Controversy has abounded in the community of Jackson, Miss., over the past month in the aftermath of the GOP-controlled state house passing a bill that could heighten control from overwhelmingly white state leaders on a predominantly Black community.
The Mississippi state House passed House Bill 1020 mostly along party lines last month, sending the proposal to the state Senate. The legislation would establish a separate court system for part of the state’s capital city with judges appointed by the state chief justice and the area under the system’s jurisdiction patrolled by a state-run police force.
Most of the areas impacted are the more predominantly white neighborhoods of the city.
The state representative who proposed the legislation has said the bill is necessary to address rising crime, but opponents have slammed it as racially motivated and branded it as an updated version of a “Jim Crow” law.
Here’s three things you should know about the bill and its background:
Opponents of the bill say it calls back to the Jim Crow era
Black leaders and community members from Jackson have decried the proposal over the past weeks. They come from a community that is more than 80 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and that has elected its own judges for years.
The Hinds County Circuit Court, which currently has jurisdiction over the county that Jackson is located in, is composed of four judges who are elected by voters in the community to their positions. But the legislation states that the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court would appoint each judge for the new court system to a four-year term.
The current chief justice is a white conservative first appointed by former GOP Gov. Haley Barbour.
The state-run Capitol Police are responsible for patrolling in and around state government buildings and in downtown, but the legislation would expand their jurisdiction to include wealthy shopping and residential areas, The Associated Press reported.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) has been a top opponent of the plan, which would put a white Republican state official in charge of choosing the judges overseeing a heavily Democratic-leaning city with mostly Black residents, at least until the current chief justice retires.
AP reported that Lumumba compared the proposal to apartheid and said it institutes “plantation politics.”
“If we allow this type of legislation to stand in Jackson, Mississippi, it’s a matter of time before it will hit New Orleans, it’s a matter of time before it hits Detroit, or wherever we find our people,” he said.
Lumumba told CNN’s Brianna Keilar in an interview last month that calling the bill “anything other than racist” would be “less than honest.”
“It is fraught with constitutional issues, and it is an attack on Black leadership,” he said.
Brooke Floyd, who works for a local nonprofit organization called People’s Advocacy Institute that advocates for Black community members of Jackson, told The New York Times that she is worried that the Capitol Police and court system will not be accountable to the city’s residents.
“It’s concerning on a lot of levels, because it seems there’s no oversight and no accountability,” Floyd said.
State Sen. John Horhn (D), who represents the Jackson area in the state senate, said the proposal has produced the “most toxic atmosphere between the city and the legislature” that he has seen in the more than 30 years he has served in office, the Times reported.
Chief sponsor of the bill says the legislation is to address rising crime
State Rep. Trey Lamar (R), who was the principal author of the bill, has rejected claims that the legislation has any racial motivation, instead pointing to addressing rising crime in the state’s capital city as the motivation behind it.
Lamar told the Times in an interview that he wants to tackle the rising crime rates and a backlog in the city’s court system hearing cases.
“There’s absolutely nothing about House Bill 1020 — when I say nothing, I mean absolutely zero — that is racially motivated,” he said.
Jackson had the highest murder rate of any major U.S. city last year despite the number of homicides dropping from the previous year.
But critics have said the area that will be covered by the new court system and the expanded jurisdiction of the police force already has the lowest crime rate of anywhere in Jackson. The police force was originally given its jurisdiction in its current areas to add to the Jackson police instead of replacing them.
The Times reported that Lamar and other backers of his bill have noted that the area the legislation would affect would still be 55 percent African American. But most Black residents of the city would still be left out of the new district because Jackson’s white population is small.
Lamar said during debate on the state House floor that he is only interested in making Jackson safer and he spoke to several Hinds County residents about the bill before introducing it.
“I like to come to Jackson because it’s the capital city, and so do my constituents back home,” he said, according to The Times. “White, Black, yellow, brown, it doesn’t matter.”
Lumumba told CNN that the stated goal of reducing crime and improving public safety is a “Trojan horse.” He said that the judges appointed would have the authority to hear civil and chancellery matters, which “have nothing to do whatsoever” with crime, in addition to criminal ones.
“If your true intention is to deal with crime rate, then you wouldn’t choose the safest portions of the city in order to create this district,” he said.
Lumumba said state leaders have had either “deliberate indifference” or “willful neglect” to provide resources to the city’s police that Jackson leaders have requested. He said this includes ballistics technology to help officers close cases and violence interruption training.
“Those of us who work on these issues every day know what we need, and what we don’t need is a takeover of our city and a plan in order to protect the most densely white populated portions of our city,” he said.
One of multiple state efforts to increase influence over Jackson
The bill is not the only effort from Mississippi officials to further involve the state in Jackson’s affairs.
The state Senate passed a bill last month that would set up a regional board to govern the city’s water system, which has had difficulties over recent months in ensuring clean water that is safe to drink and use for other purposes gets to the city’s roughly 150,000 residents.
The failure of the city’s main water treatment plant toward the end of the summer has caused some residents to go up to weeks without tap water to use.
State Sen. David Parker (R), who proposed the bill, said the board is necessary to ensure the water is safe and because the situation is limiting the state’s economic development, AP reported.
“This crisis has been a black eye on the city of Jackson. But it’s also been a problem for the state as a whole,” he reportedly said, referencing an incident where a German company was considering an expansion to Mississippi but asked if the state had running water.
Lumumba and Democratic state senators have denounced the bill as an effort for the state to overreach into the city’s affairs.
“Mississippi looks like the old Mississippi that we heard about and some of us have lived through. We look like we are doing a taking on some Black folks,” Horhn reportedly said about the water bill.
A majority of the members of the board would need to be approved by the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has at times slammed Lumumba over his leadership of Jackson, centered on the water system.
The Times reported that Reeves said during a visit to Hattiesburg last year that “it’s a great day to not be in Jackson” as he did not have to oversee its emergency response efforts.
Another Republican-proposed bill from this year would reallocate the city’s use of sales tax collectors, according to the Times.
Jackson newspaper The Clarion-Ledger reported that the state legislature approved a 1 percent increase in Jackson’s sales tax in 2014 to use the revenue gained for infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, water and sewer.
But the Mississippi House passed a bill last month that would require the city to use the revenue, which totals $120 million from 2014 to 2022, only on water and sewer. Lamar, who also brought this bill forward to the House floor, said it is meant to allow the city’s water administrator to use the revenue, according to the outlet.
But Democratic opponents of the legislation have said the money from the 1 percent sales tax increase would not sufficiently address the city’s water issues but would significantly help with roads and bridges.
State Rep. Edward Blackmon (D) said the legislature should provide Jackson with additional funding to help the water issues instead of forcing it to reallocate funding from other objectives, The Clarion-Ledger reported.