At the southwest entrance to the Metrocenter Mall on Saturday, Sept. 3 – the sixth day of Jackson’s current water crisis – shards of glass cluttered the sidewalk where doors used to be. Inside, a city worker drove a green forklift which left tracks on the marble floor and beige carpet as he reorganized hundreds of pallets of donated water one by one.
This abandoned mall, where the primary tenants are police and water department, has in recent weeks become the nexus of a city-wide water distribution effort called the Rapid Response Coalition, a partnership between the City of Jackson and volunteers with 30-plus advocacy organizations.
Water donated from across the country is brought here in 18-wheelers and then distributed early each morning to six coalition-run sites in neighborhoods in south and west Jackson, predominantly Black and poorer parts of the city more affected by the water crisis.
Danyelle Holmes, a member of the Poor People’s Campaign, has spent nearly every day outside at the mall, helping to manage the massive distribution effort that the coalition estimates has put more than an 1.2 million bottles of water into the hands of Jacksonians for free.
She said the goal is to help the city with its distribution effort and to fill gaps in the state’s response.
“We’ve seen a lack of response from our government – our state government leadership, and so we decided two years ago when the pandemic hit that we weren’t going to wait on anyone to come and save us,” Holmes said. “So it’s our goal and it’s our mission to save ourselves.”
READ MORE: Mississippi Today’s complete coverage of the Jackson water crisis
Two and a half weeks into the current water crisis, the coalition has scaled back operations as the city and state have restored the water pressure at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant and turned attention to addressing the boil water notice. This week, only two coalition sites – Westland Plaza and Oak Forest Community Center – are still open daily, with the rest operating just two days a week. Volunteers are prioritizing home delivery, Holmes said.
Now, the coalition is shifting focus to drawing up demands – tentatively scheduled to be released this week – for a long-term solution to the water crisis. They hope to pressure state leaders to enact solutions they view as more equitable.
There are currently a handful of proposals on the table to fix Jackson’s water system, but every option reportedly entails Jackson ceding some control of its water system to an outside party, be it a state entity or commission, a regional authority, or a private company.
To many activists, the state and to some extent the federal government bear responsibility for the water crisis, not the city. Any move that infringes on Jackson’s control of its water system seems to suggest the city is responsible for the crisis – a notion they attribute to racism. They emphasize that the water crisis would not have happened without white lawmakers withholding state funding.
“We’ve only had Black leaders for the last two or three terms, so how can you blame this divestment on the fact that we have Black leadership?” asked Lorena Quiroz, the executive director of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity.
One proposal in particular – privatization – has been widely condemned by activists. State leaders have suggested that the city could lease its water system to a private company that would manage operations. The second week of the crisis, Lumumba said the city had been in talks to contract out operations and management.
When some Jacksonians hear the word “privatization,” though, they picture a for-profit company outright purchasing the water system.
Private water systems come at an increased cost to customers, though research has shown they are less likely to violate federal clean drinking-water laws than public utilities.
Private water systems can also be less accountable to the public, which some activists said could be problematic at a time when trust needs to be restored in the system.
“The thing with privatization is they control what they think is best for us,” said Imani Olugbala, a member of Cooperation Jackson. “If it’s government-led, we have some oversight. If it’s exclusively for profit, we have to pay the price for water, and it’s going to be whatever they say, because that’s the capitalist construction. What’s next, the air?”
Many also noted it’s ironic that state leaders who ignored Jackson’s water crisis get to decide the response.
“I would’ve liked to see swifter movement on the state-level because it seemed like it was weeks before we heard anything from Gov. Reeves,” said Blaise Adams, a pre-law student at Tougaloo College who was passing out water at IAJE’s pick-up site. “Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been proactively worked on.”
Quiroz questioned if Jackson’s water system can ever be truly fixed in a stratified, capitalist economy.
“Water should be free. We shouldn’t have to pay for water,” she said. “That should be something that’s provided by the fucking state.”
The work of distributing free water might not sound radical during a crisis, but to Holmes and other members of the Rapid Response Coalition, it is a model for how another, better society could function.
Since the water emergency started, members of the coalition have held an 8 a.m. Zoom call to discuss plans for the day. They decide collectively how to spread out their resources – how much water should be allocated to each of the six pick-up sites based on the amount distributed the day before and who should respond to emergency calls the city’s 311 line receives from Jacksonians who need water.
The approach to activism is known as “mutual aid,” in which people in a community provide resources that the government failed to in a way that aims to not recreate systematic disparities. A term coined by a famous anarchist, mutual aid also aims to create social change by harnessing the collective work to achieve a political end.
“We create our own system while at the same time pushing to change the current systems that fail people,” said Lea Campbell, the founding president of the climate-justice organization Mississippi Rising Coalition at IAJE’s site on the corner of Fortification and N West Street.
That Saturday morning – the same day Holmes was at the Metrocenter Mall – about 17 volunteers stood between cases of bottled water on the sidewalk. An occasional hitch like the backdoor of a Honda minivan closing slowly held up the line.
Some members donned red to show they were members of the local Democratic Socialist of America chapter; others, college students from Tougaloo and Oxford, wore shirts that said “DO GOOD” and “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
“We got everybody in the house,” Quiroz said. She supervised the line with the attitude of a school teacher (she used to be one) overseeing car pick-up, inviting passersby who stopped to get some water to park their cars and volunteer.
It’s important for organizations like IAJE to step up during disasters, Quiroz said, because many people can’t afford pricey and personal solutions like buying their own water or installing filtration systems.
“It’s like the Roe v. Wade decision,” she said. “Folks that have the money can have access to abortion as health care, they just have to get in their car and drive.”
It can be scrappy work. At the Metrocenter Mall, the coalition’s base of operations was right next to a distribution site run by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Stocked with non-potable water, porta-potties, military-style forklifts and dozens of uniformed National Guardsmen, MEMA’s site looked very different from the coalition’s.
“The National Guard has far more money than we do, the state has far more resources, so we can’t begin to compete,” Holmes said. “That’s comparing apples to oranges.”
As Holmes talked with Mississippi Today, about a dozen volunteers sat on empty wooden pallets, waiting for the workers inside the mall to finish unloading an 18-wheeler of water. At one point, a city water department employee tried to drive a forklift even though she had no experience.
Kadin Love, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100, said he thinks the solution to the crisis is better state and local representation for Black Mississippians that will only be achieved if activists from across the country invest time and money in the state at a level that hasn’t been seen since Freedom Summer.
“Money isn’t poured down here, folks don’t come down here to help us organize,” he said. “We’ve had to address our own issues systematically since basically 1964.”
His experience this past year watching national news go ignored as it unfolded in Jackson has not exactly left him feeling optimistic.
“Mississippi was the epicenter of the fight for abortion, but we didn’t see millions of people down here organizing,” he said. “In Jackson, at some of our largest protests we max out at maybe 200, 300 people.”
“Why didn’t we have any support beforehand?” he continued. “Why are we the last line of defense?”