No Masses, No Movement

Black Boomers Shout Reparations in the Court—But Go Silent in the 'Hood

Lately, Bed-Stuy has been transformed by the upper and middle classes into what appears to be another neighborhood gentrifying and on the rise. But for those who suffered silently when it was still considered Little Beirut, it's the same old do-or-die Bed-Stuy. Anyone seeking to recover damages based on the claim that slavery caused the unilateral suffering evident today need look no further. My brothers and I were lucky; having politically conscious parents pounding black power into our heads ensured that we stayed afloat instead of succumbing to the streets like many of our friends. But for remaining black youth being raised ghetto-fabulously across the country, life remains as dark as ever.

Distinguished African American scholars, historians, attorneys, and civil rights activists have left no stone unturned in their efforts to put America on notice that the debt for slavery and racism is currently up for collection. Last March, in a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Litigating the Legacy of Slavery," Charles Ogletree Jr.—a Harvard law professor and co-chair of the Reparations Coordinating Committee—laid out the case on behalf of blacks and touched on what leaders are calling the true essence of the movement. "The legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in America is seen in well-documented racial disparities in access to education, health care, housing, insurance, employment and other social goods," he wrote. "The reparations movement must therefore focus on the poorest of the poor."

Chances that the "poorest of the poor" read his plea and were as equally enlightened as the mostly white, well-to-do readership of the Times are slim. Closer to the street a vibe has surfaced that organizers have yet to reach those they claim to be fighting for, casting doubt on the true focus of the movement.

illustration: Mirko Illic


Sidebar: Ask people in Bed-Stuy about the reparations movement, and you'll get an earful.

Eighty-two-year-old Kitty McClain, the granddaughter of a slave, has witnessed firsthand the social devastation created by slavery, but is most heartbroken by the way people who have escaped the ghetto abandoned those who remain. "Until those of us who have made it make a serious commitment to come back and strengthen whence they came from," she says, "no one will give us reparations because we haven't given it to ourselves."

From emancipation to desegregation, history has proven that social change comes about when those who have been wounded the most are encouraged to band together and holler the loudest. As expected, there are many critics of the movement who see reparations as a scam, the work of a few "Ivy League blacks who can't get over the civil rights era" and are now trying to exploit slavery for another buck.

But organizers are holding on tight to their message, insisting that the idea is not to hand out cash to each black person but to improve the overall quality of life by putting the money into education, housing, and other areas traditionally short-changed. "Reparations is not about a check," says Adjoa Aiyetoro, co-spokesperson for the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group gearing up to sue corporations and the U.S. government for their roles in upholding slavery. "It has to be about more than that."

Litigation is a necessary component, but alone it cannot win reparations. "The crime against blacks was committed collectively on behalf of white folks," says Wareham, who filed the New York suit. "We were victimized and continue to suffer collectively; therefore we have to fight collectively. The masses must lead the way."

Though leaders haven't hit the streets with that message, they claim to be committed to getting the people involved. "We aren't doing the door-to-door thing, but we are going to hold town hall meetings and community forums around the issue of reparations until everyone is informed," says Councilman Barron, an ex- Black Panther. Others are looking to universities and the media. According to former NAACP president Dr. Benjamim Muhammed, who is now the president of Russell Simmons's Hip Hop Summit Action Network, "Reparations is hot on all the college campuses. There is a grassroots movement building; it's just a matter of linking all the angles."

Apparently the angles are hiding, because only 50 or so people showed up for a rally proclaiming March 21 Reparations Awareness Day in New York City. African American politicians like Barron and Green stood proudly with veteran civil rights activists from the Durban 400, the December 12th Movement, and the Black United Front. They celebrated the recent introduction of reparations bills on the city and state level, and discussed the overall progress of the cause. "I have all confidence that we will win the fight for reparations," Perkins said from the podium.

It was a coming together of the minds and a solid show of unity between politicians and grassroots organizers working together to achieve what one activist called "the true liberation of our people." When revolutionary Viola Plummer raised a clenched fist and declared, "Make no mistake my brothas and sistas, we are at war!" a nostalgic sense of black pride seemed to radiate from the group. I can honestly say that for the first time in my 31 years, I wanted to be a baby boomer instead of a hip-hop baby. That feeling lasted for only a hot minute because the noticeable absence of the masses, my peers, made real to me who the movement was speaking to. That scene—of Ivy Leaguers and comfortable activists talking to each other—would be replayed at reparations forums around the city.

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