The Denver Post
In capital, old racial divides take new forms
Mississippi’s struggling capital has been a favored target of Republican leaders since the GOP took total control of the state a decade ago. But perhaps none of the slings and arrows flung at Jackson has provoked as much outrage as the one the state House of Representatives loosed earlier this month.
Legislators approved a bill that would establish a separate court system for roughly one-fifth of Jackson, run by state-appointed judges and served by the state-run police force that currently patrols the area around Mississippi government buildings. For the neighborhoods it would cover, the entire apparatus would effectively supplant the existing Hinds County Circuit Court, whose four judges are elected, and the city-run Jackson Police Department.
The proposal might be less provocative if not for the inescapable context: More than 8 in 10 of Jackson’s 150,000 residents, as well as most of its elected leaders, judges and police officers, are African Americans. The proposed court system and the police force would be controlled almost exclusively bywhite officials in the state government.
Atop that, the new courts and police patrols would serve neighborhoods that contain the bulk of Jackson’s white population. The city’s Black neighborhoods would largely be skirted.
For many prominent Jacksonians, this evoked earlier eras in Mississippi’s complicated racial history. The city’s Black Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, minced no words after the House vote.
“Some of the other legislators, I was surprised that they came half-dressed, because they forgot to wear their hoods,” he said.
That stung the bill’s chief sponsor, state Rep. John Thomas “Trey” Lamar, a 43-year-old Republican frommississippi’s rural northwest. Lamar said his bill was a sincere effort to solve two of the city’s most pressing problems: soaring crime and a huge backlog in the courts.
“There’s absolutely nothing abouthouse Bill 1020— when I say nothing, I mean absolutely zero — that is racially motivated,” he said in an interview.
The debate may seem familiar. The uproar in Jackson retraces old fault lines in American society: race, police violence, fear of crime, partisan rancor between rural Republicans in state legislatures and Democratic leaders of beleaguered, largely Black cities.
But in Mississippi, that template overlays the nation’s poorest state and the one with the greatest percentage of Black citizens. The issue is compounded by a bitter racial history in which oldwounds resurface in new forms, never to completely heal.
And in Jackson, a decade of Republican control of the Statehouse has brought a nasty partisan edge to longstanding racial disconnects with the state’s largest city.
The state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, has sometimes accused Lumumba ofmismanaging the city, focusing on the state’s need to help when the longneglected local water system collapsed in 2021. On a visit last year to Hattiesburg, Reeves called it “a great day to not be in Jackson” because, he suggested, he did not have to direct the city’s emergency response and public works efforts.
This year, Lamar’s legislation is but one of several Gop-backed bills that would, among other things, assert control over thewater system and reallocate Jackson’s use of sales tax collections.
The racial subtext is difficult to ignore: All 112 Republican state senators and representatives are white. All but four of the 58 Democratic legislators are Black.
State Sen. John Horhn, a Black lawmaker who represents the Jackson area, called it “the most toxic atmosphere between the city and the Legislature that I’ve seen in my 31 years” in office.
Lumumba, who, at 34, is the youngest leader in the city’s history, likened the takeover bills to colonization.
“It’s their fundamental belief that the people of Jackson don’t deserve to run the city,” he said in an interview.
For all the acrimony in Jackson, concern about the city’s decline crosses political and racial lines. “This is not a situation where there’s unanimous support for the mayor and Jackson police in the Black community and harsh criticism in the white community,” said Cliff Johnson, a University ofmississippi law professor who opposes the legislation. “It’s not that simple.”
Jackson is a city with Southern bones — graceful churches, monumental civic buildings, a stunning antebellum mansion that houses the governor. But it is in sharp decline, its population and tax base sapped by white flight — and later, flight by Blackmiddle-class families — to the city’s northern suburbs and outlying counties.
A parade of mayors have wrestled unsuccessfully with declining schools and infrastructure, like streets and the water system, and with policing. Crime increased sharplywith the onset of the COVID pandemic, and the city recorded one of the nation’s highestmurder rates in 2021. The police department is roughly 100 officers short of full strength, according to the Jackson City Council.
Hundreds of cases are backed up in the courts, leaving people accused of crimes awaiting trial for months and even years in conditions that can charitably be called substandard.
Six years ago, leaders on both sides launched a modest effort to ease the city government’s burden. The state created a Capitol City Improvement District that included downtown and state government buildings, and agreed to take over maintaining streets and other public assets within the district. To keep order, a small force of capitol security officers patrolled the district in hatchbacks topped with flashing orange lights.
That, it turned out, was only the beginning.
As crime rose, Reeves expanded the district’s borders and hired new officers in 2021. Last year, the Legislature voted — with Democratic support that included some Black lawmakers — to dramatically beef up the policing effort. A force projected to reach 150 officers began patrolling last spring in new black- and- white SUVS that seemed to command almost every street corner.
Crime in the capitol improvement district ebbed. Those who lived inside its boundaries took notice — but in different ways.
The dense knot of white government workers who live near the state offices within the district have applauded the new patrols. Many Black residents saw something different and complained that officers were both disrespectful and too aggressive toward them.
On July 9, Capitol Police officers shot and wounded a suspect. Officers wounded another suspect July 25, another Aug. 14 and a fourth Sept. 12.
Then, on the evening of Sept. 25, officers fatally shot Jaylen Lewis, a 25-year- old Blackman, as he sat in a car with his girlfriend. Officials said the shooting occurred as the officerswere attempting to make a traffic stop.
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation opened an inquiry into the fatal shooting.
Nearly five months later, the investigation remains open, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety said Friday.
Brooke Floyd, an official at a local nonprofit that advocates for Jackson’s Black residents, said she was troubled not just by the new police force’s tactics, but by the fact that both the Capitol Police and the new court system— unlike local judges and police officers— do not answer to Jackson taxpayers.
“It’s concerning on a lot of levels, because it seems there’s no oversight and no accountability,” she said. “We don’t have a video. We don’t have access to reports. They’re not releasing anything.”
The state public safety commissioner, Sean Tindell, called Lewis’ death tragic, and the state-appointed police chief, Bo Luckey, said he had ordered a change in policing tactics. But in December, another shooting left another suspect wounded.