Getting Back on the Bus

Black New Yorkers Roll to Washington for Slave Reparations

"I moved to New York when I was 17 and I went to work cleaning the houses of white people for pennies so that I could take care of her. This country didn't take care of her or any of the people it enslaved and oppressed. She wasn't able to pass on anything that she worked for, never able to give us the best of anything, because she didn't get anything. Severe damage was done to us and has never been taken seriously. This rally means a lot to us as a people."

Earlier this year, a national ABC News poll revealed that 67 percent of whites believe black people are discriminated against, yet 62 percent of New Yorkers don't think blacks are owed so much as an apology for slavery—the major argument being that no one alive today is affected by it and that blacks need to let it go. "It amazes me that white people are quick to say that we need to get over slavery and move on, yet they never tell themselves to stop the habitual discrimination against us as a people," says Brooklyn educator and activist Michael Hooper. "When they really get over slavery, we'll get over it, and we can all move on. The time for reparations is now."

The issue of reparations has been called divisive by many who oppose it, but there are those in the community who have spent a lifetime fighting against the disparities they say have been created and sustained in an already divided nation. "There are two sides of justice in this country," says Geraldine Pickett, a candidate for a Kings County judgeship. "There is one for the powers that be, and another for those that are disenfranchised—the poor, the black." She points to a criminal system that's stacked against black people. Sixty-two percent of blacks in prison are there for drug violations, compared with 36 percent of whites, although whites account for 75 percent of all drug users. "It's more than necessary that we be in D.C.," says the attorney who has spent most of her time fighting against such inequalities.

illustration Robert Dobbie

This nation has agreed to the idea of reparations before, just not for its own people. In 2000, officials from the U.S. joined Germany and other European states in signing an agreement to pay $5 billion in Holocaust reparations to Jewish slave laborers and their families. At the time, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said the deal was the first serious attempt to compensate "those whose labor was stolen or coerced during a time of outrage and shame. It is critical to completing the unfinished business of the old century before entering the new." Blacks want to finish the business of slavery once and for all. "If they can get it, why can't we?" argues Isis Sapp-Grant, executive director of Blossom, a community-based organization for adolescent girls. "We wouldn't be in a situation where our people are still so far behind in terms of education, health, and our basic level of success if it wasn't for slavery. This is the biggest fight of our lives. We should all participate."

If America is true to its history, the fight for reparations will receive the same degree of resistance as the movements for emancipation and desegregation. It's still not safe to be black. The FBI reports that 67 percent of hate crimes committed in this country are against blacks. It's another fact compelling many to go to Washington.

"It wouldn't be so bad if we could just be free to live our lives without harassment and oppression," says 34-year-old Rafael Jenkins, a computer specialist. "But when you're forced to swallow indignities such as police torture and killings, like with Diallo, Louima, and all the others around the country that are dismissed, it pisses you off. So if we have to march on Washington once again to force this country to recognize that we are 100 percent human beings, and not the 'three-fifths of a man' theory that put us in this situation in the first place, then let's do it. We have to end the racist madness that has choked us for centuries."

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