In Mississippi’s Capital, Old Racial Divides Take New Forms

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi’s struggling capital has been a favored target of Republican leaders since the G.O.P. took total control of the state a decade ago. But perhaps none of the slings and arrows flung at Jackson has provoked as much outrage as the one the state House of Representatives loosed earlier this month.

Legislators approved a bill that would establish a separate court system for roughly one-fifth of Jackson, run by state-appointed judges and served by the state-run police force that currently patrols the area around Mississippi government buildings. For the neighborhoods it would cover, the entire apparatus would effectively supplant the existing Hinds County Circuit Court, whose four judges are elected, and the city-run Jackson Police Department.

The proposal might be less provocative if not for the inescapable context: More than eight in 10 of Jackson’s 150,000 residents, as well as most of its elected leaders, judges and police officers, are African Americans. The proposed court system, and the police force, would be controlled almost exclusively by white officials in the state government.

Atop that, the new courts and police patrols would serve neighborhoods that contain the bulk of Jackson’s white population. The city’s Black neighborhoods would largely be skirted.

For many prominent Jacksonians, this evoked earlier eras in Mississippi’s complicated racial history. The city’s Black Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, minced no words after the House vote.

“Some of the other legislators, I was surprised that they came half-dressed, because they forgot to wear their hoods,” he said.

That stung the bill’s chief sponsor, State Representative John Thomas “Trey” Lamar, a 43-year-old Republican from Mississippi’s rural northwest. Mr. Lamar said his bill was a sincere effort to solve two of the city’s most pressing problems — soaring crime and a huge backlog in the courts.

Rep. Trey Lamar of Senatobia, Miss., is the proposal’s chief sponsor.Credit…Barbara Gauntt/The Clarion-Ledger, via Associated Press
The proposed bill would appoint judges within the Capitol Complex Improvement District in Jackson.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

“There’s absolutely nothing about House Bill 1020 — when I say nothing, I mean absolutely zero — that is racially motivated,” he said in an interview.

The debate may seem familiar. The uproar in Jackson retraces old fault lines in American society: race, police violence, fear of crime, partisan rancor between rural Republicans in state legislatures and Democratic leaders of beleaguered, largely Black cities.

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But in Mississippi, that template overlays the nation’s poorest state and the one with the greatest percentage of Black citizens. The issue is compounded by a bitter racial history in which old wounds resurface in new forms, never to completely heal.

And in Jackson, a decade of Republican control of the Statehouse has brought a nasty partisan edge to longstanding racial disconnects with the state’s largest city.

The state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, has sometimes accused Mr. Lumumba of mismanaging the city, focusing on the state’s need to help when the long-neglected local water system collapsed in 2021. On a visit last year to Hattiesburg, Governor Reeves called it “a great day to not be in Jackson” because, he suggested, he did not have to direct the city’s emergency response and public works efforts.

This year, Mr. Lamar’s legislation is but one of several G.O.P.-backed bills that would, among other things, assert control over the water system and reallocate Jackson’s use of sales tax collections.

The racial subtext is difficult to ignore: All 112 Republican state senators and representatives are white. All but four of the 58 Democratic legislators are Black.

State Senator John Horhn, a Black lawmaker who represents the Jackson area, called it “the most toxic atmosphere between the city and the legislature that I’ve seen in my 31 years” in office.

Mayor Lumumba, who, at 34, is the youngest leader in the city’s history, likened the takeover bills to colonization.

“It’s their fundamental belief that the people of Jackson don’t deserve to run the city,” he said in an interview.

Mississippi is not the first state in which majority-Black cities have found themselves at odds with Republican state leaders. Under Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan state government took over management of Flint and Detroit, both majority-Black cities, during fiscal crises in 2011 and 2013. An emergency manager appointed by the governor made the cost-cutting decision in 2014 to draw Flint’s public water supply from a nearby river, which led the next year to lead contamination of the drinking water supply for 100,000 people.

For all the acrimony in Jackson, concern about the city’s decline crosses political and racial lines. “This is not a situation where there’s unanimous support for the mayor and Jackson police in the Black community and harsh criticism in the white community,” said Cliff Johnson, a University of Mississippi law professor who opposes the legislation. “It’s not that simple.”

From left, Ronald L. Davis, director of the U. S. Marshals Service; Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson; and James Davis, Jackson Police chief, at a crime prevention summit in the capital. Credit…Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
Supporters of the bill said it would address the city’s high crime rate and case backlog in the courts.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

Jackson is a city with Southern bones — graceful churches, monumental civic buildings, a stunning antebellum mansion that houses the governor. But it is in sharp decline, its population and tax base sapped by white flight — and later, flight by Black middle-class families — to the city’s northern suburbs and outlying counties.

A parade of mayors have wrestled unsuccessfully with declining schools and infrastructure, like streets and the water system, and with policing. Crime increased sharply with the onset of the Covid pandemic, and the city recorded one of the nation’s highest murder rates in 2021. The police department is roughly 100 officers short of full strength, according to the Jackson City Council.

Hundreds of cases are backed up in the courts, leaving people accused of crimes awaiting trial for months and even years in conditions that can charitably be called substandard.

Six years ago, leaders on both sides launched a modest effort to ease the city government’s burden. The state created a Capitol City Improvement District that included downtown and state government buildings, and agreed to take over maintaining streets and other public assets within the district. To keep order, a small force of capitol security officers patrolled the district in hatchbacks topped with flashing orange lights.

That, it turned out, was only the beginning.

As crime rose, Governor Reeves expanded the district’s borders and hired new officers in 2021. Last year the legislature voted — with Democratic support that included some Black lawmakers — to dramatically beef up the policing effort. A force projected to reach 150 officers began patrolling last spring in new black-and-white S.U.V.s that seemed to command almost every street corner.

Crime in the capitol improvement district ebbed. Those who lived inside its boundaries took notice — but in different ways.

The dense knot of white government workers who live near the state offices within the district have applauded the new patrols. Many Black residents saw something different, and complained that officers were both disrespectful and too aggressive toward them.

On July 9, Capitol Police officers shot and wounded a suspect. Officers wounded another suspect on July 25, another on Aug. 14 and a fourth on Sept. 12.

Then, on the evening of Sept. 25, officers fatally shot Jaylen Lewis, a 25-year-old Black man, as he sat in a car with his girlfriend. Officials said the shooting occurred as the officers were attempting to make a traffic stop.

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation opened an inquiry into the fatal shooting. Nearly five months later, the investigation remains open, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety said on Friday.

Brooke Floyd, an official at a local nonprofit that advocates for Jackson’s Black residents, said she was troubled not just by the new police force’s tactics, but by the fact that both the Capitol Police and the new court system — unlike local judges and police officers — do not answer to Jackson taxpayers.

Brooke Floyd works with the People’s Advocacy Institute, which advocates for the black community in Jackson.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times
The Supreme Court of Mississippi in Jackson.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

“It’s concerning on a lot of levels, because it seems there’s no oversight and no accountability,” she said. “We don’t have a video. We don’t have access to reports. They’re not releasing anything.”

The state public safety commissioner, Sean Tindell, called Mr. Lewis’s death tragic, and the state-appointed police chief, Bo Luckey, said he had ordered a change in policing tactics. But in December, another shooting left another suspect wounded.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Lamar’s bill to expand the Capitol Police force’s jurisdiction into mostly white residential areas, and then layer a new court system atop it, landed like a bombshell.

Both Black and white critics have accused G.O.P. lawmakers of effectively creating a separate court and policing system for a white population that already enjoys the city’s lowest crime rates. “It feels like the kind of reactionary, prejudiced, provincial, anti-democratic reaction that takes Mississippi back 60 years,” said Mr. Johnson, the University of Mississippi law professor.

Mr. Lamar and other supporters of the measure point out that the population of the enlarged district would be 55 percent African American. But Jackson’s white community is so small that including most of it in the new district would still leave as many as seven or eight out of 10 Black residents outside its boundaries.

On Feb. 7 the House voted 76 to 38, largely along racial and party lines, to send the bill to the Senate. Whatever happens next, the hourslong, sometimes anguished debate in the House left the divide between the two sides unmistakably clear.

During that debate, Mr. Lamar bristled at the implication that as a rural lawmaker, his solution to Jackson’s problems was driven by racial bias. “I like to come to Jackson because it’s the capital city, and so do my constituents back home,” he said. “White, Black, yellow, brown, it doesn’t matter.”

“You’re talking to a guy who has been carjacked in Jackson,” he added. “All I’m interested in is helping make the capital city of Mississippi safer.”

Representative Christopher M. Bell, a Black lawmaker from Jackson, asked why nobody had consulted legislators from Jackson and Hinds County about the bill before it was introduced. “There are several people who reside in Hinds County who I have spoken with,” Mr. Lamar responded.

“Do any of them look like me?” Mr. Bell asked.

Mr. Lamar paused, then replied: “All God’s children are unique.”

Sheelagh McNeill and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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