By Tyler Carter

Operating through crisis, ‘shenanigans’ reasons for Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis

Mississippi is a complicated place.

There’s no other way to describe it, no need to delve into its well-documented history but the reality the state refuses to face has allowed a permanent black eye to remain, even though healing has always been an option.

Jackson is the capital city, a city that has the country’s largest concentration of Black people behind Detroit.

Imagine the irony of Jackson, Mississippi, trailing another state who has a city who has experienced similar trials and tribulations such as Flint, Michigan, and its water crisis.

Water has been an issue in Jackson for quite some time due to a crumbling infrastructure that has continually been patched but never fixed.

The answer to how we got to where we are isn’t as simple as the passing of the buck from mayor to mayor. It has more to do with the lack of synergy between governors and mayors, which is the current issue at hand.

Tony Yarber was elected mayor of the City of Jackson during a special election in 2014 after the sudden death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, the late father of the city’s current mayor.

I spoke with Yarber in hopes of getting insight into the relationship between Jackson mayor and Mississippi governor, the “shenanigans” he dealt with during his tenure and issues he says the current mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, is also dealing with.

Since Jackson has been in national headlines due to another water crisis, many questions are being asked, such as “How did this happen?” and “Why is this happening again?”

Pikes Peak Iowa, high above the confluence of the Mississippi and the Wisconsin river. Border between Iowa and Wisconsin | Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Yarber said the City of Jackson has been operating in crisis mode for quite some time and does not have a true path forward.

There are also perceptions that previous city administrations and the current administration have not done enough to solicit funding to help solve these issues. According to Yarber, this isn’t the case.

“Every year, there should be some ask of the state through legislation for infrastructure funding of some type,” he said. “These requests should also be made at the national level – which it was,” he added, referring to a request made by his administration.

He said it was hard for the City of Jackson to receive funding from the state without “checks” being placed on the money.

“If we get the opportunity to have funding, typically it comes with a lot of restrictions that no other municipality had to deal with,” Yarber said. “We’re the only municipality whose 1% sales tax is governed by a state-established commission.”

Creating yet another hurdle for city administration to jump through, Yarber said the state would then point them to the “State Revolving Loan Fund,” but when the city attempted to do so, it was denied funds.

“In 2012, we were denied $6 million by the lieutenant governor, who is now the governor (Tate Reeves),” he said.

In 2015, Yarber’s administration declared a state of emergency on the city’s water system surrounding the capital and underground infrastructure. Water pressure dropped due to an issue at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, which led to an inability to provide water to the city.

At that time, Yarber said his administration had a very frank conversation with engineers and those involved, where he said they were told this would continue to happen and that throwing inadequate amounts of money at the issue would not fix the problem.

The state of emergency did not last very long, he said, and while he did not remember the exact number of days, the city council voted down the emergency. The governor did not find merit, so he also did not support the emergency.

Had Gov. Phil Bryant supported or declared a state of emergency, the city could have solicited financial support from the federal government based on the relationship Yarber said the city had with then President Barack Obama’s administration.

However, none of this happened.

“And so here we are,” he said.

Referring to his earlier point regarding the city being in crisis mode, Yarber said the current administration has not had the time to construct a Capital Improvement Plan, which must be in place before any monies are spent on infrastructure of any type.

This is a legislative issue, he said.

“There’s just been a lot of… shenanigans, politics, and stuff like that, and it’s plenty of blame to go around,” he said. “It’s not just about the governor not liking Black folks, and it’s not just about the mayor not liking the governor.”

These issues have been compounded throughout the years and have trickled down to the current administration.

“This mayor right now is dealing with a group of legislators who wrote a letter to the governor to call a special session and hadn’t even talked to the mayor,” Yarber said. “That’s not new. That’s how it goes.”

While politics is impacting the lives of Jacksonians, there are those who have boots on the ground, looking to make tangible change in what can be described as nothing short of a humanitarian crisis.

Advocacy is something Maisie Brown does because it’s within her spirit and because she wants to see the betterment of everything associated with the capital city.

Brown, a student at Jackson State University, is pulling resources to help everyone in need as best she possibly can.

Her efforts started with an idea that eventually spread to other students who were interested in helping and advocating, with the purpose of helping the communities most affected by the water crisis.

“Last week, me and a few other students came together and asked who wanted to organize around the water issue, and people reached out. We created a GroupMe and started a lot of distribution sites across the city where people could pull up and get water,” she said.

Within the first 24 hours, a hotline was created, along with a directory for the most vulnerable communities in Jackson to keep them abreast of where they could find bottled water.

“It picked up an incredible amount of steam,” Brown said.

With inflation and rising costs of everyday necessities, Brown said the water issue has caused students to return home after the university declared the campus would be closed and classes would be moved online.

When it comes to support, Brown said it is coming from across the country.

“We have had a couple of Black Law Students Association organizations from different schools reach out, wanting to help. A lot of our volunteers who help us run the call lines and check voicemails are college students from New York, Philadelphia, Texas, and students from across the state,” she said.

Brown said churches are also reaching out to see how they can help, whether through water bottle donations or financial assistance.

She also recognizes the tension between the mayor and governor and said it’s sad to see it this way.

“You can cut the tension in the room between our governor and mayor, and it’s pretty sad that it’s like that, but I don’t think that is all Mayor Lumumba’s doing,” Brown said. “State leadership and state legislatures have been extremely hostile towards Jackson in general and this water situation. Little flippant remarks have created tension and pushed back on the capital city.”

One of those remarks Brown is referring to is a statement Reeves made last year on March 3, where he said, “I do think it’s really important that the City of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.”

“I don’t think I have ever seen a state treat its capital city in the way Jackson has been treated,” Brown said. “A lot of balls have been dropped over the years, and it shouldn’t have gotten to this point. They need to do their jobs; it’s what we elected them to do.”

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Yarber said the distance is what keeps sustainable change from occurring and that there needs to be a diplomatic relationship forged not only between the mayor and governor, but also those in the legislature.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I never had issues with Tate Reeves, I never had issues with Phil Bryant, I never had issues with the Speaker of the House (Phillip Gunn). As a matter of fact, two big pieces of legislation we worked on, the Speaker of the House as well as the lieutenant governor dedicated two staff people to work with my team to make sure those bills got through.

“At the end of the day, whether it’s racism or not, there’s a diplomatic role, where politics must be played. You can’t play it sitting back, ready to cry about what folks are not doing.”

The City of Jackson needs consistent help. If you are interested in helping, you can find information on Brown’s Twitter.