s and ’90s — and said, “What can we do that would lend us towards being in a position to shape the outcome of society on a municipal scale?” That led us to the creation of the Jackson-Kush Plan.
Out of that plan, there were some things that we were already working on, like people’s assemblies. We reshaped and refocused and repurposed it in a lot of ways to try to be an instrument of dual power. Something that can both press government, but also work outside of it to transform society, to really push for a new politics. The third part, which is where Cooperation Jackson comes in, is transforming the economy, creating a democratic economy leading toward the creation and construction of a socialist economy, but through a democratic bottom-up process.
The first major piece that we put forward to try to actualize that strategy was the election of Chokwe Lumumba. We first ran Chokwe for City Council in 2009 and he won that election. We wanted to do that, first and foremost, to gain some experience in the art of governing and learn municipal law; to figure out what could be done on a municipal level to support a radical program of social transformation. Despite many of our years, if not decades, of studying radical theory and process, we didn’t encounter many who had any serious analysis on how to actually govern. Those first four years, we learned a little bit. We felt confident enough that we wanted to try and move it to the next level and ran Chokwe for mayor in 2012 and 2013. He won and took over the mayorship in July 2013 and held that position until his untimely death in February 2014.
Something like Cooperation Jackson had been thought of for over 10 years prior to Chokwe becoming mayor. We knew we wanted to build something like it and our initial thinking was that we wanted to change some of the municipal law to support local hiring, local buying, local procurement and to change some of the rules of the game in a way that would support not just minority contractors and builders, but people who were doing collective and cooperative work. We also wanted to create a capital stream for these emerging vehicles. We were putting some of those things in place when he died.
The idea was there, but the next administration didn’t take it up and had no regard for it. On our part, we said, “Hey, it was an untimely and unfortunate loss, but we need to keep the process moving forward,” and try to move on to the next and third phase, which we always thought was the most critical: “How do you organize a community to both own and seize the means of production within its environment?” That’s where Cooperation Jackson was born. That is still a process that we are working on and trying to cultivate.
We are experimenting left and right. Many things are working, many things are not, but it is all part of this process of trying to build a democratic culture and to do that on the level of production. It is more of a challenge than it sounds like because we don’t really live in a democratic society. The more you really try to get into work like this, the more you realize how undemocratic the overall society that we live in really is. Particularly when it comes to the economic realm. All that is geared toward private accumulation. It is a boss who tells you — not without struggle by workers for better wages and better working conditions — but for the most part, most of [the working conditions] are really dictated by employers and by capital. Which is not democratic in any form or fashion.
We definitely see it as a long-term struggle — one that has become harder with Trump’s election and the potential consolidation of the political forces he represents with these Tea Party neo-confederates and their control over state governments. I do think in a moment like this, living in Mississippi is an advantage. Mississippi has been dominated by the Tea Party, even before the party had its name. Our governor, Phil Bryant, is a Tea Party member. We have a Republican supermajority and it has been that way for most of the last six years and they can pass almost anything they want. We have been able to sharpen some ideas about how to resist, how to organize in such a repressive and restrictive context, before the nation got hit and exposed to this with the Trump presidency. I think we had a little bit of a head start, which kept our core from being as depressed by what just transpired.
We were like, “Welcome to Mississippi!” to the rest of the United States. We don’t wish this on our worst enemies, but this is where we find ourselves. Crying about it or wishing it was different is not going to change the situation. We are going to have to get down, get dirty and struggle and work our way out of this. Our orientation is that we have to be fighting both defensively and offensively as much as we can at the same time. That is very challenging to do, but I think it is an orientation that we have to really pivot towards. I think it is a time — going back on some old clichés, but I do think they are true — for us to really dream big, to vision big, much bigger and bolder than I think we have thought in most of the last 30 years as we have learned to acquiesce and accept TINA: There Is No Alternative. Actually there is, there has to be, because if the forces at the helm now continue to have their way, humanity won’t survive much longer.
It is imperative that we not only remove them from power, but we totally re-orient the economy and society to [be] in balance and harmony with nature. We need a good grip on de-carbonizing the economy and putting forth a just transition. These are necessities and we have to build it from the ground up. That is what we are trying to do at Cooperation Jackson here in Mississippi.
One thing that is coming up, Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, is running for mayor in May. Right now, by far and away, he is the leading candidate. We fully expect to be back in office come July, but under some new terms that we are really going to have to figure out because the city is under major debt now. We are being threatened with the loss of our school district. The state is likely going to take that over because of some arbitrary grading system that they created several years ago, primarily focusing on Black school districts. Jackson is also faced with the threat of losing control over the city’s water system, in part, because of a consent decree that the city was forced to sign with the federal government in 2012. The water situation has been bad going on into the 1970s. They just kind of kicked the can down the road until it became inevitable. Jackson has a water problem similar to Flint, but not as bad. For us, it is a key issue because the sale of water to both the residents of the city and the greater metro region constitutes 44 percent of the city’s annual revenue. So, if we lose control of the water, we are not going to have a municipality to speak of.
We are trying to avoid what I call a Syriza trap, which is having a left-wing government come in to administer the worst forms of austerity. It is a similar situation that we are staring down. We are trying to meet that as best we can, with the most radical democratic ideas to counter it. The road ahead of us is very clear. We are taking a major risk and — to steal a phrase — “inventing the future” to deal with some of the issues that I spoke to earlier about Black disposability in the economic reality of this globalized world. It is increasingly becoming more and more computerized and more and more automated, which is going to have some major consequences for labor displacement. Ultimately, what we think is disposability on a grand and global scale [is coming] and we need to get prepared for it now. We do so, in our view, by fighting and creating a program which is about democratizing technology and putting it in the direct hands of the community so that we control the process, so that automation is going to serve humanity and not just the 1 percent elite.
We dream big here. We believe visioning small and trying to act in a very small and isolated way actually doesn’t help us, or the broader left’s project, in any form or fashion. We don’t believe single-issue work is the way forward. We have to push beyond our capacity as we presently understand it. We think it helps people come out of their isolation to have some hope, and to start envisioning a future where they can be active participants in its construction.
Lastly, can you tell people where they can find Ungovernable and Cooperation Jackson, how they can find out more information?