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California reparations task force hears call for reform, financial payback

Many Black Californians say they want to see more substantial reform and policy to begin addressing the effects of systemic racism on their families.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Many Black Americans from around California came to Oakland City Hall on Thursday to demand more action on reparations for historic, systemic racism from a state task force.

Thursday’s meeting of the California Reparations Task Force — set up to study how to feasibly compensate Black Californians affected by current and historic racist policies in the state — gave an hour of time to Californians to speak for three minutes each. But as the line nearly reached the door, the nine-member body had to extend the speaking time and limit people to two minutes.

The California Reparations Task Force heard many people in Oakland on Thursday in the third in-person meeting in California. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

That decision drew some protests, as many said they have experienced ongoing trauma and financial harm in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Rev. Tony Pierce, CEO of Black Wall Street Project, shouted as his time ran out “They all need to be heard, and $230,000 (in reparations) is not enough!”

Joelene Cook said she has experienced homelessness and watched family members leave the area where she lives in Berkeley. Carol Williams described coming to California from Memphis in 1985, with a family connected to slavery. 

“I consider myself a foundational Black American,” she said. “The reparation should be tax free, so that when we get the money the IRS won’t come after us. And I’m pleading and I’m asking that when we make the decision of lineage, we save those who have been in California since 2000.”

One man told the committee, "I can't even walk down the street without being judged. There's nothing I can do in this world without being judged. Why should I be judged ... only by the color of my skin?"

Thursday's meeting comes a day after the task force's third in-person session. It has identified what they called five harms or "atrocities" they'll seek to redress including unjust property takings by eminent domain, the devaluation of Black businesses, housing discrimination and houselessness and disproportionate mass incarceration of Black people. The committee must decide who should be compensated. All but one member of the committee are Black, and all speakers at the meeting Thursday were Black. 

The California Reparations Task Force heard many people in Oakland on Thursday in the third in-person meeting in California. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

The task force voted Thursday to retain a consultant to help educate the public about the task force’s findings and both interim and final reports. Dr. Amos Brown said the educational process should ensure that there is “no excuse” for people to not understand what is being done on behalf of reparation in the state.

“They’re still trying to turn the clock back,” Brown said. “They’re going to have to have the will to understand that we are human, and we deserve the same human respect they get every day.”

The committee members also took up redressing harms to generational wealth and to Black people harmed by racist housing policies. 

Member Lisa Holder said racist policies that serve to limit Black people in their sense of identity and mobility has furthered slavery’s trauma. She said the committee must work to end practices like redlining, sundown towns, gentrification, urban renewal and predatory policing — which she called “apartheid policies” ousting Black people from cultural hubs, “undermining their cultural identity and sense of personhood.”

Holder also says the force should require the Legislature to analyze all proposed housing bills, existing codes and government contracts for disparate impacts on historically disenfranchised and system impacted populations. They also must find ways to connect people siloed into areas of high pollution with open spaces, clean drinking water and healthy food. 

“We don’t want to fix up these communities and then get pushed out like we always do,” she said.

The task force is also considering actions to address California's contribution to the harm of Black people through slavery. Chair Kamilah Moore reminded the committee that an estimated 1,500 enslaved Black people lived in California in 1852 and that the nascent state enacted a law to arrest enslaved people who fled to the Golden State. 

The task force is recommending the state issue a formal apology for all harms committed against enslaved people, and create a state Freedmens’ Bureau to process claims for reparation from slavery’s harms. To address involuntary servitude in prisons, they may also consider recommending that the state prioritize rehabilitation programs, or consider legislation allowing incarcerated people to vote and be paid a fair rate for their labor. 

Member Reginald Jones-Sawyer told the task force there are many ways leaders can dismantle an unjust legal system, starting with ending involuntary servitude as criminal punishment. 

“It is still today slavery, as far as incarceration’s concerned,” Jones-Sawyer said. He also said leaders can fund approaches to reduce harm, like abolishing cash bail, compensating people on probation and increasing exoneration reimbursements. He said the state must end three-strikes sentencing and restore voting rights for all incarcerated people. 

He also said prohibiting pretext stops and ending qualified immunity for police officers who traumatize and kill Black people in traffic stops must be part of the equation. 

“If you’ve been stopped and reached for anything, your wallet or in your glove compartment, it could be fatal. And it’s not acceptable,” he said. 

The task force will issue a final report on July 1, 2023, with recommendations and suggestions for interventions and reforms. The report will be an advisory, passing the buck to state and local lawmakers to act on its recommendations.

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