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The Appeal Podcast: Mayor of Jackson Faces Uphill Battle for Police Accountability

With Appeal contributor Ko Bragg

Photo of Jackson, MS Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba
Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo via the Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba Facebook page

Elected in 2017 to much fanfare from progressives, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba promised to transform Jackson, Mississippi, into the “most radical city on the planet.” But almost immediately, one of Lumumba’s signature reformsan effort to hold police more accountable for on-the-job shootingswas met with tremendous opposition. This week, we are joined by Jackson reporter and Appeal contributor Ko Bragg to discuss this conflict, the promise and limits of reform, and what lessons can be learned from the ongoing political experiment in Jackson, Mississippi.

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Adam Johnson: Hi welcome to The Appeal podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow The Appeal podcast at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page and as always you can find The Appeal on iTunes where you can subscribe and rate us.

Elected in 2017 to much fanfare from progressives, Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Lumumba promised to deliver the quote “most radical city on the planet.” But just over a year and a half into his term, many of the changes Lumumba has attempted to implement, namely those involving police reform, have come against tremendous opposition from powerful white interest in the suburbs to state officials. This week we are joined by Jackson reporter and Appeal contributor Ko Bragg to discuss this conflict, the promise and limits of reform and what lessons can be learned from the ongoing experiment in radical politics in Jackson, Mississippi.

[Begin Clip]

Ko Bragg: I think Mississippi, down to the fact that we still have the confederate flag in our state flag, like, that emblem is still there, it flies over pretty much every state building, that this is a state that is very, very tied to preserving certain history and preserving certain people’s power.

[End Clip]

Adam: Thank you so much for joining us.

Ko Bragg: Yeah, it’s good to be here.

Adam: The theme of the show, which I found dripping from the article that  you wrote for The Appeal, is about the limits of reform and being realistic about reform while still sort of swinging for the fences. And this is playing out a kind of Shakespearean scale with the election of Chokwe Lumumba, uh, who has promised quote “the most radical city in the world” in Jackson, Mississippi. But he appears to have come up in his early months against tremendous forces, especially around the topic of police reform. Can you give our listeners who are unfamiliar with what’s going on in Jackson, Mississippi, who otherwise wouldn’t pay much attention to it, a sense of what’s going on there, what the stakes are, and what the kind of current situation is?

Ko Bragg: Yeah, sure. So in July 2017, Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected the youngest Mayor of Jackson, and he follows in his father’s really large footsteps. His father was a lawyer and also an activist who got elected to city council and then was mayor until he died in office in 2014 and everyone likes to differentiate because they’re both named Chokwe Lumumba. People tend to call him Antar, especially people who are closer to him. But it’s also just confusing.

Adam: Right.

Ko Bragg: So he comes from a family of progressives who have demanded all types of civil rights and human rights, particularly for black people. And so his election was deeply inspiring, very progressive and especially in a place like Jackson where, I mean Jackson tends to be more democratic, relatively more liberal than the rest of Mississippi. And he won his election pretty much in a landslide and did so with the promises of bringing cooperatives to Jackson. Like if we want to have businesses, let’s figure out a way where we can own them together. And he talks a lot about having like dignity in his politics and finding a way to incorporate his ideals that he had growing up with an activist mother and father and bringing those into the political sphere. And so one of the ways that he was really tested early on was with policing. Not only did he have to replace a long time and I guess beloved chief of police who left as Chokwe took office in July 2017, the chief left December, and we didn’t have a solid chief in place until the following September 2018. So it took a while to get that footing. So while that’s happening, I moved to Jackson and I noticed that the way things are here is that when there’s an officer involved shooting, the details are extremely sparse, way more sparse than any other information we get when it relates to like any shooting or killing or stabbing or vehicular accident. And I thought that that was really strange. It was hard to even keep track of how many there were. We didn’t get any information about the officers, how long the officers were on leave, how long investigations took, if the same officers were shooting at people, often killing people. So there was really no way to hold anyone accountable. And so I brought that to my editor at the time and we did just a series of stories, tried to count as many as we could. And I think 2018, starting in the beginning, it really became obvious that there may be a problem. So in January, a young mother, 21 year old mother was shot and killed at a traffic stop. Her lawyers, uh, investigation and they say that she was shot in the back of the head while she was driving away. So there was conflicting accounts. In February, a 37 year old man was shot and killed during a foot pursuit behind an abandoned house. And then I believe in March, another man was shot and killed after, I think there was an exchange of fire actually in the one in February and the one in March, the one in March happened at a gas station. And so in each of these incidents there was no information about the officer. There was no information about the status of the investigation. I think that’s when it really hit a point for our editorials and my journalism, especially because I think people think officer involved shooting and Black Lives Matter movement and like, you think Ferguson, you think Baltimore, you have these images in your mind of like huge riots scenes and tension hitting like that, isn’t really how it happens in Jackson. So it was kind of like, there’s one woman who had lost her cousin in February and she was very vocal at city council meetings. There’s our small paper trying to rail against it. And then I think the mayor also, because he had represented these kinds of cases when he was a criminal defense attorney before taking office, I feel like it was weighing on him. And so he decided one, let’s bring in the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, which is like the state investigative arm, to look at these cases so that Jackson cause, up until that point, Jackson was investigating itself, which means internal affairs looks at it. Those investigations can, I mean obviously like can go the way they want them to go and then you don’t ever hear about it. So there’s no transparency to the taxpayers. They come in and decided to start taking on cases, but the thing about them is they are notoriously like a black box of information. They don’t release anything on open or closed investigations. And so I was like, that’s odd because backing up a little bit in March 2018, so the mayor was going to make an executive decision in the spring of 2018 he was going to say, ‘let’s just release the names within 72 hours,’ the police department got wind of it, they use the community messaging board, a citizen said, ‘hey, the police department needs us to meet down at headquarters on a Tuesday, let’s go.’ And so the headquarters is filled, the interim police chief at the time kicks the meeting off and then he tosses it over to the union lead and everyone in the room is in agreement: ‘No, we cannot release these names. Officers will be in danger. Our families will be in danger. 100 percent of us don’t want this. We have to go down to city hall tonight at the council meeting to tell the mayor, no.’ Only one woman from that meeting did but it was a clear signal to me that at least people who were vocal in the police department didn’t want this to happen. And so the mayor took a step back and decided to implement a task force, an officer identification task force, to decide how and when and if the names would be released. So it was 21 people, I think seven were officers the rest were like activists. I think his neighbor was on there, but they were all handpicked. And so these people met for six months. A lot of them stopped showing up, but there was um, a diversity of opinions. Some people in the beginning who said, ‘I would never want them released,’ including officers decided, okay, you know, I think I’m, there was one officer who said, ‘I think I’m a better police officer if people just know things because that transparency is going to make them trust me more.’ And so that process came to an end in September 2018. The mayor signed an executive order to implement the recommendations, which is to release names as long as there’s no credible threat against the officer. Those names will come out in 72 hours and almost immediately once the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation got wind that Mayor Lumumba was doing this, they said, ‘we’re no longer investigating your officer involved shootings because we don’t believe in your policy, your policy is dangerous for officers.’

Adam: Yeah. The one thing that I found somewhat interesting is that the pushback came from something that is so not radical. I mean it was very basic sort of good government transparency stuff. We just did a whole episode on SB 1421 in California about this sort of similar thing, disclosing the records and the names of police who were involved in these misconduct allegations or in the case of California it’s actually if it’s been sustained by a judge, but of course the inverse never applies, right? If the police shoot someone, the victims names are released and they’re smeared and their old criminal record comes up. But police are meant to be sheltered and protected. But I was surprised by the ways in which, like this was an extremely limited thing that was being asked and it seems like there was a huge freak out about it. So you’re saying that the actual State Review Board of Mississippi that’s supposed to kind of be a watchdog refuse to investigate because they opposed the local jurisdictions rather sort of, I think milquetoast, 72 hour with a lot of outs, right? There’s privacy exceptions. There’s, credible threat I assume has a pretty vague definition. Uh, but you’re saying that they pushed back against this and then can you tell us what happened after that?

Ko Bragg: Sure. And so they pushed back, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation said no more. And the mayor, I think that really ticked him off because he said it was political in nature. The reason that they decided not to do this and his whole thing was that we do not want to investigate ourselves any more. We want to stop this legacy of like a non transparent police department and to have the state arm kind of do that. I think he felt very slighted and then almost to add insult to injury, this legislative session, this 2019 legislative session, a lawmaker from a suburb of Jackson introduced a law that would make it illegal, would offer jail time and a fine if you were to release an officer’s name following, I think, a shooting or something like that but if you release these names before the investigation is complete and in a certain amount of time then you could be looking at jail time. And that was obviously a direct response to Jackson’s policy because no one else in the state is touching this and for it to come up the following legislative session and it’s moving through committee. It’s looking like, I could imagine, it being something cemented into law, but it just shows you where we’re at in Mississippi and that if you are trying to be progressive and if you are trying, if you’re pushing for transparency, something that seems very simple, it can really be an uphill task, especially when it involves law enforcement.

Adam: Right. So the city itself is roughly 80 percent African American, which is very high. I think it makes it one of the most African American cities in the country. Um, but you’re saying that if you sort of broaden the scope to the suburbs, I assume that the power still lies with, to a large extent, with the white residents, the white sort of elite of the city. If it’s anything like any other city in the US or the South and they’re sort of pushing back against this, has there been any attempt to have any kind of like electorial regress? Is there an attempt, obviously they’re going to run a candidate against him in the next election, has there been any attempt to like recall or to sort of like remove him from office or is it kinda just undermine everything he does? Because it seems like the ethos here is that they don’t want to give an inch, that if they give anything at all it’ll be a slippery slope. Is there just like a sort of constant siege mentality?

Ko Bragg: Yeah. So it’s interesting, like, I think Mississippi down the fact that we still have the confederate flag in our state flag.

Adam: Yeah, that’s true.

Ko Bragg: Like that emblem is still there, it flies over pretty much every state building, that this is a state that is very, very tied to preserving certain history and preserving certain people’s power. And I think that Jackson becomes a particularly interesting example because Jackson wasn’t always predominantly black. It’s an example of white flight once the schools integrated after 1970 and so what happens is you end up with this like black people run almost every aspect of Jackson from the district attorney to the sheriff to the police chief to most of the police officers to the mayor to most of the city council, you know, there’s seven members, only two are white. But then now we have a mayor who was elected very, very outright, tries to step out in any way, you have these big state powers shaking their finger at you and I mean the governor has stepped in to kind of condemn Jackson’s crime and you always have to remember that this is happening in the context of a very black city, the capital city and these kind of like very, very, very conservative Republican powers kind of being like, well, you know, just making statements against him. Whether, obviously people are going to run against him. I think that he has an uphill battle. I think that, you know, no mayor is perfect, but I think you run the risk when you try to run and do things that you believe and move people forward even if they’re not ready or no one has tried to do these things before. Yeah, I mean someone with a record can, I mean that’s politics, but I do think that like policing is hard and police reform is really hard even in a place where, you know, we don’t have a union as intense as like New York or Los Angeles, but you almost don’t need a police union to be as fierce when you have the society and the citizens backing you and not wanting those changes that you wouldn’t even really have to fight for because everyone else has your back.

Adam: So what is the prognosis right now, like moving forward? Is reform sort of dead in its tracks or are they still kind of litigating the particulars of these disclosure laws and what other things is Mayor Lumumba working on to sort of try to move the needle in terms of like what would sort of generally be on the docket of reform or Black Lives Matter?

Ko Bragg: Yeah, so right now they are still trying to figure out how the names would come out. So there’s something I’m working through now is that the mayor told everyone when he said that he accepted the task force’s recommendations towards the end of 2018 that he would apply the name release retroactively. That’s not something I’ve seen necessarily in the executive order that I got from a public records release. But the paper I used to be at filed a public records request for the names and they got them and the mayor told me like I didn’t, he didn’t mean for them to come out in that way. But I think it just shows you that like there’s going to have to be a level of like failure or tripping over your own feet in this that, you know, then people are like, ‘well, what are you doing?’ And I don’t know if they have all the answers. And I think in terms of what’s next, yeah, I think he’s going to have to really figure this policy out and really get it shiny and get the messaging out behind it. Because there’s people like me, like I’m not from here. I grew up in New Jersey and I did a lot of reporting in Ferguson. So this kind of transparency works for me. It makes sense to me. I think that this is a trend that a lot of places are moving toward, even based on some Department of Justice recommendations. I think it’s just going to take time and I think it’s going to take, trying to find those people in the police department who believe in this and kind of using those to disseminate the message maybe inside. And even to the larger communities because a lot of people just don’t, they don’t, it’s new and there’s going to have to be a lot of explaining. So, yeah. And I think that if this law comes out that there’s lawmakers working on to halt the release, I think that that will be tough.

Adam: Yeah.

Ko Bragg: So it’s definitely uphill. Like he’s definitely, I mean, they’re out there now. They put their deck out, you know, you can’t recoil. I don’t think he wants to, but there’s going to have to be a lot more kind of like massaging out what they want the final product to be.

Adam: I’m going to prompt you to sort of wax poetic here, so forgive me, but what do you think the kind of lessons are to be learned? I know it’s been a very short time, but in your mind, if there are people who are working to get reformers elected or progressives or even socialists elected in certain jurisdictions, I know in Chicago here there’s a huge movement to elect socialists to alderman positions, what in your opinion, are kind of some of the lessons that can be learned, if you don’t mind editorializing a little bit and taking off your reporter hat?

Ko Bragg: Sure. Um, I think the lessons to be learned are, I think a lot of people thought that Mayor Lumumba was going to come in and everything was just going to be like swift and perfect and really clean, like the way his campaign was run. But I think you realize really quickly that it’s quite hard to melt your politics with the way that a city government runs. And I think that that is probably the sharpest learning curve that they’re having is that yeah, we want to, you know, Jackson’s infrastructure’s falling apart, people haven’t paid water bills in years. That’s a whole nother story. But they’re trying to figure out a way for people to be able to repay without getting their water shut off. And so some people are upset that like people have skated and not paid their water bill but the overall thing is that the mayor doesn’t want people to be without water. And so either way when you go against the grain, if you’re trying to police in a way or run your city in a way that doesn’t make you an autocrat, that makes you put the people first, which is like his whole, pretty much echoes his upbringing, is that you do what the people want, not what you want. You’re a vessel for the people. That’s really hard, but I know that that is at the heart of what a lot of politicians say. But then politicians want to leave, every politician wants to leave a legacy of what happened during their term. And if you want that to be defined by how people felt and how, you know, things were fair and things were more transparent, then you not only have a lot of work to do in getting those things passed, but then also reminding people why these things are good for them. And I think that that can be hard because there’s a lot of unlearning that has to happen for a lot of different people. So I think that if people are trying to get more progressives in, more socialists in, it’s like getting them in is not the final hurdle.

Adam: Right.

Ko Bragg: Once they’re in they need support, but they also need to be open to some criticism along the way.

Adam: Right. Well, thank you so much. This was really insightful. I’ve been reading about what’s going on in Jackson and hadn’t gotten the sort of lay of the land, I think it was all very surface level, most of the reporting of areas, so it’s good to get actual substance, so I appreciate you coming on and doing that for us.

Ko Bragg: Yeah, for sure.

Adam: Thank you to our guest, Appeal contributor Ko Bragg. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can follow us on The Appeal’s main Facebook and Twitter pages. As always, you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. We’ll see you next week.