An interview with Kali Akuno, of Cooperation Jackson, from Viewpoint Magazine's "Strategy After Ferguson" collection.
Interview with Cooperation Jackson
What is the history of your group? What actions have you organized, how has your group changed, and what are your plans for the future?
Cooperation Jackson is a relatively young organization. It was officially launched in May 2014, at the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference, which took place Friday, May 2nd through Sunday, May 3rd at Jackson State University. So, we are just over one year old.
However, the vision and planning for Cooperation Jackson has been years in the making. Cooperation Jackson was born as an instrument of the Jackson-Kush Plan, a plan first developed by the New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that seeks to facilitate the development of a vibrant solidarity economy in Jackson, by building an integrated network of cooperative and community owned enterprises that would provide sustainable, living-wage jobs. The objective in building a strong local solidarity economy is to advance the development of economic democracy as a transformative and transitional socio-economic system based on worker self-management and the direct ownership of the means of production and distribution.
In our short year of existence, we obtained several significant accomplishments. We have acquired a fair amount of land and properties in West Jackson that we are working to transform into a Community Land Trust. This will be home to a live-work Eco-Village – a living complex devoted to ecological and climate sustainability in its design and operation, particularly how it utilizes and produces energy – with cooperative housing and a number of integrated cooperative businesses. The most noted of these properties is the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, which serves as the operating base of Cooperation Jackson, and the home of several of our emerging cooperatives. We also were able to get the City Council to pass a resolution calling for the creation of a Human Rights Charter for the City of Jackson, and a Human Rights Commission to enforce it.
This is a very significant victory, one that unfortunately has not received the attention we think it deserves on a national and international level. When implemented the charter and commission will make Jackson the only city in the United States that attempts govern itself in accordance with all of the fundamental human rights conventions, covenants, treaties, protocols and standards. We hope that it will serve as a model to strengthen social movements throughout the US in the struggle to radically transform this society. We anticipate a high level of resistance to the full implementation of the charter by reactionary forces in Mississippi and throughout the country, and we are doing all we can to prepare for that in an offensive manner as well.
We are building the Charter and the Commission through the Jackson Human Rights Institute (JHRI). The Institute is a training and coordinating center committed to making Jackson a Human Rights City. The Institute was launched in the fall of 2014 to strengthen the local human rights social movement, expand its base, and facilitate the drafting of the Charter and the structure of the Institute.
We are also a pilot-site for the Our Power Campaign, developed by the Climate Justice Alliance. This past June, we held a Southern People’s Movement Assembly for a Just Transition to launch a local campaign to make Jackson a “Sustainable City,” committed to eliminating its ecological footprint over the next decade.
Over the course of the next year, we are going to focus on opening and stabilizing several cooperatives, founding our Community Land Trust, developing the Human Rights Charter, and moving the City to adopt key aspects of our Just Transition climate justice policy framework.
On September 25, 2013, a 12 year old black girl named Laporshia Massey died of asthma in a Philadelphia school, since there was no nurse there to treat her. She died saying “I can’t breathe.” She was only one of several children in Philadelphia who have died as a result of systematic, racialized poverty and the city budget cuts that have recently deepened it. This is a kind of murder by poverty and urban segregation; it hasn’t received as much attention in the national media as the recent police murders, but it’s a fundamental and ongoing element of American racism. What is the strategic value of centering antagonism towards the police? How have you been able to link up this movement against the police to other related struggles, such as the Fight for $15, anti-gentrification, anti-austerity, and prison abolition work?
The Jackson-Kush Plan is a transitional vision and strategy for the attainment of Black self-determination developed by the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). This is critical to mention, because the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is perhaps best known for its decades of organizing on a national level against state repression and police terror against Black people. However, it should also be noted that despite the visibility of the work against state repression and police terror, the organization never upheld it as being central to the achievement of self-determination. NAPO and MXGM always emphasized obtaining self-determination for people of African descent in the United States, which in Mississippi and throughout the South centers on two objectives. First, on building economic democracy through solidarity and regenerative economic organization, and second, on building political power through the construction of autonomous people’s assemblies and independent political parties.
Organizing against state repression and police terror are cornerstones of the self-defense work that Black people must engage in out of pure necessity in the United States. However, we have to recognize that defense work of this nature, in and of itself, is not transformative. At its best, this type of self-defense work might stall the blows of the state’s iron fist, but the carrots of the state and capital are just as, if not even more so, deadly.
Now our people and our movement must never abandon its defenses (in fact we would do well to build them even stronger). But, we have to be more strategic and try to get at the economic roots of our problem. To this end, we have and will continue to support campaigns like the Fight for $15 and the organization of the workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, MS. But, we have to go further. In the disposable era that we are in, where neither the multinational corporations or the state have the financial interest or the political will to create jobs for the millions that are under and unemployed, working people must seize the initiative by simultaneously collectivizing our resources to produce the jobs that we need and by seizing control of the existing means production, distribution, and consumption by any and all democratic means at our disposal. Part of the reason Cooperation Jackson was born, was to facilitate working people in Jackson developing their own capacity to impact, if not control, their own economic circumstances and to fight for the democratization of the economy. In this effort, we have consciously tried to link the overall struggle against white supremacy, colonialism, and state repression to the struggle for economic justice, political independence, and self-determination.
The most concrete way we have done this is by building the Human Rights Institute. Promoting a people-centered human rights agenda has long been an objective of the forces advancing the Jackson-Kush Plan. One of the key elements that we were set to implement under the Mayoral administration of Chokwe Lumumba, was the introduction of a Human Rights Charter and a Human Rights Commission. When Mayor Lumumba unexpectedly passed in February 2014, this initiative returned to the social movement. In December 2014, these forces took the initiative, first by organizing a highway blockade in Downtown Jackson to draw attention to the exoneration of the murderers of Mike Brown and Eric Gardner. Then by waging an action on City Hall to move it to commit to creating and implementing a comprehensive Human Rights Charter, with strong enforcement mechanisms for the protection of economic, social and cultural rights (ESC Rights such as dignified employment, quality housing, health care, water, etc.) and a Police Control Board democratically elected by the residents of the City. The City Council passed a resolution committing the City to the creation and implementation of a Human Rights Charter and Commission. Now the struggle is to broaden the base of support for this initiative, build the charter with the people, and to see its implementation through municipal government to completion.
Cooperation Jackson and the Jackson Human Rights Institute are concrete ways we’ve been making a contribution towards the development and implementation of a intersectional strategy of social liberation. We think that there are lessons to be learned from our work. And we think that there are some broad strategies and methods of struggle that can be applied throughout the US empire. We maintain that we need to build a mass movement that focuses as much on building autonomous, self-organized and executed social projects as it focuses on campaigns and initiatives that apply transformative pressure on the government and the forces of economic exploitation and domination. This is imperative, especially when we clearly understand the dynamics internal to the capitalist system we are fighting against.
Autonomous projects are initiatives not supported or organized by the government (state) or some variant of monopoly capital (finance or corporate industrial or mercantile capital). These are initiatives that directly seek to create a democratic “economy of need” around organizing sustainable institutions that satisfy people’s basic needs around principles of social solidarity and participatory or direct democracy that intentionally put the needs of people before the needs of profit. These initiatives are built and sustained by people organizing themselves and collectivizing their resources through dues paying membership structures, income sharing, resource sharing, time banking, etc., to amass the initial resources needed to start and sustain our initiatives. These types of projects range from organizing community farms (focused on developing the capacity to feed thousands of people) to forming people’s self-defense networks to organizing non-market housing projects to building cooperatives to fulfill our material needs. To ensure that these are not mere Black or “ethnic” capitalist enterprises, these initiatives must be built democratically from the ground up and must be owned, operated, and controlled by their workers and consumers. These are essentially “serve the people” or “survival programs” that help the people to sustain and attain a degree of autonomy and self-rule.
Our pressure exerting initiatives must be focused on creating enough democratic and social space for us to organize ourselves in a self-determined manner. We should be under no illusion that the system can be reformed, it cannot. Capitalism and its bourgeois national-states, the US government being the most dominant amongst them, have demonstrated a tremendous ability to adapt to and absorb disruptive social forces and their demands – when it has ample surpluses. The capitalist system has essentially run out of surpluses, and therefore does not possess the flexibility that it once did.
Because real profits have declined since the late 1960’s, capitalism has resorted to operating largely on a parasitic basis, commonly referred to as neo-liberalism, which calls for the dismantling of the social welfare state, privatizing the social resources of the state, eliminating institutions of social solidarity (like trade unions), eliminating safety standards and protections, promoting the monopoly of trade by corporations, and running financial markets like casinos.
Our objectives therefore, must be structural and necessitate nothing less than complete social transformation. To press for our goals we must seek to exert maximum pressure by organizing mass campaigns that are strategic and tactically flexible, including mass action (protest) methods, direct action methods, boycotts, non-compliance methods, occupations, and various types of people’s or popular assemblies. The challenges here are not becoming sidelined and subordinated to someone else’s agenda – in particular that of the Democratic party (which has been the grave of social movements for generations) – and not getting distracted by symbolic reforms or losing sight of the strategic in the pursuit of the expedient.
There are other tendencies that may be in a position to co-opt the movement –it is widely noted that nonprofits play a demobilizing role in social movements, mediating between action in the streets and municipal city governments whose funding they depend on. Because nonprofits have resources that grassroots initiatives often don’t, they position themselves as the leadership, while constituting social bases of support in ways that are more difficult for radicals. How can this co-opting be avoided? How can radicals develop the same bases of support that many nonprofits enjoy?
First things first, we believe that you have to make a distinction between the system’s legitimization of nonprofit organizations and their actual level of support amongst the people. People often give deference to the legitimacy conferred upon nonprofit organizations because most do provide services that working and poor people need. But, the utilization of these services doesn’t mean that the people are in any way loyal to these organizations, as folks will seek support from contradictory sources when they need it.
Radical forces have to take a long-term view towards base building and community organizing. We have to call on the people to build and support their own independent organizations, organizations that are not dependent on foundations or reformist electoral parties for their resources or their legitimacy. We, the people and the social movements, have to resource our own organizations, so that we own and control their politics, programs, and agendas. Self-organization can often be difficult, but it isn’t foreign to many. After all, many people in our communities regularly give to their spiritual institutions and to other types of charities. We have to move folks to give in this same manner to their own political and economic development institutions.
The primary thing that we must do, is to remain focused, principled, and disciplined, while at the same time being flexible enough to deal with new dynamics, be they opportunities or challenges.
The movements of the 1960s and 1970s against racism and police violence led to the emergence of new kinds of organizations – including, just to name a few, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Third World Women’s Alliance, and, for white radicals, the Students for a Democratic Society. In the 1970s these groups transformed into new revolutionary organizations, which were often multi-racial alliances between black, Chican@, Puerto Rican, and Asian groups. Do you see new organizations emerging today, and if so, what is their relationship to the broader Black Lives Matter movement?
Over the past 4 years, we’ve seen an explosion of new organizations. From Occupy the Hood, to the Million Hoodies Movement, to the Dream Defenders, to BYP100, We Charge Genocide, Black Lives Matter to the plethora of organizations that emerged in the greater St. Louis region after the Ferguson rebellion in 2014. It is our view that this rising tide of activity has been brewing for well over a decade. It is the product of a generation’s response to the horror of Hurricane Katrina, and what it indicated about the value of Black life in this society.
Black Lives Matter has become the rallying cry of this generation, but what this call represents is a passing of the torch in the Black Liberation Movement. However, it is still too early to ascertain clearly where many of these organizations are headed. Will they move further to the left in a revolutionary direction, or will they head in a more reformist direction? It is still too early to tell. There are positive signs that large numbers of those who have been called to action during this upsurge are developing a revolutionary consciousness. But, it will take some considerable work on the part of these individuals to turn their organizations into revolutionary vehicles, particularly given all of the pressures and distractions they have to confront, like attempted buy-off’s from the Democratic party and major foundations and philanthropists, opportunism of publically visible members of the movement, and personal differences amongst the movements leaders disguised as political difference.
The level of solidarity exhibited by non-Black activists in Ferguson, Baltimore, and with the movement for Black Lives overall has also been very encouraging. There are some signs, such some of the direct engagement of Arab, South and Asian, and Xican@ in many of the actions and initiatives of current Black upsurge, that this solidarity could foster the development of new multi-racial, multi-national revolutionary formations in the near future. But, it will take some very focused work on the part of all of the forces involved.
Cooperation Jackson is built to serve the needs of the Black working class majority of Jackson, MS. It is designed to provide stable employment, equity, democratic control and dignity to Black workers. However, it is a multinational organization and intentionally so. We attempting to demonstrate, in practice, that white workers can be principled democratic actors under Black leadership and be agents in the struggle against white supremacy. We are also explicit in our attempt to build “Black-Brown” unity by doing outreach to the growing immigrant communities in Mississippi, particularly from Central and South America, to intervene in and defeat the many divide and conquer strategies and tactics used to keep the working class fragmented and isolated.
Last May, we published an analysis of the uprising in Baltimore, focusing in on the dynamics of white solidarity. The essay confronted a tension pervasive throughout the movement, on the simultaneous necessity of strategic alliances between different struggles of oppressed and exploited peoples, and the possibility that including other groups might obviate the specificity of anti-Black racism. As the movement has developed, it’s proven to have strong resonances with non-black people, drawing in participation and support from a range of different sectors and struggles and sometimes offering models for others. How do we maintain the resonance between different struggles with shared antagonisms, without effacing what is specific to this movement?
This is a very critical question for the development of a transformative force in the US. In order to maintain and advance this resonance, each people and movement must be open to processes of critical educational engagement with each other. We are attempting to do this in Jackson by intentionally bringing the movement for Black self-determination into constant contact and engagement via joint study, strategy development and struggle with the solidarity economy movement, the trade union movement, the immigrant rights movement, the queer movement and the climate justice movement. Our movements must understand the nuances, intersections and particularities that different people’s, social sectors, genders and sexual communities each confront in battling the systems of oppression that structure our lives. If we don’t come to some critical understandings on how we are each positioned in the capitalist world-system, will remain subject to the whims of our oppressors and manipulators, and the many systems and, techniques they employ to keep us divided. In short, we’ll be unable to develop a comprehensive strategy of social transformation and liberation that will free us all.