Repairing a Society built on Enslavement: Grassroots Reparations Enforcement in Chicago

­Kamm Howard shared a long and in-depth interview about the fight for reparations for peoples of African descent globally, within the Caribbean, nationally and in Chicago, drawing upon international law and his work with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). Following is a short version of the transcript of this interview.

Kamm Howard: Reparations… means, um, wiping out all vestiges of the harm. […] And full reparations has five components. Cessation is the first component; cessation and guarantees of non-repetition, meaning you must stop the wrongdoing. You know, that’s the first thing, just stop what you doing if it’s a violation of human rights […]  Second is that you must engage in what is called restitution. Now restitution is to return the person or people to the state they would have been had they not been harmed. Restitution would be a tremendous amount of activity here in America if we were to actually go down the road of restitution, to return people of African [descent], we can’t have full restitution because we can’t get our historical memory back. Can’t get our languages back, we don’t know what people we came from, we don’t know what our cultural traditions were, we don’t know what clans we were, we don’t know our national histories, you know, we cannot ever be fully returned to the state we were, but restitution is necessary, there are a whole lot of things that can be done. When restitution has not fully covered the harms of the people then the third thing is compensation, that’s where the monetary value comes in. It may take some money to right the wrong.

[…]Sometimes that is enough. Cessation, restitution, compensation. But in some instances that’s still not enough, so the fourth element of full reparations is, um, satisfaction. That’s where the apology comes in, where you return the people to their original dignified state. In the case of people of African descent there’s no people on the planet of African descent that are respected […] And it’s because of these crimes committed against us during the periods of enslavement, colonialism, postcolonialism, now globalism […] So how do we get our dignity back? That has to be a component of reparations for us.

And finally, rehabilitation. If stopping the harm didn’t solve the issue, restitution or the attempt to reverse the conditions of people of African descent, if that didn’t solve the issue, if compensation didn’t solve the issue, and satisfaction didn’t fully solve the issue, then there also is rehabilitation. This is where the heart and mind damage of a people is addressed. Um, in America there’s many scholars who talk about the trauma that people of African descent today experience from enslavement, trauma that’s been passed down. Author Joy DuGruy Leary even wrote a book entitled Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome […]

And we also know that the white community in America also needs to be rehabilitated because during that particular time it’s been passed down through the white community, these, this notion that whatever punishment Black people get, or whatever physical discomfort directed at people of African descent, it’s somehow justified, somehow natural for them. You know, whites cannot feel our pain, they can feel others’ pain, but they can’t feel African pain. And that has to do with the history of witnessing over and over again violent attacks on African people by people who they love—their brothers, their uncles, even, where we have a history and documentation of how women on the plantation beat African children because those children were fathered by their husbands, or their brothers, and there was some, you know, pain in that for white women. And so that experience has been passed down in your community.

And so we see, and we see that all the time: when there’s an issue of black and white in America, and Black people are harmed, we don’t get the same expression that we’d get if, say, an animal was harmed, a dog was harmed. We don’t get the same expression out of your community. And, again, we have studies to show that’s also related, directly related, to the period of enslavement. Another issue that’s passed down in the white community is this, um, feeling of superiority, you know, of entitlement, […]that they should have, your community should have all the best jobs, should have all the best homes, should have all the best of everything in America, and Black people should have less. And that’s not all whites, just like we can’t label all Blacks, but it’s enough, it’s exhibited in enough people who classify themselves as white, uh, for it to be recognizable, for it to be measurable, and for it to be passed down generationally[…] All of America has been harmed by the enslavement of African people, and so the reparations is not just for people of African descent—in that regard it’s also for the entire country.

[…]White privilege is something that, uh, most people—Caucasian, white—feel that is their right and will question you to even challenge it. But, you know, it’s something that was created out of criminality and we know under international law you cannot benefit, you cannot take advantage of a crime. You cannot, um, enjoy the benefits of a crime, internationally, or you’re also a criminal. And that’s another thing where white people or people who classify themselves as white American say that, you know, I didn’t enslave your grandparents, you know I just got—even immigrants—we just got here. But when you’re benefitting from the crime you’re just as criminal—under international law. That’s why we use international standards. Because there’s no gray areas, you know. You cannot benefit from a crime. Or you’re a criminal. So stop the benefitting, stop, you know, taking, accepting this privilege here that you’re given here in America based on white skin. And there’s no value in white skin just like there’s no inherent value in any color skin. But it’s built into the psyches and the law—uh, it’s “kinda” taken out of law but it’s still built into the psyches of people who classify themselves as white Americans, as white […]

AREA: Um…I guess, in terms of, uh, reparations, like practical steps, um, uh, I wanted to ask you about the campaign that you mentioned at the John Burge event, you mentioned that you were targeting corporations that benefited from slavery…

KH:[…] N’Cobra first defines reparations as a process of repairing, healing, or restoring a people who are injured due their group identity in violation of their fundamental human rights by a government, corporation, institution or individual. So with us, the emphasis is on repair. It’s not on compensation but it’s on repair and I gave you, you know, the five areas of repair, for reparations, for repair. Also key to that is that these were group harms, it’s not individual harms but group harms of an entire people and that there were four classes of criminals. Not only the government. The focus of the major reparations movement—and this movement is over a hundred fifty years old, coming right out of enslavement there was a reparations movement to get pensions for the elder Africans who were now past their productive years. How were they gonna be taken care of? You know, you’re free, you can’t work, you know, you’re sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety you can’t work, what’s gonna happen? So there was a pension fund, a reparations movement started by a sister named Callie House. [It] was, you know, wide spread, grass roots, one of the first grass roots reparations organizations and movements that kicked off the reparations movement in this country.

But, there’s four classes of criminals, so governments, corporations, institutions, individuals. Now, we’ve focused on governments since the beginning of the reparations [movement]: The United States Government, and rightfully so, because they were state-sponsored acts of the government. Uh, but in 2005 we started to go after corporations. We filed a major lawsuit here in the City of Chicago against, I think, about nine or ten of the major corporations that were involved in the enslavement of African people.

The judge threw that case out in 2005, stating that “they could not hear the case” based on, um, some technical issues. They said we didn’t have standing to speak, that we weren’t the ones who were actually injured, we were too far removed […] They stated that the statute of limitations had ran out—you have six years to bring a case before Federal court once you’ve been harmed or know you are harmed and so, of course, we’re talking a hundred and fifty years ago, when we’re talking about enslavement although it happened for 246 years…technically, chattel slavery ended a hundred fifty years ago… Also, they stated that you couldn’t bring a race-based case to court. The constitution was colorblind and that interpretation of the constitution now is that anything race has to pass a strict scrutiny test and so that’s a whole ‘nother technical issue that was thrown before us, and so the judge dismissed the case.

However, because of what took place in 2001, in Durban, South Africa, the World conference Against Racism, and the outcome document that came out of that, which actually declared, internationally, the international community met and declared that slavery and the slave trade, colonialism and apartheid—America’s form of apartheid which we know as Jim Crow, but it was apartheid the same—were crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations. So if there was an entity in place four hundred years ago that committed those crimes and it’s still in place today they’re still criminal. If there’s a government that was in place—like France, England, United States, well the United States is not four hundred years old but it was 1776 when it was born, it was in existence during the period of enslavement, it came into existence during that period, it’s still in existence today; the Netherlands, most of the European nations that were involved in the enslavement process are still in existence, therefore, if what took place were crimes against humanity, they’re still criminal today. So there’s no statute of limitations. Secondly, in this Durban outcome document, the language stated that racism had an economic foundation. People were not racist just because they didn’t like people; they were racist and created these racial structures to economically benefit one group and to disadvantage another group. And the group that was disadvantaged was those who were enslaved, those who the racist act was committed against; and the groups who were the economically advantaged were those who did the victimizing and created the crimes. So you see this opulent Europe and you see this underdeveloped Africa. So the international community recognized that the economic conditions on the planet today were shaped during these criminal acts.

And thirdly, that the effects of these criminal acts are present in present day white Americans or Europeans, where people of European descent have a much higher standard of life and people of African descent, who have a much lower standard of life. So the present effect of these crimes impact us on a day-to-day basis, minute by minute, hour-by-hour basis. And finally, in this outcome document, it stated that the perpetrators of these crimes had an obligation to halt and reverse[…] So not only do you stop but you reverse—that’s part of the restitution, returning people to the place they would have been had they not have been injured. So this is where the international community is standing in relationship to what took place during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and on into the end of apartheid in South Africa, the segregation in South Africa. And so, uh, since 2001, since the Durban declaration, because America walked out, many scholars in America thought that we sat outside of the Durban document because America and Israel walked out of the conference, Canada and Australia abstained from voting, the other hundred and fifty-so nations voted yes on this outcome document, on this particular language, but because America walked out, American scholars and legal scholars, and intellectuals thought that people of African descent, that this was outside of our domain, that it was out of our reach. But you saw people of African descent and Africans on the continent moving on this document in a powerful way—in Zimbabwe, in Brazil, in, um, Peru. In other areas of the planet people were utilizing this document to advance their cause on being repaired.

Well, the United Nations, in their ICERD covenant, International Covenant for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, incorporated, adopted, the Durban declaration and program of action in 2006 or 7 (I don’t remember what actual date it was). So that means that since America signed onto ICERD they’re now technically obligated to address the Durban declaration and program of action, alright, because ICERD adopted it into its covenant and the United States is a signatory and a ratifier of that particular international protocol. And so it places us in a position to also be able to utilize the language of Durban. So we can say to corporations that are existing today, that enslaved African people during the period of enslavement, from 1776, even those who were in existence prior to the formation of America—it doesn’t matter. If you injured African people during that process and you exist today, you’re criminal, according to international standards. The shareholders, the current shareholders, are criminals, right, because they’re benefitting from a crime. Alright. Now we understand these corporations and people who are a part of them today had nothing to do with the actual actions of that time. However, they’re benefitting and so they have an obligation according to international law, according to the Durban declaration and program of action, they have an obligation to, uh, assist in the repair of the people who were injured—present day people of African descent. And so that gave us the power to go after every corporation and say, you’re a criminal, this is how much you’re worth, these are the crimes you committed against our people, and for those crimes we say this is what you owe us.

And so that was what we did when we targeted Norfolk Southern Railroad. Norfolk Southern Railroad is expanding its rail yard. For thirty-something-plus years during enslavement they leased Africans from “white slave owners” and worked them in the railroads. After enslavement—‘cause they started in like 1832, 1833, somewhere round there—after enslavement, for another sixty, seventy years during segregation, Jim Crow, they leased Africans from prisons.  The first prison industrial complex was built on bogus laws to incarcerate Black people so they could be leased to corporations, railroads predominantly, coal mines, timber companies, these large corporations. And so there was a whole national—based mostly in the Southern states—but the entire country benefitted from this form of convict leasing. And so this corporation has over one hundred years of criminal acts against African people.

[…] So we approached Norfolk Southern, they were expanding into the Englewood community, we found out about it; there is a slavery disclosure ordinance on the books of the city of Chicago, meaning that any corporation that has engaged in any enslavement of African people must disclose that if they want a city contract, want to do business with the city. That was a law passed in 2002 under the leadership of Dorothy Tillman, and Alderman Burke also assisted in that. But that’s all it says, all you have to do is disclose and once you disclose you can go on and do the city contract. So Norfolk Southern needed 101 city lots from the city to expand their project. They had quietly started buying up property about six, seven years ago and creating these vacant lots. Depressed the real estate market in that area, making it seem like this is a blighted area, but they were quietly, secretly buying up property and tearing the houses down, etc. But then they got to the point where they had worked out deals with most of the people who were still there, after this community had been totally devastated. But the city owned 101 lots and they needed those lots; in order to buy those lots they had to submit their slavery disclosure and we found out they did, and we analyzed it.

Now we went to the hearing for which they were to buy the property from the city and we raised our issue, we raised the flag. At the City Council meeting—I think it was one department not the entire council that met—they ignored our objections and went on and agreed to sell the property. About four months later there was another hearing before the zoning commission because the zoning commission had to rezone this property from residential to light industrial. And so we went back to the zoning committee and the zoning committee heard our issues; they heard us loud and clear. And so it was the commissioner said, I heard a history today, I know that history (he happened to be a person of African descent) and he stated that there should be a one-month delay on the sale of this project, on the rezoning of this project, or this area, until this corporation has met with all these people who were opposing this project[…] See, there were other environmental issues that were being addressed—Englewood had the highest rate of asthma and other respiratory-related diseases and this corporation coming in with more diesel emission fuels, we had reports from the University of Illinois that showed that the air quality was just gonna go totally down the tube, which would, uh, challenge the health of any more residents in that community. But they had been ignoring that for over a year, year and a half.

When we brought up reparations, they got some hearing, they got heard… A week after that hearing, Norfolk Southern met with about seven organizations that were opposing this project. Organizations that they had just totally pushed in the face for a year and a half, went on ‘bout their business, we’re not gonna address that, we don’t care about your study, we think your study is false science—you know, the whole works, this big, you know, nine billion dollar corporation, you know, how dare you challenge us on what we’re gonna do. But after we got that thirty day delay they secretly met with these seven entities and gave them everything they wanted but refused to talk with us on reparations.

So they went back thirty days later in front of the commission with this huge power point presentation saying, here’s where the jobs are going, we’re bringing in new diesel emissions equipment, we weren’t gonna do it for seven years, or six years, we’re gonna do it in two years, we’re gonna donate this property, we’re gonna engage in economic, you know, whatever they were asking, seven issues. Sun Times reporter says that, uh, “environmental groups forced a string of concessions.” But it wasn’t environmental groups; it was N’Cobra raising the issue of reparations; that they capitulated on all these other areas just to keep from dealing with reparations.

We were focused on 6% of the project cost; the project cost was $285,000,000. We wanted 6% of that deposited into an economic enhancement fund. Just 6% . It woulda gave the Engelwood community seventeen million dollars. We could have leveraged that seventeen million dollars up to around a hundred million dollars in actual development. We could have turned the table nationwide, but especially here in this city, on this whole issue of corporate responsibility for the crimes they committed against our people. After the councilor heard this huge presentation, that they were doing everything that all these organizations wanted, they approved the sale, they approved the rezoning, and we were left out. Had we had allies with these organizations and with other allies that came and stood with us, we could have changed the history of Chicago and the history of America with that project.

But, you know, we were able to benefit the residents by ensuring that the air quality was not decimated […] And so, that was a victory of sorts but no one knows about that victory, you know, not even those who; those who were there, the players who were there, know about it but they’re not telling the story.

Now: Norfolk Southern inked this deal with Chicago; one year later their stock rose from $77.00 to $114.00. Two billion dollars since making this deal, in less than a year. And they gave the community $20,000. That’s 1/100 of one percent of what they gained. And, I tell people, visualize me taking a penny out my pocket and chopping that penny up into 100,000 pieces and giving you one of those pieces; that’s what they gave the community. After a hundred years of criminality; and more criminality. And then, it’s not like they’re not making money; they made two billion dollars in a year off taking eighty-three acres of land off this community. And gave them 1/100 of one percent. And the alderman was ok with that. This is our representation.

So yeah, that’s reparations, we call that reparations enforcement, utilizing the Durban declaration and program of action that came out of the World Conference Against Racism […] See, we don’t have to make a case anymore; the case was made in front of the entire international human rights community. States, governments, we made the argument: they said yes, there were crimes; yes, there were economic benefits; yes, people, their descendants are still injured today; yes, there’s an obligation to repair. We don’t have to make the argument; now we just have to enforce that declaration. And so being enabled to engage any corporation, any institution, there’s institutions in Chicago that engaged in apartheid-type practices.

AREA: Who are those?

KH: Um, don’t want to say, not right now. One of the things we’re doing in about three months—and you’ll hear about it: there’s a photo exhibit that’s gonna be done on corporations and institutions in Chicago that have a slavery history, that are criminals.

[…] A brother by the name of Bob Brown did research for that 2005 lawsuit, well, he named 101 corporations in the city of Chicago that either were directly involved or are benefitting from corporations who were directly involved, who are like subcontractors with these corporations who are doing business with the city and have injured people of African descent. One Hundred and One. There’s thirty operating here now that we know have direct ties to enslavement of African people. So we’re gonna focus on nine just in this photo exhibit with some descriptions of the type of crimes they’ve committed, the value of their corporations, what we think, um, the monetary value is for the injury that we suffer and, uh, these corporations and institutions, we’re gonna utilize this art exhibit as a way to galvanize individuals, organizations, other institutions to assist us in fighting this human rights battle.

AREA: Is N’Cobra working in other places in the United States…and going after these same corporations?

KH: […] Chicago is taking the lead… we’ve adopted that organizationally-wide, nation-wide, we’ve adopted reparations enforcement as a new paradigm of reparation activism in America and even globally for people of African descent.  The one initiative that we are doing not only in Chicago but also in Philadelphia is the strengthening disclosure campaign. Chicago and Philadelphia both have slavery disclosure ordinances on the books in these cities where corporations have to disclose […] There are now nine cities that have local slavery disclosure statutes. So our goal is to work locally.

We were attempting to do a national legislation with HR 40. The bill is titled HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act that was introduced by Congressman Conyers […] So I’ve been working for the last seven years, six or seven years, around HR 40. That’s the major legislation, the national legislation, only national legislation that has been pushed. And so we worked with Congressman Conyers on that. We abandoned that struggle a few years ago because […] we saw that democrats, especially the Black democrats, were not going to engage in anything “controversial” while they were attempting to push Obama’s health care act. And anything like reparations would have given the so-called opposition, the Republicans, ammunition against the president. So we had, you know, we got absolutely no help from anybody in Congress, Black or otherwise. So that is one way where the President hurt us. And there’s other ways, but that is one huge way where the president hurt us by being of African descent. So we abandoned pushing for national legislation and brought it back to the local. […] In Philadelphia, they have had several meetings with the chief procurement officer who awards the contracts to these corporations and they are negotiating now. They are ahead of us, even though Chicago started, they are ahead of us and we are happy about that because whoever breaks through in regards to mandating repair from these corporations from the government, is going to change it for everybody around the country.

AREA: Why do you say they are ahead of you?

KH: Because they have actually engaged in talks, high level talks with those people who can alter the legislation. We have had pushback after pushback from the Aldermanic Black Caucus here in Chicago. They will not give us an audience.  Our organization is focused on so much that we haven’t been able to put a lot of pressure on this election with these aldermen. So we’re going to take a new strategy. We’re not going to go through the Black elected officials. We’re going to circumvent them and go another route. I don’t want to give that strategy up right now but that’s the way we’re going with that.