Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has until Friday to sign a bill that would create a separate police force and court system for Jackson, the state’s capital city. The bill is controversial for its subversion of local control and for its construction of a system in which white state officials will appoint the people in charge of the criminal justice system in a majority-Black city.
Hinds County, which includes Jackson, would become the only municipality in the state that doesn’t elect its own prosecutors and judges.
“We are finding ourselves jumping back to days of Jim Crow, days of apartheid.”
The bill is an extension of efforts to control and undermine the voices of the Black people who live in Jackson, said Rukia Lumumba, co-director of the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project and a candidate in the upcoming Democratic primary for a state House seat just north of Jackson.
“We are finding ourselves jumping back to days of Jim Crow, days of apartheid,” she said, “where we’re seeing this theory that Black people can’t govern, that Black people can’t make decisions for themselves around who is best suited to represent them in governing processes, and that Black people can’t create their own safety.”
The bill was written by Republican state Rep. Trey Lamar, who represents a district just under 200 miles away from Jackson. Lamar has framed the bill as an effort to make Jackson “safer” and to help its residents. “My constituents want to feel safe when they come here,” Lamar said during state House deliberations on the bill earlier this year.
Hinds County elected civil rights attorney Jody Owens as district attorney in 2019. The city of Jackson has a history of Black radical mayors, including Rukia’s father, Chokwe Lumumba, and brother, current Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who won reelection in 2021. There have been attempts to pass similar bills targeting Jackson since at least 2012, Lumumba said.
The backlash is also playing out in national politics, where another reformist Mississippi prosecutor and federal court nominee is facing Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate because of his progressive politics. The effort to create a special justice system around Jackson should be seen as part of this national backlash to the elections of progressive and reform-minded officials, said Lumumba.
“We’re seeing attacks in so many places where we saw so many wins,” she said, pointing to efforts in Missouri to restrict the power of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.
Since 2020, states and municipalities across the country elected reform-minded district attorneys, passed criminal justice reforms, and continued efforts to improve equity in policing, housing, and health care.
“What we’re seeing is opponents to those successes figuring out how to tap into municipal control and county control and use the legislature as a source to literally deprive municipalities and counties of the power that they have to govern,” Lumumba said, “to engage in systems that are more accountable to the people.”
Under the Jackson bill, H.B. 1020, state officials would appoint 11 positions that were previously elected, including judges, prosecutors, and public defenders in a newly created district that includes the city’s wealthy white residents.
“It’s dangerous because it creates a narrative of racial divide,” Lumumba said. “It creates a narrative that continues to perpetuate these stereotypes that Black people are not intelligent enough to do the job, that we are not capable.”
The proposed law would also expand the jurisdiction and size of the Capitol Police force, which was originally created to patrol state buildings and has recently expanded its control throughout an area dubbed the “Capitol Complex Improvement Zone.”
In a February opinion article, Mississippi civil rights advocates opposing the bill said it would create an apartheid system. “Imagine all-white juries in a city that’s nearly 83 percent Black, within a state where lynchings still occur,” they wrote.
The bill is part of a response to Jackson’s murder rate, which spiked in 2020 along with murder rates in cities and rural areas across the country. When a journalist asked about H.B. 1020 during a February press conference, Reeves, the governor, who is up for reelection this year, described Jackson as the “murder capital of the world.”
While gun violence and certain crimes like robbery and gun theft increased in 2021, overall crime in Jackson was down.
“The anecdotal data that the legislature is pushing through does not match the real data,” Lumumba said.
“What people don’t understand is that Mississippi is not the state where residents don’t care about progress.”
Though public safety is offered as a rationale for the bill, it focuses primarily on exempting the city’s wealthy white residents from local control, Lumumba said: “It focuses and centers its efforts around creating safety for a wealthier, predominantly white population in Jackson that is concentrated in a specific area.”
While state officials advance legislation to revoke local control in Jackson, Republicans are also working to pass bills to suppress voting rights in the state, Lumumba said.
“One thing that’s not understood is that these bills are being introduced because Jackson leadership, specifically the mayoral leadership, has been effective in moving the needle on water, moving the needle on public safety,” she said, noting Jackson’s recent creation of Mississippi’s first ever office of violent prevention and trauma recovery. “What people don’t understand is that Mississippi is not the state where residents don’t care about progress.”