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"Apartheid" in Jackson, Mississippi
The Mississippi House, a body dominated by white Republicans, voted Tuesday to create a separate court system and police force for portions of Jackson, Mississippi — the second-Blackest city in the United States. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who would lose control over portions of his city under the bill, said the proposal "reminds me of apartheid." Lumumba said the legislature was attempting to "colonize Jackson, not only in terms of them putting their military force over Jackson, but also dictating who has province over decision-making."
If the bill ultimately becomes law, a handful of white state officials would assume control over a significant portion of the city. The chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Michael K. Randolph, would appoint judges to oversee a new district within Jackson — "one that includes all of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, among other areas." Further, State Attorney General Lynn Fitch (R) "would appoint four prosecutors, a court clerk, and four public defenders for the new district." The state Commissioner of Public Safety, Sean Tindell, "would oversee an expanded Capitol Police force."
In all other areas of the state, judges and prosecutors are elected, not appointed. “Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this… where we say solving the problem requires removing the vote from Black people,” Representative Ed Blackmon (D) said during the debate. "I'm old enough to know and understand that the right to vote has not always been ours, and perhaps I'm a little more sensitive to the idea that that vote can be taken away."
"This is a racist bill," Representative Solomon Osborne (D), said, eliciting cheers from the gallery. "I don't even know why I'm down here, frankly, because it's like being at a Klan rally with people with suits on." Another Representative, John Hines (D), said that the vote would cement the state's abysmal reputation on racial issues. "Again, we end up being the laughingstock of America because of what we do here today," Hines said.
The bill passed the House by a vote of 76-38, largely along party lines. All but two Black representatives opposed the legislation.
The bill would expand the Capitol Complex Improvement District, created in 2017, which currently covers state government buildings and the surrounding areas. The expanded district would cover about 50,000 people, about one-third of Jackson's population. The bill would also divert "18.75% of sales tax that would otherwise go to Jackson to a Capitol Complex Improvement District project fund."
The lead author of the bill is Representative Trey Lamar (R), who lives more than 150 miles north of Jackson. Lamar said he introduced the bill because "[m]y constituents want to feel safe when they come here."
While the Jackson court system faces a backlog, Lamar did not explain why he did not simply propose funding to support more judges elected by residents of the city. (The appointed judges would also have "authority to hear civil cases that had nothing to do with crime.") An amendment to elect judges in the new district was defeated along party lines. Another amendment to require appointed judges to be from Hines County, where Jackson is located, was defeated. Lamar said the requirement would prevent the appointment of the "best and the brightest" to the new position.
Lamar said that Jackson was "our capitol city" and "does not belong solely to the citizens of Jackson." He "did not directly answer a question as to whether he had consulted Jackson residents of color when crafting the bill."
Increased funding for Jackson’s Capitol Police force
The proposed legislation would expand funding for the Capitol Police force in Jackson. The Capitol Police force, however, has faced criticism for being involved in multiple shootings and “deploy[ing] overzealous tactics” with “little accountability.”
According to the Clarion Ledger, officers from the Capitol Police “were involved in more than a dozen shootings last year.” In January, WLBT reported that there were four instances of Capitol Police officers “fir[ing] their weapons” in the last five months, representing “more than any other agency in the Jackson metro by far and appear[ing] to lead the state in those shooting incidents over the course of 2022.”
The incidents include the death of Jaylen Lewis, a 25-year-old who died “after a traffic stop by a Capitol Police officer” in September. The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave while the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation conducts an “internal investigation.” The police have not released any details of the incident, including any police reports or body camera footage.
According to Arkela Lewis, the victim’s mother, they have been told “virtually nothing by the Department of Public Safety or Capitol Police,” even though the incident happened “nearly five months ago.” Lewis stated that she “hasn’t even been able to get a police report of her son’s last moments” and “can’t even get in touch with anyone.” The family has requested that the Department of Justice launch a federal investigation.
Tindell told WLBT that he was “not aware of that [situation]” and that they would “accommodate” Lewis’ requests for a police report. After the shooting, Tindell released a statement saying, “Such incidents require a thorough investigation, scrutiny and transparency. Therefore, any releasable information regarding this incident will be made public by the Department of Public Safety at the appropriate time.”
While discussing the uptick in police shootings, Capitol Police Chief Bo Luckey said, “We have had a spike in this area of officer-involved shootings… But I attribute that to that portion of the community, which is a very small portion, that’s just not used to being proactively policed.” Luckey’s practice of “proactive policing” involves “patrolling areas more often to show an increased police presence.”
Currently, the Capitol Police only patrol “approximately eight percent of the city of Jackson,” according to WLBT. Under the proposed legislation, the Capitol Police will cover a larger territory due to the expansion of the Capitol Complex Improvement District.
From Mississippi's capital to the nation's capital
To an extent, Mississippi’s bill parallels decades-long efforts to deny Washington D.C. statehood. Home to nearly 700,000 residents, D.C. has more people than Vermont and Wyoming. Yet, despite the fact that D.C. residents pay more in federal taxes per person than any other state, they lack voting representation in Congress. D.C., like Jackson, also has a large Black population. Today, “if admitted, [D.C.] would have the highest proportion of Black residents of any state,” the Brennan Center reports.
As a historically majority Black city, much of the opposition was, and still is, rooted in a desire to limit the power of Black voters. Following the Civil War, Black men gained the right to vote in D.C.’s municipal elections. In 1868, about 50% of registered voters for the D.C. mayoral election were Black men. Although D.C. at the time did not have representation in Congress, Black voters made considerable progress within the city. They ousted a racist mayor, won elected office, and supported the expansion of the public school system, among many other accomplishments.
But this success, Historians George Derek Musgrove and Chris Myers Asch write, “triggered a backlash from white conservatives and business leaders who persuaded Congress to retreat from the promise of biracial democracy.” By 1874, Congress took away home rule and appointed three commissioners to run the city. This structure, which became permanent in 1878, resulted in all D.C. men losing the right to vote in local elections. According to John Tyler Morgan, an Alabama Senator in 1890, Congress had no choice but to deny D.C. home rule “to get rid of this load of Negro suffrage that was flooded in upon them.” Morgan compared the decision to “burn[ing] down the barn to get rid of rats,” with “the rats being the Negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”
For nearly 100 years, D.C. residents could not vote for their own city leaders. And as D.C.’s Black population doubled, eventually becoming the majority in 1957, “White support of home rule declined.” White residents who testified in Congress in the 1950s said that they fear “the Negroes will take over” and that “minority groups would control local elections.” Other residents opposed home rule because they felt Black residents “don’t have the right education to do the right job” and it “isn’t right that the Nation’s Capital be all colored.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers during this time stoked fears of crime, arguing that this was grounds for federal intervention. In 1963, Senator Allen Ellender (D-La.) described D.C. as a “cesspool of crime,” which proved that “Negroes cannot govern themselves.” This rhetoric continues today–in 2020, Representative Andrew S. Clyde (R-GA) said that D.C.’s elected officials are “unfit to properly maintain our nation’s capital.”
It wasn’t until 1961 that residents could vote in presidential elections, and 1973 that residents could vote for local officials. But over the years, Congress expanded its power over D.C. In 1995, Congress took control of the city’s finances and, eventually, the city’s debts, courts, and prisons in 1997. Aspects of self-rule have been restored, but Congress still retains the right “to review and nullify any legislation passed by the district’s local government.” This wide authority has allowed Congress to treat D.C. as a “laboratory for federal experiments” — a Republican-led Congress, for instance, banned D.C. from using local funds on syringe exchange programs for years.
Ultimately, “the exclusion of DC residents from a voice in Congress contributes to the underrepresentation of voters of color in the American political system,” the Brennan Center writes. “According to a New York Times analysis, based on the voting power of each U.S. senator, the average Black American receives ‘only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American.’”