Don’t Just Fight, Build!

by Kali Akuno
The Progressive • March 25, 2017

Kali Akuno (left) with Eros Sana, a leading organizer for racial justice, in Paris, France, addressing a gathering during the UN climate change negotiations.

Kali Akuno (left) with Eros Sana, a leading organizer for racial justice, in Paris, France, addressing a gathering during the UN climate change negotiations.

I work with Cooperation Jackson, based in Jackson, Mississippi, which comes out of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New Afrikan People’s Organization. I bring up both the local and national groups to give you a sense of the broad movement I’m coming from, and also the more specific work going on in Jackson. That’s important because I believe we have to be rooted somewhere firmly on the ground in order to have a base on which to stand, and from which to organize.

After Trump was elected, it took two or three weeks for many people to get out of the fog. There are some losses that we’re going to take in this next period under Donald Trump. We have to get ourselves mentally prepared for that, and do the organizing that is necessary to withstand the assault against what little democracy has ever existed in this country, as they try to take us back to the sixteenth century.

Don’t be confused about what the Republicans are really trying to do. Part of it is about profit. But they also want to make sure that those who were supposed to stay in their respective places get back in those places. And that’s virtually everybody, once you really think about it. Being white is not necessarily going to protect you.  

If you can engage in actions, engage. If you can’t, that’s OK, there will be other times. The question really is, at some point we can’t just mobilize, we’ve got to start organizing. After the first 100 days, people need to sit down and come up with a plan or we are all wasting our time and we are going to be summarily defeated.

We have to develop a serious program and that starts with dialogue—amongst us. On a national level, we have to develop what I call a framework of ungovernability. Fundamentally, that means not giving any legitimacy to Trump, and more importantly, to the neo-confederates, who I would argue are actually far more dangerous than Trump himself.

We’ve got to get ourselves profoundly more organized than we are now. And we are not an organized force. Let’s not kid ourselves. With the unions, with our political parties, we’re not even as organized as we were twenty or thirty years ago. And by organized, I do not mean creating a great Internet platform.

We need to be so organized that you can call me, give me two days, and I can move fifty people, and put them in action on the ground in my community. That’s the level of organizing that I’m talking about. We’ve done it before. And we can do it again. It’s not magic; it’s just a bunch of hard work.

I hear people say, “I can’t believe what’s happening.” But what’s happening now has been happening to indigenous people and black people all along. The older I get, the more appreciation for my people’s history and culture I have, and what my ancestors did to survive this bullshit. I am seeing that more and more as a vital piece we can’t overlook.

I’m glad people have woken up. But understand that it can get worse, and we have to get prepared for that. We don’t yet have a serious conversation between what is left of organized labor and what is emerging as the cooperative movement in this country. We aren’t in deep enough conversation with each other about how as workers we’re going to shape our own future.

Akuno with his son, Tecumseh, at a Fight for $15 rally that he helped to organize at the Mississippi state capitol in 2015.

Akuno with his son, Tecumseh, at a Fight for $15 rally that he helped to organize at the Mississippi state capitol in 2015.

A big part of Cooperation Jackson is based on black reality. Ain’t nobody creating no jobs for us. Those days are long since past. In Jackson, Mississippi, I think the real unemployment rate is easily over 50 percent. I can knock on almost any door in a black, working-class community, any day of the week, and there’s an able-bodied adult, typically, who will answer the door. Any time of day. That gives you a real sense of what I mean by a deep level of unemployment.

That is a challenge, but it’s also a great organizing opportunity.

You have some time and energy. Can we use that to do something collective in our community? Can we bring your skills, time, energy, resources, and talents together with other folks under similar circumstances and transform our reality?

It takes a lot of convincing of people. But we are starting to see some results, getting people to just start doing small things.

Let’s pull together some time and energy to fix the cars and bikes in the neighborhood, to deal with our city’s transportation crisis. Jackson has a few public buses. But we don’t have much of a public transportation system. If you don’t have a car, you can’t get a job or go to the grocery store, and there are a lot of people in that situation.

But that’s an opportunity also for us from an organizing perspective, because it helps us to put people in relationship. I have a car, I have some time. You know how to fix cars, you have some time. Let’s work together and we can create a mutually beneficial system.

How do we create our own kind of cooperative cab company? We are looking into that on a deeper level—how that would fulfill not just a transportation need but a social need in our community.

Rather than see the limitations, we are seeing there’s more space from the decay of late capitalism to actually do some things to push back and start seizing the means of production. That is a big part of our project in Jackson. We call it organizing for “community production.”

The city is in profound debt. We are faced with the threat of losing control of our water system. Our public education system is going to be seized this summer by the state—primarily through the orchestration of state-mandated testing that has changed the goalposts every year to produce the outcome the Republicans wanted.

Our governor is very close to Trump. The Tea Party basically runs our state. Our governor is a member of the Tea Party. There’s a Tea Party supermajority in the legislature in both houses, and also within the state court system. So we’ve been living under the kind of one-party rule that the whole country is now experiencing for six years. We’ve learned a few lessons that perhaps we can impart.

Our governor says President Trump has promised he can do some things for Mississippi that the Army Corps of Engineers has spent twenty-five years saying are impossible. He’s been bragging and boasting since the Inauguration that they’re going to create a whole new water system for Rankin County, which is a predominantly white, working-class county and one of the bases of white reaction in Mississippi.

It’s right next door to Jackson. The county only has 140,000 people. But they’re going to build a whole new water system for them. They don’t even have the density to pay for the system that will be created.

It’s pure politics: Jackson receives much of its annual revenue from the sale of water to the greater metro area. So if you take water away from us, basically you destroy the ability of the municipality to function.

The state is also planning to annex a critical part of the downtown area, where 60 percent of the jobs in the city of Jackson are located in this new district that they’re creating. They will turn that over to the state. And then they want to flood a good portion of downtown Jackson to create a lake, and a casino district.

The long-term objective is to break the political back of Jackson, which is 80 percent black. State Republicans and the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce believe they can take Jackson back politically if they’re able to reduce its current black population to between 60 and 65 percent.

If they are able to reduce the city’s black population to that degree, they will have the power to both split and dilute the black vote. So this is all part of a long-term, coordinated plan and strategy. It gives you an example of what organization looks like. We need to get to that level of coordination, strategy, and organization. Their side can do it, and our side can do it.

Akuno working on the Ewing Street Initiative, which is the first step in an effort to create an eco village in the West Jackson neighborhood

Akuno working on the Ewing Street Initiative, which is the first step in an effort to create an eco village in the West Jackson neighborhood

The Democratic Party is not going to save us. We’ve got to organize something different. It may use some remnants of that old structure, but we’ve got to organize something new to reach the vast majority of those who are oppressed, exploited, and excluded in this society.  

It’s going to take a lot of hard work. But we have to remember that all of the Tea Party folks and Trump only represent a minority from this point forward. That is all they can ever represent. That doesn’t mean they can’t rule effectively as a minority. Look at South Africa to understand how a minority can effectively rule an overwhelming majority.

But if we organize in a different way, there’s a profound new majority which is largely black and brown that we can tap into. That majority is more than willing to be politically engaged, but it doesn’t see electoral politics as the only viable way, or even the most expedient way, to address their real life circumstances.

And so we must think outside the box, those of us on the left, instead of just trying to channel most of our energy into electoral fights.

What are the other things we have to build? How can we actually build power in our communities and organize people to exercise that power? People’s assemblies are one way, cooperatives are another. But that’s not all. 

I would argue that we should give as much time to the building as we give to the fighting. And we must give equal time to actually sitting down in our communities, having meetings with our neighbors, whether they agree or disagree with us. And constructing a real political and viable program going forward. If we don’t, Trump is going to be the least of our concerns.

This is a hell of a time. I think we should embrace the fluidity of the time, and not be afraid of it. If, like me, you consider yourself a socialist, it would have been hard to believe a few years ago that we could publicly identify ourselves as socialists in so many places. But that space is now open, and it’s one we need to seize. We can’t let this moment pass or fade. Because there are millions of people out there looking for alternatives.

This is a very fluid moment. It may look bleak. But in the end, the other side has a few economic things, levers they can pull which shouldn’t be underestimated. But we know they must resort to force to keep this thing together. And that’s a losing strategy. So let’s seize the time and opportunity. Don’t be weary. Get to work.