By Sarah Marshall
In the late spring of 2020, the callous murder of George Floyd triggered protests around the world, including here in Amherst. Within a few months, a local group, Reparations for Amherst, sponsored a petition to request Amherst’s Town Council to commit to anti-racism and to establish a reparations fund.
In December of 2020, Town Council unanimously adopted a resolution affirming the Town’s commitment to ending structural racism and achieving racial equity for Black residents. One of the first actions consequent to this resolution was to establish a new Town committee, the African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA), and give it the task of developing reparations proposals. The Assembly’s first chair is Michele Miller, who continues in this role since her election to Town Council and wrote about reparations work on this blog earlier this year.
Within a few months of forming, the AHRA submitted a report to Council outlining their initial work and their plan for the future. Shortly thereafter, the AHRA developed a strategic plan for completing its complex task by the end of June, 2023, after receiving a time extension. Central elements include documenting harms – instances or patterns of racial injustice – done to Black residents of Amherst, documenting the impacts of those harms, and proposing remedies for those harms.
The Assembly is currently considering surveys, interviews, focus groups, and other means of reaching community members to explore residents’ understanding of local racial injustice, what “reparations” can mean or entail, and the degree to which residents have been engaged with the work of the AHRA, Reparations for Amherst, or the Black Assembly of Amherst, Massachusetts.
Part of the work of repair is to educate, and the AHRA has identified several programs that may be useful. One, developed by the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), is a curriculum called “The Stolen Beam,” is five-part exploration of reparations. Members of the JCA will be leading participants through the curriculum at the Jones Library, every Tuesday in May. (See this link for more information and registration.) Other available programs include “Owning Up” workshops on wealth disparities, conducted by Reparations for Amherst for non-Black residents, and “On the Road: the Case for Local Reparations,” a presentation by Michele Miller that she has already made to the Applewood community.
One challenge of designing a reparations program that uses taxpayer funds is ensuring that the program serves a “public purpose.” Payments of tax money to individuals is ordinarily not permitted. Readers may recall the recent debate over awarding Community Preservation Act funds to private property owners, in which there was concern about whether a public purpose was served. The answer, in that case, was yes, because the public’s view of a historic property is deemed a public benefit. But no public benefit or purpose is yet recognized in Massachusetts for reparations for racial injustice to individuals. (I assume that damages awarded in a lawsuit are exempt.)
The Town’s attorneys proposed three options by which establishing a legally compliant reparations program might be established. The AHRA decided to request that Town Council pursue one of the options, namely, a home-rule petition, or specific local legislation, that describes (local) reparations as a (local) public purpose, and consulted with Rep. Mindy Domb and Sen. Jo Comerford about that process.
At the Council meeting of March 3 (begin at minute 45 on the video), members of the AHRA recalled to Council its anti-racism resolution and spoke of their experiences, and those of family members, as people of color in Amherst. They advocated a home-rule petition essential to writing wrongs identified in the resolution. Council unanimously approved a motion directing the Town Manager to begin the process of seeking special legislation to define reparations as a public purpose, to seek guidance, as needed, from the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, to provide a copy of the proposed petition to the AHRA for review prior to submitting it to the Town Council for approval, and then to file it with the State Legislature.
There is no guarantee that a home-rule petition will be granted, so AHRA may also pursue the other avenues described to them by the Town’s attorneys.
Once a reparations program is developed, where will funds come from? Town Council voted last November to direct $210,000 from “free cash” (money left over from the previous fiscal year’s budget) to a Reparations Stabilization Fund. That Fund currently should receive additional, but variable, funding annually.
Other elements of AHRA’s work include contracting with the Donahue Institute to combine data from the recent decennial census with more granular survey data to more clearly identify the residences of Black Amherst residents. This information will help AHRA in its efforts to engage these residents in its work, including the documentation of harms.
Relatedly, AHRA is seeking grant funding from the Massachusetts Humanities Council to document, via film or audio, the oral histories of Black residents. It has already received a small grant from the Amherst Cultural Council to help it document its efforts to design a successful reparations program. Since very few communities in the United States have pursued such a goal, Amherst’s experience may be of interest to others.
AHRA’s webpage includes a “Resources” link to numerous documents and articles relevant to their work.