The Denver Post

In capital, old racial divides take new forms

- Bymichaelw­ines

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.

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