Greg Griffin, a 42-year-old finance worker based in Jackson, was happy to participate in the Real People's Assembly's effort to bring respite to Jesse and Sarah Pittman.
They are an elderly couple living on Sage Street who were dealing with raw sewage leaking beside their house and making the heat of summer less bearable than usual. The RPA, as organizers call it, pressured the city government to bring a sewage truck to the street and start resolving the problem after a Jackson Free Press article about the problem and lack of response from the City of Jackson.
"This is a direct result of the work session that we did in the Real People's Assembly," Griffin told the Jackson Free Press, which had exclusively reported the couple's sewage situation.
RPA initiated a donation drive through GoFundMe and used the proceeds to host the elderly couple at the Westin Hotel in downtown Jackson from July 17 to July 22. It was five days for the Pittmans to sleep better at night, away from the smell of raw sewage that invades the house when the window-unit air conditioner is on.
Griffin said he and Jackson-based lawyer Adofo Minka, who writes columns for this newspaper, formed a coalition on June 30. "Out of that coalition, we formed the group that is called the Real People's Assembly," Griffin said.
"We wanted to raise funds to provide some temporary relief from the situation, (putting the Pittmans) into temporary lodging, even if it was for a few days, to say, 'hey, you have somewhere to go where you don't have to deal with the unhealthy, unsafe and unsanitary condition.' That was one thing that we started." The GoFundMe campaign raised $1,200.
The new Real People's Assembly is not to be confused with the Jackson People's Assembly, long a form of shared governance for the family of Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba.
In fact, the RPA was established as an alternative to those better-known people's assemblies in Jackson.
Both groups, in fact, held assemblies to discuss solutions to over-policing and violence prevention recently on the same day: Saturday, July 11.
One Day, Two Assemblies
Rukia Lumumba, the mayor's sister, who directed his election campaign, is the co-chair of Jackson People's Assembly. She told the Jackson Free Press that JPA opted for a Zoom meeting in July on policing because of the pandemic.
"Before COVID-19, we (had) issue-based assemblies last year and the year before. (We) met in person and (had) a mass community gathering to discuss a pertinent issue," Rukia Lumumba said.
The meeting in February was not issue-based, but was more light-hearted, she said. The assembly had met 10 times between 2018 and 2019, and before that, the meetings were less frequent and focused on what she called "larger Issues."
"The initial assembly model when my father was city councilperson of Ward 2— they held assemblies monthly," she said.
Their most recent people's assembly had a direct competitor—the RPA. The upstart assembly's first meeting was held at 1 p.m. on July 11, with people gathering at 135 Bounds St. and also virtually. Happening at the exact time was the second meeting of the year for the traditional assembly on Zoom.
Minka made it clear that the RPA is designed as an alternative to the Lumumba's approach, explicitly saying so in a document containing its resolution at the end of the meeting, which Minka shared with the Jackson Free Press.
"Ordinary people recognize that the original pretense to a movement for popular assemblies never taught commoners how to be independent from city government and to take action to govern themselves. Now the process of popular government as self-directed liberating activity is underway," the RPA document said.
The basic concept of both people's assemblies is a focus on gathering together to express ideas on the direction the city of Jackson should go. Both define their end-goal as some form of direct democracy, though they differ in the definition of what the term means.
For RPA, direct democracy means the people determining what will happen and taking the initiative themselves to make it so.
For JPA, the goal is to become a legal government entity through future legislation, achieving the rule of the people and changing government from within. RPA, in contrast, believes that the government cannot reform itself and that the people must replace it by direct rule.
Illustrating the difference, Mayor Lumumba and his wife, Ebony, were part of the July 11 JPA meeting, attended by more than 80 people virtually. City and administration officials spoke at the Lumumba assembly, as they often do at length at the traditional people's assemblies.
RPA, on the other hand, is committed to excluding the mayor and his administration's officials. The leaders are openly critical of the mayor, with Minka often critiquing Lumumba's decisions, particularly on police violence and allowing the Jackson Police Department to work with the federal government on Project Eject.
The organizers also do not believe it is possible for the government, or those close to it, to organize a real people's assembly.
"Unlike a city council or PTA meeting, the RPA was not reported to by elite administrators or politicians, leaving a few minutes for ordinary people to express themselves and be ignored," the RPA resolution document stated. "The meeting established an overwhelming consensus that the RPA is not a place where professional politicians, police or surveillance operatives in uniform or plain clothes, are welcome."
Conversely, JPA co-chair Rukia Lumumba said in a phone interview that the basis of the assembly is actually as a link between the government and the people. That is, what the newer RPA prohibits is embedded in the traditional JPA model.
'Fake People's Assembly'
The RPA document contains 11 negative mentions of Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba. The group, which said it emerges from a group called Coalition Against Police State Violence, true to its origin has an ax to grind with Lumumba's mayoral administration in its handling of police brutality incidents in the city.
"The city government of Mayor Lumumba, who gratuitously claimed to be 'radical' and leading some kind of revolution, is responsible for the Black-led police state murder of eight Black people," the group stated. RPA added: "The fake people's assembly, after eight black people have been killed by the Black led police state, thinks Mayor Lumumba's administration is basically good."
Minka listed the incidents to include an unidentified man on Oct. 27, 2017; Nathaniel Fleming on Nov. 15, 2017; Crystalline Barnes on Jan. 27, 2018; Lee Edward Bonner on Feb. 21, 2018; Elliot Reed on May 9, 2018; George Robinson on Jan. 17, 2019; Mario Clark on Feb. 14, 2019; and an unidentified man on April 13, 2020.
About a year and a half into his term, Mayor Lumumba decided to release the names of officers involved in shooting to death citizens after reporting from this newspaper led to almost a year of meetings of a task force to discuss whether and how to release officers' names. That task force included police officers.
The issue of police brutality, nonetheless, occupied the center stage at the July 11 Jackson People's Assembly, organized by Rukia Lumumba and others. A member of the task force against police brutality presented Lumumba's recent executive order prohibiting chokeholds and other measures to rein in police excesses in the city at the meeting where participants were polled on their perspective on it.
RPA founders aren't buying it, though. "All of these things are just pacifiers," Minka said. "(Lumumba) passed those reforms after people had protested in front of the Governor's Mansion, and people started to mention the death of Mario Clark at the Black Lives Matter protest they had at the beginning of June. That was when he came out with those paltry reforms." Minka said he wrote an article criticizing the mayor's new reforms because they have been shown nationally to fail.
"The NYPD already banned choke-hold, and then they killed Eric Garner with the same choke-hold," Minka said. "And NPR (did) a report that showed it was ineffective. All of these kinds of things have been tried and tried again in various ways, but they are outright failures.
"And it showed the bankruptcy of the government to solve these issues and it's time for ordinary people to take center stage, and arrive on their own authority."
'Assemblies Are for Communities'
When asked, Rukia Lumumba gave her perspective on a rival people's assembly springing up. "Assemblies are for communities. If someone else wants to have an assembly, that's OK. It's to ensure that people have a place to share their thoughts and opinions," she said.
But RPA frames its approach as an alternative to the government-approved JPA. "The JXN (Jackson) People's Assembly is termed by the RPA, the 'fake people's assembly,'" its document stated. "The 'JXN People's Assembly' is already a dependent formation on the government where the Mayor and his minions set the agenda."
While JPA seeks to collaborate with the government and influence it, Minka draws attention to what he calls the "bankruptcy of government to solve issues," adding that "it's time for ordinary people to take center stage and arrive on their own authority."
Minka, in describing the vision of RPA, distances it from JPA as well as activism associated with the Lumumba family, who are favorites in national leftist circles.
"The Real People's Assembly is not associated with the Jacks People's Assembly associated with Mayor Lumumba's administration, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the People's Advocacy Institute. It is an independent body that will act independent of the government and will not be subordinated to any government officials," Minka told the Jackson Free Press.
"It is looking to establish its own independent self-government so that ordinary people can arrive on their own authority and control their own political, economic, social ecology and judicial affairs within the city of Jackson."
No Guilt, No 'Privileged'
The upstart Real People's Assembly is not content with working with the city, or any government but replacing it with a more radical form of bottom-up organizing and decision-making.
But if you think it is another form of Black self-determinism, you may be wrong. Its first resolution explains this.
"The RPA is against encouraging guilt to be born in minds. RPA will not speak of who is privileged because of historical acts that happened before they were born and could not control, and rejects the fraud of a Black world, a government of misleaders and phony government activists shouting 'black, black, black,'" it states.
By contrast, the Jackson People's Assembly emerged from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, founded by the elder Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor and father of the current mayor, and is rooted in Black identity politics and self-determinism. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement website clearly explains the group's relationship with the Jackson People's Assembly.
"The People's Assemblies that MXGM are working to build in Jackson, throughout the state of Mississippi, and other cities where we have chapters, are designed to be vehicles of Black self-determination and autonomous political authority of the oppressed peoples and communities in Jackson," the MXGM website states.
"The People's Assemblies in Jackson was developed by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and New Afrikan People's Organization (NAPO) in the mid-1990s to build, in Jackson and throughout the state of Mississippi, particularly its eastern Black belt portions, vehicles of self-determination and autonomous political authority of oppressed peoples and exploited classes contained within the state," says the document on JPA's founding that Rukia Lumumba provided to the Jackson Free Press.
Its competitor finds fault with that statement. The Real People's Assembly said that JPA "never taught commoners how to be independent of the city government. and to take action to govern themselves."
"The Coalition Against Police State Violence in Jackson mobilized for and named 'The Real People's Assembly' on the same day government-oriented activists—paid by the MacArthur Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers' Fund to run interference for the mayor—convened the next installment of the 'JXN People's Assembly,'" RPA claimed in a reference to the July 11 date the two groups met.
Rukia Lumumba flatly denied Jackson People's Assembly receiving funding from either of those bodies, saying that volunteer support and donations fund it, and so the "assembly is not owned by any organization. It's really a space for residents."
She said the Jackson People's Assembly has a planning team "made up of many organizations and individuals."
"We have the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the People's Advocacy Institute, One Voice Mississippi, NAACP, Mississippi Resiste and individuals," Lumumba said. "We have a host of individuals that volunteer. Those organizations help to ensure that there are resources that ensure that the assembly happens. They support different aspects of it (as) needed."
Minka says RPA aims to organize and place "ordinary people at the center of what we do and people being able to arrive at their own authority, instead of giving their authority to a government that is rooted in hierarchy and domination."
The Jackson People's Assembly has a different vision. "The current Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (allows) the development of the People's Assembly as an autonomous structure that will eventually be an institution of government that through legislation will be an entity city government must utilize for community input and engagement in local government decision-making," a JPA document stated.
Between Idea and Action
The next Jackson People's Assembly is on Aug. 8 at 1 p.m. and will focus on policing and budgeting. The Real People's Assembly will meet on Aug. 15 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and any member can bring a resolution for deliberation and vote.
For the Pittmans, the ideological difference between the two people's assemblies may be the least of their priorities. They needed a "brother's keeper." The government did not prioritize their seven-month old sewer problem, which makes them a nuisance to their neighbors.
But with the Real People's Assembly's unyielding advocacy on their behalf to the government, a sewer truck arrived on Wednesday, July 22, near their house to rectify the problem, becoming for everyone involved something of a light at the end of a smelly tunnel.
However, on Aug. 3, Griffin sent this reporter a text at 6:04 p.m.: "Re: The Pittmans. Mrs. Pittman just called to inform me that as of 6 p.m. today, the City has not been back to her residence to resume work despite assurances made this past Friday that they would. This is even after the Mayor reached out to them during an on-air interview this Sunday to tell them the issue is being handled or taken care of."
For the Pittmans, it seems fresh air may still be farther ahead.
Email story tips to city/county reporter Kayode Crown at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter at @kayodecrown.