Amherst takes historic step on reparations

  • People walk through the downtown district, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Amherst. The Town Council this week set a goal of contributing $205,000 a year, up to $2 million, into a reparations fund to pay for restorative justice measures. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2022 8:25:47 PM

AMHERST — In what advocates say is a “historical mark of progress for Amherst,” the Town Council this week set a goal of committing $2 million over the next 10 years to a dedicated reparations fund aimed at repairing hundreds of years of harm perpetuated against residents of African heritage.

In a 10-2-1 vote on Monday, councilors approved a motion that will transfer up to $205,000 annually from certified free cash into the town’s dedicated reparations fund until the town’s contributions equal $2 million. The town established a stabilization fund for the purpose of reparations last year.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who is the co-chair of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly and has been pushing the town to move in this direction for some time, says the council’s vote is the culmination of nearly two years of grassroots and municipal efforts. The financial commitment is a “demonstration of what a community can do together to create a more just and equitable place for all residents to live and thrive,” Miller said in an interview with the Gazette. “The members of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly bring a tremendous amount of leadership and lived experience to this work. This commitment clears the way for them to begin the consultative process with residents of African heritage to develop a robust and inclusive reparative justice plan.”

While the goal is to transfer $205,000 each year, the amount contributed will be determined based on the actual cannabis tax revenue collected from the previous year. Each year’s contribution will only be made after a full review of the overall financial health of the town’s finances, so the council reserves the option of not making any or a small contribution that year.

At-large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke and District 1 Councilor Cathy A. Schoen dissented. District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney was absent.

Hanneke said she was hesitant to commit the money without a plan for how it would be spent. She added that the decision puts pressure on future councils to continue to commit to funding it when there is uncertainty with the future budget and economy.

“I believe it’s entirely premature to start committing this council to putting money in, and therefore I’m going to have to vote against this amendment and the entire motion itself,” she said.

The motion originally called for the fund to be capped at $1 million, but Miller provided an amendment to double that amount, which is what the African Heritage Reparation Assembly originally requested.

“With this amendment, the maximum annual appropriation to the reparations fund is capped at $205,000, regardless of how much cannabis tax revenue is collected in excess,” she said. “Why 2 million? Both numbers — 1 million and 2 million — are arbitrary. How can we place a price tag on 400 years of anti-Black racism and violence? Only a national reparations plan can pay the debt that is owed to African heritage people.”

Why cannabis tax?

Cannabis tax revenue was designated as a mechanism for reparatory justice based on the long history of Black and Brown people being harmed by marijuana prohibition and its unequal enforcement in the country. In an interview with the Gazette, Miller referenced a May 11 memo she wrote to the Town Council citing that history.

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are arrested for cannabis possession and Black people are four times as likely to be arrested as white people,” she wrote. “Additionally, the newly packaged cannabis industry is creating enormous profits for white people, while Black and Brown people are still incarcerated and unable to participate.”

Despite cannabis decriminalization in Massachusetts, the disparities still exist here, she added.

The Cannabis Control Commission states that municipalities should use a portion of the 3% local cannabis tax revenue should be earmarked for restorative justice, jail diversion, workforce development, industry specific technical assistance, and mentoring services.

The commission also sites Amherst as one of 29 communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

The $2 million commitment is staying entirely within the town for the purpose of reparative justice initiatives that benefit Amherst residents of African heritage, Miller said.

“What we’re doing here is repairing harm,” she said.

The motion’s meaning

Council President Lynn Griesemer said the motion was drafted with significant input from the African Heritage Reparation Assembly. In an interview with the Gazette, she explained that the motion includes several financial safeguards and the final distribution of any and all funds must be approved by a two-thirds approval vote of the council based upon approved programs and criteria.

During Monday’s meeting, some councilors like Schoen voiced that while they were in favor of the reparations designation they were leery of approving such a large contribution all at once.

At-large Councilor Elisa Walker said that since racism is a public health emergency, there was a need to act urgently. Because the African Heritage Reparation Assembly has a majority BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and people of color — membership and had brought the mechanism forward, Walker said that the council would not get any better expertise on that community in Amherst.

“The best way to move forward restorative justice is to ask those people what they want and to give it to them and to not make those decisions for them any longer. I support their decisions,” she said. “Discretion is left with the council to look at the budget at any given time and any given year and decide whether this can be made or not.”

With the financial commitment established, Miller said the assembly can begin the process of consulting with African heritage residents to create a robust reparative justice plan. The plan will include eligibility criteria and recommendations about usage of funds, and will be completed by June 2023.

Upon presentation by the assembly, Griesemer said the Town Council will approve the plan for how the funds and/or interest may be spent and the criteria that must be met by those programs, organizations, or individuals.

“If the funds are to be given to individuals, that will require special legislation passed by the Massachusetts House and Senate, and signed by the Governor,” she said in an email. “All expenditures from the fund also must be approved by a two-thirds approval vote of the Town Council.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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