Former Evanston Council Member Robin Rue Simmons and Mayor Daniel Biss brought the reparations conversation to Temple Jeremiah in Northfield in a conversation moderated by Rabbi Paul F. Cohen.
“I feel like I was elected to be a cheerleader for an extraordinary program but it’s a program that we have because of the work of people who came before me,” Biss said.
The conversation occurred in person and on Zoom on April 24, and participants were able to submit questions for Cohen to share. Biss and Simmons said their individual backgrounds made them naturally inclined toward the work of reparations.
Biss said he’s Jewish and the grandson of Holocaust survivors on his mother’s side. His grandmother survived Auschwitz. After many years, he said, his grandmother received reparations funds from the German government but she didn’t talk about it much.
He remembers that although the funds didn’t do a lot to make up for what was lost, it was important for her to receive a tangible acknowledgement of the injury.
“We are part of this country,” he said. “As citizens, we have a responsibility to contribute toward the repayment of our country’s debts.”
Rue Simmons – whose past includes launching a bookstore in the Fifth Ward that offered free after school programming as well as an Evanston construction company that strictly employed Black tradespeople to develop affordable housing – says she came to the work of reparations through her experience coming from the Fifth Ward.
“Having been born and raised in the Fifth Ward and experiencing the disinvestment, the fewer amenities, the lesser livability in our ward … that informed all of my entrepreneurial endeavors and later led me to run for elected office,” she said.
Biss, Simmons talk mechanics of reparations, criticism
During the session, viewers asked questions about Evanston’s reparations program.
When one person asked why the cannabis tax was the only revenue stream, Rue Simmons responded that cannabis happened to be an appropriate new revenue stream to use, considering the city has overpoliced the Black community for marijuana use. She said that though Black people make up 71% of arrests, they are only 16% of the population.
“Before it came into our general fund and got earmarked for something else that we’d have to negotiate it back from, it was an important first step to capture that,” she said.
The cannabis sales tax was not her first recommendation, though, adding that she suggested using the graduated real estate transfer tax revenue, taxing premium properties that were sold for more than a million dollars.
“Those are the types of questions that the committee will continue exploring,” she said. “Now that we … have established this first initiative, we will be looking to expand with new revenue streams and new initiatives, as well.”
Cohen asked the speakers to respond to critics who argue that reparations should not be restricted.
Rue Simmons said that Evanston is a municipality, and that many things, including direct taxation for reparations, are outside of their purview.
She said the city has legal experts who have helped frame the legal criteria for a program.
Although she wants to give every Black Evanstonian a million dollars, she said the city has to take action within its purview and capacity, and in direct correlation to harm that took place.
“Why our city has been able to move something beyond rhetoric and aspiration and an acknowledgment is because we have a narrowly tailored reparation remedy that is in direct correlation to the harm,” she said. “I do believe that over time, we will uncover other specific harms.”
Talking about criticism, Biss emphasized that Evanston’s largest reparations critics don’t disagree with the idea on a fundamental level. He said they support the idea but believe the city’s approach doesn’t get it right.
“We listen to all of those points of view. We incorporate them,” Biss said. “We’ve made so far a $10 million commitment to reparations and Evanston. And so there’s 96% left to allocate.
“So when people come forth and say, ‘We ought to do reparations, but not like this, do it like that,’ that’s just really helpful constructive information that we can use when figuring out how to deploy… the next 96% of the initial $10 million,” Biss said.
Cohen shared scripture about reparations, emphasizing that the story of Exodus is a prototypical story of reparations.
“When our ancestors came out of Egypt, they did not come out empty-handed,” he said.