“Our community was damaged due to the war on drugs and marijuana convictions. This is a chance to correct that,” Robin Rue Simmons, a black alderman who represents the city’s historically black Fifth Ward, told The Washington Post. “Our disadvantage and discrimination has continued beyond outlawing Jim Crow and beyond enslavement.”
The plan stems from the idea that African Americans should disproportionately benefit from the sale of cannabis, Simmons said, because they have been disproportionately affected by the policing of marijuana — both nationally and locally. In the past three years, nearly three-quarters of those arrested on marijuana possession charges in Evanston were African American, according to city officials.
But the city’s reparations plan will benefit not only victims of the war on drugs. Rather, it focuses on all African American residents, who Simmons said have suffered from the city’s history of redlining and, more recently, from the recession and foreclosure crisis. As black Evanstonians are pushed out by high property taxes and predatory lending practices, the reparations plan looks to give them the money to keep living and working in the lakefront suburb, about 14 miles north of downtown Chicago.
Besides being home to Northwestern University, Evanston has one of the largest black communities in the metro area’s affluent North Shore suburbs. About 22.5 percent of residents identified as black in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, though that figure fell to 16.9 percent in 2018.
The city has long been heralded as a local pioneer for equity, and in 2002, its council voted unanimously to support a federal commission to study reparations, which had been introduced in Congress by then-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).
Since then, it also created a chief equity officer and a commission on equity and empowerment and passed a resolution committing to end structural racism. As interest spread in race-based reparations, largely ignited by a 2014 essay in the Atlantic from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Evanston began exploring the idea on a local level. A commission hosted town hall meetings to hear what reparations might look like. Officials and residents drafted dozens of possibilities.
Then, in June, Illinois became the latest state to legalize recreational marijuana, following 10 other states and the District of Columbia. Amid the vote, state lawmakers included a “social equity provision” that expunged criminal records and favored licenses in areas they deemed “disproportionately affected."
Simmons saw that as a nudge to local governments, she said.
Like the United States as a whole, Evanston had disproportionately policed African Americans on marijuana charges, compared with other populations: Over a 36-month period, 71 percent of those arrested for possessing cannabis and 57 percent of those issued citations were black, according to data compiled by city officials.
Many Illinois suburban communities have been hesitant to embrace the change, moving to ban the licensed sale of cannabis in their towns. Not Evanston: On Nov. 25, the council voted 8 to 1 to implement a 3 percent tax on marijuana and to funnel that money toward the reparations plan, with a cap of $10 million over the next 10 years.
“This is a really special moment in the city of Evanston and also in the country,” Alderman Peter Braithwaite said, according to the Evanston Review.
On Jan. 1, the city’s sole medical dispensary will become its first recreational cannabis retailer, while another two stores are also expected to receive licenses. The tax is expected to generate between $500,000 and $750,000 in revenue each year for the fund, which can also receive outside donations.
“This is something radical to preserve the black population,” Simmons said, “and let the black community know that we see the flight.”
How exactly that might happen, though, is the subject of lots of questions.
Simmons said she wants reparations to take the form of direct payments to black residents, rather than “another diversity policy” that might fund a program or pay a third-party organization to carry out a service.
For example, a black family that’s looking to purchase a home and qualifies for credit might receive help on a down payment they otherwise couldn’t afford, she said. An African American resident who wants to beef up their résumé could get a stipend for technical training. And a black family that has owned a house in Evanston for generations might have their repairs paid for by the city.
A town hall meeting on Dec. 11 will bring together city officials as well as national reparations advocates to work out details of the plan.
But the lack of details was enough to yield one “no” vote, from Alderman Thomas Suffredin.
“In a town full of financial needs and obligations, I believe it is bad policy to dedicate tax revenue from a particular source, in unknown annual amounts, to a purpose that has yet to be determined,” he wrote in a newsletter to his constituents last week.
Although debate has surged around which black Americans should receive reparations — for instance, some have moved to exclude the children of black immigrants who were never enslaved — Simmons said that reparations will be available to all black Evanstonians, provided they meet certain residency criteria.
“This is in response to the continued impact of Jim Crow. From the war on drugs, to mass incarceration, to the academic gap, the wealth divide, the opportunity gap, the achievement gap,” she said, “it is all based on race.”
Kemone Hendricks, a community organizer with the group Evanston Present and Future, praised the marijuana tax as a way to counteract the effects of the war on drugs.
A friend in Evanston had lost his job after being sentenced to five years on marijuana possession charges, she said, and the addition to his criminal record meant he spent nearly a year looking again for work after receiving parole.
“There’s been nothing in place for black people that have been discriminated against in Evanston,” she told The Post. “Reparations is long overdue for the community. It’s long overdue for black people in the United States.”
Nationally, however, many say there’s still resistance to reparations. Although some colleges with ties to slavery have launched ambitious plans to combat its lingering effects, and Conyers’s proposal saw congressional hearings this year after decades of inaction, most Americans — and many politicians, including former president Barack Obama — remain opposed to the idea or, at least, its feasibility.
Simmons’s efforts may suggest a speedier route via local initiatives.
Elected officials in about a dozen cities around the country have consulted her on the marijuana tax, she said, while another city in Illinois may soon introduce a proposal similar to the one in Evanston. (She declined to say which one.)
“Local government is more nimble and more in touch with residents,” Simmons said. “They are my immediate neighbors. Most of us that serve in local governments are speaking from our perspective of lived experience.”
And every week, she noted, an African American friend or neighbor has reached out for advice on how they might hang onto their homes in Evanston.