Bishop William J. Barber II speaks into a bullhorn during a march for clean public water in Jackson, Mississippi on September 26, 2022.

Bishop William J. Barber II speaks into a bullhorn during a march for clean public water in Jackson, Mississippi on September 26, 2022. (Photo: Steve Pavey via Twitter)

'We Have to Fight': Poor People's Campaign Rallies for Clean Public Water in Jackson

"Here in Jackson there will probably be a time when there's crowds as far as the eye can see, people from all over, because somebody's been poisoning the water," said Bishop William J. Barber II.

The Poor People's Campaign held the first of what it hopes will be many rallies in Jackson, Mississippi on Monday to draw attention to the city's ongoing infrastructure crisis, oppose the privatization plans floated by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, and demand the public investments needed to ensure that all 150,000 people living there enjoy the human right to safe drinking water.

"People are tired of having to wash their babies in poisoned water."

Under the banner of "Free the Land, Clean the Water, Keep It Public," the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign led a march through downtown Jackson, stopping outside the governor's mansion near the state capitol building for a rally. Bishop William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the national Poor People's Campaign, joined the march and rally, which was live-streamed.

As the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported:

The rally, which at its largest size reached over 100 people, was modeled on a "Moral Monday" blueprint that Barber was instrumental in creating. In 2013, Barber called on people in North Carolina, where he was then-president of the state's NAACP chapter, to protest a number of state government policies that he saw as immoral based on how they impacted low-income people, including voting rights and healthcare policies. Barber said that on the first Moral Monday in April of 2013, 17 people showed up and all of them were arrested. By the end of the summer, more than 15,000 were marching alongside him, Barber said. He foresees similar growth in the Moral Mondays to be held in Jackson, the next of which will be in two weeks on October 10.

"It happened in North Carolina, it can happen right here in Jackson, Mississippi," Barber said. "Right here in Jackson there will probably be a time when there's crowds as far as the eye can see, people from all over, because somebody's been poisoning the water."

Barber praised Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, but the elected Democratic leader didn't address the crowd because, as Barber put it, "we want politicians to come here and listen to what the people have to say and then go and do what the people want them to do."

Residents of the majority-Black city--where roughly a quarter of people live below the poverty line based on standard estimates, but nearly half do according to a more robust measure used by the Poor People's Campaign-- lamented how unjust it is to lack reliable access to clean running water in the richest country on Earth.

They also expressed opposition to privatization, describing it as tantamount to theft. Reeves--who has refused to prioritize upgrading Jackson's failing infrastructure throughout his two years in office--has made clear that the GOP-dominated state Legislature is considering measures that would give a profit-maximizing corporation control over a life-sustaining public good. "I don't think it's very likely that the city is going to operate the water system in the city of Jackson anytime soon, if ever again," he told reporters less than two weeks ago.

During Monday's rally outside the governor's mansion, Jackson resident Chris Ellis said that "right now there are closed-door conversations that are going on with the guy that lives in this house right here, with a bunch of people with a vested interest outside of the city, who are looking to privatize our system, to take over our system, to deprive our city of the revenues of the future of the water system of Jackson, Mississippi."

"Now I don't know about you, I don't think Jackson can afford to lose those revenues," Ellis continued. "I don't want Jackson to lose those revenues, and it's not right for somebody [to come] in and steal those revenues."

The latest manifestation of the city's decadeslong water crisis began in late August when record-breaking rainfall--something scientists have long warned will increase in frequency and intensity due to planet-heating pollution--triggered failures at the beleaguered O.B. Curtis Treatment Plant, resulting in a total loss of water pressure.

Pressure was restored on September 5, but it wasn't until September 15 that officials from the Mississippi State Department of Health lifted the city's boil-water notice. Jackson residents had been instructed to boil their water prior to drinking, cooking, bathing, or brushing their teeth since July 29--one month before the flood-induced emergency--while O.B. Curtis was being winterized in a bid to prevent a repeat of the early 2021 disaster brought about by a historic freeze.

Despite the removal of the state's weekslong boil-water advisory, "declarations that the water is 'clean' or 'safe' are hasty and irresponsible," Mary Grant, director of the Public Water for All campaign at Food & Water Watch, said earlier this month, noting that Jackson "has an ongoing lead-in-water crisis" and its infrastructure is still vulnerable to fossil fuel-intensified storms.

Warning that "the city remains under threat of a state-imposed privatization," Grant added that any progress made in recent weeks "could be undone if the state forces Jackson to hand control of the system over to corporate interests."

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The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant is seen on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Privatization Threat Remains, Advocates Warn, After Mississippi Lifts Jackson Boil-Water Notice

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Extreme weather has exacerbated Jackson's water issues, but the crisis is the product of more than 50 years of disinvestment--a process that took hold just after civil rights activists triumphed over Jim Crow apartheid and persisted as neoliberalism became dominant.

Reeves has acknowledged that "there are indeed problems in Jackson that are decades old, on the order of $1 billion to fix." But the governor has yet to admit that the GOP's refusal to provide financial resources at the scale required has helped perpetuate the dangerous status quo.

"The state... has been more interested in blocking fixing what needs to be fixed, than helping fix what needs to be fixed."

Instead, he has repeatedly blamed the city, criticizing "its longtime water billing issues, staffing issues at the water plant, and a failure to provide the state or the federal government with a plan to fix the water system," as Mississippi Free Pressreported recently.

However, Jackson's struggles to collect water fees and raise enough revenue to pay for routine maintenance are inseparable from an ill-fated public-private partnership of the sort that Reeves has promoted as a solution. As journalist Judd Legum detailed recently, the multibillion-dollar corporation Siemens signed a deal with the city in 2013 and left it "with a $7 million annual bond payment [through 2041], a $2 million monthly shortfall in water fees, and a system of water meters that was not working."

Disputing accusations launched by Reeves and state lawmakers that the city has failed to provide a comprehensive proposal to improve its water system, Barber said Monday that "Jackson has had a plan, you just haven't had the damn consciousness to make that plan happen."

Politico reported last week that Congress is considering ways to allocate more infrastructure funding directly to Jackson.

House appropriators are mulling the inclusion of up to $200 million to help tackle the city's water crisis in a must-pass spending package that would keep the federal government funded past this month.

According to documents obtained by the news outlet, draft language would enable the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to send money directly to Jackson, circumventing the Republican-controlled state government that has been accused by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and others of withholding resources from the city.

"People are tired of having to wash their babies in poisoned water," Barber toldMSNBC in an interview after Monday's rally. "It happens year after year because the state... has been more interested in blocking fixing what needs to be fixed, than helping fix what needs to be fixed."

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