On May 10, 2022, Jackson City Council Clerk Shanekia Jordan read item number 24 on the council’s agenda concerning authorization for Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba to sign a $9,000 contract with Artisan Pyrotechnics for a fireworks display celebrating Juneteenth. Instead of one council member moving the motion right away and then another seconding it as usual, the room was silent for three long seconds.
Seeing that the measure was about to die for lack of someone moving it, Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks jumped in at the last moment and moved the motion, but just “for the purpose of discussion,” he said. That means the council will not take a vote on it. The order presented to the council scheduled the fireworks display for June 17, 2022, though the Juneteenth federal holiday is on June 19.
Ten days before the May 10 council meeting, on April 30, 2022, a shootout at the Mudbug Festival at the 100-acre Mississippi State Fairgrounds in the capital city saw one suspect killed and several patrons injured. Thousands regularly attend the week-long event that commemorates the crawfish harvest in the state and features live music, rides and food. It’s a major crowd-drawing event each year.
At the council meeting, Banks invited Department of Parks and Recreation Director Ison B. Harris Jr. to address the council on the item he had just moved for discussion.
The director immediately expressed disappointment about the council’s action, seeing that the planned fireworks display, expected to draw a crowd, was on the chopping block. “I’m trying to keep my emotions in check because the reality is fireworks is something that is actually what we’ve done for years for kids,” Harris said.
Harris explained how the fireworks display was included in the budget for his department that the council approved last year, and he touted the event as something that brings the community together. “I just think this is unfair,” he continued. “I think we’re a prisoner of what’s going on right now, and we want to take it out on the youth right now.”
“I think that’s unfair,” Harris repeated. “Last year, we had over 4,000 people that came to the fireworks—we had not one incident—we’ve never had incidents in the fireworks.”
‘The Crime Situation in Jackson Is Real’
Mississippi Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Andy Gipson, who oversees operations at the fairgrounds, addressed the press about the April 30 shootout on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. He claimed that the incident resulted from a spillover of increased violent crime in the city.
“In order words, the crime waves that have plagued the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, the crime wave has crashed within the gates here at the state fairgrounds as of Saturday night,” Gipson said. “The crime situation in Jackson is real.”
“I can tell you from my own personal experience, having worked in the downtown area for over 20 years, much has changed over 20 years,” he added. “The threats are real; they are new; they are ever-growing; and it is a problem we cannot overlook.”
That same day, at another press conference on the steps of the Capitol, Jackson Police Chief James Davis apologized for what happened at the fairgrounds the previous week. “First of all, I want to apologize to all the people that attended the Mudfest for their experience,” he said. “My heart goes out to the victims, but also I want to celebrate law enforcement because of the action(s) of law enforcement … ultimately to neutralize that threat.”
The press conference featured remarks from Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann; House Speaker Philip Gunn; 3rd District U.S. Rep. Michael Guest; Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones; Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens; State Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson; and State Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson.
Norwood: ‘Due in Part to the Pandemic’
Sen. Norwood linked the crime level in Jackson to COVID-19 effects. “Let’s remember now, a lot of this is due in part to the pandemic,” the Jackson senator said. “During the pandemic, we basically had a lot of shutdowns that took place, and it was not business as usual.”
“So we had to have a lot of partners to try to overcome that, and today we are moving it closer to becoming a reality, going back to what it used to be.”
Mississippi Free Press reporter Aliyah Veal found in work on violence in Hinds County for the “Black Women, COVID-19 and Systemic Barriers” project that COVID-19 had myriad impacts on increasing violence across the U.S., due to systemic barriers already in place in Black communities. Those inequities range from lack of jobs and economic disinvestment in Jackson communities to untreated mental-health conditions and trauma.
On May 13, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control released a report on the increase in gun violence during the pandemic that began in 2020. “In 2020, coincident with the COVID-19 pandemic, the firearm homicide rate increased nearly 35%, reaching its highest level since 1994, with disparities by race and ethnicity and poverty level widening,” the report said. “Communities can implement comprehensive violence prevention strategies to address physical, social, and structural conditions that contribute to violence and disparities.”
The researchers noted that they could not determine why the observed increase occurred or whether they are attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic or other causes. “The findings of this study do not support causal inferences, and the reasons for increasing rates and widening inequities are unclear and potentially complex,” the report continued. “The increases in firearm homicide rates and persistently high firearm suicide rates in 2020, with increases among populations that were already at high risk, have widened disparities and heightened the urgency of actions that can have immediate and lasting benefits.”
At the May 4 press conference, District Attorney Jody Owens, like Sen. Norwood, also placed the “crime wave” at the feet of the pandemic. “In 2020, the world and Mississippi was hit by a pandemic—a pandemic of epic proportions that crippled Mississippi and the nation,” he said. “But in addition, we had a pandemic of criminal justice; crime rose in 2020 and 2021 that would have doubled the previous year’s homicides and violent crime.”
“Despite the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office and the Jackson Police Department solving crimes and arresting suspects at above the national rate, our system is not built to handle that volume of crime,” Owens added. “Despite the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office indicting 3,000 individuals on 4,000 counts over the last two years, our system is simply not built to handle that level of crime.”
The Hinds district attorney said that the solution is for more judges, prosecutors and public defenders to resolve and conclude cases more quickly and timely. Lt. Gov. Hosemann agreed and announced that apart from providing $4 million for the capitol police, the Legislature will fund special judges for Hinds County from the pandemic-related American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Special judges have been assisting with judicial operations in Hinds County since 2020.
“We are funding two additional district attorney’s assistant DAs to work here, to prosecute,” Hosemann said last week. “We are also funding three additional members of the judiciary that will be deployed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, two of which have been working in Jackson for the last year and a half to two years.”
“They have cleared a backlog of some 46,000 cases (based on) that last report I got from the Supreme Court,” he added. “We want immediate trials; we want people brought to justice, have their day in court up and down; judged by their peers in a quick manner and then disposed of one way or the other.”
District Attorney Owens said he expects the Hinds County detention-center population to reduce because of the “criminal justice initiative of public safety,” he said. The center houses people awaiting trial who are still innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
U.S. Southern District of Mississippi Judge Carlton Reeves, recently tapped by President Joe Biden to head the sentencing commission, found Hinds County twice in contempt for not complying with a 2016 federal consent decree for running the facility.
Owens assures that the additional judges and assistant district attorneys for Hinds County in the next two years will tackle about 3,000 cases, which he hopes will reduce the jail population by half over that time. “(It) will change the face of the capital city, and we can be vibrant and safe once again,” he said. “And when we get that ball rolling, you will see a difference to the Hinds County justice system.”
Police Chief Davis, as he has been pushing for several months, also asked for support in setting up a misdemeanor holding facility in the city. “I’m pursuing a holding facility right now. The mayor, the city council, the board of supervisors, they are supporting (it), but we need the funding,” he said. “And I believe when we get this, this holding facility, we can put a clear cut message out there to the bad actors in Jackson—you will no longer be field-released. If you do the crime, you will go to jail.”
Setting Up a Violence-Interruption Program
While reacting to the April 30 Mudbug Festival incident, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said at a May 2 press conference that his office will leverage $1 million in funding from Wells Fargo Bank to support a violence-interruption program in the city.
“We’re looking to start an Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery,” he said. “We’ll look to couple with surrounding businesses and CEOs so that they can help contribute because we think they have a vested interest in a safe Jackson.”
Harris: ‘This Is Amazing to Me’
At the May 10 council meeting, Parks and Recreation Director Harris continued to argue for the funding of the fireworks display for Juneteenth as the prospect seemed to slip away by the minute. “I’m really disappointed that this is even a conversation because this is something that has always been for our youth and for the safety (of) our youth over the summer,” he said, “So this is amazing to me that we’re even having this conversation.”
Councilman Banks said that rather than spend the $9,000 on fireworks, he prefers programs on violence intervention: “I would like to even see money like this go towards programs in our parks, where they’re actually intervention and mentoring people like the Better Men Society, people like Strong Arms of Jackson, actually on Juneteenth having more of a hands-on opportunity to not only do crime prevention and do mentoring, but things that can work throughout the year that will help us more with some of the optics that we have as a capital city when it comes to crime.”
“And I think at this point of that, we are looking at more outside-the-box ways to involve the community as a whole and to do things within the community, because—here’s the thing—it could be safe downtown, and it could be a good show downtown, but then God forbid, there might be a shooting on Woody (Drive), or there might be a shooting on Cooper (Road), or there might be a shooting over here on the same night.”
The city council later voted on the fireworks item, but it failed with a 3-4 vote with Ward 2 Councilwoman Angelique Lee, Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes and Ward 5 Councilman Vernon Hartley voting yes. The representatives of Wards 1, 4, 6 and 7—Ashby Foote, Brian Grizzell, Aaron Banks and Virgi Lindsay, respectively—opposed it.
The Public Safety/Park and Environment AdHoc Committee of the council considered the item two days later, on May 12, 2022. The measure failed, including an item to provide $16,000 of funding for a fireworks display for the Independence Day Celebration in July.