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Reparations For Black Chicagoans Are Overdue, Supporters Of Resolution Say: ‘We Need To Put Our Money Where Our Mouth Is’

“We have to get that police budget down and increase education funding, increase social service funding, increase all the other things that would probably result in fewer police being needed."

Ald. Roderick Sawyer and Ald. Maria Hadden support the creation of a commission on reparations in Chicago.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — A City Council committee voted to approve a resolution calling for the establishment of a Chicago Descendants of Enslaved Africans Reparations Commission on Friday after rejecting a late amendment to the resolution that would have stripped it of meaning.

If formed, the 16 member Commission would hold public hearings to consider what form reparations would take in Chicago.

The Committee on Health and Human Relations recessed on Thursday after two hours of testimony and questions from alderman.

When they returned on Friday to vote on the measure, they were presented with a substitute resolution that removed the language that called for the creation of the commission.

After some confusion over the nature of the amended language, the committee rejected the substitute and unanimously approved the original resolution.

Committee Chair and lead sponsor of the resolution, Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th), said he “did not prepare the substitute” and hinted it came from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, saying “no one on the committee” prepared it.

“It was offered up yesterday and once it was explained to the body, what it encompassed, the body rejected it. That’s democracy at work,” he said.

The resolution must pass the full City Council to be accepted. A new ordinance would need to be introduced to create the commission and define its authority. Sawyer was non-committal when asked if that ordinance is on the horizon.

“I wish I could say it’s definite, but I do think that a lot of my colleagues support the establishment of the commission and we’re going to have really serious discussions on what’s the best route forward,” Sawyer said.

On Thursday, Sawyer told Block Club the need for reparations is “long overdue.”

“Particularly in light of what’s been going on, whether it be from the COVID-19 pandemic, or the recent looting, the Black community is always disproportionately affected,” he said, “And there’s reasons for that, and they all go back and they’re tied to being enslaved.”

Sawyer introduced the resolution last September after working with other aldermen, community groups and former Mayoral candidate Dr. Willie Wilson.

If created, the commission would comprise of the mayor or her designee, five members of City Council and ten members of the public, at least eight of whom must be from the “eligible impacted community.”

It would “signal a new page in the history between this city and its Black citizens,” said Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks For Reparations in America.

Howard said racism against Chicago’s Black community began when Jean Baptiste DuSable was “run out of the city he founded by racist whites and the emergent system of white supremacy.”

A “reparations triage,” using the “limited resources” of the city would need to be directed to five pillars of reparations work recognized under international law, Howard said.

  • Cessation that guarantees a non-repetition, including an end of “police terrorism” and the creation of civilian oversight of the police department.
  • Restitution, including business development, wealth building and housing initiatives.
  • Compensation, in the form of tuition waivers and business and housing grants.
  • Satisfaction, by repairing the dignity of people descended from slavery through cultural institutions, curriculum changes and apologies.
  • Rehabilitation, which COVID-19 has highlighted, is the need for research in to the “transgenerational genetic injury” and transmission of trauma caused by enslavement and centuries of inequity.

Disparities in health, life expectancy, education outcomes, home ownership, poverty and incarceration rates are the result of racist policies, said Cecile Johnson of the African Development Plan.

She cited the city’s Tax Increment Financing program, created to “help people in poor and distressed communities,” but she claimed, 1.56 billion in infrastructure spending has been funneled to the Loop and other affluent neighborhoods, while only 4.8 million has been spent in Pullman, Riverdale, Roseland and West Pullman.

In 2010, the average white household had 22 times the wealth of the average Black household she said, and cited a study in The Nation that claimed it would take 228 years for the average Black family to build the wealth of a white family.

She provided a series of startling statistics that laid bare the tale of two cities for Black and white Chicago and said the policies of the past and present led to the disproportionate death rates from coronavirus in the Black community.

“This is why when the COVID hit us a few months ago, the Black population took a severe hit, because their health was already bad, their conditions were already bad,” she said. “We may think that social distancing is something everyone can do, but it is a privilege.”

The specifics of what form reparations would take would be decided by the commission, but Sawyer said he believes money to support the effort can be found in the budget.

“We’re not talking about, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, “Based on our initial conversation, we’re probably talking about somewhere upwards of a million dollars a year. It’s a start…I’m not trying to empty the city’s coffers.”

‘We have to get that police budget down’

Echoing the calls of protesters in recent days, some aldermen, including Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez and Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, called for a broad defunding of the Chicago Police Department in order to redirect the budget into the community.

Sawyer said he’s “not enthusiastic” about totally defunding the department but said the budget is “bloated.”

“We have to get that police budget down and increase education funding, increase social service funding, increase all the other things that would probably result in fewer police being needed,” he said.

Sawyer said the resolution has “a healthy amount of support” and he’s hopeful the discussion will spark “additional conversations, particularly those in the areas of equity and race relations.” He said he’s spoken with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s staff and believes “the Mayor has no objection to it.”

Asked if Lightfoot supported the resolution, a spokesperson said the mayor “is committed to and supports examination of the state of equity in Chicago” but did not commit to supporting the resolution.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) on Thursday said “we can do this if the political will was there.”

“My non-Black colleagues, please answer my calls over the next couple of days, we need to look at how we are allocating our dollars,” she said. “We need to put our money where our mouth is, and show the people of Chicago, the Black people of Chicago, especially the youth … that we value them, that we are going to do something different in this moment.”

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