Thanks to social media and its capacity to fuel instant outrage, the wider world has met Jackson City Council member Kenneth I. Stokes, proudly representing Ward 3. He flickered, flamed, then fizzled in cyberspace last week.
Hizzoner was aggrieved when a law enforcement pursuit that began outside his turf continued into the city limits. There is no question that the pursuit was lawful, but Stokes said it was “unwelcome.” He was recorded saying he would consult “black leadership,” but believed that if citizens would throw rocks, bricks and bottles at the officers from elsewhere they would get the message and stay away.
A deluge of rebuke followed posting of the clip. “How dare he?” was one response. “How did he get elected?” was another. Let’s take them one at a time.
Stokes is a Jackson native. His bio says he graduated from a Texas law school, although he is not listed as a licensed attorney in Mississippi. He was first elected in 1989, left for a while to serve on the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, then returned to the city council when his wife, who had been chosen for his council seat, became a Hinds County judge.
That’s 25 years, more or less, in public office.
And though the press usually leaves him alone, Stokes has been in the local limelight on previous occasions.
Once, his colleagues groused that he rarely came to meetings. Also, there was suspicion he had received travel pay and reimbursements while it was not 100 percent clear he had actually taken trips. He said he did and responded that The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger reporting was incomplete. Then he made a sign that read “Clarion Liar” and stood in front of City Hall, which is in the next block from the state’s largest newspaper. He also sent a three-word fax to the newspaper. Sadly, what it said was too obscene for the newspaper to print.
Two years ago, immediately after the death of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, Stokes spoke up at a memorial event, saying, “We gonna ask a question: Who killed the mayor?” He later told reporters he believed Lumumba, who died at a Jackson hospital after being treated for cancer and heart disease, was murdered. He said he had no proof, but he believed it.
And that gets to the core of the first question, “How dare he?”
He dares to be outlandish (to put it mildly) because he represents people long-excluded from power who are suspicious (often with justification) when bad things happen. His beliefs are his reality.
It’s not their fault, really, but today’s media reflects America as a land where we are all victims of each other. Stokes, though not nearly as eloquent as Louis Farrakhan, can attract and hold an audience by telling people that every bad thing that has ever or will ever happen to them is the fault (if not the purposeful plan) of someone else.
In exactly the same way, but on the other side of the racial and ideological divide, are the Rush Limbaughs of the world. Yes, right-wing zealots are just as guilty of positing that lefties are determined to ruin everything the good people of America have worked so long and so hard to create and protect. They believe, as Stokes believes, they must fight back against a world out to get them.
Next question: How has Stokes been elected six or more times? The answer is as simple as Ward 3’s lines are convoluted. After Mississippi and other states for so long created only white-majority districts, federal law and federal judges brought an end to that unjust practice. Ward 3 snakes in, out and around inner-city Jackson like a deformed jigsaw puzzle piece. It’s this concentration that fosters Stokes’ kingly powers.
The law was necessary to end apartheid, but it also created the duality that exists today. Say there’s a sack of mixed-size rocks. Your intention is to create a pile of small rocks. But in doing that, you’ll also create a pile of big rocks.
Concentrating minority voting strength also concentrated majority voting strength. We ended segregation by creating segregation.
Stokes is a product of this history, this attempt to right wrongs. He gets elected the same way a white demagogue gets elected — by exploiting the fears and suspicions of others. When “racethink” dominates, nothing gets better for anybody. We just sputter and foam and vent our frustration on the Internet.
Name-calling is a lot easier than problem-solving.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.