The final week of March 2023 brought on one of the greatest barrages of humiliation and insult ever suffered by the overwhelmingly Black populus of Mississippi’s capital city.
Mother Nature blew away a vast hundred-mile stretch of homes and businesses across the nearby Mississippi Delta in the form of a tornado two weeks ago. But an even more relentless combination of destructive forces from the white-dominated state legislature and the Black-dominated Jackson City Council heartlessly shattered the general welfare and domestic tranquility of the citizens of the state capital.
HB1020 and SB2343 passed by overwhelming votes in both the full House and Senate. And they will give sweeping powers of arrest, judicial control, and punitive restrictions over Jackson citizens who protest at or around any government building. Another bill, HB698, prevents the city’s water agency from assessing its fees based on the size or value of the users’ house. In all cases, a body of white authorities from outside the capital will hold unassailable power over a Black-majority city and county.
Added to that, Jackson’s city council voted down a contract for the Black garbage disposal company that rescued the city’s garbage service without pay in its darkest hours in April-July 2022.
While most Jacksonians are sincerely concerned about the high crime rate and want dependable public services, they dread the incursion of an alien white police force and appointed judiciary as proposed in HB1020.
If the ongoing tragedy of Jackson’s broken down and ungovernable drinking water supply system was not enough to drive people into a rage, the city council voted last Saturday to throw away the city’s garbage collection contract with nothing to replace it. This came only a day after the state legislature voted to take away the people’s right to police themselves, their right to peaceably assemble to petition their government, and the right to ensure their basic health needs.
If the city does not provide solid waste disposal services within its boundaries, the Environmental Protection Agency will levy a penalty of $25,000 a day until the garbage is removed, according to the EPA guidelines. When that penalty will kick in is uncertain. But Jackson is already under EPA constraints because of the faults in its public water system. Therefore, EPA penalties may be imposed almost immediately.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba says it will take at least 50 days to get a new set of bids in place for the garbage contract. He does not foresee another emergency contract as an option now, he said.
For more than two years, Jackson’s solid waste disposal system has not functioned in a normal way due to a continuing dispute between the mayor and four of the council members. Under the law, the mayor has the sole authority to present a contract to a vendor or applicant, but the council has the power to either accept or reject the contract. And they have rejected every regular contract since 2020.
Four council members failed to show for a special meeting on Thursday, March 30, to vote on a new contract before the April 1 deadline. Without a quorum, the meeting was not held. But in an impromptu discussion in lieu of the meeting, Ward 4 councilman Brian Grizzell said the four absent members – Ashby Foote, Ward 1; Kenneth Stokes, Ward 3; Vernon Hartley, Ward 5; and Aaron Banks, Ward 6 – were “absent by design.”
Angelique Lee of Ward 2, city council vice president, apologized to the large number of Richard’s Disposal employees who had come to the announced meeting with the hope of remaining gainfully employed with Richard’s.
“I just want to thank the colleagues who did decide to show up today, who had the courage to face the people that we serve,” Lee said on March 30. “I want to thank Mr. Richard and Richard’s Disposal. What we did to this Black man and his Black company is deplorable. We did to them what we point the finger to the state about doing to us.”
After Thursday’s failed meeting ended, the absent Ward 6 councilmember Aaron Banks issued a message claiming he was out of town earlier in the week and that he felt his primary responsibility was to be with his family on the day of the scheduled meeting, “and thus could not attend today’s meeting.”
At a special meeting on April 1, the first day without garbage collection in the city, Ward 3’s Stokes was displeased at the size of the large crowd in the meeting room and asked whether the COVID-19 rules should be enforced. The police chief confirmed that even under COVID limitations the number attending – many of them Richard’s employees – was below the prescribed maximum.
Stokes then moved that the name on the contract submitted by the mayor should be changed from “Richard’s Disposal” to “Waste Management.” That motion failed.
When the vote on the Richard’s contract was taken, the numbers were 3-for, 3-against, and one abstention (Stokes). It failed for lack of a majority.
Banks has asserted in a press release dated 3:01 p.m. April 3, 2023 that he is open to offering Richard’s Disposal an emergency 90-day contract. But he also erroneously stated that Richard’s is ineligible for a bid on the regular contract.
“If a contract/vendor is voted down twice within one year, the Mayor must present another contract or vendor,” Banks wrote. “There are several reasons why I voted ‘no’ on the Richards contract, along with some of my colleagues. While presented as the lowest bid, I’m of the mindset it was not the best bid. Richard’s never received a valid contract from the council; however, this Administration illegally gave them a contract and a notice to proceed. Richard’s proceeded to work with full knowledge that they did not have a legally binding contract.”
Roy D. Campbell, III, the attorney consulted by the mayor and city council to present a working paper on the contracts issue, denies the assertion that Banks made regarding Richard’s ineligibility to bid on a new contract in 2023.
“Because Richard Disposal’s proposal failed to garner a majority vote from City Council following votes at two separate meetings, does the City Council’s ‘two-vote’ rule prohibit further consideration of that proposal for a year, absent a vote of two-thirds of the Council?” Campbell wrote on February 10, 2022, before answering his own question.
“The ‘two-vote’ limitation applies only to two votes taken in the same meeting, and it does not restrict further consideration of Richard’s Disposal’s proposal.”
Lumumba spoke to a group of nearly two hundred gathered outside city hall following the disappointing vote that blocked Richard’s from obtaining the official six-year contract.
“This was not simply a vote against Richard’s. This was a vote against waste collection in our city,” he said.
Famed civil rights attorney Alvin O. Chambliss, one of the nation’s top constitutional legal minds, puts respect for the rights of U.S. citizens above all other principles of government.
Chambliss advocates what urban planners call the “wrap around” process – an action plan that brings together all the principal players involved in a community-based activity with unconditional government support for the success of the collaboration.
“What I’m concerned about is when do we stop talking about these Southern governors and autocrats in power,” Chambliss said from his home in New Orleans Monday. “When federal money comes in for support of Black or poor people, they’ll misspend it, steal it, or send it back. But then when a tornado hits like the one from two weeks ago, then they’ll want all the aid they can get.
“Let’s just say, the trash goes a week, or two weeks, without being picked up. Then the flies invade, and the federal government could declare a disaster area and martial law, and other measures. But nothing is going to happen until citizens exercise their constitutional rights to protest and halt these injustices. You can start a movement, but you’re not going to get much.
“Tate Reeves and those people running the government in Mississippi don’t care anything at all about the U.S. Constitution,” Chambliss said. “If you talk about the law, and you don’t have the means and ability to enforce it, you’re talking about nothing. Black folks are too civilized to disrupt this system of injustice and corruption. They’ve got to make up their minds whether they are going to enjoy the full measure of their rights as free and equal citizens. Or will they be satisfied to just leave things as they are.”
Chambliss says the people of Jackson should look to the surrounding college campuses at Jackson State, Belhaven, and Tougaloo for potential allies and resource people in the fight to gain and support their rights to self-governance.
“Rhetoric is mostly what you have today,” he said. “People rely on rhetoric. But rhetoric has seen its day. People like to see action. If they don’t see action, then nothing’s going to happen. People are able to rise and confront the government. You can’t destroy property. But people are within their rights to rise up and protest against illegal and unjust government action. And you don’t have to have the government’s permission to do so. That’s in the Constitution.”
Chambliss is best known for his victorious lawsuit – the Ayers case – that lasted from 1974 until 2004. The case settlement brought the promise of equal opportunity and equal funding to Mississippi’s Black colleges and universities. He worked for the Mississippi Rural Legal Services at the time.
“That bill to bar demonstrations in front of the governor’s mansion is patently unconstitutional,” he said. “If we were still in operation, none of this would’ve happened. Black people need a messiah. And I don’t know where they’re going to get him or her from; but I know one thing: The law has to work for the people, although so far it has not.”
WHITE OVER BLACK
Representatives Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House minority leader; Ed Blackmon of Canton; and Willie Bailey of Greenville all emphasized that they wanted to get on record the racist nature of the legislation that will impose unelected white judges and an extra legal system of law enforcement on the people of Jackson who might get caught up in the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID).
Under the new legislation, the chief justice of Mississippi’s Supreme Court is authorized to appoint judges to adjudicate cases in the CCID. A separate, appointed court district would be established in the heart of Jackson. People arrested and convicted of misdemeanors or felonies will be sent to the state prison in Rankin County, rather than the Jackson Municipal Jail. Even demonstrators outside the state Capitol or the Governor’s Mansion without a permit are subject to arrest by the new police force. And that has become one of the most hotly contested issues among Black legislators opposed to HB1020 and SB2343.
The ultra-conservative white lawmakers – who repeatedly deny any racist motives behind their proposed laws – have focused on the contentious battles that sometimes flare up among the Black elected officials of Hinds County and the City of Jackson.
The author of HB1020, Trey Lamar, a resident of Senatobia – a community that has its own problems with the law – in his closing speech of March 30 denounced the Black leadership of Jackson and Hinds County as his defense against being called a racist.
“We’re not going to turn over hundreds of millions of dollars to a city government…whose theme is this: No water; no sewer; no garbage collection; no attempts to collect the necessary fees that operate those systems; no adequate police force because of failure to respect the police force of the administration, and the fire departments, and the failure of the Hinds County leadership to support its own courthouse and its jail,” Lamar said. “Why is there a provision in (this bill) that the commissioner made contracts with the department of corrections in Rankin County, a mere 15 minutes next door to us? (It) is because the conditions in that building are far superior to the conditions of the Hinds County jail, where people sit for days and weeks and months on end without their constitutional rights being heard.”
Another bill adopted by both the Senate and House would not allow the City of Jackson to use a system of water billing based on assessed property value. HB698 was passed by both chambers stating that “municipal water, wastewater and sewer services require equity-based billing based on use.” The bill requires that water charges per household should be assessed on the basis of actual usage and not on the size of the house or property using the water.
That bill could prove to be an irritant for Ted Henifin, the court-appointed third-party administrator of the Jackson water system. The federal court order specifies that Henifin would not be subject to any lawsuit or legal action in his capacity as water administrator for six months. And there is some language in the order that suggests that beyond the six-month period he would also have some leverage with the federal courts in deciding what is best for Jackson’s water system. Federal law prevails over state law in federal-state agreements such as the stipulated order that governs Henifin’s work.
With 41 years as a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Blackmon said the current session was the most depressing session he has ever seen. He looks forward to a fierce legal battle in the federal courts to quash the repressive and racist Mississippi laws set to go into effect in July 2023. There will be challenges at the highest level of the federal government to protect the rights of the citizens of Jackson, he said.