Chicago reparations movement opts for a go-slow approach

Gone are a series of commitments from cash-strapped city agencies, including free rides on the CTA and free tuition at City Colleges. Instead, the resolution calls for creating a ‘Chicago Citizens of African Descent Reparations Commission.’

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Former mayoral challenger-turned-U.S. Senate candidate Willie Wilson.

Former mayoral challenger-turned-U.S. Senate candidate Willie Wilson said he’d rather be “more aggressive” in pursuit of reparations in Chicago, but he’s willing to do “whatever it takes to get it done.”

Sun-Times file

Two months ago, vanquished mayoral challenger Willie Wilson said he was working with black aldermen on a Chicago reparations ordinance that would require city agencies to establish an array of programs to make amends for the evils of slavery.

On Wednesday, Wilson will join the former chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus and current chairman of the Hispanic Caucus to unveil a new version nothing like the old one.

Gone are a series of commitments from cash-strapped city agencies, including free rides on the CTA, free tuition at City Colleges and a bigger share of city contracts.

Instead, the resolution calls for the City Council’s Committee on Human Relations to create a “Chicago Citizens of African Descent Reparations Commission” comprised of at least sixteen members.

The commission would be charged with holding hearings and developing a specific plan to “ensure equity, equality and parity for citizens of African descent in Chicago who are mired in poverty.”

The commission would remain in place for 20 years to monitor and ensure compliance.

Members would include: Mayor Lori Lightfoot or her designated representative; five members of the City Council; and 10 members from the public — and at least eight of those must be from the “eligible impacted community.”

Wilson, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, was asked about a watered-down resolution replacing an ordinance with real teeth.

“Would I like for it to be a lot more aggressive? Yes,” Wilson said.

“But, if he can guarantee to get the thing through [then he’ll go along]. ... I’m very aggressive with the understanding that I’m not in City Council and you’ve gotta be comfortable to present it. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to get it done.”

County Commissioner Richard Boykin said the original ordinance was shared with the city Law Department and sponsors were advised to start with a resolution calling for the creation of a reparations commission.

“It was Ald. [Roderick] Sawyer who talked to the Law Department. It was the recommendation from him that this is the approach we needed to take. ... He’s got to deal with the City Council. He understands the City Council. He understands what can get passed and how we can get it done,” Boykin said.

“I don’t think it’s going slow. It’s being prudent. ... If this resolution gets passed and you establish a commission, it would be significant. There’s not a commission that’s been established in the United States, that I’m aware of, in any other cities.”

Sawyer told a different story.

He said he never met with the Law Department. Rather, he consulted representatives of the national reparations movement who drafted U.S. House Resolution 40 — the Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act.

“They criticized the first version as being more of an anti-poverty ordinance — not a reparations ordinance. They instructed me to re-craft it ... to reflect what they’ve been working on for so long. We wanted to honor what they’ve been doing because they are the real experts in this,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer argued going slow is the right approach to build public support, which has been sorely lacking. He noted the reparations movement has been “going on for 120 years” with nothing to show for it.

“We never even got a sufficient apology for being enslaved. ... Up until recently, we still have been treated like second-class citizens. ... We need to be made whole for the damage done to us,” Sawyer said.

“Compensation is what everybody seems to focus on. But that’s only one part of what the reparations movement has been about. Satisfaction. Rehabilitation. ... I still think black people have a slavery mindset to a great extent. We have to break that.”

As he did when the strong version was unveiled in late July, Sawyer acknowledged the mere mention of reparations will trigger heated debate. He also knows that, with an $838 million shortfall, the city can’t afford costly new programs.

All the more reason a go-slow approach makes sense even if the ultimate goal remains the same.

“The city can’t afford not to do it. All the problems that we’re talking about — settlements, problems with drug addiction, mental health. When we start addressing these issues from the root causes, a lot of these other things will probably start going away,” he said.

“We can pick our poison. Continue to spend money and force it down the drain or solve the root problem and stop paying for these things once and for all.”

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