‘Freedom is a constant meeting’: An interview with Kali Akuno

By Frances Madeson
Facing South
June 30, 2023

July 1 looms.

It’s the day SB 2343 becomes Mississippi law. Unless a court intervenes to block its implementation, the law will significantly expand the powers of the state-controlled Capitol Police force throughout Jackson, the state’s majority-Black capital city. A Republican supermajority has extended the force’s jurisdiction from the blocks of state buildings surrounding the Capitol to include most of Jackson. Public gatherings within the Capitol Complex Improvement District, including protests at the Capitol, will require an additional layer of written permissions secured in advance. Many in Jackson view the law as the latest expression of reactionary right-wing sentiments, and the state’s hostility toward the majority-Black city. 

That includes Kali Akuno, a co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, who has called the Capitol Police force an “occupying army.” Cooperation Jackson is now in its tenth year of piloting cooperative economic projects in West Jackson, modeling a solidarity economy and alternatives to capitalist extraction. 

Akuno predicts this additional layer of law enforcement will have three major effects: the erosion of municipal power, which in Jackson is effectively Black power; the capture and diversion of federal infrastructure funds that are finally flowing towards the city; and puncturing the vision of Jackson as a stable home for Black working-class families. All of these outcomes would undo the work of former Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who Akuno followed to Mississippi and whose son is the current mayor, towards self-determination and liberation for African-descended Black people living in the South — termed New Afrikans by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement Lumumba helped lead. Akuno says SB 2343 is “the Empire striking back.”

Facing South interviewed Akuno at Cooperation Jackson’s ninth anniversary celebration in May, which featured a book discussion about the newly published “Jackson Rising Redux: Lessons on Building the Future in the Present,” co-edited by Akuno and Matt Meyer. The book, published by PM Press, is an anthology of essays detailing the liberatory intentions and practical strategies behind Cooperation Jackson’s campaigns. Akuno is alert to the imminent dangers to his community and deeply analytical of the other side’s vulnerabilities. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. * * *

What was the road not traveled? What did you not do in order to come to Jackson?

In 2012 I had an offer for a United Nations-related job, which in some respects would have been somewhat ideal for the family. My daughter was approaching one year old when this offer was made. We were to be posted in France for three years, which I wanted for her, because her mother is Haitian-American and she’d be able to continue to speak French with the family. The other thing was that it was a $200,000 job, including housing and health care.

So it was either that or come to Jackson and work on the Jackson-Kush plan, a wild idea we’d been floating around. Even my mom was like, “You going to Jackson, you going to Mississippi, rather than Paris or Geneva, are you crazy?” And eventually, I was like, yes, I’m very crazy. I’m going to go work on this. This is what I’ve been planning on trying to do all of my adult life. I don’t think I made the wrong call.

Elected office wasn’t something Chokwe [Lumumba, former councilman and mayor of Jackson] had in mind; me and Kamau Franklin [a longtime community organizer and the founder of Community Movement Builders] really pushed him on that. I had a solid notion that he could win. I think if I would have left, I would’ve felt like I’d left some unfinished business and that would have been a void for me. 

Even in the hard times, I’ve always come back to, good, bad or indifferent, the notion that if I’m a partisan in the New Afrika struggle, I’m in alignment with what I’m trying to do. Nobody said it was going to be easy. 

Why is Jackson’s decline in population so worrisome to you?

There’s a good number of folks with construction skills, young folks and more middle-aged folks, who were core members when we started, who now live in Houston most of the time, because after Hurricane Harvey, there’s been work. Before the pandemic, a good construction worker here might make $20 an hour. But people were making $30 to $40 an hour off the top right after Hurricane Harvey. It’s hard to argue with “stay here and make $15 to $20” or “go there and make $40.” Most people are going to choose to make $40 in the system we live in. So we’ve been aware of that for years, that that was a kind of outdraw.

But it wasn’t till those 2020 census numbers came out that we realized it’s a problem for the overall political framework and project of the Jackson-Kush plan. You have to imagine that in the first round of folks who are leaving are those primarily Black folks who could afford to, and there’s a section of them who are supporters of elements of our broader vision and program, and them not being here weakens the project. They’re not just bodies; it’s their skills.

It’s been one of these challenges — like when, around 2016, we made a pivot away from just trying to be an engine of job creation to more of a body that focuses on improving the quality of life. We came to that decision from having some academics do an analysis — from construction to auto repair to farming, how many jobs could we theoretically create? The figure that really came back was that you’re talking about at most something like 10,000 jobs. Now creating 10,000 jobs in Jackson is nothing to sneeze at. But recognizing at the time, the objective need was 50,000 jobs.

That’s when we realized we’re going to have to figure out how we improve the quality of life utilizing what is available — which is time. If you have a lot of skilled people who are underemployed or unemployed altogether, who have a lot of time, maybe we could start trying to see time as an asset. If we can construct relations where people can engage without having it all being monetized, a time banking type system, then we can improve overall quality of life. So that was a theoretical advance for us.

But the problem is that it takes time to build a culture and a level of trust amongst people where, if I do an hour of cooking, I can get from this network of time banking some plumbing work done on my house or some childcare support. I’ve been very concerned — do we have enough time to be able to create something that would enable people to stay in town and further build this political project and pursue this mission? 

Watching a certain kind of decline in the city has been very real and visceral to me and the water crisis is specifically a singular point of crisis. But the breakdown, the kind of collapse that we witnessed last August and September, that really just escalated things to a new level. And we’re now, I think, at a point where in the city, not having the resources on its own to immediately fix the problem winds up becoming an existential threat. Folks are going to have to start making some rational choices, particularly those with young kids. Can I stay here, should I stay if I’m drinking lead in my water?

Short of a major municipal insurrection, there’s nothing any local politician could do on their own to correct this. And given these dynamics, I think a lot of folks who probably could put the resources in and who have the name recognition are probably staying out. They don’t want to take on this job. The mayor and city council are going to have to unite to be able to take on the state. If the divide continues to play out, then Jackson is fucked.

It’s nice to turn the faucet on and know that the water’s gonna come out. We want people to have confidence if you flip that switch, the electricity is going to come on. But we have to recognize the state chooses to turn these things off, or they choose not to fix it. We have to get to the point where we’re not totally subject and prey to their choices. 

How do we do that? We build resilient rainwater systems, we do community solar, we amplify these things, so people understand they do have alternatives. Now is a time to put forward the cumulative experience we have over nine years and demonstrate the things that can be done.

It costs so much to move, just the economics of it. If we could capture that money, all these individual people, and have some portion of it being devoted into establishing these systems, that would make such a huge difference.

Can you trace the Jackson movement’s ideological progress?

On the Left, we have wonderful, abstract theories that, for most of the last 30 years, we haven’t been able to operationalize and put into practice. But in Jackson, here’s a place where we’ve been able to put some things into practice because the municipality as a site of struggle is one where, if organized in a concerted fashion, oppressed peoples and working-class forces can have a maximum impact. I think we’ve proven that is true. But we’ve also proven that it comes with some profound complications. 

Unity is something that constantly has to be constructed. It cannot be assumed. And I think early on, we just made a lot of assumptions without understanding that my agreement and your understanding may be profoundly different. The clarity that you actually need to pursue things with other folks in this kind of contest for power is essential, and the struggle for clarity winds up becoming paramount. 

We constantly have to revisit agreements with each other. How are you seeing this? How are you understanding this? How are you living with this? What is the impact of these decisions upon your life, your mental state, how you see things advancing? The nuances within all of that are difficult to navigate and that’s where subjective thinking comes in, even if you ask people direct questions — “What do you think? How are you moving on this?” But then their subconscious fears led them to act differently.

Cooperation Jackson was set up to do a particular set of things, but there’s been turnover. Our work is built on a lot of agreements and, within that, presumptions, but they’re more than nine years old. If you’re just entering into the work, and you weren’t part of why we made certain choices and decisions, why we do certain things and don’t do other things is not necessarily clear. It’s like, you’re asking me to hold the line that I wasn’t even here to experience. 

Visions can be profoundly undemocratic in a particular way. You’re being asked to uphold something that you didn’t actually have a hand in constructing. So how do you constantly do these acts of co-construction? This is a deep piece around democratic practice that our movement is going to have to figure out. We want to hold a certain kind of line, but also be flexible to learn new things, bring in new people, experience new things, but without shaking some foundations or deviating. 

There’s an old Mississippi phrase: Freedom is a constant meeting. That’s no lie. You constantly have to revisit things over and over and over again, and that’s where I will say personally, it’s made me more patient. We have to allow for uneven development because people are going to grasp different things at different points in time. 

To return to your question, I don’t think the ideology we’ve articulated has profoundly changed. But I think all of our collective understanding of it has gotten a lot deeper.

As I was parking I talked to an unhoused man who told me they had tried to cite him for jaywalking. There are hardly any cars on the road at all. It would be comical except getting one of these fines is unaffordable and the consequences of not paying may not be funny at all.

In the chapter [from “Jackson Rising Redux”], I write about us being aware of the history of the forces of the right, and why we wanted to be municipalists and have a level of engagement with police. To cut their sharp edge, but also that they could be used as a force potentially against a more reactionary force. 

The Jackson Police Department is not happy with the Capitol Police now coming in, riding over their territory. There’s some beef. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. But at least for me, as a strategist, I’m now very keenly aware you can play it; you can play a division there. They’re not on the same page and they might unite on a certain level against me. But there’s a split here around power and authority that can be highlighted, that can be elevated, where we can intervene in some critical ways, and we’re gonna have to figure out how to do that.

I imagine having a record of your development and struggles laid out in “Jackson Rising Redux” can be a great tool in bringing people to a shared understanding.

I can’t tell you how many times I get a phone call, “We want to do the Jackson-Kush Plan and we want to emulate Cooperation Jackson,” and I tell them “You can’t,” and people get mad and want to know why? 

Because we developed something based on the space, time, and conditions of where we were. I can come give you advice about our experience, but I don’t live in Atlanta, or Milwaukee, or Chicago. So I don’t have the knowledge that I have here. You have that knowledge, so you have to do that. All I can do is point out how we analyzed our situation, but you’re going to have to take up those tools and analyze your own situation and come up with the formula that fits. We can tell you, “watch out for these pitfalls” or “go deeper here.”

Some folks recently hit me up and said, “You told us not to do that, and it worked out exactly how you told us.” And then I said, “‘I gave you warning, I don’t think you did your homework, but I’m still gonna ride with you because you clearly had the determination to move forward. Now, can you develop that determination actually and be a little bit more patient, learn, study, go talk and rap with some folks and build with them?”

There’s a deep culture within the United States of anti-intellectualism that seeps into so many things. We exist in a period where we have more access to knowledge than any other generation in human history. But the ability to discern all of that information is probably at the lowest. It’s this weird dichotomy of yes, there’s more out there, but there’s also just more bullshit, more clutter. Some of the conspiracy theory stuff is innocent people trying to make sense of the world and just putting together what they know. But there’s also corporate sabotage and government deception. There’s a level of work that you have to do to be able to make certain decisions.

During our co-op training, one thing we run into time and time again is when we get to the financials and into spreadsheets, that’s when a lot of people kind of freak out. And I’m like, “Look, you have to know this, at least on the level of being able to read your books. If you let somebody else do your books, that’s your choice, but you need to know how to read them. Otherwise, they can rob you blind.” I’ve told people, “If you let me do your books, I’m just robbing you. Let’s see if you figure out where you were shortchanged, how this number was moved, how this is income, describe why this debt was here.” How would you know, unless you go through that?

The deep thing is, as much as we clamor for democracy, democracy is a time-absorbing effort. This is an ideological point for the Left. Do we really want democracy as we claim we do? Are we developing the habits to get us there, to make informed decisions, to have a true, mature democracy? Because otherwise decisions are being made by default. 

Here’s another serious question. Do we want to move with purpose? I ask it because it’s a big problem that we don’t move with enough intentionality at times. Part of that is we don’t actually trust in our capacities. 

Where it shows up most critically now is that the bourgeois order is collapsing; they don’t really have much of a plan. They’re as short-sighted as we are. But because they own most of the world’s resources, and the institutional processes which govern those resources, they get to experiment at the level that me and you don’t. But that doesn’t mean they’re clear on what they’re doing. If we’re clear on what we’re doing, we can exert much more of a strategic impact, and move and act with confidence. We don’t do that enough. 

Our belief in our own capacity is fairly low. I think it’s unwarranted, and that’s something that we’re gonna have to really challenge. 

In my speeches I’m really trying to focus in on some profound things that happened during the pandemic that we are letting slip from our view. Number one: We all lived through a universal basic income experiment. They didn’t call it that, they refused to call it that, but we lived through two years of that, and it worked. Probably worked too well. And inflation is an effort by capital to snatch back the gains. I’ve been a climate justice advocate for most of my adult life, and, basically since 1992 we’ve heard that the global economy is too big, too complex. But we saw in March [2020] they shut the whole thing down. So that was an absolute lie. 

When there’s political will, there can be profound transformation. All the things we all experienced should give us confidence: We can press for this, we can move in this direction. We started the pandemic in the midst of a presidential debate where Bernie Sanders, and I will credit the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] at the early part of the campaign, raised the question again about universal health care. We ended the pandemic without universal health care, and ended up with a right-wing conspiracy theory against vaccinations.

At the launch, Matt Meyer said that “Jackson Rising Redux” is a book to read and study together. There’s one reading group in Los Angeles, and maybe three or four others? Are you participating in any way? 

Yes. I’ve been asked to come into a couple of them at this point. Rather than a lecture, I’d like to do a question-and-answer session.

I really always try to hone in on, what are the elements that you already have, that you may be undervaluing, or don’t see? Because if you’ve called us for some thoughts on a project, that already tells me that you’re at a certain level. The thing that keeps us going is strong relationships. The institution is only a reflection of that, to build a level of capacity within the relationship. 

The book and the book tour give us an opportunity not only to share what we know but also to learn more from what’s going on in the world and bring it home to Jackson. Some of the tech stuff, these organizing apps people are putting to use, is mind-blowing.

You must be so curious to see what uses readers will make of your insights in their personal politics and movement engagements. For me, it burned in the notion of the need to practice democratic relations. Without that, we’re nothing.  

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been called for the wrong thing. Mainstream press will hit us up and they want to focus in on electoral politics. You’re missing the story of how we learn to transform relationships. That’s the deeper part, the harder part, the more unseen part. It’s the more non-sexy part, but that’s actually the core of the work. So if you want to do a deep dive in that, we welcome it. But not this obsession with state power, as opposed to organizing processes.  

The critical piece of this book is, hey, we’ve learned a few things we want to impart. So at least make different mistakes. Let’s take all these tools and these ideas and let’s scale them up. The framework and orientation we laid out in the book is more practical now than ever.