Black Mississippi capital distrusts plans by white officials

11 months ago 365

JACKSON, Miss. – Random gunfire, repeated break-ins and a decaying city water system are constant challenges at Mom's Dream Kitchen, the soul food restaurant Timothy Norris' mother opened 35 years ago in Mississippi's capital.

“I have some cousins that live in Ohio,” said Norris, who has spent most of his 54 years in Jackson and now owns the restaurant. “They came last year. They hadn’t been here in 22 years. They were completely shocked at Jackson."

Citing rising crime, Mississippi's Republican-controlled House recently passed a bill that would expand areas of Jackson patrolled by a state-run Capitol Police force and create a new court system with appointed rather than elected judges. Both would give white state government officials more power over Jackson, which has the highest percentage of Black residents of any major U.S. city.

The state Senate has also passed a bill to establish a regional governing board for Jackson's long-troubled water system, with most members appointed by state officials. The system nearly collapsed last year and is now under control of a federally-appointed manager.

The proposals for state control have angered Jackson residents who don’t want their voices diminished in local government, and are the latest example of the long-running tensions between the Republican-run state government and the Democratic-run capital city.

“It’s really a stripping of power, and it’s happening in a predominantly Black city that has predominantly Black leadership,” said Sonya Williams-Barnes, a Democratic former state lawmaker who is now Mississippi policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “You don’t see this going on in other areas of the state where they’re run by majority white people.”

Norris notes state government officials have long been unwilling to help Jackson with the water system and other problems.

“We had to go through all this by ourselves. Solo," he said. "Now, all of the sudden you want to come and take it and say, ‘OK, well, we’re going to take over.’ You know, treating us like kids. We’re not kids.”

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the proposal for courts with appointed judges reeks of apartheid and “plantation politics.”

“If we allow this type of legislation to stand in Jackson, Mississippi, it’s a matter of time before it will hit New Orleans, it’s a matter of time before it hits Detroit, or wherever we find our people,” Lumumba said.

The sponsor of the expanded police and court bill, Republican Rep. Trey Lamar, from a rural town more than 170 miles (275 kilometers) north of Jackson, said it’s aimed at making Mississippi’s capital safer and at reducing a backlog in the judicial system.

"I can assure you that the bill has zero racial intent whatsoever,” said Lamar, who is white, in response to arguments that courts with appointed judges would disenfranchise Jackson voters. “There is nothing racial about the bill on its face, and there is no intent for the effect to be racial.”

Still, Black lawmakers say creating courts with appointed judges would strip away voting rights in a state where older generations of Black people still remember the struggle for equal access to the ballot.

Judges for the proposed new courts would not be required to live in Jackson or even the county where it’s located. They would be appointed by the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court — a position currently held by a white conservative man from outside Jackson.

About 83% of Jackson’s nearly 154,000 residents are Black, and some 25% live in poverty. The pace of white flight accelerated in the 1980s, about a decade after public schools integrated. Many middle-class and wealthy Black families have also left the city. The potholes marring its streets are a jarring reminder of the struggle to maintain aging infrastructure.

Mississippi's current Republican governor, Tate Reeves, campaigned on withholding state financial support the city requested. During last year's water crisis, Reeves, speaking elsewhere, said, it was “as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.”

Jackson residents have a longstanding distrust of the water system because of frequent warnings that the water must be boiled to kill contaminants before it’s safe to drink. During crises in August and September and again in December, people waited in long lines for bottled water.

Still, opponents of a regional water board note that state officials sought a role only after the federal government approved hundreds of millions of dollars for the troubled system.

The Capitol Police are intended to supplement rather than replace the short-staffed Jackson Police Department. The state-run force has in the past year been involved in several violent incidents, including the shooting death of a Black man during a traffic stop and a crash that killed another Black man during a police chase.

At Mt. Helm Baptist Church, near the Mississippi Capitol building, the Rev. CJ Rhodes said many people in his predominantly Black congregation strongly object to expanding Capitol Police territory and creating courts with appointed judges.

"They feel — viscerally feel — like this is taking us back to the 1950s and 1960s,” said Rhodes, who is the son of a civil rights attorney.

People pushing the legislation failed to consult with most Jackson lawmakers or Jackson residents, the pastor said.

“It feels like this sort of white paternalism: ‘We’re going to come in and do what we need to do, citizens of Jackson be damned,’” Rhodes said.

Maati Jone Primm, who owns Marshall’s Music & Bookstore in a once-thriving and now struggling Black business district in downtown Jackson, said she’s not surprised by the majority-white Legislature’s attempts to control Jackson.

“It’s a land grab. It’s a resource grab. It’s a way to disempower Jackson and its citizens, for its citizens not to have a say,” said Primm, whose storefront window displays a handwritten sign: “Jim Crow Must Go” — a phrase on T-shirts that Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers had in his car the night a white supremacist assassinated him in Jackson in 1963.

Primm said legislators’ proposals — especially for appointed judges — are problematic.

"You know, it should reek of unconstitutionality, but here in Mississippi, it’s just the same old song,” she said.

The Capitol Police currently patrol state government buildings in and near downtown. The House bill would expand the territory to cover the city's more affluent shopping and residential areas, and several neighborhoods that are predominantly white.

Critics say it's an effort to create a city within the city, diluting Black voices and providing extra police coverage for areas that already have lower crime rates than other parts of Jackson.

The House and Senate have exchanged the bills for more debate. On Thursday, a Senate committee suggested having Capitol Police patrol the entire city.

Jackson is not the first case of a majority-Black city having local authority stripped away by state government. That happened in Flint, Michigan, when an emergency manager appointed by then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder made the cost-cutting decision to switch the city's water supply to the Flint River in 2014. The water wasn’t treated to reduce corrosion from old pipes, causing lead contamination. The disaster was greatly compounded by indifference by state environmental regulators, despite widespread complaints about water quality.

In Jackson, some white residents also object to a wider territory for the Capitol Police and new courts with appointed judges.

“It’s ridiculous. I think judges should be elected officials,” said Dan Piersol, a retired art museum curator who lives in a neighborhood that would be patrolled by Capitol Police and in the new court district.

Kelly Crim said she was unaware of the new courts proposal but supports expanding Capitol Police patrols into northeast Jackson where she lives with her husband and 15-month-old son.

She said she was pleased the Capitol Police had a more visible presence at the Mississippi State Fair last fall, after fights occurred there in the past.

“I know people that ... because they knew the Capitol Police were there, felt more comfortable going with kids or at night," she said.

Mom's Kitchen, located in the once-safe neighborhood where Norris grew up, is a casual place serving baked chicken, turnip greens and candied sweet potatoes. The dining room has a broken window with cardboard taped over it, a vestige of earlier vandalism.

Norris said he often feels unsafe working in the area. A few months ago, he said, he and some employees were looking outside when “a guy just rolled by ... shooting in the air.”

“It scared me,” said Norris, who is also a licensed therapist specializing in helping young Black men, including those traumatized by violence.

He said some of his patients have had violent encounters with law enforcement officers. Norris said he would like to see a more effective police presence in Jackson, but he is concerned the Capitol Police are not the answer.

“Policemen should be building a relationship with the community,” Norris said.

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Associated Press writers Gary Fields in Washington and Ed White in Detroit contributed.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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