Amherst residents push for reparations

  • Amherst native William Rock, center, now of Holyoke, and Tracy Faulstick, right, of Shutesbury stand in the median of South Pleasant Street in Amherst during a peaceful protest against racial violence on Sunday, May 31, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/10/2020 4:43:30 PM

AMHERST — In the 1949 sale of a Blue Hills Road lot, a deed restriction kept the next owner from building a multi-family home, required electric lines to be placed underground and mandated “the premises shall not be sold or rented to any colored person or persons.”

Bringing up such racial injustices that have existed in Amherst is critical, even if it makes people uncomfortable, say a group of residents calling on officials to acknowledge structural racism in town and to begin developing a funding source for offering reparations to those affected.

“We really want to lean into that discomfort,” says Michele Miller, a North Amherst resident and one of the lead sponsors of a recently launched petition titled “Reparations for Amherst, Massachusetts.”

Miller is joined in the effort by Matthew and Corinne Andrews, who both live in District 2.

“What we’re hoping to move toward is a community that is built on common ground, built on actual equality and built on respect,” Matthew Andrews said. “The only way to get to equity and respect is to go through phases of discomfort.”

The petition, which is addressed to the Town Council and Town Manager Paul Bockelman, acknowledges the preliminary steps toward equality that Amherst has already taken, including the adoption of a policy on human rights, the formation of a Human Rights Commission, and this summer the commitment in the municipal budget to invest $80,000 to identify and dismantle institutional racism.

Two actions are sought through the petition, which is at thepetitionsite.com/758/640/771/reparations-for-amherst/.

First, the petitioners seek to have the Town Council adopt a resolution calling for an end to structural racism; they also want the resolution to outline steps to achieving racial equity, noting Amherst’s anti-Black racism both past and present.

Second, they want the town to establish a subcommittee to assist with the reparations process and make recommendations about a fund devoted to local reparations for Black residents of the town. The reparations would be a means of repairing past wrongdoing by increasing equity and growing generational wealth for those hurt by racial disparities in education, housing, and business ownership.

The petition reads, “Our intention is to create responsible and sustainable transformation in the Town of Amherst. We have creative ideas, like considering cannabis revenues as a possible path for funding, but we expect a meaningful percentage of the funds to come from grants and private gifts. What we’re asking for is the town’s sincere partnership in confronting the legacy and current manifestations of structural racism here in Amherst.”

Miller said Amherst has a successful road map for reparations models in Evanston, Illinois and Asheville, North Carolina.

In Evanston, the city will make down payments on housing and encourage Black entrepreneurship through the use of $10 million collected in cannabis sales taxes over the next decade. In Asheville, the city has issued an apology for its role in slavery, and a pledge has been made to offer investments in places where Black residents face disparities.

The momentum for racial justice across the country inspired Miller to act at the local level.

“For me, it really began with the murder of George Floyd,” Miller said. “At that point, I was really impacted to activate my energy to do something meaningful.”

Arguing that the U.S. economy became a global power through cotton fields and slave labor, Andrews said the country owes a debt to Black people.

“My awareness was raised after the George Floyd murder about the tension between how we as a society talk about race and equity,” he said.

The petition as of Monday afternoon had 245 people signing it, with a goal of reaching 1,000 signatures. The comments ranged from “long overdue” to “it is a human right to have a grievous wrong addressed.”

The group pursuing reparations joins other initiatives at the local level, including the Defund 413 Amherst project and the Racial Equity Task Force.

“We understand there is no perfect way to approach such a complex endeavor, but it is an important first step,” Miller said. “We want the Amherst community to know we are committed to upholding the highest ideals to achieving racial equity, while also staying well-grounded in the realistic challenges we face.”

“We feel confident if these two things happen, then we are a long way forward to approaching equity as a community,” Andrews said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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