Councilman Kenneth Stokes slapped me the other day. His large hand hit my sweat-beaded skin in one swift swoop to kill the mosquito getting ready to bite. He did not ask; he just actedprobably on the same instinct he grew up with in his West Jackson home in the heart of Georgetown, a tough community by anyone's description. His wife, LaRita, looked up from beneath her straw hat to say, "One down, 1 million to go!" We laughed as she and Stokes waved in unison at the next in a steady stream of friends and neighbors who drove by their Morton Street home during our interview on the front porch of the house where the future public servant grew up.
Kenny Stokes, as the people of Ward 3 know him, sat outfitted in navy athletic shorts and a blue-and-white printed shirt with the first three buttons open. His legs were tucked beneath his lawn chair as he leaned forward to make his point time after time, frequently interrupted by community folks driving or walking by, waving, yelling, taking quick calls on his cell phone. He lives in the housenow with a second story added on in the backwith his parents, his wife, his children and various other family members.
As I approached the house and I saw Stokes, 49, in his loud shirt, wiping sweat and waving, I had a hard time envisioning him in his tailored black and grey suits at Council meetings, yelling at other members, introducing an endless line-up of community people to "honor" publicly, threatening to slap Councilman Ben Allen, walking out of meetings, filing lawsuits against the city over procedural matters. As he waved vigorously, it was hard to picture the man that many in the Jackson area consider a racist and a loud troublemaker. Here on his front porch, with his middle daughter pulling back the curtain every little bit to peek out, Stokes talked for two hours about the city, his neighborhood, and himself with straightforward answers that may or may not please every readerbut that certainly add a few shades of gray to a man that, nearly to the person, everyone in Jackson seems to either love or hate.
JFP: Why did you run for City Council?
KS: After law school (at Thurgood Marshall in Houston), I ran for the Mississippi House of Representatives because I thought I could make changes. (Laughed) In our community, we don't think about protesting from outside the system. I wanted to make a difference. So, I went to work for the tax collector's office, becoming one of the first blacks to bill personal property. I was a tax collector from 1983-1989. And in 1989, I ran for the City Council and started my career as a councilman.
How has the City Council changed?
It's changed a lot. When I first became a councilman, I was part of the first new council to serve since they changed from commissioners to the ward system in 1985. I was the first black council person who graduated from Jackson Public Schools. They were from other places, such as Clinton, Canton, etc. When I first came on, it was all white council members with a white mayor. They never really embraced blacks on the council. I had ideas, but they didn't want to spend money on black communities. Luther (Rome) wanted to cut our daycare centers; I had to fight to make sure he had opposition. Inner-city kids really need them. Many parents want to make sure their kids are in a safe environment; otherwise, they won't work.
Now, we have that mentality from South Jackson into North Jackson. It means we've got people with money who now look at the city not just as one city but as the haves vs. the have-nots. More people are saying they want to move out of the city. You have a right to live where you want to, but the big problem is people come into the city, make money off the city and take their money out of the city. If people who live in the city have those jobs, then you wouldn't have all this crime. A lot of people are involved in drugs because they are hooked on drugs, but most just need jobs; it's poverty. If we have a war on poverty and create jobs, a lot of the crime that you see in the city wouldn't exist. Some of the police officers are good and are solving a lot of crimes, but some of them are using harsh methods to solve them; they are going back to the old days of beatings and that sort of thing.
We often hear that it's the parents' responsibility that young people get in trouble. Do you agree with that? Should the community do more than it does?
There is so much talent in the young people of this neighborhood. The little fellow who just passed did not graduate the sixth grade, but he can fix any car you put in front of him; why can't we take his talent and get him, instead of using it on crime, to use it on something positive? This is the hardest thing to get these councilmen to understand. It's my ward today, but it's going to be their ward tomorrow. Where are people (committing crimes) in South Jackson coming from? These neighborhoods.
All you hear from so many people as the solution to crime is sending people to prison.
Who's in prison? Their family members, their cousins, their brothers. Where does their mama work? At the chicken plant. And they just closed it down. How do you get a hand on crime? If this young man can fix cars like this, you need to have an avenue to get him a job as a apprentice. We have to show him away from crime. When I was in law school, I became a certificated mediator. That's when I started hearing about win-win solutions. In Houston, they go out of their way to have programs to make sure that citizens are safe and make sure you don't lose as many children to crime. I tried to bring it here, but I can't get them to listen. If you've got inner-city problems, this person fighting this person, if you have mediation for them, you can stop this gunplay. The thing about having guns is they'll use them.
How can you reach kids before they take a bad turn?
(Nodding) Tomorrow is going to be our fifth trip taking young people to Six Flags. We have two buses; we don't discriminate (about who goes). We publicize it on the radio, through word of mouth and at council meetings. A lot of people want to go. I have kids I don't even know. The man right there in that yellow house, Rev. Jones, he took us, the kids in this community, on a trip. It was something that touched my heart; I ain't never forgot it. Taking kids on a trip is a way to communicate with them. Putting them in jail ain't going to stop it; we ain't going to build enough jails. Their brothers are in jail: eventually they will get out and become repeat offenders. If we can't put them in jail, what do we do? Make them a part of the system by creating jobs; give them employment. What do they do in jail? They work!
What needs to happen to keep more guns out of your ward?
We don't need these gun shows. Go around Farish Street at Birdland on Saturday night and see what kind of guns they have in those places. It is hard to put the genie back in the bottle once it's out and that's what Chief Moore is trying to do now: put the genie back in bottle. (Jackson State criminologist) Jimmy Bell, I still say, we should use him more. We need to get guns off the street; if that means gun buy backs, we need to do gun buy backs. We need to do everything we can to get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.
How do you change that pro-gun mentality?
A lot of people have the mentality that it is better to have (the gun) and not need it, than to need it and not have it. So, you need to let them know that the city is safe and they don't need their guns. Once you start disarming people, then other people will put their guns down. Right now, everybody has got their gun because they are scared. So, you could just be joking with someone and that person could pull out the gun and kill you. They don't know; you may be wanting to hurt them.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
I think my No. 1 accomplishment was the (youth) curfew. I started the curfew when we first started having late-night shootings. It was hard because young people felt that they should be out anytime they want. It was hard for me to go to these schools and explain to them that it is easier for me to have a curfew to know that you are at home instead of someone coming to shoot somebody else and you get killed. Young people want excitement; they see a fight they want to go see it. Or (drug dealers) will start using young people because they are juveniles to sell the dope. We had to get young people out of the mix, so the best way to do it is a curfew.
How well has the curfew worked?
It was working. But the first time police arrested a rich white girl in Northeast Jackson her parents raised so much Cain that they stopped enforcing it. Not only did they have the curfew where it worked, they even had social workers at the youth detention center to meet them. My neighbor, she is a good person, but she's hooked on drugs, and she has four boys. So these boys are out here, if someone caught them in a youth detention center, then they could ask, "Why are you out here?" "My mama is hooked on drugs," they could say. And we could intervene before the boys become career criminals. But once they stopped enforcing the curfew, that meant more young people picking up on the criminal way of life. So, they stopped the curfew, and it started again with Chief Moore. Then somebody else got arrested, and it was a white girl. As long as they arrested these black kids, it was OK. They didn't care.
Youth curfews have gotten a lot of criticism for being used to discriminate against kids of color.
You have got to find a way to save their lives. What other way, and I had to study this, can I get young people off the streets? I had to think about it, only thing I could find was the curfew; otherwise, they are going to be dead, going to be in the cemetery. If you lose one, that is one too many. When they are out on the streets, with no momma at home, she's got habits, they try to rebel but they choose all the wrong ways to rebel. So, I've got to try to get them off the streets. I can call police and say look, we can save this kid, with the curfew.
After the curfew, I came up with midnight basketball; they might say it was everybody else, but it was my idea. I coached Little League baseball for a number of years; that's how you reach a lot of these kids; you need something positive, supervised activities. No supervision means the big fish eats the little fish.
What is your biggest disappointment?
I suggested years ago that we needed a convention center. I am concerned with the convention center in the works now because of the way it is set up. My vision was for the City of Jackson to really run the convention center; I don't know if this one will work properly. Secondly, I suggested a new arena at the fairground; 10 years ago, we were trying to bring gaming in here. You need a place that holds more than 9,000 people, a new arena that holds at least 25,000 for major acts: concerts, whatever. Now people are going to Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston. That money could stay here. These are things you got to have in a city.
Another failure is the treatment centers. I got a gentleman to donate property for a treatment center. I can't get the city to understand; the city likes to give money to other agencies that doesn't work as good as when the city is running it. People feel better when the government is running it; they feel like they have a way to protest when something's not right. Right now, if you are hooked on heroin, you've got to go to New Orleans for methadone, and we have heroin addicts here. I tried, but I just haven't been successful at getting it in people's minds that we got to have treatment centers here. You don't just put money into other people, other agencies when you want something.
Do you think the new convention center is a start? Are you supporting it?
I'm not going to get as involved in the convention center; I don't like the board make-up. You must have a convention center in the city. It creates jobs; that's the most important thing. If people had jobs, a lot of time they wouldn't commit crimes. Prison don't scare people anymore: tell a man living in an abandoned house now that you are about to go to a place where in the winter time you have heat, in the summer you have air, you are going to have three meals a day.
What do you think about the JSU stadium plans?
That's a start. You don't never lose with arenas; they're always good in city. That's where basketball is played, now, in New Orleans. The arena was built before the team. You got to have those kinds of things to grow a city. If you're going to kill a city, you just don't build these things. Government ought to come together and build this arena as part of the stadium. If we are going to have a stadium, we need to enhance this more; the only thing we are doing is letting it get older looking and run down. We got one of the biggest hospitals, the University (Medical Center) across the street, St. Dominic's around the corner, the V.A. is right around the corner from it, and if we enhance a new arena it won't be as large as 25,000 seats but this could be used with some of the smaller basketball teams, concerts and many other things could come. You don't let that just leave. True leadership would find a way to subsidize making it get built.
How do you respond to the media coverage that contends that you are just a troublemaker?
I mostly read national papers. The Clarion-Ledger, I call it the KKK; I think it's created more racist division than it has tried to bring people together. Yes, they wrote something about the Medgar Evers assassination, those things. But I think that some of the articles and the way they try to portray things with this city, once it became a black-majority city, is what led people to rule them out.
At council meetings, I've always tried to act respectfully but sometimes you get people on the council who would try to act as though they have more power than they do. We are all elected from wards; there is no person elected at large. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody has a right to speak. Example: For as long as I have been on the council, the president has never served as a committee chairman. It was just an understood rule because you are president and your job is to get other council members involved as committee chairs. This time around, once one council member is gone, there are six council members and six committees, and you are going to overlook one member and say they are not going to be a chairman. That is absolutely ridiculous.
Now, the reason that is happening is some of the council members are meeting with people at The Clarion-Ledger; they say, y'all got to do this in order for us to write positive things about you. Suppose Ben Allen didn't get a chairmanship. What would the Clarion-Ledger say then? "There are six council members, six committees, everybody is going to have one." If Bo Brown didn't get a chairmanship, they would say, I don't see anything wrong with it. You've got to have consistent rules; it can't change. They are playing clique politics. Who's going to be hurt? The citizens.
How will the citizens be hurt?
When you vote as a clique, it means nothing is going to be brought up and passed that improves your community. Jimmy Bell told us years ago, "If you identify a problem, identify the solution." You've got all these abandoned apartment complexes. The kids are stealing cars and hiding them behind them. I said let's give (the owners) six months to come up with a rehabilitation plan; if they do not produce a plan to rehabilitate them or sell them, then let's tear them down. Let's add 25 cents to the parking meters downtown to pay to tear down abandoned apartments. When Chicago had this problem, they started tearing down abandoned houses. These problems are not new; we just need to do some of the things other cities have done. All these burned-out structures have got to be a health issue. But (council members) are allowing them to stay. I came up with an ordinance where we can tear down these abandoned buildings. Well, if you are playing clique politics, you are not going to do anything.
Why did you vote against Councilman Ben Allen's apartment moratorium?
It has good points and bad points. Just because people over in the Maple Street apartments are living in an apartment, you don't make them feel like second-class citizens. A lot of successful people start off in apartments. The Tanglewood Apartments have raw sewage; kids are playing in it. We worked to get that torn down. Then there are the apartments off of Sunset. The council put a moratorium on building apartments that are brand newso they have to stay where they live. What they were saying is they don't want apartments in certain neighborhoods. The only way to get people to live in apartment complexes is to allow them to be able to have apartments in some of the better neighborhoods. If you put all the apartment complexes in the rundown areas, then it just facilitates a rundown mentality.
I never understood how you think you're better than somebody just because you have more money. You don't know what their future is. They are saying (the moratorium) will encourage people to improve the existing apartments, but there is nothing in the ordinance that says they have to. Council members stuck it in a committee; they never proposed an ordinance. They wait for the mayor (Harvey Johnson, Jr.) to bring up things, then vote on that.
You turned down your committee assignments. Do you worry that your ordinances will just continue to be stuck in committees without you there to push for them? Will this hurt your ward?
At the local level, you don't need committees. (Unlike the Mississippi Legislature), the council is one body, we don't need committees. The way they use the committees is just to delay. Municipalities seldom use the committee process. You've always had full standing committees, but they were rarely used. So, on top of the full standing committees, they added Water (Committee) ,and they don't even meet, and Transportation, which I chaired. I wanted to bring the rail system into this city. So, I tried to get the rail system into legislation but most members don't even come to committee meetings. I can understand committees in a big city like Chicago where they have 60-something council members, but we have seven. And then we are going to have six committeessee what I am saying? That's the Clarion-Ledger. We didn't even have what they called a "work session," until Harvey Johnson became mayor. Why would you go to a work session and not go to council meetings?
You do not attend work sessions; what message does that portray to the public?
When Kane Ditto was mayor, there were no work sessions. You met with mayor and discussed the issues. If I have something that I think needs to be discussed, I'm going to ask the mayor. Some come to work sessions and don't go to council, or don't stay for the whole council meeting. The council meeting is required by state law; that should be your priority.
Do you miss out on anything by not being at those work sessions?
In the beginning, they figured some council members were slow in picking things up; they didn't know what reading was; some don't have any idea about how the budget is formed, where taxes come from; they are just there voting. What the work session is saying is that you don't want people to come to the Council meeting. Originally, the work session was supposed to last only an hour and a half, and we would only discuss things on the agenda. But, now they are having briefings and all sorts of stuff. Let me put it this way: if you are in a class, and some people in that class are a little slow, everybody shouldn't have to go to remedial classes. You can't read this and understand it?
I attend both the planning meetings and the City Council meetings; for me. the planning meetings serve to explain each order and item on the agenda so that I will know the particulars of the agenda the next day. Do you see that function?
Most of (Council members) don't read (the materials); how are you going to tell kids to read? I can see what you are saying; the council has the whole thing, a pack that you don't have. They should give you everything: what is there to hide? That's what they used to do. If there ain't nothing to hide, then give me a pack. You can still do it by request now. But they are trying to be tight. What are they trying to hide? Government must be open. Give the people everything.
In the old days, media people asked them, "Where? Do you have the authority to do that?" You've got to ask those hard questions. They were trying to make sure apartments are not in certain neighborhoods.
How has the apartment moratorium affected this neighborhood? Were developers building here that can't build now because of the moratorium?
They were really building toward the South, and that's what they are trying to kill. It doesn't just stop low-income apartments; it stops senior citizen housing, too. We had senior citizen housing coming on up the road that's affected. Secondly, it's not affecting downtown housing that they are trying to build; they made an exception for them. You can't treat one group better than another group.
What about the "voting bloc" that is excluding you and Councilman Brown and linking the two of you together?
No, don't link me with Brown. They are trying to link me with him because they don't like him. I don't believe in clique politics. I don't talk to council members after they are sworn in. I don't believe we should talk after they are sworn in.
Why were you so angry when Brown was not elected council president?
I still believe in government being fair. The vice president moves up to president. I never want to be president of the council, so I don't care who is the president because he or she doesn't do anymore than anybody else. But you can't start doing these haphazard things like, well, he's the vice president but we don't like him, so he's not going to be president. You need to do here in Jackson that they do it in Bolton, in Buck-Tussle, in Tupelo. You want government always to be the same. Like the president of the United States, whether you like Bush or not, if something happens to him, the vice president moves up.
That's a U.S. law. Is it a law here?
Most of these things are just understood as custom. Now, everything is not written down, but it's never been a problem.
Tell me about your lawsuit pending right now. What do you want to accomplish?
I am trying to get it established that the vice president should move up as a rule of law. You go to court because court is a good method to solve disputes. My position always is to go to court. Remember when Mayor Ditto fired the police chief and said, "I'm the police chief?" I said, "You can't be the police chief." I filed a suit; we went to court, and the court said, "You can't be mayor and police chief."
Why don't they want Bo Brown there?
That is a shame. I think Bo would be fair to everybody; I think, again, you got this clique that's taking place. Business people, everybody else, have always gone through mayor's office. Now businesspeople can bypass the mayor and go talk to council members because of the clique; it's not fair, and leads to corruption. Once they are sworn in, I don't talk to them. You don't start doing things behind closed doors.
The way I keep myself clean is whatever we do, we do it in the council meeting, in an open forum. No back rooms. That is what they used to call the "good old boy" system. Let the public see what's going on.
How is your constituency different from other parts of the city?
I have from the richest people in the city to the poorest in my ward. I've got to have a no-nonsense approach; if a person is hungry, they got to go steal something; it's easy to say, "Well, I understand why they steal," but my position is you can't tolerate crime. If a person is hungry, I will give them something out of my refrigerator but don't steal. People can't support wrong; you have to always stand on the side of right and that is what I try to do.
Are their needs taken seriously by the rest of the council?
My ward is the only one that intersects all wards except one. The needs in my ward are also needs in their ward. Council members may not have ideas; they sit back and wait for the mayor to bring ideas; that's not how government should work. They should bring ideas to the table also.
What do you think about the performance of Mayor Johnson?
It's a no-win situation. If you go to the black community, they will say he caters too much to whites, and if you go to the white community, they will say he caters too much to blacks. I think he is a nice, likable guy; I like his wife and his children. Some things I would have done differently if I was mayor; some things he would have done differently as a councilman. If I have a fight with someone today, I leave it there, I don't go to bed with it, I don't take it home with me. I still think that if this city is going to go where it needs to go, we got to go get (men like) Dale Danks and Kane Ditto involved with the growth of city. There is no way this city is going to reach its height and compete against other cities as long as they are trying to compete with bedroom communities like Ridgeland or Byram. Our focus must be a bigger focus, because we are a major city in this country. It's up to us to reach for higher goals. We need to go recruit businesses. Someone from Charlotte took some of our (jobs). We got the good climate, and we're close to everything; it is up to us to go and sell ourselves.
You and Ben Allen seem to have a public feud going. Is the feud real?
One thing I disliked about Ben Allen was that he was on (Klansman) David Duke's mailing list. I don't like that. Do I hate him? No. I don't hate anybody. Do I agree with him? Very seldom. Do I want to hurt him? No.
What about the slapping incident that was so widely publicized? (Stokes told Allen at a Council meeting that he would slap him if he didn't get out of his face.)
Come out to these neighborhoods; it is a different life. If someone is in your face, in your space, you have got to get them out of there. Now, normally if you get in someone's face in the neighborhood, they slap you first, they call it stealing on you, because they don't know what you are going to do. With the blacks and whites in the city, we don't know each other. White people see somebody black: they don't know. I think it was one of those situations, mostly, where he thinks it's OK to get in somebody's face; I was thinking that we were just really getting ready to go to war and I needed to get mine in first. So, that's why I told him to get out of my face because normally you don't ask. I was getting ready to go, because I didn't understand what he was getting ready to do. So, I thought I used restraint by asking him to move outside. At that point it was fixing to be a physical confrontation.
Do you think his public opposition to you helps him represent his ward?
I think it helps him with some of the Klan mentality people that hate Kenneth Stokes and say, "Well, we like you because you don't like Kenneth Stokes." I tell people like this: my mother is a retired teacher; she taught blacks and whites, we have blacks and whites in our family, my father worked at the VA with blacks and whites and I worked at the tax collector's office for almost six years, and I had as many whites around me as blacks. I got as many black enemies as whites, just as many white friends as black.
Your critics, which include members of your own race, have called you a racist. How do you respond?
How am I a racist? You never seen Kenneth Stokes shoot anybody or cut anybody. I've never participated in any act of violence against any race in that vein. I'm a no-nonsense person; I have a number of white so-called leaders who would like to talk to me. I don't talk to a lot of people; that way I don't have to worry about someone lying on me. White people call me with a problem because they know I will get it done. I do understand that a lot of black people have jobs and to keep their job, they have to be anti-Kenneth Stokes. Employers will ask: "What you think about Kenneth Stokes?" Well, that's almost like an interview question. If they like me, they can't work there. Most people call me Kenny; don't care what ward they're from; if they got problems, they call Kenneth Stokes; just as many white people call my phone as black people.
Do you want to see more racial reconciliation in the community, or less?
I'm not in favor of segregation by no means. But at the same time, if we work together, blacks do not have a subservient role.
Why can't we talk about race in Mississippi?
I don't know. When you do, someone says something about you. They talk about it all over the world. That don't mean you are a racist because you talk (about race). You know, there may be one white that you don't like that doesn't mean you hate all white people. I went to school with Hispanics, whites, whatever; we didn't see race. When you said something there it didn't have a racial impact. But when you say something here and it's black or white, they say, "Oh, it's racist." Why can't you say anything without it having a racist undertone? My mother taught at Chastain, she taught at Lanier, she grew up in Rolling Fork with white people. We have had white friends all our lives. Our position is if you tell the truth, it shouldn't have a color. The truth is the truth.
At City Council meetings, you introduce groups of young people on occasion. How should politicians, and community people, target young voters and to encourage them to become more involved in our community?
Trips, for one. We do Project Haircut; just before school, we take these kids and get them haircuts, so they don't feel out of place. Also, we do Operation We Care; we go get school supplies, give them to schools. During Christmas and then New Year, we work with the Salvation Army. We have a young woman who is 24 with eight kids: you can't just tell them what to do, you've got to do your deeds. We get the gospel radio station, Masonic temple and other people to bring toys. We join together to provide a way for people to just come and get toys. We go speak to young people; some people had it harder than me but I tell them if Kenneth Stokes can make it you can make it. We get them involved with internships; even if you don't have money to pay, you can help show me the ropes. When I was in law school, I will never forget, this professor asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I wanted to get in government and (he helped me) work in a judge's office in Houston; I will never forget him. White people have been just as good to me as some of the blacks. He showed me the ropes. And I called him when I finished with school and told him.
I just feel that if you invite young people to work in your office, to come see the chief of police, they get involved. A lot have given up because they don't see a reason to get involved; they feel nobody cares. Several years ago, I got the stadium opened so that the young people who had nowhere to go in the summers could hang out at the stadium. Not too many of them did the wrong things.
Do you think these projects help entice young people to vote?
I try not to make young people feel that they have to vote for me. I just talk to them, tell them how important people like Fannie Lou Hamer were, what people went through to gain them the right to vote. Some of these little kids are afraid to register to vote, so we take them. This community has always been a voting community.
Does The Clarion-Ledger ever come to these neighborhoods to interview you and cover stories?
Well, we have some reporters we talk to. The lower-level reporters, a lot of them come out to these neighborhoods, and we fought to get them there. It's some of the upper-level people we don't trust. We invite them to our meetings, but mostly they don't come.
Last week, a group held a press conference warning about racial profiling by suburban police. Are you worried about this issue?
I worry about it more in these surrounding counties. I've had a chance to meet with the police chief in Rankin County, where they were stopping these little black kids. I think that the mentality is that all blacks are criminals, and that's not true. A lot of young, black people are successful, and the police pulling them over is giving them a bad taste about law enforcement.
What is something about yourself that may surprise the public?
[with a bold laugh] A lot of people don't know that I'm Catholic.
Jessica Kinnison is a news intern at the Jackson Free Press.
Kenneth Stokes is a bigoted racist. He treats the city council as his playground with him being the bully. Its no wonder we have trouble improving the worlds attitude of Mississippi when you have a person such as this in a highly visable position.
He would do more for the city of Jackson by stepping down than any of his ridiculous city council antics.