At noon last Saturday, about 500 people rallied at a plaza adjacent to the Anti-Defamation League building, a few blocks from the United Nations, to demand reparations for descendants of American slaves. “You owe us!” was their rally cry.
This was the first showing of the reparations movement in several months. Though there were some nationally known figures, the small crowd was mostly a reflection of the New York face of the movement—middle-aged holdouts from the civil rights era. There was an open acknowledgment that theirs was a movement in its incipient stages in dire need of support from the masses, especially black youth.
The threat of rain didn’t help the turnout, but Viola Plummer—one of the masters of ceremony and the chair of the Millions for Reparations March, which was held in August of 2002 in Washington D.C.—promised those who congregated that the ancestors wouldn’t allow rain to fall until the rally reached its conclusion. Black magic or not, black revolutionary spirit was in the air. Speakers and rally-goers invoked the spirits of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and other black nationalists.
“Power concedes nothing without demand,” said Plummer, quoting Frederick Douglas.
On the whole, the activists’ demands were amorphous, with little consensus on what form reparations should take. Akbar Muhammad, the international representative of Louis Farrakhan, called for the freedom of aged prison populations, college tuition payment for young blacks, and the rebuilding of Liberia. “Cotton drawers to cotton panties, all the cotton in this world, even cotton candy . . . my people should never have to pay for cotton again,” said slam poet Kahlil Almustafa in his poem Cotton. Council member Charles Barron asked the crowd rhetorically, “What are we going to do with the money when we get it? None of your business.”
The protesters convened under the auspices of a loose coalition called Millions for Reparations—an outgrowth of the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa—and the Millions for Reparations March. The National Black Urban Front, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, and the Nation of Islam, among others, played a part in the mobilization efforts for Saturday’s rally.
Most of those present were concerned more with justifications for reparations than what form they should take. Poor housing and education, police brutality, and urban poverty were all cited as remnants of American slavery. The precedents set by restitution payments to Holocaust survivors and victims of the Japanese internment were evoked. “Everybody else is getting dough, the African Americans should as well,” D-Roc, a 33-year-old black activist from Brooklyn told the Voice. “What about us?” Bob Law, another master of ceremonies, echoed from the stage. “They suddenly forget when it’s time for black folks.” Some mentioned that Europe and America built their economic prosperity on the backs of blacks. For others, the sheer horrors of the slave trade, too often forgotten, were enough to justify reparations.
If talk of American slavery has grown euphemistic in America, speakers were quick to register their anger. “These crackers owe us,” Plummer screamed. It was made clear from the jump that slave reparations, at least for now, are not a coalition issue; that there were only a handful of whites in the crowd attested to this fact.
Most of the protesters remained for the full five hours of the rally, maintaining the cadence of call and response even as they grew tired. “What do we want? Reparations! When do we want it? Now!” There was the sense that they weren’t going to relinquish their cause any time soon. Too much was at stake. “When we win reparations, we will have transformed the order of the world,” said Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, a young activist from Chicago. A few minutes before five, rain breached the loose canopy of trees above the plaza, and people huddled beneath umbrellas near the stage. “Ours is the generation of reparations,” they cried. “Let the rain come.”