Economic Democracy Is Part Of Long Struggle For Racial And Economic Justice
Above: The Opening Plenary at the Jackson Rising economic conference.
Jackson Rising: An Electoral Battle Unleashes a Merger of Black Power, the Solidarity Economy and Wider Democracy
Jackson,MS – Nearly 500 people turned out over the May 2-4, 2014 weekend for the ‘Jackson Rising’ conference in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a highly successful and intensive exploration of Black power, the solidarity economy and the possibilities unleashed for democratic change when radicals win urban elections.
The gathering drew urban workers and rural farmers, youth and the elderly, students and teachers, men and women. At least half were people of color. About 50 were from the city of Jackson itself, and most were from other Southern states. But a good deal came from across the country, from New York to the Bay area, and a few from other countries—Quebec, South Africa, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
The major sponsors included Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Praxis Project, Southern Grassroots Economies Project, US Solidarity Economy Network, and the US Social Forum. Funding came from Community Aid and Development, Inc., Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, Coalition for a Prosperous Mississippi, Fund for Democratic Communities, Ford Foundation, Wallace Action Fund, Surdna Foundation, and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
But to grasp the meaning and significance of this meeting, a step back to see how it began—and why it almost didn’t happen—is required.
The conference was the brainchild of Jackson’s late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and one group of his close supporters, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) soon after he was elected on June 4, 2013 and had placed his people in a few key city positions. They had initiated the conference, which was then endorsed by the city council, to help shape and economic development plan for the city and the outlying Black majority rural areas, known as the ‘Kush.’–hence the name of the overall project, the ‘Jackson-Kush Plan.’
Chokwe Lumumba was rooted in the Black revolutionary organization, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), which claimed the Black majority areas of several states in the Deep South. He was one of its leading members, and a widely respected civil rights attorney. The RNA also had an economic outlook, a form of cooperative economics through the building of ‘New Communities’—named after the concept of ‘Ujamaa’, a Swahili word for ‘extended family,’ promoted by former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. The new mayor connected this core idea with the long-standing role of cooperatives in African American history, the experience of the Mondragon coops in Spain, and the solidarity economy movement that had emerged and spread from the Third World in recent decades. Together, all these ideas merged in the mayor’s project, ‘Cooperation Jackson.’
Lumumba’s election had taken Jackson’s political elite off guard. Making use of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to run as an independent in the Democratic primary, he defeated the incumbent and forced a runoff. Given that Jackson is an 80% Black city, he then won overwhelmingly. So when he died suddenly of heart failure Feb 25, 2014, with his supporters in a state of shock, his opposition moved quickly to counterattack. The MXGM, the Peoples Assembly and other pro-Chokwe groups now had two tasks, trying to get Chokwe’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, elected mayor while continuing to plan the conference, but with city support on hold.
Lumumba, 31 years old, lost to Tony Yarber, 46% to 54%. Chokwe Antar received over 65% of the Black vote, but the turnout had dropped. The Yarber team immediately moved to fire all the Choke sympathizers from city government, and tried to sabotage the conference. Local rightwing web publications attacked it as “thinly veiled communism.”
A Tale of Two Cities
What is behind this antagonism? Jackson is indeed a tale of two cities, on the cusp of two competing visions. Given its demographics, any mayor is likely to be Black, but what that can mean is another matter. Just driving around the city gives you a quick glimpse of the problem. While the largest city in the state and the Capitol, replete with major government buildings, the city is eerily quiet and empty. There are a few upscale areas, but also large areas of older, wood-framed housing of the unemployed and the working poor. There are huge fairgrounds, but little in the way of basic industry.
So two paths emerged. One was neoliberal, and aimed at exporting as much of the Black poor as possible, in order to open up wider areas from gentrification attracting the better-paid servants of the businesses that served government. The other was progressive, the Jackson Cooperation plan, which aimed at growing new worker-owned businesses and new housing coops that worked in tandem with the Black farmers of the ‘Kush.’ It also stressed democratized city services, while creating new alternative energy and recycling startups and also taking advantage of the city’s position as a major regional transport hub. It’s a conflict not unique to Jackson and shared by many cities around the country. Here’s the four points summing up ‘Cooperation Jackson’:
- Cooperation Jackson is establishing an educational arm to spread the word in their communities about the distinct advantages and exciting possibilities of mutual uplift that business cooperatives offer.
- When Mayor Chokwe Lumumba was still in office, Cooperation Jackson planned to establish a “cooperative incubator.” providing a range of startup services for cooperative enterprises. Absent support from the mayor’s office, some MXGM activists observed, a lot of these coops will have to be born and nurtured in the cold.
- Cooperation Jackson aims to form a local federation of cooperatives to share information and resources and to ensure that the cooperatives follow democratic principles of self-management that empower their workers. We’ve always said “free the land,” observed one MXGM activist. Now we want to “free the labor” as well.
- Finally Cooperation Jackson intends to establish a financial institution to assist in providing credit and capital to cooperatives.
The conference project thus found itself in the eye of a storm. But with luck and some judicious tactics, one key figure, Jackson State University President Carolyn Meyers, decided to stick with MXGM and allowed the conference to continue its plans on her campus, using the huge Walter Patton Center and two classroom buildings. A last minute fundraising blitz pulled in enough resources to squeeze through and make it happen.
Opening plenary: John Zippert, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Ed Whitfield, Kali Akuno
When the hundreds of registered participants poured into the huge hall Friday evening and saw it filling up, one could sense the excitement and rising spirit of solidarity amidst diversity. The opening plenary keynote speakers included Jessica Gordon Nembhard of the US Solidarity Economy Network (SEN), Wendell Paris of the Federation of Southern Coops (FSC) Land Assistance fund, Cornelius Blanding, Special Projects Director of the FSC, Ed Whitfield of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project based in North Carolina, and Kali Akuno of Jackson’s MXGM.
Gordon-Nembhard started off. A professor at John Jay College in New York, she recently published Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, a groundbreaking study on the topic.
“Courage is a word I had to use,’ she explained. ‘Everywhere I turned, from the early efforts of free Blacks to buy others in their family out of slavery, to the Underground Railroad, to burial societies and other clandestine forms of mutual aid; it took courage to motivate all these cooperative forms of resistance to slavery and white supremacy, from the beginning down to our own times.”
She gave the example of Fannie Lou Hamer in the battles in Mississippi in the 1960s, well known as a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. “But do we know her as a coop member, a group that sustained her when she was denied an income. As Ms. Hamer put it, ‘Until we control our own food, land, and housing, we can’t be truly empowered.’”
Wendell Paris who, as a young SNCC worker mentored by Ms. Hamer, continued the theme: “Land is the basis for revolution and it is important for us to hold on to our land base.” He described the workings of the Panola Land Buyers Association in Sumpter County Alabama. “Freedom isn’t free. In the training to run coops successfully, you learn more than growing cucumbers. You learn organizing and administration, the training ground for taking political offices.”
At different times during introductions, or even in the remarks of speakers, the chant, ‘Free the Land!’ would rise from the participants, accompanied by raised fists. This came from the RNA tradition, referring to an older battle cry of self-determination for the Black areas of the Deep South. It clearly still had resonance, and was often followed with ‘By Any Means Necessary!’
The opening session was closed out by comments from Ed Whitfield and Kali Akuno. “All successful enterprises produce a surplus,” said Whitefield, “and our empowerment runs through retaking the surplus we have created, and putting it to uses that best serve us. We’re not here making excuses. We’re here making history. As long as we accept the current economic structures and approaches to development that flow from those structures and paradigms, we can’t get out of bondage.”
“It’s an uphill climb here in Mississippi,” added Akuno. “The Republican Tea Party government we have on a state level is not in favor at all of what we’re trying to push through cooperative development. There was a bill supporting cooperatives that they killed earlier this year. On a municipal level, we are looking to transform all of the procurement policies of the city, all of the environmental regulations and standard policies within the city, and particularly all of the land-use policies in the city, that will support cooperatives. On the more practical side, we are launching a new organization from this conference called Cooperation Jackson, and it is going to be the vehicle by which all of the follow-through is going to be carried out.”
But the municipal battle, Akuno concluded, would be difficult, given the neoliberal, repressive and pro-gentrification policies of the new team in charge.
All the items presented by the opening speakers expressed the common theme of the conference organizers—Political power in the hands of the Black masses and their allies, then anchoring and using that power to shape and grow a cooperative economic democracy that would serve the vast majority. It was both a tribute to Chokwe Lumumba and an expression of his vision. Winning it, however, would not come easy.
The next day, Saturday, was a different story. Here space was opened up for more than 30 diverse workshops, spread out over three time slots, with two more plenary sessions. Topics included the influence of Mondragon, community land trusts, Black workers and the AFL-CIO, the communes in Venezuela, mapping the solidarity economy, coops on a global scale, waste management and recycling, working with legislatures, and many more. No one report can cover them all, but here’s the flavor of a few.
Mondragon and the Union Coop Model.
What were the nuts and bolts of Spain’s Mondragon Coops (MCC), and how could unions serve as allies in creating similar enterprises in the U.S.? This was the question posed at an excellent workshop with three presenters: Michael Peck, the U.S. representative of Mondragon; Kristen Barker of the Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative; and Dennis Olson, of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Peck began with a brief overview of MCC and its 120 coops and their accomplishments. The key point: In MCC, workers own their labor, but rent their capital, rather than the other way around. “But sometimes,” he noted, “you can tell more about something by look at one of its failures than all its successes.”
He was referring to the fact that a major MCC coop, FAGOR, which made kitchen appliances, recently closed down. “The housing market in Spain and Europe collapsed, and without new homes, new appliance sales sink Plus there was tough price competition from Asia.” MCC had carried FAGOR for several years, but could no longer justify it. Despite anger, “the vote of the workers to close it was unanimous.” In the regular world, the workers would get their pink slips, and be on the street.
But Mondragon was different. “MCC first set up a solidarity fund with every worker donating 1.5% of their salary, adding up to some 15 million Euros,” he explained. “This was to cushion the transition. Then it worked to reassign all the FAGOR workers to other coops, which it has now accomplished for the large majority.” Peck added that Mondragon would continued creating new coops both in Spain and around the world, and the true test was not that some would eventually close, which was natural, but what happened when they did.
Kristen Barker, right, at Our Harvest Coop
Kristen Barker then gave the workshop an enthusiastic account of how a small group in Cincinnati, armed with only a few good ideas, had over four years moved to a point where three substantial coops were opening in the city and several more were in the works.
“We were really inspired when we heard of the agreement between Mondragon and the United Steelworkers,” said Barker. “Our effort also stands on the shoulders of the Evergreen Coops in Cleveland. To date, Evergreen has launched three co-ops, Evergreen Laundry, Ohio Cooperative Solar that offers energy retrofits and solar panel installation, and Green City Growers that grows high end lettuce for hotels and restaurants in Cleveland. They have dozens of potential cooperatives in the pipeline. We are partnering with the major players of this initiative including the Ohio Employee Ownership Center for our unique project.”
The first three coops in Cincinnati, Barker added, were Sustainergy, a building trades coop to retrofit buildings to better environmental standards; the Cincinnati Railway Manufacturing Cooperative, which will make undercarriages for rail cars, and partnered with both the United Steel Workers and the local NAACP; and Our Harvest, a food hub coop which starts with local farms and takes their produce to a central site for packaging and marketing. It’s partnered with the UFCW union and other agricultural groups. Dennis Olson explained how the UFCW was particular helpful in connecting growers through the distribution centers to the unionized grocery chains, as opposed to Wal-Mart.
“We only had a small study group to start—some community organizers, some Catholic nuns, a few union people,” concluded Barker. “But we did a lot of research, made partners and got the word out in the media. Soon we had more people calling with more ideas, like coop grocery stores in ‘food desert’ areas, jewelry makers’ coops and so on. We started getting some interest from the city, and now things are taking off.”
Starting Coops in Jackson and the ‘Kush’
This session was chaired by John Zippert of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. He started with an excellent short summary of ‘Cooperatives 101,’ but quickly turned to drawing out the workshop participants on their concerns. Most were Black women from Jackson—one was interested in whether an African hair care products and services was possible; another wanted to start a coop of home health care workers. One man from Memphis said he had a small business distributing African products to small Black stores in the surrounding states, but he was getting on in years. How could he turn it into a coop that would live after him? Everyone shared ideas and legal options
As the session ended, I ran into Ben Burkett, a Black farmer locally active the Indian Springs Farmers Association, part of the ‘Kush.’ I knew he was also president of the National Family Farm Coalition, but asked him more about his local operation.
“Well, I don’t do cotton anymore, not much cotton in Mississippi these days,” he explained. ‘I do many vegetables, and sweet potatoes are a good crop. But it’s one thing for a farmer to grow and dig sweet potatoes. It’s quite another to have the equipment to scrub them, cut them into French fires, and then bag and store them, while getting them quickly to your markets. That’s where the value of the coop comes in. We can pool our resources for these things, and it makes a big difference. We’d be in bad shape without the coop.”
Waste Management, Recycling and City Politics
The politicss of garbage was the main topic here. Chaired by Kali Akuno, this workshop gave the most insight into what was going on in Jackson as a new and backward regime was replacing that of Chokwe Lumumba. “Waste Management serves the city poorly,” said Akuno. “It often ignores our neighborhoods. It does no recycling; it dumps the waste in a landfill in a small city to the North of here, gives them a payment, and that’s the end of it.”
Akuno explained they had a different plan. Since a large part of the city budgets deal with services like these, they wanted to break them into smaller pieces so local contractors or coops could bid on them, then recycle the waste into a revenue stream. In addition to helping the environment and employment, it would keep the money circulating locally.
“Another piece was setting up an incubator to foster the development of cooperatives,” Akuno added. “The government can’t run the co-ops. It won’t build them, but it can set the table. For most of the past 20 years, even though there has been a succession of black mayors, 90-95 percent of contracts to people who don’t live in Jackson. It was all about hiring people in Jackson.”
“Now everything is going to be a fight,’ he added. “Even if your plan is reasonable and sustainable, it won’t matter if it’s stepping on the wrong toes.”
Saturday also included two mealtime plenary sessions, one, at lunch, featuring the diverse organizations taking part, and the other, at dinner, giving everything an international dimension.
The lunch plenary included Omar Freilla of Green Workers Cooperatives, Steve Dubb of the Democracy Collaborative, Michael Peck of Mondragon USA, Ricky Maclin of New Era Windows, and Saladin Muhhamad of Black Workers for Justice and MaryBe McMillian, Secretary Treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.
“Community cooperatives,” said Steve Dubb, “can be considered part of a long civil rights movement that fights for both racial and economic justice. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King in the last year of his life helped launch the Poor People’s Campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights. The return of cooperatives to the movement, as illustrated by what’s happening here, is a welcome development.”
MaryBe McMillian stressed the importance both of labor and the concentration of forces in the South. “Why organize in the South? Because what happens in the South affects the entire nation.” Speaking for Black workers, Saladin Mummamad added, ‘We need power not just democracy; we need power that shapes what democracy looks like. When plants shut down workers, should seize control and turn them into cooperatives.”
The evening session started with a tribute to Chokwe Lumumba by his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. “We are victorious because we struggle. I’m not afraid of the term revolutionary. We need to be as revolutionary as the times require. Free the land! The struggle my father started is not over, but only beginning. It continues, by any means necessary.”
Also featured were Francoise Vermetter of Chantier in Quebec, Pierre LaLiberte on the International Labor Organization in Switzerland, Mazibuko Jara of AMandela! Magazine in south Africa, Elbart Vingwe, Organization of Collective Cooperative in Zimbabwe, Omar Sierra, Deputy Counsel General of Venezuela-Boston, and Janvieve Williams-Comrie, Green Worker Coops in the U.S.
“Freeing the land has given our people a new sense of belonging,” said Omar Sierra, of Venezuela. “Chokwe Lumumba extended his solidarity to us in a time of need. Our people are saddened by his passing, and will not forget him.”
William Copeland, a cultural organizer from Detroit. Summed up the spirit of the crowd: “These presentations demonstrate the international significance of the Black Liberation Movement and Southern movement building.”
On Sunday morning, those who hadn’t had to leave early for the airport, gathered in a large session of the whole that closed out the weekend. One after another, people stood up and testified to how their consciousness had been altered by their discussions and new experiences over the weekend. Emily Kawano of the Solidarity Economy Network made the point of understanding that the projects ahead, while including coops also reached beyond them to other forms, such as participatory budgeting, public banks and alternative currencies. Finally, at an auspicious moment, an African American women rose and in a strong church choir voice, began singing an old civil rights anthem, “Organize, organize, organize!” Everyone was on their feet, hands clapping, fists raised, and interspersing ‘Free the Land! with the chorus. It couldn’t have had a better closing moment.