SEVEN MAYORS, THREE CRISES, ONE TEXT THREAD
“We’re trying to put a statue of Medgar Evers there,” Lumumba added, referring to the Jackson civil-rights activist gunned down in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. “That’s who we want out of ours.” In fact, in July the city council voted to remove the Andrew Jackson statue.
Talk of process and jurisdiction doesn’t quite land with every constituent, however, many of whom are done with being told, in Mayor Q’s words, “to just be a little more patient.” To compound the issue, folks who have been locked out of the systems of democracy now have to learn where all the levers and pulleys are in the machine. It’s a problem of political communication that extends to these mayors’ efforts to reform their systems of policing. “Our residents have a hard time understanding that sometimes,” Stoney said, “because they expect their mayors to be, I guess you could say, all-powerful and strong.”
“Yes, mayors get to appoint police chiefs,” Perkins added. “But a step further you have to take is realizing how much power your civil-service board has to put in place whatever policies, whatever cultural changes you want to implement. They can reinstate officers that you want to terminate; they can completely shoot down any punishment that you want to administer.” (Perkins has made a dent where he can, though. In one of his first acts in office, he signed a repeal of Shreveport’s so-called “sagging pants law,” a 2007 ordinance that yielded 726 arrests, 96 percent of which were of Black men.)
“Chokwe,” Perkins asked, “what about the tweets you got about you being the mayor of Mississippi?”
“Oh, yeah,” Lumumba said with a grin. “When there was a lot of focus, and necessarily so, on the uprisings in the prisons in Mississippi and the deaths that were associated, people were hitting my social media and asking me what was I gonna do about my prisons. I don’t have a prison. The one that they’re talking about is two hours away. I tried to explain this, and somebody said, ‘How can’t you deal with it? You’re the mayor of Mississippi.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’ ”
But beneath the laughs, there is a real tension in play: These are mayors of relatively large cities, tasked with overseeing police forces, but they are also Black men in America. “I have vivid memories of being pulled over for driving while Black, of being profiled for the type of car I drove,” said Woodfin. “So many times that I knew what to do. I knew to turn my car off before the police came up to my car. I knew to have my window down before the police came to my car. I knew that I already had my wallet out so I wouldn’t have to reach for nothing before the police came to my car. I knew to have my hands on the steering wheel before the police came to the car, turn my music off before the police came to the car. I got to that position because I was being pulled over that many times for driving while Black.”
“We’re Black mayors. We’re Black men first,” said Lucas. “We’ve been told we fit the description; we’ve been told to put our hands on the hood. We’ve been called the n-word. My sister lives in Texarkana, and she works in Shreveport”—Mayor Perkins loved to hear it—“and I went down to pick up my niece for the summer, to bring her back up to Kansas City with her grandma. And y’all know this, the fear you have. I’m a Black mayor; I got all these fancy things and all that. I’m just trying not to get stopped in Arkansas. I was like, ‘I might even know the mayor of the biggest city in Arkansas, and that don’t make a difference.’ ”
THE GEARS ARE GRINDING INTO MOTION. Stoney, beset on all sides for a time by the public he serves, is moving swiftly to institute a system for deploying mental-health professionals as the first responders in certain situations rather than police. He’s working to establish an independent civilian review board to oversee the Richmond force. The interim chief who attracted Trey Songz’s attention has a permanent replacement in Gerald Smith.
Mayor Perkins has put in place regular implicitbias training in Shreveport along with a ban on choke holds, and his administration has built a website for residents to track progress and hold him accountable. Mayor Scott rolled out his ACT plan—“accountable, clear, and transparent”— which includes a “duty to intervene” policy, requiring Little Rock officers to stop their colleagues from using excessive force.
“Defund the Police,” though, is where the rubber meets the road. Just before I asked about it, Stoney and Reed said they had to hop off the call, the latter announcing he had a meeting next door. I put the question to those who remained: What comes to mind when they hear that term?
“That’s not what you really mean,” Scott said simply.
“The ‘defund police’ campaign in the city of Minneapolis actually started before George Floyd,” Woodfin said. “With the city of Birmingham, there’s a similarity, and then there’s an extreme opposite. The similarity is that they have about 890 officers. We have about 905. But Birmingham’s police budget is $90 million. The Minneapolis police budget is $193 million. In the city of Minneapolis, when they say ‘defund the police,’ I actually think they mean that. I think it’s a literal conversation that they’re having. Ninetyfour percent of our $90 million budget goes to personnel costs, meaning if I take any money away, that also means I’m firing police officers, and that’s just not realistic. The notion that we should be doing more things towards social services, I agree with. The notion that maybe certain calls, like if there’s a loose dog, maybe an armed police officer shouldn’t show up—I actually agree with that, too. But I think we have to be very realistic in this conversation.”
“Thirty-five, 45, maybe even 50 percent of our budgets are public safety—our police department and our fire department,” Scott added. “Within those budgets, somewhere between 70, 85 percent of said budgets are personnel, and so when we hear from a mayoral perspective ‘defund the police,’ that means that when someone calls 911, we can’t send someone to you. It’s a catchy marketing phrase, but it has detrimental effects if you actually go forward and do it. What we should be calling for is realigning dollars. Reallocation.”
“When you strip our jobs down, mayors are responsible for two things,” Woodfin said, “public safety and public infrastructure. The reason why our police departments and our fire departments make up the biggest [share of ] public works is because no one else is responsible for those things. We think of social services, it’s more of a shared job. It’s not just a city’s tax dollars. It’s nonprofits, it’s the state, it’s the federal government, it’s grants, it’s churches, and it’s private sector.”
“And Rand,” said Perkins, “I’m saying the same thing. I have pennies to throw at the problem with those social services, and that’s why I’m saying, if you really want to have an impact, you can’t rely on that, considering how our budgets are structured and the responsibility that’s laid out in our city charters.”
“And for the record,” Woodfin added, “the emails all of us have been getting from Sydney, Australia, and Canada and these European countries about ‘defund our police’ don’t match what’s on the ground, with Big Mama saying, ‘I want more police.’ It literally doesn’t match.”
“I think about what Big Mama’s talking about,” Lumumba said. “I think about what Ms. Jones is talking about down the street, and the reality in my city is the majority of my police force looks like them, right? So when somebody breaks into their house, they want somebody there. They aren’t talking about defunding the police, because they’re the ones that often feel the brunt of crime more than anybody, right?”
Maybe it’s more than rubber-meets-road. It’s an outright collision of soaring ideals and the harsh realities of running a city every day, of personal experience and public duty. These men want to break the school-to-prison pipeline, but they’re also expected to stop real crime, right now. As the pandemic rages, they’ll have to find a way to get their constituents access to health care. But they also want to get them access to capital. “It’s a moment that lends itself to rising to the occasion,” Lumumba said at another point, “and demanding things that we’ve never seen.”
That’s a lot to tackle over Zoom. Throw it on the text thread.
come down,” he said at the time. “I understand that a lot of folks feel that it’s their heritage, but that flag symbolizes a lot of negative.”
He ran for national chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017 but dropped out of the race and gave his support to Tom Perez, Barack Obama’s labor secretary, who in turn appointed Harrison to a senior position at the DNC. Harrison was following the well-trod career path of a Clinton-Obama-era Democrat.
As a Senate candidate, he hasn’t strayed too far from that lane. His health-care proposal is about lowering costs, but there’s nothing there about Medicare for All. There is no mention of a Green New Deal in his environmental plan, but he wants to rebuild and strengthen South Carolina’s infrastructure against the climate crisis and its inevitable consequences.
He was set up to be a perfect Biden Democrat—in February, anyway. And it might’ve worked, though odds are that it wouldn’t have.
But those considerations are out the window. He’s still running against Lindsey Graham, but now he’s doing so the way the rest of us have been shopping and meeting and living in this strange aquarium existence. The interviews for this story were conducted by Zoom, and so are his fundraising events. He’s been quarantining for months with Boyd and their two young children, and he plans to continue for the foreseeable future. He’s improvising campaign strategy on the fly.
“To campaign in the South is a unique cultural experience,” he said. “You go into the little church facilities and meet people, or you go to a spaghetti supper, and it’s about talking and hugging and shaking hands. It’s hard not to be able to do that now. There’s really no playbook for this.” And at the same time, the country is in the middle of a social and political upheaval unlike any it’s seen since the embers cooled in Watts, and Newark, and Detroit in the mid-sixties. Every issue on which the campaign once turned has been freighted with medical peril and historical baggage. There have been so many false dawns already. Nobody wants to hear “never again” again. When a Minneapolis cop smothered George Floyd against the asphalt, all the bills came due in a hurry once more. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks. A cry this time for a real dawn, or a plunge into deeper darkness.
“I really feel as though we’re at a crossroads,” Harrison said. “The types of reactions, but also the diversity that I see in terms of the response. Normally, it’s mostly Black folks out marching, or it’s mostly Black folks talking about these issues. But for the first time really in my lifetime, I see folks saying, ‘You know what, let me carry some of this weight also. I may not be Black, I may not understand what you’re going through—the difficulty in terms of raising a Black child, or losing a child—but I hear your pain, I appreciate what you’re going through, and I want to help.’ My goal is that forty years from now, when my boys are my age, they’re not having these same conversations.”
THERE WAS A STIRRING OF SOMETHING that day at the Galivants Ferry Stump, 143 years since the first gathering by that name. The inaugural Stump was held in 1876, during what was quite possibly the dirtiest and most consequential election in American history. The event was arranged on behalf of Wade Hampton III, a former Confederate general and the scion of one of the biggest slaveholding families in the state. The white nation’s zeal for Reconstruction was fading before the noisy onslaught of the Gilded Age. The national election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was razor-close. All over the South, so-called Redeemers waged war and terror on newly enfranchised Black voters, and nobody waged a harder and dirtier campaign than Wade Hampton. After a massacre of Black residents in the town of Hamburg, Hampton blamed Reconstruction for having ignited a “race war.” As part of his campaign, which he ran out of a Charleston brothel, Hampton arranged with the Holliday family to put on a political event hard by the Little Pee Dee River, and the Galivants Ferry Stump was born.
The election ended with Hampton installed as governor, because when a special commission in Washington settled the presidential election in favor of Hayes, the price for that deal was the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the de facto end of Reconstruction.
So there was a remarkable bit of historical English on the way events had spun forward to have Jaime Harrison, a Black son of a teenage mother who’d grown up in poverty in Orangeburg, talking at an event that had been born of pure, undiluted white supremacy. It was something beyond mere irony. There was a kind of Newtonian physics to what was happening: At long last, an equal and opposite force had been brought to bear.
Harrison felt it, too. “It’s amazing, because you see the entire political evolution of the South,” he told me as the afternoon softened into evening. “Like I say, when you understand history, you can make history. When this thing started, the idea of somebody like me up there speaking on that stump?”
I cracked wise that when Harrison was earlier embraced onstage by former state senator John Land, a white man in a big straw hat whom Mark Twain would have hired as a local consultant on the spot, old Wade Hampton III, down in the burial ground of the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, probably began revolving at a considerable rate. The sun fell gently behind the pecan trees and over the river.
“Good,” Jaime Harrison told me. “I hope he’s spinning.”
FOUR MINUTES and forty-nine seconds into what would become a several-hours-long binge of Padma Lakshmi’s new Hulu show, Taste the Nation, life as we knew it changed. No kidding. Changed! Our host was strolling down a small street in El Paso, Texas, when she paused and popped inside local outpost Jalisco Cafe for a meal. As she ordered a bean burrito, we watched as her previously violet shades began to fade. By the time her food arrived, the lenses were clear. Transition lenses are fucking sick, the high poets sang.
Wait a minute. Transition lenses? Sartorial staple of the aggressively anti-fashion? Official accessory of high school math teachers? Yes, those. Free yourself from the idea that transitions are the facial equivalent of a cell-phone holster and a whole world of conveniences will open up before you. You’ll never have to take off your sunglasses, for one. Ever. Never realize, while taking off your sunnies, that you forgot your case and now must shove your unprotected eyewear into a pocket or bag to await their inevitable smashing, for another. Risking the itch of contacts just to be able to wear shades will be a faint memory.
Now, we know what you’re thinking. We know because it also occurred to us, but the answer is no, you do not need to apologize to your mother* or your grandfather or your Algebra II teacher for years spent mocking their eyewear. That’s because they weren’t doing it right. To make transition lenses work, the frame must be just so. The shape has to look cool as hell while tinted outside but not like weird-as-hell seventies bifocals once clear inside. We recommend a lightweight, unimposing aviator. They can’t appear to be trying too hard, weighed down with a heavy tortoiseshell design or otherwise gauche embellishment.
Truly, transition lenses are about carrying on with an enviable leisure. They are an attitude—a lifestyle. They are simplicity itself; they make nonsense a thing of the past. Friendly passersby will see you at lunch—outdoors on a partly shaded patio, which in our past lives existed as a battleground in the sunglasses-on-or-sunglasses-off debate—shades in mid-tint, drink in hand, and do you know what they’ll think? Transition lenses are fucking sick.
*There is one exception.
If your mother is Padma Lakshmi, you do, in fact, have to tell her you were wrong. Dead wrong.