By Muhsin Yorulmaz
On May 2nd, the people of Jackson, Mississippi will vote in the primaries for the mayoral candidate for their city.
Thanks to the duopoly system – to which people in the US are so accustomed as to often forget it is there – it is already expected that whoever wins the Democratic primary will be elected mayor. The majority Afro-American voter population will almost certainly vote against the Republican party’s candidate, and third party candidates are effectively excluded from discourse in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
One of these candidates, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, stands out because of his unusual background. Lumumba’s father, also named Chokwe Lumumba, could be characterized as a sort of Black nationalist carpetbagger, who moved to Jackson, Mississippi to organize the population around the slogan of “free the land”, a reference to reparations in the form of land understand through a lens of liberation of national territory for the descendants of slaves in the United States.
A member of the Republic of New Afrika, an organisation dedicated to this national conception of an Afro-American people with a homeland in the Cotton Belt South, the elder Lumumba – who was mayor of Jackson for a few months from 2013-2014 – was a controversial figure with the establishment. His anti-capitalism and clear connections to Black nationalism would make him a dangerous mayor anywhere in the United States, but his cohesive economic program and its location in the heart of what his organization referred to as “New Afrika” made him a real threat.
When he died only a few months into office, Black radicals across the country suspected foul play. Regardless, the loss was certainly a missed opportunity for real change in a city whose people have disproportionately suffered from poverty, discrimination, and neglect.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba has since attempted to carry on his father’s fight for Jackson, Mississippi, where he grew up. Saying, “I believe that even though my father was a great man, this journey was never about an individual. It is, was about the people — so the people’s platform and the people’s will still need to be heard”, the younger Lumumba ran for mayor in 2014, only to be defeated in a close race with pastor Tony Yarber, endorsed by several fellow pastors.
Since then, Yarber has been accused of sexually abusive behavior to women staff members, as well as economically corrupt, most significantly working with the Siemens corporation on an unpopular automation of water meters in the city.
This combination of capitalist corruption and accusations of patriarchal sexual abuse would seem to set the stage ideally for another bid for the mayorship by a progressive candidate.
If the younger Lumumba, endorsed by Howard Dean’s Democracy for America PAC and Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris, can win the primary on May 2nd, there is a very good chance that the administration of Jackson will be placed again in revolutionary hands, or as Lumumba, who is running on a slogan of “When I become Mayor, You become Mayor”, would have it, in the people’s hands.
It is no surprise that such a race does not make headlines across the United States: the players are obscure, the setting is the poorest state in the US, and it is, after all, a local election. What is more interesting is the relative silence of the radical left in the US about this election. Every US leftist is fully aware of Kshama Sawant’s position on the Seattle City Council, which, despite Sawant’s revolutionary pretensions, represents a far less significant break with the established order than the Lumumba’s family’s Black nationalism represents within Mississippi politics.
From a more universal perspective, however, Lumumba ought to have an appeal to leftists: in addition to standing against Yarber’s and Siemens’s attacks on the people’s water rights, he also marched for Nissan workers’ right to unionize in his home state, at a march that was prominently attended by Bernie Sanders. Like his father before him, he represents a trend of progressive Afro-American intellectuals who seek to mobilize their people around the very values that white progressives claim to stand for. So why is Lumumba’s campaign such a secret?
There are two main reasons I can think of why the Lumumba campaign is not getting much media attention, even among leftists. The first is that there is so much going on, so much more than we can ever individually find time to read fully about, that who becomes the Mayor of Jackson simply seems unimportant, if we don’t live in the area. This is, in my view, a grave mistake.
So much of what we’re seeing in the news around the world, from the war in Syria to crisis about the future of the UK, from the possibility of a Le Pen presidency in France to the reality of a Trump presidency in the US, is an indication of the depth of the economic and political crisis that capitalism-imperialism has created. The bourgeoisie is finding it has difficulty governing in the old way, and it is our task to push forward and propose an alternative to the masses.
For the people of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Antar Lumumba is such an alternative.
The other reason why this campaign is being so universally ignored is, to state the obvious, that Chokwe Antar Lumumba is black. When a white or Asian person runs for office on a left-wing platform, they are at the very least recognized for it by ordinary leftists. However, just as US society in general excludes and marginalizes Afro-Americans, so too is the Black left ignored by the white left in the US.
The obvious response would be that unlike Bernie Sanders, most US citizens cannot vote for Chokwe Antar Lumumba. But in fact, all of us in the US can vote for Chokwe Antar Lumumba, even if we are are not in Jackson, Mississippi, even if we are not citizens.
We can vote for Chokwe Antar Lumumba by discussing the ideas and the history that brought him to the forefront of progressive politics in Jackson, Mississippi. We can vote for Chokwe Antar Lumumba by rallying friends and comrades in Jackson behind his campaign. We can vote for Chokwe Antar Lumumba by uniting with progressive elements in our immediate social context, by bringing together the struggles of the poor and the oppressed in any way we can.
There is a fine slogan in the English-speaking world with which many US leftists are familiar: “think globally, act locally”. The Lumumba family have provided and continue to provide a powerful platform to educate and organize the masses in Jackson, Mississippi, to bring their concerns and struggles to the forefront, and to give conscious expression to local leadership.
The Lumumba mayoral campaigns have more in common with a labor strike than most bourgeois campaigns, demanding something from the ruling classes for the popular classes they have exploited and oppressed, instead of seeking the popular classes approval to join the ruling classes.
Leftists in the US should support Chokwe Antar Lumumba in this campaign, and support Revolutionary Black Nationalists in their righteous struggle for reparations, land, and political power. But leftists in the US must also learn from this campaign about a particular form of struggle which makes sense in the current climate, in the era of Trump when the masses are desperate to fight back but are (in their broad majority) not yet at the level of a revolutionary situation.
Due to the primacy of reformist legal struggle in the consciousness of the masses in the US, the importance of operating in the electoral context is greater than in almost any other country. Across the US, local struggles are routinely crushed by the legitimizing power of bourgeois elections, which produce spineless servants of capital time and time again.
Movements like Black Lives Matter are representations of widespread dissatisfaction among Afro-American youth, and can not only rush the stage at reformist electoral rallies, but hold their own electoral rallies and expose the lack of popular support for white supremacist politics by seizing control of government with their own candidates in Afro-American dominated regions.
Local politics can go far beyond the limitations imposed by Kshama Sawant and her (disproportionately white) brand of resistance. Oppressed peoples all across the United States can learn from the Lumumbas how to organize both inside and outside of the electoral sphere, and revolutionaries of all backgrounds should see in these local struggles the reflection of our universal values of self-determination and liberation, and embrace them as such.
During Bernie Sanders’s concession speech, he criticized the Democratic Party for not having a “50-state” strategy, that is, for abandoning much of the country to the Republican Party.
Afro-Americans involved in the struggle against the racist voting laws in southern states likewise appeal to progressive elements within the Democrats for help. We, however, must see that the Republicans dominate particularly those areas of the US where violated rights of oppressed peoples mean that the bourgeois interests in the Democratic Party are against any sort of meaningful justice and democracy.
The electoral domination of the Republicans and Democrats is itself a reflection of the success of the imperialist US state in dominating and dividing all workers and the oppressed. We must expose this state of affairs by raising up the struggles which already exist among the people, rather than hang our heads in defeat at this sordid state of affairs.
We must look to popular struggles, particularly liberation struggles of oppressed nationalities, to challenge the capitalistic, white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist order that persists across the United States with the support of the ruling classes that are divided between the Democratic and Republican parties. We must bring all struggles together and in every sphere of life, from the ballot box to the classroom, from the workplace to our neighborhoods.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba is in fact one of the most advanced manifestations of struggle in the United States, more advanced than many so-called “communists” in the country: he emphasizes that he learns from the local people about their concerns, wants and needs, before articulating those as a political program for their own upliftment.
His is a genuine brand of democracy, with the slogan “When I become Mayor, You become Mayor”. He stands up to the forces of imperialist capital and for the Afro-American people in concrete terms in his local context, while so many feel content to rhetorically condemn these forces to our friends in an abstract universal sense.
The true vanguard does not simply wait for the masses to decide they “need” a revolutionary leadership. A true vanguard is in an organic, dialectical relationship with the masses. In this sense, Chokwe Antar Lumumba is more of a vanguard leader than every self-declared “revolutionary” organization that shows up to protests to recruit and then goes home to no actual strategy for struggle.
We need a thousand Chokwe Antar Lumumbas, in every part of the United States. We need revolutionaries who can operate among the masses in every sense, who know the masses, who speak with the masses, who learn from the masses, who teach the masses, who bring together the struggles of the masses however they are able, wherever they are.
Muhsin Yorulmaz is a Turkish communist currently studying in the US. He blogs at oldrelationscollapse.wordpress.com.