Pro-Union Ex-Offender Wins Chattanooga City Council Seat – Jackson Mayors Race Heats Up – Angola Prison Workers Win Big

Greetings from Atlanta, Ga., where Democrat Jon Ossoff’s close runoff congressional election in the Atlanta suburbs highlights how changing political attitudes and demographics in the South could lead to more progressive victories in ballot boxes across the South.

Pro-Union Ex-Offender Defeats Incumbent on Chattanooga City Council

This week, Demetrus “Meechie” Coonrod was elected to the Chattanooga City Council, defeating 27-year incumbent Yusuf Hakeem. As city councilman, Hakeem had been criticized for being too friendly to developers and doing little to help the labor movement in the city.

Prior to this year, Coonrod could not vote in Tennessee due to her felony record. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Coonrod was convicted on a number of charges including robbery, theft, assault, and child neglect. She served two years in federal prison in Tallahassee.

After she was released in 2010, she went to work at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Chattanooga and was a member of the Steelworkers union there. While working at Pilgrim’s Pride, three of her fingers were amputated. Despite this, she struggled to lead a life clean of crime and drugs.

Coonrod said that she got involved in politics to help people like her who were struggling to change their lives and do the right thing.

“I had time to think about my life. Like what am I doing? What am I not doing? How can I make things right. I knew I did not want to come outside of prison being the same person I was going inside prison,” Coonrod told WRCB. “I began to knock on every door. Reach out to elected officials saying hey I need some help. I need you to help me help my community.”

This week, Coonrod was sworn into City Council by the same federal judge that sentenced her to prison.

“Judge Curtis Collier told me on the day he sentenced me to Federal Prison, ‘Young lady, I see so much more in you than prison,’” said Coonrod on facebook. “17 years later, what a joy to be sworn in to City Council by none other than Judge Curtis Collier.”

In her first City Council meeting, Coonrod grilled the Chattanooga Public Works Administrator Justin Holland on low wages in his department and making sure that ex-felons get access to municipal jobs.

Black Democratic Socialist Elected to South Fulton, Ga., City Council

This week, Democratic Socialist member, union activist and attorney khalid kamau (who prefers lowercase letters in keeping with the Yoruba tradition) was elected to the city council of South Fulton. The city of 87,000 encompasses several suburban communities in the Atlanta area.

A lawyer by trade, kamau was forced to take a series of blue collar jobs during the downturn of the Great Recession. While working as a bus driver, he joined Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and become a union activist. Eventually, he was hired as a union organizer for the Fight for $15 campaign in Atlanta.

The Democratic Socialists of America, which has seen a doubling in its membership since Trump’s election, touted the victory as a sign of their growing strength in local elections across the South and the U.S.

“Far too many elected officials start their day thinking of your boss instead of you—but the working people of South Fulton will have a City Council member on their side: khalid kamau,” Maria Svart, Democratic Socialists of America’s national director, said in a statement. “khalid’s win today is a tremendous victory for his community and a shot across the bow for politics as usual nationwide.”

Mayor’s Race in Jackson, Miss., Is a Turning Point For Southern Black Electoral Politics

In 2013, civil rights organizer and black radical activist Chokwe Lumumba was elected as Mayor of Jackson—Mississippi’s largest city. Lumumba hoped to implement a radical vision for economic and social change in the city.

However, seven months later, Lumumba died—shattering the dreams of radical activists across the South.

In a special election that pitted Lumumba’s son Chokwe Antar Lumumba against establishment Democrat pastor Tony Yarber, Yarber won. Now voters in Jackson are starting to have buyer’s remorse.

Payday friend and CWA staffer Matthew Cunningham-Cook has a look at the stakes for In These Times magazine:

Yarber’s tenure has been a study in neoliberal patronage politics that benefits a tiny few at the expense of the many. From Lumumba’s predecessor, Harvey Johnson Jr., Yarber inherited a $91 million contract with the multinational conglomerate Siemens to automate water meters, leading to one problem after another, including sky-high bills and broken water lines. Yarber—who received $30,000 in campaign contributions from a retired Siemens subcontractor, Socrates Garrett—has instituted no oversight over Siemens, even as residents clamor for a lawsuit. Meanwhile, he privatized Jackson’s transit agency, JATRAN, leading to complaints of a marked deterioration in the quality of service. He also outsourced $13.8 million in sludge-hauling work that could have easily been done by city employees.

The high bills from Siemens and other contractors have been used to justify an austerity program, with city workers laid off and furloughed, cuts in bus services, and deferrals of basic maintenance. The sewer system has so deteriorated that tens of thousands of residents lost water service in February.

Smelling blood, the Tea Party-dominated county and state legislature are moving to take control of various parts of Jackson: the school district, the airport and the business district surrounding the Capitol.

Enter Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who is again running against Yarber. Like his father’s, Lumumba’s campaign centers around good governance. He pledges to take on Siemens, stop outsourcing city work and end the furloughs. Lumumba also wants to push the state for more funding, without more top-down control. While Mississippi’s legislature is rightwing, it is susceptible to organized pressure, particularly from the capital. The elder Lumumba and his allies succeeded in getting the legislature to make desperately needed investments in Jackson’s infrastructure. Like his father, the younger Lumumba brings the clout of a local movement for economic justice and Black self-determination, anchored by groups such as the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson, which have deepened their base over the past few years by developing a network of cooperatives and a community center.

GOP Likely to Push Only Short-Term Solution To Coal Miner Retiree Crisis

Last winter, Senate Democrats threatened to shut down the U.S. Senate unless the Miners Protection Act was passed. At the time, the Senate passed a four-month temporary spending bill that would extend retired miner’s health care until April.

The bill would allocate approximately $220 million a year through a complex formula from the EPA’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to the United Mine Workers Pension and Retirement Fund. The Fund is facing insolvency as a result of bankruptcies in the coal industry. If the fund went insolvent, 125,000 retired coal miners and their beneficiaries could lose their health care and pension benefits.

Now, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has signaled that he plans to pass only a 20-month temporary extension instead of a permanent fix.

Critics say that the move by Ryan would lead to uncertainty for miners struggling with health issues. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said that by delaying a permanent fix for 20 months that Republicans are exacerbating a problem while trying to claim credit for fixing it right before an election.

“It perfectly lined up with the 2018 election,” Manchin told the New York Times.

Prison Workers At Angola Make Big Gains

In early February, the state of Louisiana cut overtime pay in half for prison guards at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.

In response, AFSCME Local 3056 has seen a sharp increase in membership. Since February, 118 workers have joined the union.

After protests by the union, the state reversed course. It decided to reinstitute overtime pay at time-and-a-half.

Free Press Launches Community Organizing Effort to Improve North Carolina News Coverage

As the progressive movement grows in the South, organizers are beginning to tackle how they can help change the way journalists cover news.

Free Press is launching an innovative campaign to bring community groups and newsrooms together to talk about how to improve news coverage.

In a statement, the media activist organization said, “We’re beginning our community-engagement initiatives in Charlotte and the Triangle, and we anticipate working in places like Asheville, the Triad and Wilmington over the next two years. We’ll host small gatherings, trainings and public conversations.”

“We’ll foster collaborations between newsrooms and community groups. We’ll strengthen networks of journalists, media makers and people who care about quality local news and information, building stronger bonds statewide to foster better and more sustainable news coverage of North Carolina.”

They are hosting launch events this week in Durham and Charlotte. To learn more, go to Free Press’s website.

Weekend Reads

— The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a long profile of Velma Blackwell. Now age 71, Blackwell talks about her experience becoming the first black nurse at Northside Hospital Cherokee:

Blackwell knew she wanted to be a nurse as early as age 15. After graduating from high school in 1964, she met and married Samuel Blackwell before completing a license practical nurse program at Northern Michigan University.

When her husband was discharged from the U.S. Army, the couple moved to Cherokee County, where Samuel Blackwell had grown up and where Velma had applied for a job at R.T. Jones.

“What struck me at the time was they didn’t allow black people to be any kind of nurse,” Velma Blackwell said. “Even registered nurses could only work as aides.”

White colleagues agreed to work with her, but they would not eat with her. Blacks rejected her because they believed she “was playing for the other team.”

“I didn’t have many friends, black or white,” Blackwell said, “but it wasn’t all doom and gloom.”

— This week, Bill O’Reilly was fired after allegations of sexual harassment and a campaign by activists aimed at getting sponsors to drop their ads on his program.

However, Color of Change Co-Founder James Rucker says that the narrative about O’Reilly’s demise ignores the role that black folks played in making them happen:

Over the last few weeks, as advertisers have left The O’Reilly Factor in droves, reporters have tried to explain how activists could bring down such a Fox titan. They have in large part referred back to the demise of another Fox giant, Glenn Beck. Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, has been featured in the New Yorker, Fast Company, Politico and on CNN and other news outlets, positioning himself as the person who orchestrated the successful 2009 campaign that pushed roughly 300 advertisers away from Beck’s show and got Beck off Fox for good.

Carusone tells a good story. The problem is that it’s simply not true. And it sets the stage for Media Matters to claim more credit than it’s due as the genius behind the current campaign against O’Reilly.

In reality, the snowballing of advertisers leaving Beck’s show was the result of a campaign designed and led by Color Of Change, a Black racial justice organization that I ran from 2005 to 2011. The campaign lasted for 18 months, engaged 285,000 Color Of Change members and allies, generated numerous high-profile news stories in outlets such as the New York Times, Associated Press, Politico and Reuters, and succeeded in stripping millions in revenue from Fox News and forcing Beck’s hateful show off the air.

— Finally, Longreads has a look at what inspired Nina Simone to compose the song “Mississippi Goddamn”:

On September 15, 1963, four girls were killed when white supremacists planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the side steps of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The children were preparing for a sermon titled “A Love That Forgives.” According to one witness, their bodies flew across the basement “like rag dolls.”

When she heard the news, jazz musician Nina Simone was paralyzed. “It was more than I could take,” she remembered, “and I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection…it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered into me and I ‘came through.’”

Simone’s initial reaction was less than Christian. “I had it in mind to go out and kill someone,” she remembered. “I tried to make a zip gun.”

Andy, her husband and manager, intervened. “Nina,” he said, “you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.”

An hour later, Nina Simone had composed a song called “Mississippi Goddam.” “It was my first civil rights song,” she recalled, “and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down.”

Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild and is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and has written for the New York Times.

Follow him on Twitter @MikeElk or email him: [email protected]


About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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