Evanston Will Fund Local Reparations With Marijuana Taxes

Robin Rue Simmons
Evanston City Council member Robin Rue Simmons has led an effort to create and fund a reparations program for African American residents in the north suburb. Photo courtesy of Robin Rue Simmons
Robin Rue Simmons
Evanston City Council member Robin Rue Simmons has led an effort to create and fund a reparations program for African American residents in the north suburb. Photo courtesy of Robin Rue Simmons

Evanston Will Fund Local Reparations With Marijuana Taxes

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Evanston’s City Council took a step Monday night that may be a first in the nation — funding a reparations program for its own African Amercan residents.

Starting next year, all of the north suburb’s tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales will go to a reparations fund until it reaches a $10 million cap. Aldermen approved the plan 8-1 Monday, with Ald. Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, voting against it. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, who sponsored the bill, said the city expects $250,000 in tax revenue when recreational pot becomes legal in Illinois next year, and $800,000 in 2021. Evanston is slated to have three pot dispensaries, Simmons said.

She believes cannabis tax revenue is an appropriate source of funding for reparations because the city has a history of disproportionately arresting black residents for marijuana possession.

Evanston’s black population is about 17%, according to the latest census data.

Now that Evanston has decided how to fund reparations, a City Council subcommittee will determine how the money is used and who is eligible for it. Those plans should take shape in early 2020.

Simmons didn’t share details, but she would like to see the money go directly to black residents.

“There will be a strong focus on homeownership opportunities … homeownership is the most likely path forward for generating wealth for families of any type and size,” she said. “There will also be a focus on supporting black-owned businesses — my intention is that this would be a direct payment to the residents.”

The city will hold a town hall meeting on reparations on Dec. 11.

Reparations goes local and national

Evanston’s action comes as reparations are generating discussion around the country.

An article several years ago in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates sparked a national conversation.

Reparations backers say it’s a social justice movement to compensate African Americans for slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incaceration, police brutality and other issues tied to racial bias.

This legacy of discrimination continues to affect opportunities and life choices for black people, said Kamm Howard, co-chair for the National Coalition for Blacks for Reparations in America, based in Washington, D.C.

“This is a country of law and order, and anytime crimes have been committed, there should be justice repairing injuries from those crimes,” he said. “Reparations is about repairing harms that were done and injures that are being suffered.”

Howard lives in Chicago and spoke at the Evanston City Council meeting on Monday. He said the suburb’s reparations program is the first in the country and could be an indicator of things to come. Legislators in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York will take up reparations bills in 2020, he said.

In Washington, Congress held hearings on reparations in June after Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a resolution to develop a national reparations proposal. Her bill is in committee awaiting further action.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, has introduced a similar proposal in the Chicago City Council. He hosted a recent symposium on reparations at Malcolm X College.

“I would characterize it as — the reckoning has begun,” Howard said of the reparations action beginning to take shape on the national, state and local level.

Evanston African American historian Dino Robinson said the suburb has its share of reckoning to do. He founded the Shorefront Legacy Center to collect and preserve materials about black history on the North Shore.

While slavery was outlawed in northern and central Illinois before the Civil War, black people in Evanston faced discrimination in housing, employment and other areas of life for generations. Over time, they were confined to an area that was the suburb’s black district and is now Simmons’ ward.

“If you look historically how redlining and Jim Crow practices have marginalized this community over many decades, it has a deep impact,” Robinson said. “Even today there’s a stigma around the 5th Ward for being ‘dangerous,’ even when crime stats don’t necessarily reflect that.”

Vivian McCall is a news intern for WBEZ.