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In Jackson, Mississippi, It’s Easy To Go Missing When No One Is Looking For You

Police finally caught Samuel Little, the most prolific serial killer in American history, but the cops didn’t know it. They thought they had a guy who had beaten and raped two women. This was back in the ’80s before crack and during the Reagan administration. Hilda Nelson and Leila McClain, both Black sex workers living in the podunk town of Pascagoula, Mississippi, were lucky to be alive. This was still early in his killing spree. In total, Little is believed to have killed some 93 women, at least 68 of them Black. Nelson and McClain had seen the face of death and made it out.

When it came time to testify against the monster that almost took her life, Nelson, who was eight months pregnant at the time, was so scared that she took the stand and urinated on herself. She was released from her subpoena, and McClain knew then what she had to do. She grabbed Nelson’s hand and they left together without testifying.

“When they told [Hilda] to go, I left with her because I felt like they wasn’t going to do nothing, no way,” McClain said, according to court documents.

When asked why McClain didn’t go to police shortly after Little attacked her — an attack so vicious that she ran across four lanes of traffic just trying to get away — she said: “Ain’t nobody cared until that white girl turned up dead a year later. Didn’t nobody care about a Black prostitute in Mississippi. No, ma’am, they didn’t.”

***

The capital of the same state is in the midst of a tragedy that doesn’t seem terribly connected. But, oh, it is.

Jackson, Mississippi, didn’t have to be here. It didn’t have to go days without safe drinking water, or even enough water to flush toilets. It didn’t have to go without air conditioning in medical centers. It didn’t have to go days worried that, if a fire broke out in Jackson — both the largest city and the capital of Mississippi — firefighters wouldn’t have water to put it out. The entire city of Jackson didn’t have to be under several boil water advisories. If only someone had done something — but it’s hard to care about a city that many legislators forgot.

Jackson residents that have water have been told to shower with their mouths closed.

“On the surface, the apparent cause of this crisis is damaged infrastructure: Recent flooding strained the city’s largest water treatment plant, O.B. Curtis, which was already dogged with problems,” Vox reported last week. “Plus, there was another issue with water pumps at a secondary treatment facility known as J.H. Fewell. As a result, many of the city’s water towers remain nearly empty, leaving the system without enough water or water pressure to fill pipes in homes, schools, and businesses.”

Though Mississippi’s governor says water pressure has returned in the city, its struggles with water are far from over.

More than 80% of Jackson’s residents are Black. One out every three people in the city lives in poverty. For years, Jackson residents have been struggling, and so has their water system. Everyone knew this. The residents knew this. The state government knew this. But Jackson’s water crisis is what happens when a largely Black city, which also happens to be largely Democratic, needs funding from a Republican-controlled legislature. Jackson is what happens when people ignore those who need their help. Jackson’s failure to fix what has been a problem for years falls squarely on the shoulders of people who don’t care. That’s not hyperbolic. The state government of Mississippi didn’t care about the people of Jackson. For more than 50 years, Jackson’s safe water access has been barely holding on.

In fact, “mayors and city council members have called for repairs since the 1940s,” the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported. Boil water notices to prevent residents from drinking bacteria-infested water have been so much a part of the life of the people of Jackson that they received some 25 notices this year alone.

“In the 1970s and again in 2020, the EPA warned that the city had to get serious about updating its infrastructure to improve water quality,” Time reported. “The 2020 report highlighted lead pipes, faulty monitoring equipment and insufficient staffing. Years of neglect have built up and in 2021 alone, the city had dozens of boil-water notices due to the old, fragile water system.”

So this problem is not a new one. The water in Jackson has been undrinkable for over a month. This summer’s floods were the final straw, causing the faulty system to finally give way. Now, the majority of the 150,000 residents in Jackson have had nothing coming from the tap for days, and if they are lucky enough to have some water, they must boil the hell out of it before even thinking about drinking it. Some residents have had to go so far as to visit friends in nearby (white) suburbs just to take showers.

Rodney Moore (center), maintenance supervisor at Addison Place apartments, receives cases of bottled water from City of Jackson worker Dianna Davis (right) and Andrea Williams for elderly and disabled residents on Sept. 3 in Jackson.
Rodney Moore (center), maintenance supervisor at Addison Place apartments, receives cases of bottled water from City of Jackson worker Dianna Davis (right) and Andrea Williams for elderly and disabled residents on Sept. 3 in Jackson.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

This failure is not the fault of a single problem, but rather an amalgamation of systemic racism, and that system is working just as it was designed. This hasn’t been a series of procedural missteps; it’s been a tactical and malignant neglect of people society doesn’t care for. It’s not accidental that the water in Jackson has been a problem since the 1940s and has never been fixed. It’s not a minor slip-up from the state government that funding wasn’t allocated to a city that has told anyone who would listen that there was something wrong with the water. Hell, residents lived with dirty water so long that they’d already been boiling whatever would come out of the tap without government instruction. This catastrophe could have been avoided if the state government tried to fix it. But in order to look for missing people, you have to notice they are gone.

No matter what Tucker Carlson says, this is not the fault of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. On Aug. 31, Carlson took to Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to claim that the blame falls squarely at the feet of the mayor who once claimed he wanted Jackson to be the most radical city in the country.

“Most politicians don’t follow through on their promises, but Chokwe Lumumba definitely did,” Carlson claimed. “He has made Jackson so radical that it no longer has drinking water … or any water. For the third day in a row, you just can’t get any water in Jackson.”

When asked about Carlson’s comments, Lumumba brushed them off, noting that he was more concerned about getting water to the people of his city. Lumumba added that Jackson had been “going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to Jackson’s water crisis.”

“I have said on multiple occasions it was not a matter of IF our system would fail, but a matter of WHEN our system would fail,” the mayor said.

So the inevitable happened. The proverbial levee finally broke and the water dried up. And the only reason I even know about any of this is because former NFL star and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders just so happens to be head coach of Jackson State’s football team and noted that he had to get his players out of there.

“The city of Jackson, we don’t have water. Water means we don’t have air conditioning. We can’t use toilets. We don’t have water. We don’t have ice,” Sanders said. “Which pretty much places a burden on the program. So right now, we’re operating in crisis mode. I’ve got to get these kids off campus. The ones that live on campus, the ones that live in the city of Jackson into a hotel, and accommodate them so they can shower properly and take care of their needs.”

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is doing the thing that governors do when national news has stumbled on their sleepy state. He’s acting like he cares. He’s doing the dance where he’s too busy to talk about how long water in Jackson has been a problem because he only cares about bringing water back to the residents he forgot about. He’s doing the thing that police did after Samuel Little confessed to his crimes and began drawing pictures of his victims, the thing where people act like they’ve always cared about those who are lost.

But the reality is Reeves didn’t care. In fact, in 2020, after the Republican-led state legislature had approved a bill that would begin fixing some of the issues with Jackson’s water, the governor vetoed it and then indignantly explained his position in a Facebook post.

This isn’t the first majority-Black city to face a water crisis. Flint, Michigan, is 54% Black and faced a water crisis in 2014 so devastating that it made national headlines. Today, eight years later, some 2,000 homes still don’t have clean drinking water.

In 2016, Newark, New Jersey, officials noticed elevated levels of lead in the water. Water had started to erode the lead lining in the pipes that delivered water to the residents, some 75% of which are Black or Latinx. By 2018, Newark reported the highest amount of lead of any major city. Residents were allowed two free 24-packs of water with proof of address, and 40,000 water filters were given out.

In 2019, New Jersey officials announced a $120 million loan from the Essex County Improvement Agency, and a city ordinance, to expedite the city’s efforts to replace the lead pipes — at no cost to any resident,” ABC News reported in 2021.

In March of 2021, Shakima Thomas, whose 7-year-old son had tested positive for lead, had the water being piped into her home tested by a private lab. It found that the lead levels still “exceeded what the Environmental Protection Agency says is an acceptable level.”

“I felt bad, I felt terrible,” Thomas told ABC News. “I think any parent will feel that way. Here we’re supposed to protect our kids, and that’s the situation that was completely out of my control.”

“I can’t believe they did that to our kids,” she added.

In Lowndes County, Alabama, an ongoing sewage mess made the entire area smell. Forget that the place didn’t have drinkable water; the entire place was a shithole, literally. Bathrooms were flooded with raw sewage and unusable. Some residents were forced to use the bathroom outside. It was so bad that in 2021, “The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation into programs being run by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department to determine if Black residents of that county are being discriminated against,” reported WSFA-TV, the local NBC affiliate.

Lowndes County is 74.6% Black. It is also one of the poorest counties in the country. The sewage problem was so bad that when Lowndes County got heavy rain, toilets inside residents’ homes would back up and overflow. In November 2021, the large infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law included nearly $12 billion to fix the problem.

Writer Michael Harriot followed the sewage water crisis for The Root as it was happening. His story was titled: “Lowndes County, Ala.: The Place God Forgot.”

It’s easy to forget people you actively try not to remember. It’s easy to ignore those you’ve never paid attention to. It’s easy to go missing when no one is looking for you.

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