An African American church seemed a fitting place to hold a meeting in Evanston on Wednesday night to celebrate the suburb’s recent actions on reparations.
Hundreds of people packed First Church of God to hear more about Evanston’s historic decision to fund a reparations program for its black residents.
At times, the crowd of more than 700 broke into song. When actor and reparations activist Danny Glover spoke, they leapt to their feet. But at other times, the room fell silent as people reflected on the prejudices and obstacles their ancestors had endured.
Moderator Ron Daniels said Evanston is one town that could start a reparations movement across America.
“You don’t understand — this is reverberating all over the country,” he said. “Indeed, perhaps all over the world.”
The meeting was organized by Evanston Ald. Robin Simmons, who has led the effort to create and fund a local reparations program to compensate black residents for generations of discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas.
Last month, the Evanston City Council approved a plan to direct all revenue from new taxes on recreational marijuana — expected to generate thousands of dollars in the first two years — to the reparations fund. The goal is to grow the fund to $10 million by 2030.
“It was time to do something as radical as the oppression and discrimination, as the impact from Jim Crow and redlining. Something as radical as enslavement and torture and crimes against humanity,” Simmons said of the reparations program. “It was time to be unapologetic and uncompromising and bold.”
Supporters of using cannabis taxes to fund reparations argue that black Evanstonians have been disproportionately punished for marijuana-related crimes, and they should directly benefit from pot sales. In the last three years, 71% of people arrested for weed possession in Evanston were black, officials said. Recreational pot sales will become legal in Illinois on Jan. 1, and three current medical marijuana dispensaries in Evanston have been cleared to sell recreational pot.
But there are issues beyond drug arrests that disproportionately affect the black community in Evanston, Simmons said. There also are gaps in wealth and life expectancy between black and white residents, she said.
Evanston is still figuring out who will be eligible for reparations funds and how the money will be distributed. Among the possibilities, Simmons envisions giving black homebuyers help for a downpayment on a house. She wants to put money directly into the pockets of black families. Simmons said there will be more meetings in Evanston in 2020 as the reparations program unfolds.
Simmons said families are struggling in her historically black 5th Ward. Home ownership is down, she said, and Evanston’s black population has declined to 16.9% from 22.5% during the past 20 years.
Some speakers at the meeting complained about rising rents pushing them out of their homes.
Renee Paden, daughter of former Evanston 2nd Ward Ald. Betty Burns Paden, said her family has lived in the suburb for four generations. Now they are the last black family on her gentrifying block, she said.
Paden called for more serious discussion, and less celebration, on reparations planning. She needled the audience, asking how many would be there if Glover had not been scheduled to come.
“The question is, will you come out again for the work?” she said. “We cannot pat ourselves on the back until we have put the plan in action.”
Evanston’s action on reparations, and Simmons’ advocacy, have gained national attention.
Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, was at Wednesday’s meeting, and he called Simmons the Rosa Parks of reparations.
Glover said he’s traveled around the world to reparations conventions, but Evanston is the first U.S. municipality to take action.
“This is going to be the most intense conversation that I believe that we’re going to have in the 21st century,” the actor said. “We’re going to have to talk about why it can’t be, or why it won’t be, and we have to be prepared for that fight.”
In Chicago, Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, has introduced a reparations bill and hosted a symposium on the topic last month. Lawmakers in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York could consider reparations bills next year.
Congress held hearings on reparations in June after Texas Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a proposal to develop a national reparations plan.
Wednesday night’s meeting drew people from outside Evanston, including a speaker from west suburban Naperville and Linda Mavis from Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood.
Mavis said she’s been a supporter of reparations from the time she was young, hearing her grandparents talk about their harrowing experiences with racism.
“The conversation is now materializing more than it had been in prior years,” she said. “Just the fact we had this town hall is a step in the right direction.”
Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ.