Ebola, Poverty, and Racism

by Thadeus Pato

September 6, 2014

The problem

The Ebola Virus is not a new discovery. It is named after the river Ebola in Congo, on whose banks it was discovered in 1976. This first epidemic there caused about 300 fatalities. Since then there were repeated outbreaks of the disease in different African countries, the last biggest ones 2007 in Uganda and again in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ebola virus basically is not very problematic from an epidemiological point of view. Transmission works exclusively through the contact with the body fluids of the infected persons or animals – in contrary to the influenza virus for instance, which can also be transmitted though air – so it is relatively easy, to protect oneself.

Additionally the virus is very sensitive to environmental influences, it dies immediately outside body fluids, and cannot penetrate skin which doesn’t have lesions , but enters exclusively through the mucous membranes (i.e. mouth, nose, eyes) or through open wounds. If this virus was as contagious as the influenza virus is, we had to count with hundreds of thousands of cases already.

But the virus nevertheless is dangerous, because the mortality of the infected population is very high – depending of the genotype of the virus between 50 and 80% – and because so far a reliable remedy or a vaccination are not available.

Actually the virus, a so-called RNA-virus, is not “made“ for human beings. No germ, virus or parasite kills such a high percentage of its host and so quickly – it likes to multiply, not to die out. The original hosts of the viral agent are most probably certain species of bats – the transmission to human beings and certain wild animals like antelopes or monkeys is basically a kind of “accident“.

The protection against a transmission between people, as we have mentioned, is basically quite simple. This is one of the reasons, why the past epidemics had been limited and contained quite fast.

Epidemic and sociopolitical situation

Why did the Ebola virus did spread so rapidly across West Africa, after the outbreaks of the disease in the past have been relatively limited? There are number of reasons, which have not much to do with the virus itself, but a lot with the situation in the respective countries. Generally one can say, that epidemics are spreading in poor (and densely populated) countries much easier and faster. Liberia is in the HDI (Human Develoment Index) on number 174, Sierra Leone on 177, Guinea on 178, and Nigeria, where the situation still is (more or less) under control, on 153.

Firstly, medical infrastructure is not very reliable. In Sierra Leone after the civil war between 1991 and 2002 the medical system was almost completely destroyed and in some parts of the country simply doesnt exist. The situation in Liberia is similar.

Secondly, certain suggestions of preventive measures fall on deaf ears in the population – and not without reason. If one wants to impede the consumption of so-called bush meat ie of wild animals including bats, which are a major means of transmission of the virus, education and recommendations wont have any effect, as long as the people do not have affordable alternatives to feed themselves. This is the case especially in remote areas.

Thirdly the level of education plays a very important role in the fight against any epidemic. And this level is very low in all of the affected areas. That promotes all sorts of myths, in the best case senseless ones, in the worst dangerous ones.

In Nigeria for example in the beginning of August, after the first cases (imported from Liberia to Lagos) occurred, a recommendation was spread through social media, to bathe in salt water and to drink it as a measure of protection against Ebola. In spite of immediate official denials lots of people believed it and did so. The result was numerous hospital admissions because of severe diarrhoea and at least one death.

The case of the Nigerian minister of health, Prof. Chukwu, proves that even responsible officials are affected by all kinds of wrong information: He announced publicly on August 15, that Nigeria would import a „new drug“ against Ebola. It turned out, that this was simply so-called “Nano Silver“ (in the Nigerian press written “Nano Silva“), a substance, which is presently used as surface coating for washing machines and as additive in clothes, for instance socks, to kill bacteria, but is completely useless respecting the treatment of a systemic viral disease.

Fourthly – and this is to be seen in context of the previous point – a big part of the population simply does not trust the announcements of the authorities, and there are good reasons for that, as we have just proved.

Fifthly the necessary measures to fight the further spread of the disease (i.e. isolation, quarantine, restrictions of mobility) are not or not sufficiently implementable for various reasons. Besides the lack of infrastructure, the (already mentioned) desperate condition of the health facilities and the common mistrust, widespread corruption is playing a key role, especially in Nigeria: Border restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the virus can be bypassed by bribery.

And sixthly the mortality rate amongst people with a particular disease is generally higher in poor countries. The question whether somebody can survive Ebola depends not only on the virus, but crucially on the state of someone‘s immune system, that is on the power of resistance of the individual. If you imagine, that the average life expectancy for instance in Sierra Leone is between 48 and 49 years, and the infant mortality rate 159 out of 1000 births, it becomes clear, that the virus is particularly lethal amongst such a weakened and undernourished population .


If we consider the way the so-called international community is dealing with the present Ebola-epidemic, one can`t resist the impression that racism is playing a central part. Affected foreigners are not treated like the local population – the latter have to stay in the local, underequipped facilities and is not evacuated to special units in North America or Europe. The recently released experimental therapies are only available in limited quantities and therefore is to ask the question of distributive justice – if they really work.

Anyway the pharmaceutical industry took a chance. It had a unique possibility, to bypass the usually necessary long testing procedures before the release of a new drug, and to start large-scale experiment on human beings; immediately starting the machinery of production. Whether this will be helpful in combatting the virus is questionable. First, practically all (working) antiviral drugs have a considerable potential for side-effects, and secondly, it would not be the first time (remember the scandal around so-called swine-flu), that such a strategy causes more damage than benefit. But in any case it will be good for profits!

The same applies to the development of a vaccine, which until now was happening very slowly – given that the main target group is not very solvent at all. But now the international guild of professional helpers from the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation (who have their own interests which are not only humanitarian) raised the alarm, donations are rising rapidly.

This does not mean that it would be better to do nothing. But the present emergency measures, the legions of helpers and epidemiologists who are now dealing with the problem, will not change anything about the above mentioned reasons for these kinds of disasters. And therefore before and after the epidemic many more people will die as result of the consequences of simple, treatable diseases, malnourishment and lack of hygiene, than of Ebola.

Notabene: Ignorance, hunger and malnourishment have a decisive disadvantage compared to a virus disease: They are not contagious and so they cannot be imported by plane to Europe or North America. Otherwise they would be fought as fast and consequently like it is done presently with the Ebola virus……

Thadeus Pato is a leading member of the German RSB (Revolutionär Sozialistischer Bund – one of the Fourth International organisations in Germany) and member of the Bureau of the Fourth International. He is a hospital doctor.

Reap the Whirlwind

by David Finkel

June 18, 2014

“WE HAVE TO liberate ourselves from the idea that we caused this,” says Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, referring to the present disaster in Iraq. The first question this raises is why anyone would ask for Tony Blair’s opinion on anything. George W. Bush, at least, seems smart enough to hide out in a bramble patch on his ranch and say nothing.

Of course, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 with Britain’s support “caused this” – by creating the al-Qaeda outfit now called ISIS, by setting in motion intercommunal warfare that wiped out most mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods, by ultimately replacing the horrific Saddam Hussein dictatorship with the sectarian, corrupt and bumbling regime of Nouri al-Maliki.

What next? Despite frantic media headlines, ISIS will not capture Baghdad or Shia strongholds, and Kurdish forces will halt its expansion in the north. How long ISIS rules the Sunni heartlands depends mainly on how long the population tolerates its terrorist cruelty. Its savage massacres of captured soldiers, as well as Shia civilians, are clearly intended to provoke reprisal killings and force a Sunni-Shia civil war that the vast majority of Iraqis don’t want.

Whether Iraq survives as a country is harder to predict, and in any case effectively out of U.S. hands now. If there’s one thing that can make the crisis even worse, and increase the chances of Iraq’s disintegration, it’s a new U.S. military intervention. Bombing Iraq would show that Washington has learned nothing from its war that “caused this.” We’ve already reaped the whirlwind – don’t let it happen again.

Excellent ongoing coverage appears on the al-Jadaliyya website. For a statement of the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq, click here.

Read about the poisoned legacy of “embedded journalism.”

David Finkel is a Solidarity member in Detroit, and an editor of Against the Current.

Can Big Oil Retake Richmond?

by Steve Early

June 4, 2014

On a weekday evening in mid-April, retired autoworker Mike Parker, a community organizer in Richmond, California, was among the concerned citizens signing up to speak at a local planning board hearing. The topic was a much-delayed refinery “modernization plan” that the city’s largest employer, Chevron, claims will make its 112-year-old facility cleaner and safer.

Local critics of Chevron, including Parker, rallied before the meeting under the banner of grassroots groups like Communities for a Better Environment. Also on hand, but in smaller numbers, were representatives of Contra Costa County building-trades unions who support the company. They want Richmond to approve the $1 billion project, with few questions asked and no conditions attached, so that 1,000 new construction jobs will be created as soon as possible.

Mike Parker, mayoral candidate for Richmond

This being an election year, the Chevron officials in attendance paid close attention to what Parker had to say. That’s because, several months ago, Parker announced his own plan: to run for mayor as part of a citywide slate of progressive candidates that includes Gayle McLaughlin, the current mayor and nationally known California Green, who is prevented by term limits from running for re-election as mayor and will run for city council instead.

“The proposed way that Chevron wants to run its plant is unacceptable,” Parker, 73, told the planning board. He pointed out that the modernization project will increase “both local toxic emissions that damage our health and greenhouse gas emissions that damage our planet.” Why, he asked, “would we, as residents of the community, accept more pollution so that Chevron can use dirtier and cheaper oil to make another $500 million in profits every year?”

This is not the kind of talk that brightens the day of Chevron managers, either in gritty Richmond or at the corporate headquarters in upscale San Ramon. That’s why Richmond watchers see a big battle brewing over its future as a much-heralded “progressive city.” For seven years, McLaughlin and her city council allies have tried to change Richmond with a movement-style mix of idealism and activism. Backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a coalition of grassroots groups and activists, McLaughlin’s administration has mounted brave challenges to powerful business interests, from banks to Big Oil. Now, as municipal elections loom in the fall, the business community—led by America’s third-most-profitable company, Chevron—wants to make a political comeback by defeating those who’ve curbed its influence.

Nat Bates, one of Parker’s two business-friendly opponents in the race for mayor, laid out the corporate calculus. “Chevron has been under attack by the RPA, and they’re going to protect their turf,” he said. “If modernization is denied by the RPA, you better bet Chevron is going to favor someone with more sensitivity and compassion for what they’re trying to do.”

Chevron has long dominated local politics. But it claimed center stage in this year’s election after a big explosion and fire ripped through the Richmond refinery in August 2012. A dozen workers were nearly killed and more than 15,000 East Bay residents sought medical attention. Cal/OSHA imposed a $1 million fine because of the company’s negligent pipe maintenance practices. Chevron pleaded no contest to six charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay $2 million in fines and restitution. Thousands of individual claimants and local hospitals were reimbursed to the tune of $10 million, according to the company. Since then, questions about refinery and related railroad hazards, industrial pollution, and Chevron’s role in the community have been much debated.

On the first anniversary of the accident last summer, McLaughlin and the city council spurned a $10 million settlement offer from Chevron; instead, they filed suit seeking greater compensation for the additional damage suffered locally (such as Richmond’s $1.8 billion post-fire drop in assessed property values). A day later, McLaughlin welcomed 2,500 people to a rally in front of the refinery, where speakers like Bill McKibben of 350.org linked the local struggle for refinery safety to the national campaign against global warming.

The 2012 Refinery Fire

Such unflinching advocacy has been a hallmark of McLaughlin’s tenure. A social activist since the 1980s, McLaughlin, 61, has been elected mayor twice, each time with the help of the RPA. Since its founding in 2003, the RPA has grown from a small core of registered Democrats, Greens, and political independents into a combination membership organization, electoral campaign apparatus and year-round facilitator of grassroots organizing.

During McLaughlin’s two terms, Richmond has begun to shed its old reputation for gangs, gun violence and drug-related crime. The city of 100,000 is 80 percent nonwhite, with one-fifth of its residents living in poverty. In recent years, it has gained national attention for creative initiatives on behalf of low-income workers, homeowners, and other victims of corporate misbehavior. Lately, Richmond has been debating whether to set its own minimum wage. Business lobbying is leading to many exemptions opposed by progressives, but if Richmond’s measure gets final council approval, the city’s minimum hourly wage will rise to $9.60 next year and $12.30 by 2017.

Richmond also created a municipal ID card for undocumented residents and passed a “ban the box” ordinance to reduce job discrimination against those formerly incarcerated. To increase public safety in high-crime neighborhoods, Richmond’s popular top cop, Chris Magnus, has employed much-applauded “community policing” methods. Most famously, the city threatened to use its powers of eminent domain to block home foreclosures and seek debt relief for holders of underwater mortgages.

Not every RPA-backed reform has panned out. A proposed penny-per-ounce levy on sugary drinks to fund public health and recreation programs was rejected by voters in 2012, after the beverage industry spent $2.5 million demonizing the idea. (Mexico proceeded to adopt the same approach, as a nationwide anti-obesity and public health measure, last year.) Other setbacks have included the defeat of RPA city council candidates two years ago and successful legal challenges to fair taxation of business, including Chevron. Federal pre-emption imposes another curb on local regulatory initiative, preventing city officials from taking action, for example, on the hazardous “crude-by-rail” now coursing through Richmond. (In March, city council members did call unanimously for a Congressional ban on rail transport of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota until stronger safety rules have been adopted.)

Despite much favorable out-of-town publicity, even the daring anti-foreclosure program, called “Richmond Cares,” has run aground temporarily. Big banks and local real estate interests launched a multi-pronged scare campaign raising doubts about its feasibility, impact on property values, and consequences for the city’s bond rating. Hundreds of residents mobilized to keep the initiative on track last fall, but city council support was renewed only by a 4 to 3 margin. Other cities have yet to join the effort and, in Richmond itself, the trigger of eminent domain can’t be pulled without a five-vote city council super-majority.

With much work still to be done on this and other issues, the RPA is determined to maintain its catalytic role in City Hall. The Alliance has pulled together a slate of candidates that includes not only McLaughlin but her equally outspoken vice mayor, Jovanka Beckles, and Eduardo Martinez, a retired schoolteacher. And, of course, it has tapped Parker to run for mayor. A key RPA organizer who spent thirty-two years as a union reformer and skilled tradesman in Detroit, Parker now works as a community college instructor in industrial electronics. As mayor, he hopes to expand opportunities for similar job training so that more of Richmond’s young people will qualify for better-paying jobs.

But getting elected will not be easy. Arrayed against Parker are two well-known Democrats, both members of the city’s African-American community and much better financed. (Parker is white.) One is Nat Bates, 82, a retired probation officer and the City Council’s longest-serving member. As a foe of the soda tax and reliable friend of Chevron, Bates and two council candidates aligned with him benefited from hefty corporate largesse in 2012, including $1.2 million worth of “independent expenditures” from Big Oil and $2.5 million from Big Soda. When he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2010, the police and firefighters’ unions who backed him spent heavily on ads claiming that McLaughlin had been treated for depression and was overdue on her student loan payments.

Also running for mayor this time is Charles Ramsey, 52, an attorney who serves as board president of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. He is positioning himself as a “consensus builder” who understands that “being adversarial and strident doesn’t necessarily move the agenda forward.” Ramsey has already raised nearly $100,000 from contractors and building-trades unions who value his support for “project labor agreements.” Local building-trades allies of both Ramsey and Bates back Chevron because of its use of union contractors.

In this year’s election, like previous ones, the RPA slate is alone in refusing corporate cash. This not only sets them apart from other candidates but also leaves them at a distinct funding disadvantage, despite Richmond’s modest system of public financing. (Candidates can get matching funds up to a $25,000 limit.) Banking and real estate interests are expected to weigh in heavily, eager for payback. “I think the eminent domain program will dog the candidates who backed it,” predicts Jeffrey Wright, past president of the local realtors association.

But the biggest money player is and will be Chevron. While few campaign finance reports for 2014 have been filed yet, liberal city council member Tom Butt contends that the scale of Chevron’s recent spending has been “unprecedented.” A local architect and frequent non-RPA ally of McLaughlin, Butt even questions why Chevron’s $15 million investment in community programs last year has had such “an ostentatious air about it.” While doling out money to create good will among cash-strapped non-profits, the company has spent much larger sums on advertising that just “reinforces the perception of Richmond as a company town,” he argues.

“For much of 2012 and even into 2013,” Butt noted, “all the billboards of Richmond’s main streets were dominated by Chevron ads for its preferred City Council candidates. Then they were replaced with the visages of smiling Chevron employees touting the company’s dubious safety record…. Chevron appears constantly on TV and radio. There is nowhere you can go to escape the Chevron logo.”

In response to e-mail queries, Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie lamented that “our critics continue to focus on the amount of money that we spend to educate voters about the best possible candidates for the Richmond City Council.” All financial support for individual and “independent expenditure” campaigns is lawful and fully reported, Ritchie said. She did not, however, provide details about Chevron’s expenditures.

To counter the expected corporate propaganda war against its candidates, the RPA plans to do more door-to-door canvassing this year than ever before. One target group is Latinos, who progressives are trying to reach, in part, through a monthly bi-lingual newspaper, called La Voz de Richmond, co-edited by Argentine immigrant Juan Reardon, a founding member of the RPA. The RPA slate has also picked up endorsements and some donations from Bay Area unions, including those representing Richmond city workers, rapid transit employees, and healthcare personnel at Kaiser Permanente.

On the stump, Parker has been blunt about what’s at stake for the city this November. “Chevron wants to retake the City Council,” Parker warns. “They want to sit down and negotiate with people they have already bought and paid for. That will be the main issue in this election: whether Richmond voters want to elect representatives who owe their allegiance to Chevron or to residents of the city.”

If the mayor’s office is lost, Richmond will still have a community-minded police chief; a highly effective city manager, named Bill Lindsay; and some liberal or progressive voices on the City Council. But its current innovative direction would certainly change under Ramsey or Bates. The bully pulpit used by McLaughlin to promote many important causes would become a platform, once again, for an older-style municipal leader more eager to please the powers that be. And Chevron will be back pulling the strings, just like it did during Richmond’s prior existence as a well-oiled company town.

Steve Early is author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. He is currently working on a book about political change in Richmond and belongs to its city-wide Progressive Alliance.

This article was originally published in the June 9 – 16 edition of the Nation.

Fred Ho, Presente!

by Brad Duncan

May 23, 2014

Saxophonist, composer, and revolutionary Marxist activist Fred Ho (1957-2014) was a dynamic and prolific force within Jazz and radical left movements for over 40 years. A baritone saxophonist inspired by the avant-garde currents in African-American music, Ho despised the term ‘Jazz’, considering it an insulting term for a powerful tradition. [Editor’s note: An article by Fred Ho on the revolutionary content of jazz music appeared in Against the Current 159.]

As a Marxist Ho embraced and drew inspiration from the revolutionary movements against colonialism that swept the world in the 1960s and 1970s, from Vietnam to the U.S. Black Liberation Movement. He brought explicitly socialist and radical left politics in to his performances like no other working saxophonist during the era of his wide-ranging music career, which formally began in 1985 with the LP “Tomorrow Is Now” (Soul Note).

After years struggling to thrive as a working avant-garde musician and even more years as a hyperactive Marxist cadre with a history in real social movements, Fred Ho’s approach to his 2006 cancer diagnosis was no less determined than you might expect. He battled cancer head-on, with sometimes unorthodox methods, and in public so that others might learn from it, essentially applying lessons learned by guerrillas and leftist insurgents to his fight against cancer.

Fred Ho

Birth of a Third World Marxist

Born Fred Wei-han Houn in 1957, Ho (who changed his name in 1988) took up the baritone saxophone as a young teen after being exposed to live performance by key African-American avant-garde musicians such as Archie Shepp and Don Cherry relatively early in life. The son of Chinese immigrants, he understood American racism even earlier.

Ho became a political activist during the twilight of the New Left, yet in a period when radical movements against racism and oppression were still a considerable presence in many communities. The waves caused by the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Brown Berets touched youth of color across the U.S., including a young Fred Ho.

The first group that Ho felt had a sufficient understanding of white supremacy was the Nation of Islam, but Ho was not a member for very long. He was quickly moving towards Marxism, the experiences of the Chinese revolution and the leftist-led insurgencies against colonialism and neo-colonialism happening across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Ho joined I Wor Kuen, one of many young Marxist-Leninist organizations that emerged from the New Left period. IWK’s mostly Asian-American members organized in cities on both coasts. Eventually it merged with another POC-led Marxist-Leninist group, the August 29th Movement, rooted in the Chicano movement in the Southwest, to form the League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist). Not long afterward the Revolutionary Communist League, led by poet Amiri Baraka and formerly known as the Congress of Afrikan People, merged into the LRS, a POC-majority Marxist-Leninist group from its inception.

During the 1970s social movements led by Asian-Americans swelled across the country, from the bitter fight to save the International Hotel in San Francisco (inhabited by many elderly Asian-Americans) to struggles against police brutality, against the horrific working conditions faced by immigrants, and against U.S. imperialism in Asia. I Wor Kuen was one of many Asian-American groups to embrace Marxism; others included Wei Min She, J-Town Collective, East Wind Collective, and the Union of Democratic Filipinos.

Forming His Sound Downtown

Ho studied Sociology at Harvard but resented its Eurocentrism and shameless elitism, so he headed straight for New York’s vibrant and eclectic downtown music scene of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The “Free Jazz” explosion of the 1960s, largely forced back underground, continued to thrive in a network of informal NYC venues known as the ‘loft scene’. Ho also found many open-minded saxophonists and other collaborators far outside the fringes of the “Jazz” world, including in the concurrent post-punk scene.

By the time that the influential Italian record label Soul Note released two LPs of his work in 1985, Fred Ho was emerging as a unique composer, improviser and live performer. His sound could evoke the most delirious, big band-inspired work of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and increasingly used themes, ideas, and instrumentation from across Asia.

For 30 years Ho helped define a Pan-Asian current in modern music, with elements of both traditionalism and irreverent experimentation, but much more of the latter. He also recruited many Asian-American musicians to participate in his bands and recordings; founded the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble, Asian-American Art Ensemble, and the Asian-American Jazz Festival (1985); and was the driving force behind many projects that featured Asian-American musicians interacting with radical Black music.

His baritone sound was always extraordinarily muscular, even by the commanding standards of the instrument. He drew from thick, earthy tones of baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, tenor David Murray, and other artists from St. Louis’ Black Artist Group collective. He studied Sam Rivers and the key “out” players in New York, in addition to the endless lessons he took from the compositions of Duke Ellington.

Ho regularly composed layered works with a narrative, reminiscent of suites by Charles Mingus. He seemed to build bridges between the avant-swing of Sun Ra, the militant poetics of the Black Arts Movement, and the operatic displays of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Ho also became a skilled clothing and costume designer. On stage and off, Fred wore unthinkably bright and unique garments that he made in his studio. His bands and orchestras also wore his creations, which vividly mixed traditional Chinese fabrics with African patterns and designs.

League of Revolutionary Struggle

In the early 1980s, just as the Marxist-Leninist ‘party-building’ movement of the 1970s was all but collapsing, Fred Ho’s League of Revolutionary Struggle was actually growing. Whereas many Maoist-influenced groups had waned in their enthusiasm for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party after the death of Mao, LRS remained firmly “pro-China.”

The LRS was also very clear in its continued support for the right of national self-determination of oppressed peoples including inside the United States, including African Americans (Black Belt South) and Chicanos (Aztlan, the Southwest). LRS threw itself into student activism too, investing serious cadre hours in the exploding anti-apartheid movement on campuses in the mid-‘80s.
The organization’s newspaper Unity was professional-looking and, importantly for the radical left in a period of steep decline, outward-looking. Fred Ho contributed significantly to the organization’s vibrant cultural publications and brought its message of revolutionary socialism and national self-determination to venues and audiences that might never read a Marxist journal or attend a small meeting, but whose ears were open to a dynamic performing artist.

Both Fred Ho and Amiri Baraka were committed to the idea of bringing the avant-garde to the masses of working people, both committed to making radical art that is genuinely useful to revolutionaries. In many ways it was the movement that Baraka helped initiate, the Black Arts Movement, that first opened Fred Ho to political art. Fred left the LRS at the end of the 1980s, not long before the group finally burned out.

After the Party

Over the course of the next decade Fred was sometimes an independent Marxist activist, and sometimes a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a group formed in the mid-‘80s by veterans of the 70’s Marxist-Leninist left. He edited a special issue of FRSO’s Forward Motion titled “Asians In Struggle” (1995), which looked at Asian-American activism across the United States.

Fred’s politics continued to evolve, too. Radical feminism became increasingly central to his political vision, as did radical environmentalism, thereby pushing past the boundaries of the previous generations of Marxists.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Fred Ho edited a number of extremely important books, both on radical Asian-American history and on the revolutionary potential of music. In addition to these works, Ho authored many articles on these topics for movement publications and journals throughout his last two decades. This intellectual work stands as one of his most lasting political contributions.

Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America (2000), co-published by AK Press and Ho’s own Big Red Media imprint, brings together essays on the history of Asian-American radical activism in the 1960s and ‘70s, including I Wor Kuen and Wei Min She, with interviews with movement veterans such as Yuri Kuchiyama and younger activists. The book stands as essential reading for anyone studying Asian-American of U.S. New Left history.
Sounding Off! Music As Subversion/Resistance/Revolution (1995), published by Autonomedia and co-edited by Ho, includes essays on the intersection of music and liberation movements around the world. The books also includes Ho’s essay “’Jazz’, Kreolization and Revolutionary Music for the 21st Century” in which he details his opposition to use of the word ‘Jazz’ and its roots in white supremacy and national oppression.

Ho also edited and contributed to a number of books that look at the cross-pollination of Asian and African diaspora radicalism, including Kickin’ the White Man’s Ass: Black Power and Aesthetics and the Asian Martial Arts, AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics and AFRO/ASIA: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African and Asian Americans (2006).

Musical Legacy

Fred Ho’s work as a composer was always refreshingly ambitious; he favored big, complex compositions about big, complex political issues. He wrote operas about women who fought against patriarchy and imperialism by any means necessary; he wrote layered saxophone suites about political prisoners and neo-colonialism. Some of his most righteously political (and artistically important) recordings include “We Refused to Be Abused” (1987), “Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes” (1998) and “Warrior Sisters – The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors.”

The latter is an opera about an imagined meeting between three women from African and Asian history who took up arms against colonists, and together “they jailbreak the imprisoned Assata Shakur and set out to form a matriarchal guerrilla army to destroy patriarchical-capitalist imperialism.”

His work “All Power To The People! The Black Panther Suite” (1999) combined video and martial arts ballet, while “Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!” (2005) mixed radical feminism with imagery taken from Japanese manga comics. His conception of radical Afro-Asian musical activism never stopped evolving.

Fred Ho went to remarkable lengths to fight cancer, which he detailed in Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level (2011). Fred also spent an extraordinary amount of time in his final years to win freedom for Black liberation political prisoner Maroon Shoatz, including co-editing Maroon the Implacable (2013). Shoatz was removed from solitary confinement and released into the general prison population — an important victory for Shoatz and supporters — just months before Fred Ho lost his battle with cancer.

Fred Ho was an iconoclastic performer and composer, with an aesthetic vision as unique as his politics were militant. He once described his new genre of far-out Afro-Asian music with radical anti-imperialist politics as “Mau Mao.” No one ever seriously attempted to classify Fred Ho’s remarkable body or work, but perhaps that self-label says it all.

Brad Duncan is a member of Solidarity in Philadelphia. He discusses music and radical politics on the “Old Mole Variety Hour” on KBOO in Portland, OR.

Jackson Rises to Face New Challenges

by the Editors

May 12, 2014

“Free the land!” is the rallying cry of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). The struggle for control over land—whether by maroon communities escaping enslavement, families and sometimes whole communities seeking independence from the plantation after the Civil War, or small farmers today fighting economic ruin and displacement–has always been a central component of the Black Freedom Struggle. Much less well known is the important role of cooperative enterprise in this same struggle for land and self-determination. As Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s Collective Courage documents, worker co-operatives and other forms of cooperative enterprise have been present in every phase of Black history in America, fostering economic independence and communal solidarity while influencing important movement leaders including W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Baker, and many others. Today cooperative enterprise and communal solidarity are at the heart of an emerging movement in Jackson, Mississippi led by MXGM.

Voices of Jackson Rising: organizers speak about local efforts.

The population of Jackson, like much of the southern Black Belt, suffers from poverty and marked capitalist underdevelopment. Jackson is shockingly hollowed out as a city. Among the first indications of the infrastructure crisis that one sees when entering the city are the fire hydrants that are left open periodically to flush the water system of “iron and other sediments.” The infrastructure (roads, water treatment, waste disposal, the buildings themselves) are at a level of dysfunction that can really only be compared to Detroit among contemporary U.S. cities. There is practically nothing open in the whole downtown area except government buildings, and there seems to be no area in the city that has been spared the same fate.

Mississippi is the heart of Deep South white supremacy; throughout U.S. history, radical changes in the political and economic climate of Mississippi reverberate powerfully throughout the region and the entire U.S. Whether one considers the consolidation of the most radical wing of the slaveholding plantocracy in the push for Confederate secession, the development of sharecropping as a means of subordinating Blacks to the plantation system after the Civil War, or recent political trends of white vigilante violence and union-busting legislation, Mississippi and the South as a whole have been in the eye of the storm. However, Mississippi holds an equally central place in the history of the struggle for Black self-determination, from the Union League movement during Reconstruction to Freedom Summer and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (later the Black Panther Party).

This past weekend, May 2-4, some 400 individuals gathered in Jackson to discuss and support a movement to build a solidarity economy in Jackson based on democratically operated worker co-ops. What is a co-op? What does it take to start one? What will it take to build a solidarity economy in Jackson and throughout Mississippi, driven not by profit but instead by human need? What can we learn from cooperative movements in Venezuela, South Africa, and Zimbabwe? These were among the questions eagerly discussed at the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference, an historic gathering of social movement leaders, co-op worker/owners, co-op federations, Left organizations, and other individuals coming together around a common vision of co-operative development.

The opening plenary at the Jackson Rising: New Economies conference. Around 400 people attended the event.

While the movement to form worker co-ops in Jackson is just beginning, the initiative is building on decades of organizing in Jackson by MXGM and their allies. While the tragic passing of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba shortly into his first term leaves the cooperative movement in a harsher political context, other MXGM-initiated projects may provide the support needed to begin implementing their vision for cooperative development. Among the most important part of Lumumba’s campaign and his time in office was his commitment to following the lead of the Jackson People’s Assembly.

In their Jackson Plan: a Struggle for Self-Determination, Participatory Democracy and Economic Justice, MXGM describes the People’s Assemblies as “vehicles of Black self-determination and autonomous political authority of the oppressed peoples’ and communities in Jackson.” They operate on the principles of participatory or direct democracy “wherein there is guided facilitation and agenda setting provided by the committees that compose the People’s Task Force, but no preordained hierarchy.” The Jackson People’s Assembly was instrumental in electing Chokwe Lumumba to office but strictly maintained their political independence from the administration.

In the community of West Jackson, residents have already begun building a model of MXGM’s vision for cooperative and community development. Among the first major initiatives of the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson (CCNWJ) was the founding of a one and a half acre community farm, a cooperative housing network, and a community center—the Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination. While projects for small-scale community self-sufficiency can languish if they remain isolated from political struggles and broader movements for structural transformation of society, CCNWJ is building durable community infrastructure for MXGM’s political base in Jackson while combatting fatalism and despair.

Saladin Muhammad of Black Workers for Justice speaks about the need for a united Southern organizing strategy: “Part of the problem is the right wing has always factored the South into a national strategy; the left hasn’t.”

These projects are impressive, and the Jackson Plan as a whole laudably ambitious, but it must be acknowledged that the loss of power in city government has been a tremendous setback. Many of the projects in Jackson relied in a strategy of dual power—grassroots power through the People’s Assemblies and other forms of working class self-organization, state power through the Mayor’s office and the rest of the coalition assembled by Chokwe Lumumba—and half of this equation is now missing. Forces in the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, in the state Democratic Party, and even among capital which were conditional allies of the Lumumba administration are now siding more firmly with a neoliberal agenda in opposition to all aspects of the Jackson project.

Chokwe’s son, Chokwe Antar, made an impressive effort on short notice in the special election for a new mayor, winning 46% of the vote with only 4-6 weeks to campaign and no prior name recognition as a candidate aside from association with his father. Chokwe Antar won 68% of the Black vote, but only 10% of white voters, and the much higher voter turnout among white voters arguably made the difference. As MXGM members made clear, most poor and working class Black people in the city understand the problems with the system, they just don’t see electoral politics as a real avenue for change or for meeting their immediate needs.

All of this suggests a need for reflection and re-evaluation, but this is certainly not time to abandon the project or cease support for it. Organizers in Jackson need support now more than ever. Their project is unique and impressive, and represents an opportunity not just for building toward Black and working-class power in Jackson, but for the whole U.S. left to learn important lessons about how to wage these struggles nationally. We encourage everyone to learn more about what’s happening in Jackson, and to consider supporting the project financially and/or by visiting the city and volunteering your time and energy.

For more reactions to Jackson Rising, please read the following:

The Changing Character of May Day in the US and Heterogeneous-Populist Movement Forms

by John B. Cannon

May 3, 2013

I am fascinated by holidays, how they are received, and how that changes over time. I suppose my interest lies at kind of a juncture of cultural studies and something you might call political theology. I first developed this interest in El Salvador, where I lived in 1997. There, the use of a calendar of holidays both Catholic and secular, broadly recognized in society and contested, was used there as something of a starting point for ongoing cultural / political debate. I suppose that happens in the US too to some extent; I notice it a lot more now, with the existence of social media, than I did before. But in El Salvador the layering of a liturgical calendar and a secular calendar was much more obvious. I suppose my starting place is that holidays always have something of a liturgical character – there are words we are supposed to say and actions we are supposed to perform. And those liturgies are contestable, either in whole or in part: we should celebrate it like this, not like that, or not at all.

May Day in the US is a very interesting example. What follows is anecdotal and impressionistic, so I’d be interested if anybody has arguments to the contrary. 10 years ago, hardly anyone celebrated it except for lefties – and not even a lot of lefties, but the real history buffs, a population that overlapped with membership in the IWW and CPUSA quite a bit. I remember in student activist, union organizing, community organizing, and to my memory even soft/post Trotskyist scenes, talking about May Day would cause most people in the room to roll their eyes. May Day was a day for a few historically minded anarchists to try to do something, the CP to have a barbecue, and everybody else to carry on with whatever.

The Day without an Immigrant in 2006, which Wikipedia informs me was also called the Great American Boycott and a couple of other names, was the fundamental turning point. Immigrants, many drawing upon May Day traditions in their countries of origin, in which May Day is Labor Day or International Workers Day, organized a day of action, and for the next several years, May Day was reborn as a day of action for immigrant rights.

A side effect of this seems to have been a refurbishing of the cachet of May Day in left activist circles of all sorts. I couldn’t prove this, but the refurbishing of communism as an idea in communization circles and the student movement of 2009-10 may have taken it up from a different side. And perhaps Occupy refurbished it too, though Occupy didn’t exist on May Day 2011 and was nearly gone by May Day 2012. So if Occupy refurbished it, it was not the literal movement activity of Occupy – the encampments, the actions – but a broader change in public thinking and feeling that were occasioned by Occupy.

Today it seems that most of the actions organized on May Day in the US have to do with immigrant rights – and this is more the case this year than it was last year, where immigrant rights groups and parts of Occupy tussled over having permitted / non-permitted actions in Oakland (and possibly a couple of other cities?). The actions this year seem relatively small (again, in the US). But the rhetoric around May Day this year, at least what I’ve been seeing discussed, is not mostly about immigrant rights; nor is it explicitly anarchist or communization-oriented, though of course people who are into those things are posting about those things. Instead, it seems to be a fairly broad heterogeneous-populist* broad left message, much as the message of Occupy was broad and heterogeneous in this way. On May Day, it seems as though the broad substrate of mass sentiment that existed during Occupy hasn’t really gone anywhere.

An interesting example of this: I’ve seen a bunch of people criticizing Obama for issuing his Loyalty Day proclamation. Evidently in California it is also Law Day. The thing is, May 1 has been celebrated as Loyalty Day / Law Day for a hell of a long time. Apparently the president has been issuing a proclamation for it every year since 1958. It is a horribly craven, messed up tradition, and I’m glad people are challenging it. But it is interesting that the chorus of challenges seems to be much higher this year than in previous years. This year, people seem to be saying: no, it’s May Day, what the hell, Obama? This holiday is about workers rights, and your signing a Loyalty Day proclamation shows just how anti-worker you are. I’m sure a lot of us thought stuff like that in previous years, but we were just too tired to say it. We felt more inclined to barbecue or watch old movies about when May Day mattered. It’s interesting that it feels like it matters this year, even though nothing especially momentous is happening on the streets.

A quick note on heterogeneous-populist forms: I know that many people will bristle at characterizing these movements as “populist” on the level of broad sentiment which identified with them, but I do not think “populism” is necessarily reducible to its majoritarian, electoral forms, much less the kinds of majority-race, right-wing “populisms” we saw in the 90s. It seems to me – and this is an idea that needs to be developed at much greater length elsewhere – that what we have been seeing develop in the past 15-20 years in left-oriented social movements at least in the US hearkens back in some ways to heterogeneous, spasmodic, populist, but often minoritarian forms of the 1870s-1890s – and here I’m thinking of the organizing and direct action “populism” that happened in this period, maybe even moreso in Europe than in the US, rather than the People’s Party or the Greenbacks or whatever. This would be one way to think about the Global Justice Movement, immigrant rights, the 2009-2010 student movement, and Occupy: as episodic “street” high points which are related in some way to a broader public sentiment which has kept going and been kindled by these moments.

Revolutionary and reformist poles do not appear opposed to one another within this arena with the same kind of fixity they had in left movements of the 20th century. Of course people identify as revolutionaries and as reformists and have critiques of one another, but the critiques often lack any lasting programmatic, let alone sociological, coherence. This partly has to do with the lack of coherent programs of either sort, reformist or revolutionary. Reformist programs tend to call for a return to Keynesianism, in a context which lacks both the material basis for and the political blocs which articulated Keynesianism. Revolutionaries are struggling with questions of how to organize, beyond celebrating episodic upsurges, hoping for a mass radicalization based on spreading enthusiasm on the streets and disgust at police repression, tailing reformism, or replicating bureaucratic, uninspiring forms of organization. Underlying this: movements of the 20th century were often based around strong union movements or a working class who had been radicalized in union struggles. In the US today, the unionization rate has returned to pre-CIO levels, and pockets of militant struggles have not been sustained enough to produce anything like a radicalized layer of the class.

Contemporary struggles and movements have a more “populist” shape, as opposed to the rather fixed social-democratic and Leninist revolutionary forms that dominated much of the 20th century. But this populism is not homogenous in any direction. It includes minoritarian struggles as well as ones which are construed as majoritarian. It includes revolutionary and insurrectionary impulses as well as impulses to reform the definition of corporate personhood, achieve a slightly more livable immigration law, reform the banking system and the WTO. Its episodic nature also contributes to this heterogeneity; social groups and tactics which are all the rage one minute can be sidelined or forgotten the next. One moment hope waxes, and it seems that we are in an era of possible deep change; quickly this hope wanes, and the only deep change afoot seems to be environmental destruction, ever-deeper forms of austerity, and increasing commodification of the means of life.

A lot of what I’m saying here is obviously not new, but thinking around questions that a lot of people are asking. Heterogeneous populism may be a somewhat different way of framing it. I should also make clear that my identifying these different poles as extant poles within a broad movement sentiment doesn’t mean that revolutionarily inclined populists and legal reform oriented populists should just like each other and get along because they are part of the same movement or the same broad category of sentiment. Sharp debate can be good, and to be clear, some ideas are just awful or not worth pursuing given the current balance of power.

I do think there is an implication here, though, that we are kind of stuck with each other in this heterogeneous-populist boat in some sense for a foreseeable mid-term future. Our ideas don’t make that much sense without reference to each other. Revolutionary parties which are close to the sect form are not going to tend to be very vibrant in this time period; or they will become more vibrant to the extent that they become a more incoherent combination of their sect form and an open engagement with the broader, populist milieu. This incoherence will be their knife’s edge. Anarchists and left communists walk a similar if less stark line between organizing their own activities and salting broader movements. On the other hand, it’s not clear that NGOs and the program of global, green Keynesianism can accomplish much without reference to these episodic movements which oftentimes are organized around a vision of the world which goes well beyond their own bounds and ambitions.

There will be efforts and impulses to separate off from the populist morass and clarify our politics, and these efforts may play a key role in developing at minimum a new round of tactics; at maximum, a strategic, organizing orientation that could outlast the next burst of tactical fetishism. These efforts will always be partial to the extent that no objective movement in the world-historic sense can clearly be seen to be unfolding. So, it will probably be better to draw the lines of separation in pencil, or whatever the 21st century equivalent may be.

P.S. There’s a related question about whether and how US forms will be influenced by other developments around the world, which developments will hold the most resonance for us, how that will resound, etc. The political development of US movements is obviously not cordoned off, since all four of the movements I mentioned above, the Global Justice Movement, immigrants rights, the student movement of 2009-10, and Occupy were transnational in some way. The GJM, student movement, and Occupy could all be described as US-specific aspects of a broader, cross-national movement or political meme. While the immigrant rights movement has been a little more nationally specific in its para-legislative conditions, immigrants political traditions and experiences from elsewhere have figured heavily into the organizing. It would be easy to imagine that another movement / situation will arise where a particular political conflict / crisis in the US will intersect with the popularity of a meme or fetishized tactic or resurgent confidence in an idea which has a multi-national character. But beyond this, it would be necessary to look at international developments in much more depth.

Independent Politics and Self-Determination: An Interview with Chokwe Lumumba

from the editors of Against the Current

April 21, 2013

We present this discussion with Chokwe Lumumba to inform readers about a project combining community organizing and electoral efforts in a changing South, “under the independent banner of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party” as explained in the section on 2013 electoral campaigns in The Jackson-Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Prosperity.

“The objective of running these candidates and winning these offices is to create political space and advance policy that will provide maneuverable space for the autonomous initiatives promoted as part of the J-K plan to develop and grow. They are also intended to be used to build more Ward-based People’s Assemblies and Task Forces in Jackson, base build for the overall plan, and raise political consciousness about the need for self-determination and economic democracy…

“In order to create the democratic space desired, we aim to introduce several critical practices and tools into the governance process of the Jackson city government that will help foster and facilitate the growth of participatory democracy” [to include Participatory Budgeting, Gender-Sensitive Budgeting, Human Rights Education and Promotion for city employees, a Human Rights Charter, Expanding Public Transportation, Solar and Wind-Powered Generators, and a “South-South Trading Network and Free Trade Zone” to partner with the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) — ed.]

Chokwe Lumumba is a candidate for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. He has served as an independent City Council member in that city. He was interviewed for Against the Current by Robert Caldwell, who began by asking Lumumba to explain his political activist background in both the North and South.

Chokwe Lumumba speaks to the media before a demonstration to free the Scott sisters, whom he also represented in court.

Chokwe Lumumba: I’m one of eight children from a working-class family in Detroit. My mother and father supported participants in the Selma-Montgomery March and other civil rights actions. They helped raise money and had guests at our home who came to visit and speak in the Detroit area.
My mother’s side of the family originally comes from Alabama, so they were very familiar with conditions in the South and they made me very familiar with it.

I went to Kalamazoo College where I became part of the Black Student Movement.

Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The day after, I joined with the Black Action Movement at Western Michigan University, which is right across the street from Kalamazoo College. Then we formed, at Kalamazoo College, a Black Student Organization. So we were part of the Student Movement when there was a whole lot of youth organizing across the Midwest.
Shortly afterward I became part of what I consider to be a self-determination movement for our people. I worked in the provisional government of the Republic of New Afrika from about 1969 until sometime about ’84.

I have also been a leader in the National Black Human Rights Coalition, which is part of the human rights movement. We marched on the UN under the leadership of Queen Mother Moore and some others in 1978 or ’79. I’ve been very active on a community level, particularly around youth, organizing anti-crime patrols, fighting against police brutality, marching against the KKK. This has been my activist work.

Since it was formed in 1984 I’ve been a member of the New Afrikan People’s Organization. That organization launched the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) in 1990, and I’ve been a member of it too.

I’m a human rights attorney and I have fought for many political prisoners all over the country, working for people who have been caught up in racial or political prosecutions.
Some of the people I’ve defended include Assata Shakur. I represented one of the brothers arrested after the rebellion in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles. I also represented Bilal Sunni Ali and Fulani Sunni Ali, who were accused of being involved in the Brinks case as well as Mutulu Shakur from the Brinks case. I represented Tupac Shakur for three years.

I’ve handled a host of successful cases that are significant because of the history of racial conflict and white supremacy here in Mississippi and Alabama.

One was the case of a young man accused of killing a white man who had beaten and pistol-whipped him. In other words, the white man had pistol-whipped the young Black fellow, but when the Black fellow defended himself and killed the white man, then he was tried for murder.

In another case I represented a young Black fellow who was possibly the youngest person in Mississippi ever to be charged with capital murder; he was 13 years old at the time.
I also represent people not only in criminal cases, but in fighting against job discrimination, such as at Frito Lay, and sexual harassment cases as well.

ATC: How did your background in the movement for all these years lead to your successful election to the Jackson City Council? Is that part of a movement strategy?

CL: That’s a two-part question. Number one is why would I run and how does that relate to the folks I work with — particularly MXGM — deciding that we should run somebody for the City Council.

Should we run? We didn’t want to give credence to an oppressive system… But we’re in a city that’s 85% Black, in a county that’s 70% Black, and in a region where 17 of the 18 counties are predominantly Black.

So we adjusted our strategy to account for the fact that people with whom we are organizing in good faith, to fight against the conditions that they are experiencing, should be entitled to put people in office and expect them to do what they wanted them to do.

We decided it was important that we run for seats, and pick those where there was a high probability we could win. So we ran for the City Council.

I think we got elected because people had an experience with us. Over 20-25 years we have been in this community fighting against various injustices. We’ve always done this in coalition with others — never just by ourselves. We were never interested in sole credit. So we developed trust over the years.

Now when I landed in Mississippi there was one Black on the police force, and he could only arrest Black people. Police brutality was rampant. Actually there were COINTELPRO [a notorious FBI program to infiltrate Black, antiwar and other opposition organizations — ed.] and Red Squad [local police — ed.] operations trying to destroy the Black movement. Our opposition to that behavior helped get a police department that today is largely Black. We created the momentum that eventually elected the city’s first Black mayor. We were very much involved in a recent campaign to elect the first Black sheriff.

Photo copyright Jacob D. Fuller, Jackson Free Press

The Jackson-Kush Plan

ATC: Could you speak about how this growing electoral work and your campaign for mayor is part of an overall strategy?

CL: Our plan is essentially a self-determination tactic and strategy for African people in America, particularly and specifically in the areas which are affected by the plan. We call it the Jackson-Kush Plan, because Jackson is the city that we’re in and where we are running for mayor in May 2013, while the western part of Mississippi is the Kush District. [The Jackson-Kush Plan can be found online here — ed.]

From Tunica, which is in the northwest part of Mississippi, all the way down to Wilkerson County in the southwest, are 18 contiguous counties. All are predominantly Black, with the exception of Warren County which is 47% Black.

We’re fighting for the self-determination of that region. This type of self-determination is strategically or tactically tied to enhancing other fights of self-determination in other areas of the South.

We’ve often heard of the Black Belt South [the historic term of reference to agricultural regions in the Deep South with majority Black population — ed.], but hopefully self-determination is not only in the South. It will inspire movements of self-determination intelligently laid in other parts of the country.

ATC: Have you developed particular forms for expressing self-determination?

CL: We have created a People’s Assembly (PA) as part of our strategy in organizing our movement. The People’s Assembly is open to the people in the area. At first we held a PA in Ward 2 because I’m the Councilman of Ward 2. Now we’re expanding it to cover the whole city of Jackson.

People can voice their complaints but more importantly, try to take control over planning for city government. This can be a base for organizing. We want it to become an alternative source of governing. What we’re doing is building an infrastructure for a liberated people.

ATC: If successful, what you are reaching for is an assembly that could use its organizing base regardless of who is in electoral power?

CL: Yeah, that’s an extremely important point because having me in the Council seat does not ensure that people have control over the City of Jackson. Having me in the mayor’s seat wouldn’t ensure that our people have control over the City of Jackson.

When I say our people, I’m talking about Black people, but more. Hispanic people and even white people have a right to have more of a voice in their city than they do. We have to see that he who controls the purse strings often controls politics.
A system that is built on white supremacy, a system which is based upon capitalist exploitation, is not a system which is gonna save people.

At this point, it’s extremely important that we have an alternative form of decision making for our people. Ultimately, the system is an alternative system. Whether it happens by some kind of conversion of the City Council and the mayor of Jackson or whether it happens independently, it’s the People’s Assembly that could save us.

The People’s Assembly can reflect the objectives and aspirations of a people. It embodies an alternative, but it’s a small alternative. Of course this tool will have to take on the City of Jackson, the county, the state, the federal government.

ATC: How did the idea of the People’s Assembly came about? What are the antecedents?

CL: There are several antecedents to the People’s Assembly, but the most important came out of the 2005 Katrina movement. When Hurricane Katrina occurred, it destroyed the infrastructure of people on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular. We called for a Survivors’ Assembly, which got to be known as the People’s Assembly.

We gathered survivors from Katrina all over and held a meeting in Jackson. We organized it in Jackson because although it was affected by Katrina, it wasn’t as devastated as the Gulf Coast, and 600-700 survivors showed up.

We then proceeded to New Orleans, where we had about 5,000 or 10,000 people. Five thousand marched to demand that survivors be able to take control over city government in New Orleans. Through the struggles of Katrina, which went on for several years, we realized that this effort and this way of assembling and providing people with the space to speak was powerful. We didn’t have to haul in the big-time names to speak. One of the basic principles of the People’s Assembly is that the people must speak.

We then adapted that method for use in the Jackson area itself. We said “Look, we’ve done it with survivors, let’s make a People’s Assembly specifically for Jackson. Let’s gear it toward a bigger effort — exercising some control of the region.”

ATC: Earlier we talked about how your election to City Council and now your mayoral run is possible because of the results of movement building. Is this campaign itself being framed as a movement-building effort? What is the relationship of the campaign building toward what the Jackson-Kush Plan talks about, an independent Black electoral formation, perhaps even an eventual independent Black political party?

CL: The campaign depends upon the support of the people. But we’re not saying that in order to vote for Chokwe you have to believe in an independent party. Instead we say that in order to vote for Chokwe, you should believe that we’re moving toward a form of independence from the kind of oppressive things that we’ve had in the past; we’re moving toward a people’s form of government.

Of course we do have to confront this question of what’s going to be an independent political party. What do we want to do to rescue us from the parties that currently exist and the malfeasance which they have toward our people?

That is a discussion particularly for campaign workers and those who get very close to the campaign. We do make reference, however — and this is important to note — to the Freedom Democratic Party of Fannie Lou Hamer. That’s what I’m a member of.
We do raise the idea that when the system is not giving you what you need, you have to break loose like Fannie Lou and seek something different. But that’s where we are in talking about an independent political party with other relevant organizations working on the campaign.

One other observation: In Mississippi you also have to look very carefully at what can be done to seize hold of the Democratic Party here and see if it can be turned into something. In Mississippi the Democratic Party is probably 80% Black already. It also has been very much affected by Fannie Lou Hamer’s movement. It’s totally independent from the reactionary politics that the Democratic Party pursues on the national level.

Fannie Lou Hamer, organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaks before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 22, 1964.

However there’s two things that are important.

When Fannie Lou Hamer came on the scene, there were no seats for Black delegates. When they challenged the Democratic Party here, they forced it to have 50% Black and 50% white, 50% women and 50% men. Right now, Black delegates represent 80% of the party.

The structure of the party is very weak. If a progressive movement wanted to take hold of the structure, and they felt that that was the best move, I think that’s an important consideration. In order to run as a candidate in the Democratic Party in Mississippi, there is no litmus test.

So understanding the need for a strong party, do we want to seize hold of the Democratic Party and convert that into what we need or do we want to build something totally independent? If we decide to build it independently, then the People’s Assembly also exists as the ground floor for that movement. So we have some options. We need to consider those and we understand that as workers in the movement, we don’t make those decisions independently of the people.

You really do have to take a look at the folks that are involved here on the ground. Where we think that the people are slow, often they’re ahead of us. We have to realize that Mississippi has more Black political officials than any other place in the country. And that has involved a fight against racists.

All I’m saying is that building an independent political party is something that we, as an organization, feel is important and has to happen. But we cannot come in and declare an independent political party for the people. We have to declare an independent political party with the people.

Overcoming Dependency

ATC: What are the most critical issues confronting the African community in Jackson? If elected mayor, how would you attack the problems? How much power do you think you would have? What would be your objective limitations?

CL: We’re 85% of the population in Jackson — and this is characteristic of the whole state of Mississippi — but we only own 15% of the businesses. This defines the rest of our reality. The white elites call the shots; they define where the resources go. Their economic strategy is to gentrify the city, not empower people.

This map outlines the Kush district in the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). The RNA was an organization that formed in the late 1960’s to establish a free nation-state of Black people from U.S. states and counties with sizable Black populations.

ATC: Does this strategy also include the Black corporate elite?

CL: Yeah, these are the ones who feel that, for some reason, they’re gonna be included in the gentrification. They don’t feel they will be disregarded. They usually have a close relationship with the gentrifying forces.

The level of conversation around gentrification has not manifested itself as acutely as in Detroit, but the tension is there. White flight is still continuing at this point. There are forces definitely trying to do their best to run Black people out of the city.

We have to find a material base in order to reverse dependency. Where we can get a hold on the governmental apparatus, we can use it reverse this trend. Infrastructure becomes critically important: We have to make sure that we use the resources we have, with more emphasis on repairing infrastructure.

We need to make sure that the businesses we repair reflect some of our economic goals. We’re not looking for big-time manufacturers from other parts to come in and bring 85% of their workers from somewhere else. When they leave work at the end of the day, you know, the money walks out with them.

We have to look at cooperatives and the gardening movement. We have to look at the healthy food movement. We’ve really got to look at who we hire to do things, to pave roads, to straighten out the drainage, to fix bridges and the other infrastructure which is in bad shape in Jackson, just as it is in virtually in every city in the country.

What we have to do is to put more money into the hands of the working class who live in the city. This will give them more power to determine what businesses will exist in Jackson. That’s a material way to complement our political objectives.

ATC: The editors understand from speaking with Bill Chandler from MIRA (Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance) and others, that the political balance in Mississippi is shifting, as you said, but that voter suppression and bureaucratic obstacles to voting have been a serious problem as recently as the last election. [See “Voter Suppression Hits Mississippi” by Bill Chandler in ATC 163] How do you see voter suppression playing out in Jackson?

CL: This is probably less of a problem in the Jackson election, the mayor’s election, than it will be as we expand into other parts of the Kush District and other parts of the state.
Generally speaking, in Jackson and in much of the Kush District it is difficult to really make much of a difference in local elections where 85% of the voters are Black. But our objectives are not limited to Jackson. Our objectives are not even limited to the Kush District.

Ultimately we’re talking about expanding self-determination, expanding human rights. We’re talking about expanding socially and economically just systems throughout the state. And when you talk that talk, then voter suppression becomes a very real response.

I think Bill Chandler and MIRA have been involved on the state level. In the last election a Black brother from Hattiesburg ran for governor. Mechanisms of voter suppression were used to defeat him.

Any kind of statewide office that you run for, those things will be very much involved, the larger the Black and Latino population gets to be. There is a natural coalition between these populations. In addition there are not a great number of Asians, but you have some.

There is also a whole new group of whites coming into the city. They are coming to work at various educational institutions and they are an important addition. Today you have more than just the Black schools here in Mississippi. You have Millsaps College, Bellhaven College in Jackson itself, and then some other schools outside Jackson.

Today there is a medical corporate structure that controls the city. And there’s an expansion of hospitals and medical centers. It’s happening all over the country as well, but with a bigger impact in Mississippi and in Jackson because of our economy.
We have to reach the young people who are coming here to work. We have to show them enlightened forms of politics and economics so they won’t be subservient to the corporate structure. We have to see whom we can mobilize and organize from a human rights point of view, from the point of view of supporting the self-determination of oppressed people.

Some of these folks are pretty young — they will be a little more sensitive to what we’re talking about and a little more reachable than some of the folks who may have grown up here.
The problem we have with folks that grow up here, even though there are some good people, is that there is a pervasive culture of white supremacy. Some have risen above it while others have altered its forms. But it’s still a reality, a very strong reality.

When Obama ran for president in 2007-08, you could predict the vote on the basis of the Black or white population of the county. If Obama got 40% of the vote, you were in a county where Blacks were 40% of the population. If Obama got 50% or more, you were in a majority Black county. If he got less than 50%, you were in a majority white county.

Even though Mr. Obama has a lot of problems, the reason why most of these white folks were objecting to him had nothing to do with the reasons why we object.

Empowerment North and South

ATC: Although you’ve lived in Jackson for quite some time, previously you were active in Detroit. What observations might you make about the struggle for social justice and especially for Black political empowerment North and South?

CL: The biggest parallel is the fact that both struggles for self-determination galvanized the Black population to fight for electoral offices. In the City of Detroit there was a great deal of success. In an 85% Black city, the City Council, the Mayor’s Office, the School Board all became predominantly if not all Black.

That was true even of the judgeships in Detroit at one point — until the state decided to take over Detroit’s own Recorder’s Court and merge it into the county system, thereby diluting Black strength. But before that happened, 25 out of the 30 judges in Detroit were Black, which certainly had great impact.

Something similar is happening in Jackson and other counties in Mississippi that are predominantly Black. The difference, I believe, is that in Mississippi there are so many contiguous Black-majority counties that you have more of a material base to change economic dependency into some independent and cooperative effort.

That’s a critical difference. In the City of Detroit, as they say, once you’ve passed Eight Mile Road (the city boundary) you were in a different kind of place, with a different population. Even in Detroit, you had a place that was totally controlled by the automobile manufacturers. What ultimately happened in Detroit had a whole lot to do with the way that those businesses operated.

I think the same thing is true in Mississippi in terms of the big businesses located here. However, I think that there’s more of an alternative in Mississippi in that there’s more space to develop something else, a larger landmass and a larger population too.

I might also add that here in the South we’re also very close to South America, to many nations which themselves are predominantly Black or have a large Indian population. They are a population formerly oppressed, and still facing oppression. We expect that the progressive movements from those countries will assist us, will move us in the right direction. I think that’s important.

ATC: How can people find out more about your campaign, about the plan, about the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement?

CL: I want people to become part of this campaign, if they can, from where they are. We don’t expect to be the people with the most money in this campaign. We are the people who are gonna do the most work — but money will help make sure that we get out our campaign ads, and that will help us get the votes we need.

You go to our website and read the People’s Platform. You can become much more informed about what the campaign is really about. I think we’re the only one here with a platform that we’ve published, which is on the website and is called the People’s Platform.

You may want to come down and help us on Election Day or before Election Day. We hit the streets every week and often during the week.

ATC: When is Election Day?

CL: Election Day is May 7, 2013. We want to get as many of you down as we possibly can. We invite your support, and hope and pray that you will give it to us.

Contributions to the Committee to Elect Chokwe Lumumba can be sent to Committee to Elect Chokwe Lumumba at 440 North Mill Street, Jackson, Mississippi 39202. Or visit the website: ElectLumumbaMayor.com. You can make a contribution by using the PayPal button on the website. You can contact our campaign office at 601-353-5566.

This interview will appear in the May/June 2013 Against the Current #164.