June 10, 2022
In December of 2021, a coalition of over 25 local community organizations came together to encourage the Jones administration to develop a process and plan for reparations in the City of St. Louis. In recent weeks, we have seen notable developments in the conversation around reparations for generations of racist harm, including: passage of legislation introduced by Alderman Brandon Bosley to establish a Reparations Fund in the city; statements by Mayor Tishaura Jones that the fund represented a “first step” toward a robust process of reparations; and continuing grassroots efforts to demand reparations as a moral and legal imperative, including a Rally for Reparations in March.
While this coalition has continued to advocate for reparations since delivering the following memo nearly six months ago, we now wish to share the proposal publicly in order to contribute to the conversation on this critical subject.
The purpose of this memorandum is to present the case for establishing a reparations commission in the City of St. Louis that will explore the history of race-based harms in the city; reveal the present-day manifestations of that history; and, ultimately, propose a method for directly repairing the harms that have been inflicted and preventing further injury now and in the future. The undersigned coalition recognizes that Mayor Tishaura Jones is the first mayor in St. Louis’s history to expressly support reparations in principle, and it is our collective hope that this memorandum can act as a blueprint for the Jones administration to begin taking concrete action toward that goal.
- Why now?
The time is right for a citywide commitment to a reparations process. In recent years, several nationally prominent historians have helped to shed light on the unique role that St. Louis has played in both the development of racially exploitative practices and structures, and the emergence of resistance movements in the face of such exploitation. Examples of these projects include Mapping Decline, the Missouri History Museum exhibition “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis,” and The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. These works, and many others, document in detail a long history of racialized exclusion, extraction, and violence that has led to St. Louis becoming one of the most segregated and racially inequitable major cities in the nation.
But there is cause for hope both locally and nationally. As a mayoral candidate, Mayor Tishaura Jones inspired support from a broad multiracial coalition of voters by promoting the promise of a transformed St. Louis that finally prioritizes the health, safety, and wellbeing of its most marginalized residents, particularly Black St. Louisans who have long endured myriad forms of social, economic, and legal oppression. Post-election, Mayor Jones’s early commitment as a founding member of Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE) has helped to bolster a nationwide reemergence of reparations as an urgent policy demand. MORE represents a coalition of thirteen mayors across the country, and parallels proposed federal legislation H.R. 40, which aims to establish a national commission to study and develop proposals for reparations.
Together, these conditions present a tremendous opportunity to take bold collective action to begin redressing generational harm and reshape our communities. In the best moments of our history, St. Louisans have mustered the courage to be creative, innovative, and forward-thinking. We need to find that kind of courage again. Our city is at an inflection point, and we now have a unique opportunity to pave the way for a future St. Louis rooted in principles of truth, justice, and equity.
- Defining reparations
While many conversations about reparations often focus on some amount of money or financial resources to compensate for past wrongs, reparations has a more expansive and comprehensive definition.
The United Nations has set out the following justifications and key considerations in developing forms of reparation for harm suffered:
Adequate, effective and prompt reparation is intended to promote justice by redressing gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Reparation should be proportional to the gravity of the violations and the harm suffered. In accordance with its domestic laws and international legal obligations, a State shall provide reparation to victims for acts or omissions which can be attributed to the State and constitute gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law. In cases where a person, a legal person, or other entity is found liable for reparation to a victim, such party should provide reparation to the victim[.]
According to the United Nations, five conditions must be met for full reparations to exist:
- Cessation, assurances, and guarantees of non-repetition: Under international law, a state responsible for wrongfully injuring a people “is under an obligation to: (a) cease th[e] act if it is continuing; [and] (b) to offer appropriate assurances and guarantees of non-repetition . . .”
- Restitution and repatriation: Restitution means to “re-establish the situation which existed before the wrongful act was committed.” Changes traced to the wrongful act are reversed through restoration of freedom, recognition of humanity, identity, culture, repatriation, livelihood, citizenship, legal standing, and wealth to the extent they can be, and if they cannot, restitution is completed by compensation.
- Compensation: The injuring state, institution or individual is obligated to compensate for the damage, if damage is not made good by restitution. Compensation is required for “any financially accessible damage suffered…” to the extent “appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and circumstances.”
- Satisfaction: Satisfaction is part of full reparations under international law for moral damage, such as “individual pain and suffering, loss of loved ones or personal affront associated with an intrusion on one’s home or private life.” In some instances where cessation, restitution, and compensation do not bring full repair, satisfaction is also needed. Apology falls under the reparative category of satisfaction.
- Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation shall be provided to include legal, medical, psychological, and other care and services.
The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) defines reparations as:
A process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions and families. Those groups that have been injured have the right to obtain from the government, corporation, institution or family responsible for the injuries, that which they need to repair and heal themselves. In addition to being a demand for justice, it is a principle of international human rights law.
Finally, the National African-American Reparations Commission offers a similar definition of reparations, and offers a ten-point framework for a national reparations plan.
- Reparations examples in application
The call for reparations is not new and has been answered in many places, both globally and nationally. One of the best-known instances of reparations is the ongoing reparations that are paid to Holocaust survivors. In fact, reparations at the international level are quite common. For example, the United Kingdom paid Kenyans reparations for the violence it inflicted on Kenyans during the Mau Mau Rebellion, which was an effort by Kenyans to seek liberation from the United Kingdom’s imperialistic rule. Additionally, South Africa paid reparations to apartheid victims for decades of state-sanctioned racial oppression.
Beyond these international models, there are also United States examples of reparations paid at the national, state, and local levels. The United States paid reparations to Japanese Americans after interning approximately 120,000 Japanese people during World War II. On the state level, Florida paid $3.4 million in reparations to the survivors of the Rosewood Massacre. Chicago also provided comprehensive reparations to police torture survivors as a result of years-long sustained organizing by Chicago activists. Recently, in March 2021, Evanston Illinois approved reparations for Black residents who have been harmed by discriminatory housing practices and the City’s inaction.
A number of universities, such as Harvard and Princeton, have worked to unearth their own ties to the transatlantic slave trade, and some have even decided to pay reparations to descendants of enslaved peoples. Georgetown University’s undergraduate student body passed a reparations referendum, which requires students to pay a “semesterly fee” that will be designated for descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold by Georgetown University. More recently, Princeton Theological Seminary decided to allocate $27.2 million in reparations due to the institution being funded by enslavers and banks financing the expansion of slavery.
Throughout the years, there have been a number of people who have championed the need for widespread reparations to address the United States’ racial injustices, namely slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Black organizers of the 1960s and 1970s were outspoken about the need for reparations for Black people in the United States. We now have an opportunity to bring those calls to fruition.
Despite the numerous examples described above, reparations has remained a hot button issue. Many ask the question, “Why should we pay reparations for things done in the past?” To address this important concern and fulfill the Jones administration’s commitment to reparations, we propose a two-phased process to address the longstanding harms of racial exclusion, occupation, and economic divestment done to people and communities in the City of St. Louis.
Phase 1: Establishing a community-driven commission to determine the size, scope, and impact of racial oppression, exclusion, occupation, and economic divestment on communities in the City of St. Louis
The impact of chattel slavery is seen throughout our great city. Many St. Louis communities have suffered long histories of racial exclusion from homeownership, equitable education, accessible transit, environmental health, and so much more. Too many St. Louisans experience state-sanctioned occupation through our arrest-and-incarcerate model of public safety that has resulted in ever-increasing levels of violence and harm, including leading the nation in the most people killed by police per population of any major US city. Chattel slavery’s impact is even more obvious when recognizing the history of economic divestment from numerous predominately Black communities throughout the city. A commission is necessary to both quantify and make clear the extent of the harm suffered by communities in St. Louis through racial exclusion, occupation, and economic divestment.
The composition of the commission is critical to the success of this reparations effort. Some important factors include:
- Commission members who have been directly impacted by racial exclusion, occupation, and economic divestment.
- Community-driven selection process, including individuals appointed by the Mayor’s office, E&A members, and Board of Aldermen, with nominations by St. Louis residents.
- Commission members made up of researchers and community stakeholders from various fields, including historians, archivists, curators, social, political, and data analysts, economists, community organizers/advocates, legal experts, and more.
The commission’s work should also be community-centered and consist of:
- Story gathering from archival sources and St. Louis residents directly impacted by racial exclusion, occupation, and economic divestment.
- Data gathering to quantify the harm to St. Louis communities and prioritize areas of focus.
- Periodic public meetings to share findings and gain input on the data and story collection process.
At the end of this process, the commission will finalize a report detailing their findings and offering recommendations for the process of implementing a reparations plan in Phase 2. We expect Phase 1 to last approximately 6 months. We propose that the commission present its report at a public hearing at the end of 2022.
Phase 2: Implementation
Phase 2 will inform the specifics of how to implement a reparations plan, who will need to be involved, and what forms and magnitude of repair and compensation will be required. Like Phase 1, Phase 2 should be the result of a community-driven and participatory process and engage the necessary local elected bodies.
Now is the time for the City of St. Louis to wrestle fully with its history, commit to a process of repair and healing, and move forward into a just future for all of its people. We stand ready to support a process that will make this possible, and we hope that we can work together in pursuit of this shared goal.
Action St. Louis
MO Jobs with Justice
Faith For Justice
Freedom Arts and Education Center
St. Louis University Law Clinics
Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center
Freedom Community Center
Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council
Ecumenical Leadership Council
Mound City Bar Association
American Civil Liberties Union-MO
St. Louis Reentry Collective
Organization for Black Struggle
MO Sierra Club
SEIU MO/KS State Council
Homes For All
Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression
Black Men Build
Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice
Reparative Justice Coalition
Missouri Voter Protection Coalition
Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
Parents United for Change – COFI (IL)