In the state’s most populous city, a former Confederate stronghold that would later give way to thriving Black business districts and serve as a hub for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, residents are now grappling with a gun violence epidemic that spiked at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and shows no signs of abating.
“We see lifelong friends kill each other, we’ve seen a son kill his mother and sister, have seen crimes that are based on social determinants and an inability of people to be engaged in institutions in which they thrive,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN during a tour of the city.
The rising gun violence has further exposed the city’s deep-rooted social and political problems, none with easy or tidy solutions. And everyone working against this wave — from the city’s civic, law enforcement, faith, and street outreach communities — is competing not just with spiraling violence, but with a pandemic that laid bare all of society’s inequities when it became ever more difficult to address them.
There have already been 150 homicides this year through December 21, according to police, nearly all of them shootings. The city’s homicide rate is 97.6 murders per 100,000 residents, 15 times higher than the US rate of 6.5, most resulting from gunfire.
“When you get up to 80 per 100,000 in a city with more than 100,000 people you’re dealing with a vanishingly small number of places with homicide rates that high,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Jackson, a solidly Democratic city in a state that is solidly Republican, shattered its homicide record in 2020 with 130 — the previous high of 92 homicides in 1995, about the time when homicides in America peaked.
Mississippi is an open carry state
All of this came to a head in March 2020, when lockdowns began across the country. It’s impossible to ignore the role that guns play: city officials, police officers of different ranks, and outreach workers have all cited the ease of obtaining guns, their open display and availability during high-stress times, and the inability of police to act when they see a gun as contributing factors for the spike in homicides.
“I had a 5-year-old at home at that time … And that baby was doing the same thing that my baby was: playing on an iPad.”
He declared the order “necessary for the protection of life and property in this moment of great distress and economic tension.”
The open carry limitation only lasted days, and an escalation of violence continued. By mid-July 2020, the city had surpassed 2019’s homicide totals. The violence has not abated since.
Community leaders point to the pandemic’s erosion of Jackson’s already frayed social safety net, saying that the pandemic-caused closure of community institutions like churches, parks and other services almost certainly contributed to the uptick in violence.
“It’s affected how they operate [in] school, and how they function in school is affected, how they relate to their families, and how they relate to their other friends,” he said.
Drastic demographic changes in the city
Jackson, a largely Black metropolis in a state with the largest share of Black residents in the country, has undergone drastic changes in the past half century. Its economic decline has occurred rapidly over the past two decades, fueled by population decline and demographic shifts.
In the 1980s, Jackson changed its form of government from two elected commissioners and a mayor to a city council system with a seven-member council and a mayor. This changed the form of government from one where three people were elected citywide to one with the city carved into seven city council districts, which led to greater representation for women and Black people in government and marked the beginning of drastic demographic changes.
“People in the city of Jackson were demanding that they have some representation, and until that time … it was guaranteed that as long as the city was majority White and people who voted were majority White, it was guaranteed to elect three White men in a city that was majority Black or close to it,” Luckett said.
The city’s population shrank from almost 200,000 in 1990 to about 160,000 in 2020. Its decline in population in these three decades was driven almost entirely by White flight. The city was 56% Black in 1990. By 2020, 82% of the city’s residents were Black.
“People who left were people who have means to do so. Not everyone can pick up and move to the suburbs,” Luckett said. “Losing tax base, losing property values. And (the city was) dealing with state government based in Jackson that, because of those factors, was increasingly hostile to city of Jackson.”
Inside city hall, photos of the previous mayors line a grand staircase, with the White mayors on one side and Black mayors on the other.
The median income in Jackson has also rapidly dwindled, while neighboring suburban communities have grown wealthier over time. More than a quarter of the city’s population lives below the poverty line.
Much of the city’s White flight appears to have been to nearby Madison County, where the population has doubled since 1990, and it was the only county in Jackson’s metropolitan area with a greater percentage of White people in 2019 than 1990.
Community members say a lack of social services, jobs and resources can make violence seem like a viable option for teens.
“(There’s) no economic growth, nowhere to work. Nowhere. A young person can only work at a fast-food restaurant,” said Timothy Finch, a violence interrupter in Jackson. “If I can’t work, what am I going to do? I sit at home all day. Idle time makes an idle mind.”
Finch said he and another violence interrupter approached two kids recently who were sitting on a brick wall near a park, thinking they were scheming either to snatch a woman’s purse or break into a car. When they approached the kids, they confirmed Finch’s suspicions almost without hesitation. But he understands the impulse.
“There’s nothing for them to do,” he said. “Being in Jackson, man, it’s almost like being in prison. Only difference is that instead of being in my zone or in my cell all day, the whole city is the cell … Just like a big jail house, nobody’s doing nothing.”
It can take hours for police to respond
Jackson’s decline has also weakened its police force, and the pandemic has only accelerated the challenges the department faces.
As the city’s population has withered and its tax revenues declined, the department shrunk from a peak of more than 520 officers to about 290 in 2021. Another 20% of officers are retirement eligible. And though the department is budgeted up to 350 officers, it’s a struggle keeping up with attrition, attracting and training new recruits.
The city is competing with higher-paying departments in the nearby bedroom communities that grew as Jackson contracted. Those communities make up about two-thirds of the metro area’s total population. They also have less crime and calls for service.
Because Jackson is so large, and police staffing is so light, it’s not surprising for calls to take hours to get to — a single major incident could draw three or four officers in a precinct that might have only a dozen officers working, and calls stack up. And when residents call 911 and an officer doesn’t arrive for hours, it breeds mistrust.
Reliance on ‘credible messenger’ program
While Jackson’s understaffed police force certainly has a role to play in crime reduction, the mayor says they can’t bear the sole responsibility for the city’s ongoing crisis.
“I think you’re working behind an 8-ball if you think you can out-police crime,” Lumumba said.
Organizers, advocates, and politicians all emphasize outreach and community-based solutions for long-term, sustainable violence reduction.
“Every block is going to be organized by somebody, right? It’s either going to be organized by a positive force or negative force,” Lumumba said. So much of outreach work is just showing kids something different.
The program also guaranteed kids at least one FDA-approved meal each day of camp, but most days the staff also ensured kids got hot breakfasts and an afternoon snack.
Now, initiatives in Jackson focus on violence interruption, a tactic that uses known members of the community to de-escalate conflict before it turns violent. The success of these programs can vary. Locally, well-respected messengers can help negotiate a truce or somehow otherwise stand in the way of warring groups. But violence interrupters have not yet led to a total, sustainable crime reduction across an entire city.
These programs face an uphill climb to success. It’s not just about connecting with the kids — they need wide buy-in from institutions often with different goals, including juvenile courts, police stations, hospitals and schools. But once that credibility is established, the relationships may last years.
“It didn’t take a whole lot of convincing for me to be collaborative and responsive, as opposed to reactive, to (a child’s) actions,” said Hicks, who authorized the program in juvenile detention and as an intervention program for teens who’ve been arrested.
Every child in her jurisdiction tried as an adult has a child protective services history, Hicks said. Unaddressed trauma turns into other behaviors, and juvenile delinquents may graduate to more serious violent crimes.
“Data will show, studies will show, statistics will show, that if we don’t have meaningful intervention at that stage, there will be manifestation of (violence) in the future.”
While community organizers work toward long-term solutions, Jackson city officials are scrambling to find something to stem the violence happening right now. At the beginning of November, Lumumba convened a multi-agency summit for community leaders to discuss solutions, but the event was closed to the press and public. Since then, community leaders have hosted several other forums in the city’s wards.
Just before Christmas 2021, Strong Arms of JXN got keys to a former community center in South Jackson that sat unused. It will serve as an anchor for the program. Ivey, one of the co-directors, said he’s already ordered PlayStations and other provisions to make the space an inviting one for teens.
“We’re excited. We’ve been trying to do this spot to spot, it’s not as effective. We need to be able to hunker down in one area, it’s disintegrated more than any part of the city the last several years, and that’s where we want to be anyway,” Ivey said. “I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe God gave us that.”
Inside a Mississippi city that became one of the country’s most murderous during the pandemic