Building Power in a Frontline Community: The Cooperation Jackson Model
Editor: You have spoken about the ethics and values of cooperatives, but your perspective goes well beyond the notion of individual cooperatives. Can you tell me a little bit about the cooperative context? How has Cooperation Jackson emerged and how does it relate to other projects?
brandon king: Cooperation Jackson is a part of a larger political project that started with people who were part of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement as part of a larger vision for the City of Jackson and for the broader Black Belt South.1 Cooperation Jackson is the economic engine, the part of the plan that is building towards economic democracy.2 It formed to build that. We see coops as a way for working people to be in control of our own labor, but to do it in a way that's people-centered, and decisions are made collectively. We value that because we value each other. Building out the coops for us is to always be concerned about governance, and the different aspects of things that are happening in our city. How do we engage in ways that make sense for our base, that make sense for our community?
Editor: Cooperation Jackson emerges out of an effort by black organizers who had been organizing in many other contexts, but who then make a decision to organize in the South and to actually work with the existing base, respecting their work and history. How does that actually play out, what was the history?
brandon king: The Jackson Kush Plan, I feel like it's the base, it's the foundation for what we see with Cooperation Jackson and what's happening in Mississippi.3 Chokwe Lumumba was a people's lawyer, and people in the community saw him as such.4 They saw him as a defender of human rights on the Scott sisters' case and many other examples.5 He also ran a youth basketball program that many youth, who are now adults, participated in. There was also Malcolm X Center that had after school programs for young people. With that personal history and the building of the People's Assemblies and other people connected to that history, our people see that history as a part of something bigger that we're building. I feel like the community is open. They don't want things to be the same. Even though we're “new-ish” in terms of this [Cooperation Jackson] formation, they're familiar with the positive things that people in our movement have been doing over a longer history of struggle. They see us as a part of that, as another iteration of that.
The other thing too is that I feel like people were saying that we can't just be engaged in the fightback, and just fighting off reactionary initiatives, we need to build institutions. Cooperation Jackson is a vehicle for us achieving some kind of way for our community to build assets, for our community to build wealth for ourselves. I see it as a way for our folks to build confidence. If we are in control of our own labor, that does wonders for how you view yourself, your humanity. You become more human. If you're able to have that kind of relationship in your job situation, imagine other aspects of your life that you want to fight to make better.
Editor: This was a personal change for you too, right? You went from NYC...
brandon king: From North to the South, from the fight-back to the fight-back and the building of the new, the building of institutions. Yeah, it's been a shift. I feel like it's been a really cool shift, because I'm seeing the fruits of my labor. I'm seeing where actually I'm growing food. We're actually building things. I feel like that's what we need. We can't just continue to be on the heels of what the neoliberal state imposes on our communities.
Editor: I noticed that land trusts are a key element of your alternative?
brandon king: Yeah. Part of our project is to make sure that we are in control of the land. Something we didn't mention earlier is that Jackson is in a serious threat of gentrification. They have a medical corridor that's coming in that has threatened to displace a lot of people in West Jackson, in our community.6 A way that we can combat this gentrification and safeguard our community is by buying up land and putting that land into a community land trust. A land trust will enable you to take the land and housing off of the market, to set a lease that could be 99 years, which means that the community can be stabilized. That's also a strategic aspect of what we're building.
Editor: In addition to the land trusts to address housing, can you describe your urban agricultural efforts?
brandon king: We have Freedom Farms Cooperative which has a plot at the Lumumba Center and other plots we're developing over the summer to be able to build out our production, so we're not just serving food for the Nubia’s Place Café and Catering Cooperative [that we also operate], but also providing produce locally for local grocery stores. We don't use any pesticides, herbicides, GMOs or anything like that. It's just seed, water and soil. We had our soil tested just to make sure that the acidity level was right for growing. We use buckwheat or any kind of plant that can produce nitrogen to make sure that the soil has the nutrients it needs for plants to grow. We’re not importing fertilizer; we use a compost mix as food for the plants.
Editor: What’s going on in terms of transportation in the city?
brandon king: I feel like that requires more city, community, engagement. We have ideas, but I feel like our capacity, we're not at the place where all of our ideas can be manifested, because we don't have the people power to fill those aspects as of yet.
Editor: Is this the context for which you do need city government power?
brandon king: Yeah, I would think. Also, too, there are different coop models. Union Coop Cab Company in Wisconsin, that runs a cab cooperative, I feel like we could have a similar - a kind of coop that has the technology of Uber, but run locally by people in Jackson, serving Jackson. I feel like that's an idea that could happen.
Editor: It's not so much the technology that's the problem, it's the social relations and the community control?
brandon king: Exactly.
Editor: How does climate change and the environment fit into the mix?
brandon king: We want Jackson to be a Zero-Waste city by the year 2025. One of the ways that we see that happening is by pushing Jackson to recycle.7 Right now they recycle, but it's a contract with Waste Management. I have my recycle bin and everything, but it all might still be going to the same landfill. So we need to put in a policy where they really recycle. But we must also try to have the buildings retrofitted and also make sure that people have access to solar. We see our Sustainable Communities Initiative creating an eco-village, a work-live community where people have access to the coop jobs, they have access to solar, where people also have an urban farming plot in their backyard. A place where everyone does compost and everyone recycles. We are starting with West Jackson, where we're located, but we also want to expand that throughout the city.
Another challenge is that in Mississippi they even fighting our ability to do solar, and it's illegal to sell energy back to the grid. They want to support the fossil-fuel economy. They want that to be the main thing. Like I said, we got to be on top of things and ahead of the curve, but also make sure our folks are up on things and benefiting from the decisions that are being made by the city and state. If we're putting forth legislation that is going to allow us to sell back to the grid, the we have to make sure that people will be coming out in droves to vote to make that happen.
Editor: So political mobilization is a big part of it? How about the legal and technical capacity to develop the legislation and all? Are you cooperating with other entities to make that happen?
brandon king: I think we will have it. Right now, Antar Lumumba just announced that he's running for mayor, and I think right now people are just getting into gear, trying to figure that out.8 We have connections with people in Detroit that do solar, D-Town Farms and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and they actually have some solar running their farms, not from generators anymore but using solar energy. Those people that were able to set that up, they can teach us how to set stuff up in Jackson as well.
Editor: What are some of the threats and opportunities confronting the project?
brandon king: The threat is the Right, “the Confederates,” seizing the city's assets. The city's already been gutted and deindustrialized in the post-segregation era, and there was white flight. They took all of the resources with them. Now they're trying to come in for the city, and they're doing that by trying to take the airport. The legislation passed for them to take the airport, so we're in the fight now to try to see if we can get it back. That's the fight. My hope is that we can continue to build the way that we've been building – that the coalition for economic justice becomes more robust when Antar is in office, and that it actually takes recommendations from the People's Assembly, from the community in order to shift things.9
The city being broke is a real issue. I think we got to be creative in thinking about how to deal with not having money. That's the neoliberal strategy, the city needs to be on the brink of bankruptcy all the time, so people cannot do anything. There's the threat of an emergency manager being imposed on the city. It's a program, it's something that has been imported from different places in the country. I feel like in Detroit, they have an emergency manager situation, and local Detroit doesn't have control. What they're trying to do is import that to Jackson, Mississippi. The cool thing is that we're on top of it, and hopefully we'll be able to stop it before it comes. With all this in mind, I see this upcoming election as being about the defense of democracy and practicing and building out people-centered self-governance.
1. The Malcolm X Grasssroots Movement’s website is https://mxgm.org/
2. Cooperation Jackson describes its mission http://www.cooperationjackson.org/
3. See Akuno, Kali (2014) “The Jackson-Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Democracy.” https://www.scribd.com/doc/218031046/The-Jackson-Kush-Plan. Akuno explains that the project draws on the history of black cooperatives and related civil rights initiatives by drawing on the examples of people like Fanie Lou Hamer.
4. Chokwe Lumumba (1947-2014) was elected Mayor of Jackson, MS, in 2013 running as an underdog who was overwhelming outspent. See Kromm, Chris (2014) “Remembering Chokwe Lumumba” in Facing South. February 28. http://www.southernstudies.org/2014/02/remembering-chokwe-lumumba.html.
5. The Scotts sisters were notoriously sentenced to double life sentences for an alleged robbery of $11.00. They served 16 years in prison before Lumumba was able to help in securing their release. See the “Gallery of the Scott Sisters Release” Jackson Advocate. http://www.jacksonadvocateonline.com/gallery-of-scott-sisters-release/. For background on their case, see Herbert, Bob (2010) “So Utterly Inhuman” in New York Times. October 12.
6. For more background on the gentrification of West Jackson, see Flanders, Laura (2014) “After Death of Radical Mayor, Mississippi's Capital Wrestles with His Economic Vision” in Yes Magazine. April 1. http://www.yesmagazine.org/commonomics/mississippi-capital-jackson-wrestles-economic-vision
7. Cooperation Jackson sees zero-waste recycling as part of a package, its “Sustainable Communities Initiative”- described on the organization’s website: http://www.cooperationjackson.org/sustainable-communities-initiative/
8. On May 19, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, an attorney and the son of the late mayor announced his candidacy for Mayor. The speech indicated Lumumba’s interest in building on the “foundations laid by the late Chokwe Lumumba.” The themes focused on reclaiming the city’s authority over key infrastructure including the airport and water infrastructure, while addressing a city budget that has left employees furloughed. see “Lumumba Outlines Jackson Mayoral Campaign.” Clarion Legder, May 19, 2016 http://www.clarionledger.com/videos/news/local/2016/05/19/84620796/
9. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement describes the People’s Assembly as “a mass gathering of people organized and assembled to address essential social issues and/or questions pertinent to a community.” See “People’s Assembly’s Overview: The Jackson People’s Assembly Model.” <https://mxgm.org/peoples-assemblys-overview-the-jackson-peoples-assembly-model/>