This past Friday, the Reparations at UChicago Working Group (RAUC) hosted students, community activists, professors, and organizers at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge for the (U)Chicago Reparations Summit. The forum was an all-day public gathering to discuss reparations and UChicago’s place in the history of enslaved peoples and today’s victims of police violence.
The forum began with a panel moderated by Professor Emerita of History Julie Saville and featured a panel of local activists and visiting professors. Todd St. Hill, a writer, activist, and organizer for We Charge Genocide’s “Cop Watch” program elaborated, “I would argue that reparations are a means to achieving the aspirations of people whose American experiences have been undermined at best and utterly demolished at the very worst.”
Reparations are often thought of as a compensatory measure (financial or otherwise) paid to victims of an atrocity and, in the U.S. and U.K. specifically, to descendants of enslaved peoples. St. Hill opened the forum by expressing excitement over the recent political interest in reparations, calling presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris and Cory Booker’s discussions of reparations “unprecedented.” St. Hill then went on to call Senator Bernie Sanders’ (A.B. ’64) lack of support for HR40, a bill introduced to the House that would form a commission to explore reparation options for African Americans, “baffling.”
“Reparations fit right into [Sanders’] central argument that we need a political revolution against the billionaire class,” said St. Hill, referencing the fact that many reparations proposals call for funding to be collected from a tax on the super wealthy.
St. Hill then countered concerns about a lack of public support for reparations, stating that in recent polls, the majority of Black Americans support some form of reparations. “Millennials seem far more open to the idea of reparations than previous generations,” St. Hill said.
Aislinn Pulley, an activist with Black Lives Matter Chicago and co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, described the shift in American policing starting in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“There was a push towards militarization of the police force and the creation of a different kind of police force. We didn’t used to be militarized, policing did not look like it does today,” Pulley explained.
One example of this, Pulley said, was the persecution of Black and Latino communities in Chicago by former police detective Jon Burge. Burge was fired from the police force in 1993 after it was alleged that he had tortured confessions out of over 200 suspects in the Chicago area using tactics he learned during his time serving in Vietnam. Burge ultimately served time for perjury from 2011 to October of 2014 in relation to a 1989 civil suit; however, the statute of limitations on claims of torture had since expired.
Pulley highlighted a 2015 Chicago City Council vote that unanimously approved a reparations ordinance, the first of its kind in the nation, for survivors of Chicago police torture. The ordinance called for financial compensation, mandated that the history of CPD torture be taught in Chicago Public Schools, and created the Chicago Torture Justice Center.
The next speaker was Michael Ralph (A.M. ’02, Ph.D. ’07), an author and associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. Ralph said that reparations for descendants of enslaved people should be a straightforward policy.
“I also want to talk about how mundane it is to think about all the different ways we place monetary value on human life. I could rattle off a list of atrocities: the Boston Marathon bombing, Agent Orange, Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Holocaust compensation. And most of those events, with the exception of the slave trade, have had some form of redress attached to them.”
In addressing concern over funding reparations, Ralph quipped, “Some people are very skeptical about throwing money at the problem. In my experience, people of color very much appreciate it when you throw money at the problem. Very few of us are offended by that.”
The final panelist, Guy Emerson Mount (A.M. ’18, Ph.D. ’18), author and assistant professor of African American history at Auburn University, described reparations as not only a “short term project” but a form of “revolutionary praxis,” stating that the “revolution of reparations must be made permanent.”
Mount, a co-founder of RAUC, was instrumental in the uncovering of UChicago’s historic ties to slavery in 2017. Mount ended his time by stating, “Without slavery, there is no University of Chicago.”
Mount referred to the slave-owning past of Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. Senator and donor to the University. In 1856, Douglas donated 10 acres of land to found the first University of Chicago. He purchased the land with money made from the 150 slaves in his family’s plantation in Mississippi.
In the afternoon, the forum continued with a panel on local reparations struggles. Speakers from six activist groups discussed the complicity of the City and the University in exploiting the South Side community.
Kofi Ademola, an activist from Black Lives Matter, pointed out that the University has a long history of exploiting Black labor. “There was a long legacy of money invested from slavery to make this institution come into fruition.”
“Also, you have the Rockefeller money,” Ademola continued, “and that too has to be taken into account because robber barons garnered their wealth by exploiting many groups but especially Black and Brown people.”
Jawanza Malone, a member from the Obama Library Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, said that he pushes the University to redress its past wrongs because it continues to exploit South Side residents.
“The harm continues; it isn’t something that just happened in the past,” Malone said. “Consistently, we see the University acting on the Black community in a way that harms us.”
Malone sees the University’s involvement in the construction of the Obama Presidential Center as an instance of harmful intervention for the Black community by displacing low-income residents.
“In the bid document, the University said that if the Presidential Center were to be in Jackson Park, it would be an opportunity to bring new residents in the area,” Malone said. “However, anyone who has sense knows that if you bring new residents into the area, you will displace low-income families unless you have protections in place.”
Malone also questioned the University’s intention in bidding for the Obama Presidential Center. “[The University’s bid] wasn’t out of altruism…they did it because they could leverage the legacy of the first Black president for their benefit.”
Malone cited the University’s plan to build the Obama Presidential Center on public parkland in Jackson Park, which sparked a federal lawsuit. “Why did the University need the parkland when they got $90 million in subsidies off the bat…. Why didn’t they use the land they already own?”
Several panelists also called for South Side residents to join the reparations movement. Kamm Howard, a member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, said, “We need people to lend their resources and talents to this unique moment in this country in regards to reparations.”
Malone added, “[reparations] is not a radical idea…if we don’t protect ourselves, it is clear and obvious that no one else will.”