If you’ve watched or attended speeches by a political intellectual of one stripe or another — could be Noam Chomsky, could be Samuel Goldman, could be Naomi Klein, could be Andrew Bacevich, could be Angela Davis, it doesn’t matter whether the politics are left, right or center — you’re always going to get some thoughtful analysis of what’s ailing this fractious country. If folks are really feeling it, the talk will wrap up with some thunderous applause. Even the dry-as-New Mexico-in-July Chomsky (and he’ll be the first to admit he’s no rabble-rouser as a public speaker) can generate that kind of response from an audience. The reality is that people are starving for insights into how our world works, so they tend to be acutely appreciative.
However, next comes the question and answer part of the program and this is where things often go sideways. You’ll invariably witness an audience member get ahold of the mic and say “Yes! Yes! Yes! I agree with what you’re puttin’ down Mr. or Ms. Intellectual. So what can li’l ole me in my li’l ole life do to change things?” As the audience listens intently to the answer, they may get treated to a mini history lesson about previous social movements or a nod to electoral politics or simply some general strategic thoughts that are difficult to visualize. Rarely will the audience get an answer that feels concrete enough to actually take home and use.
To be fair, it takes a shit-ton of research and years of thought and experience to be in a position to dissect our ramshackle reality, so it seems unfair to lay all the blame for this lack of tangible next steps at the feet of the intellectual. But still. We are a next-steps seeking, bullet-point loving people. As galvanizing as talks like these can be, paralysis is often the unintended result. Click To Tweet
The dynamic I’ve just described is why I so deeply appreciated the event I attended on an unseasonably warm day back in early February. It was a very plainspoken, practical, no-nonsense talk led by Kali Akuno, the co-director of a decades-long project in Jackson, Mississippi called Cooperation Jackson. Here’s Kali from that event:
If you believe our current system of military/corporate capitalism is impoverishing our politics, our culture, our environment and most of our people (weighing particularly heavily on people of color), then you might be interested in the concrete set of solutions that Cooperation Jackson (CJ) is working on. It’s all in their Jackson Kush Plan, which Akuno helped develop as a part of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement along with its founder and eventual mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Lumumba. In the past year or two, Akuno has been all over the alternate media discussing this plan and his experiences as an activist and scholar. The Press love talking to this dude because he’s crazy likable and knows how to talk about heavy stuff like a regular person.
For a primer, check out this great interview he did with the Left Out podcast.
To give you the quick hit, what Cooperation Jackson has become known for is their development of black worker-owned cooperative businesses around Jackson, Mississippi and the strategy they have employed to connect all of the independent economic activity with local politics. In 2009 they helped catapult celebrated attorney and radical activist Chokwe Lumumba to the city council, and in 2013 to the mayor’s office. After his unexpected death barely a year into his first term, his similarly inclined son, Chokwe Atar Lumumba became mayor in 2017. And, with an ally in the mayor’s office, the Jackson Kush Plan actually has some city government support.
I encourage you to take a look at the plan. Utopian calls for liberation notwithstanding, it’s a helpful and detailed model for what a practical strategy of transformation can look like. The bullet points on the plan are that it works across three areas that mutually reinforce one another:
Building a solidarity economy
Q: How do you cut corporate capitalism out of your local economy?
A: You don’t. Instead, you build an alternative economy.
For Cooperation Jackson, that means creating worker-owned businesses, housing cooperatives, land trusts, sustainable urban farms and community-focused credit unions that all work together in a massive positive feedback loop that helps everyone who participates to get decent shelter, make a living and eat healthy food.
Creating people’s assemblies
Q: What do you do if you’re locked out of the decision-making process that impacts the health and well-being of you and your community?
A: Create your own decision-making process.
When people wax nostalgic about things like the New England town hall meeting, what they may not realize is that citizens can bring it back all on their own. By getting people together to hash out community proposals and by assembling task forces to achieve them, Cooperation Jackson is creating a parallel democratic power to city government.
Energizing an independent political party
Q: What do you do if the two dominant political parties don’t represent the interests of every day (i.e., non-wealthy) citizens?
A: Build your own local political party. Run people for local office. Wage political campaigns around local issues.
Hell, do it long enough and you could actually gain some control over local political infrastructure. Through their involvement in the pre-existing Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, members of the CJ community have started doing just that. The Jackson Kush Plan mentions some of the political successes they’ve achieved so far.
In Akuno’s talk, and in the panel discussion with local activists that took place after he stepped off the podium, he stressed that efforts like the ones undertaken by Cooperation Jackson don’t go unnoticed by power brokers in the city and the state. To derail the changes happening in Jackson, the powers that be have already gotten together with real estate developers to begin buying up land so they can gentrify Jackson and price out the black population.
Akuno reckons the community has about a two-year window to counter this effort. While the issue of access to capital is very real for grassroots movements (traditional banks tend to slam the door on groups like CJ), they’ve managed to use other methods to purchase some land themselves and are working as fast as they can to get housing cooperatives set up so they can hold down rental prices. The fight is real and an important one to watch (and support).
More broadly, if, like so many concerned citizens around the U.S., you have a hard time visualizing what a credible challenge to the system can look like, it’s immensely helpful to listen to experienced people like Kali Akuno and track organizations like Cooperation Jackson. Projects like these open up passageways, escape routes from systemic inequality.
For your own next steps, check out Akuno’s recently published book. And if you want to support worker-owned businesses or even get a job with one, a good place to start your search is the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.
“The protection the government owes you and fails to provide, you are morally bound to provide for yourselves.” – Eugene V. Debs