Reparations advocates toast historic moment in San Francisco

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Members of California’s first state reparations task force met Wednesday at a historic African-American church in San Francisco, making their own history in their efforts to educate the public and develop a reparations package . people who were harmed by slavery.

The two-day meeting at Third Baptist Church in the city’s Fillmore district was the first in-person gathering of the nine-member working group since its inaugural meeting nearly a year ago. The meeting came weeks after the group voted to limit reparations for enslaved black descendants.

The morning attendance was light, but the mood was largely jubilant. About a dozen speakers lined up for public comment, some of whom thanked the working group members for their important work.

“Everyone here is a part of history,” Chris Lodgson of the California Coalition for Justice and Equity, a compensation advocacy group, said before the meeting. “Really, I’m so excited and blessed to be here.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating a two-year reparations task force in 2020, making California the only state that continues to advance research into slavery, educate people about its findings and formulate State of Remedy. Compensation at the federal level has not been implemented, but cities and universities across the country are addressing the issue.

Wednesday’s meeting took place in a once-thriving neighborhood of African-American nightclubs and shops until government reconstruction forced residents out — a prime example of how local policies can destroy black communities.

Founded in 1852, Third Baptist Church was the first African-American Baptist church established west of the Rocky Mountains, according to the City Landmark designation awarded to the church in 2017. Its pastor is Pastor Amos Brown, an activist and president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, vice chair of the longtime Civil Rights Working Group.

More than three dozen people sat on wooden benches for the full-day session, which included testimonies from education disparity experts. On Thursday, the committee is scheduled to discuss a report to be made public in June showing how slavery continues to have an impact across California, including disparities in household income, health, employment and incarceration.

In a dramatic vote last month, a California task force was split 5-4 to limit reparations to those who can prove they are descendants of enslaved or free blacks in 19th-century America. Those who support broader eligibility say ancestry-based compensation unfairly shuts out blacks who also suffer from systemic discrimination.

But Josiah Williams, a member of the Justice and Equity Alliance in Oakland, said the vote confirms that African-Americans have historically worked to make society fairer to others, only to watch some minority Groups are compensated, not them.

“It’s not about excluding anyone. It’s about making sure we get what we need for our people. Like, we just want to breathe,” said Williams, 37. “We’re just trying to make repairs for the first time.”

Several members of the audience were with his coalition, which is working on legislation to create a working group. But others are learning about the state’s compensation efforts for the first time — and the possibility of having to collect paperwork to prove they’re eligible for compensation.

Oakland native Trier Johnson, 41, appeared on Wednesday after a friend told him about the meeting.

“I didn’t even know it was an actual topic that was going on,” he said.

Attorney Cheryce Cryer, who had traveled in person from Los Angeles to the meeting, turned from her bench and suggested that Johnson start researching the lineage of his enslaved ancestors.

“Don’t assume,” Claire advised him. “Now put your files together.”

Committee member Cheryl Grills, a clinical psychologist and professor at Loyola Marymount University, said before the meeting that it would be possible to make compensation a reality given that advocates must develop a plan approved by lawmakers and funded by the government. The task is daunting.

But she admits the excitement.

“We never seem to be this close to being really recognized, seen, understood, empathized,” she said. “This country has never done that.”

Since its first meeting in June, the nine-member panel has spent most of its time hearing from experts in key areas such as housing and homelessness, banking racism and techno-discrimination.

Task force members are appointed by the governor and the leaders of the two legislative chambers. A compensation plan will be presented to the legislature in 2023.

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