The city of Evanston, Illinois has approved a plan that, if it comes to pass, will make history. The city is planning to use sales tax revenues from Illinois’s soon-to-launch legal cannabis industry to fund reparations for the city’s black residents. Most immediately, the fund is going to attempt to stop the exodus of black people currently leaving Evanston and amend for the city’s legacy of discriminatory practices.
The policy became official on Nov. 25, when the city council voted 8-1 in favor of a measure in the 2020 budget that directs the first $10 million in revenue from legal cannabis sales into “separate fund in a city account for local reparations.”
The initiative seeks to “address racially exclusionary policies that contributed to the lack of opportunity and underdevelopment of black families and neighborhoods that have perpetuated and exacerbated the racial wealth gap in Evanston,” according to an official announcement. The fund is to distribute $1 million a year over the next decade to “reparatory justice projects.”
A First in the United States
As Chicago’s CBS 2 notes, this is a step that no other city in the country has yet taken.
Many cities and states have set up cannabis equity programs, which aim to help people of color and the formerly incarcerated have the economic support they need to work in the cannabis industry. However, no other city has set up a program to use cannabis tax revenue to give financial support to black residents in general, regardless of if they are working in the cannabis industry or not.
But the problem it seeks to address couldn’t be more evident — and is by no means atypical. Like many other gentrifying cities, Evanston’s black population decreased from 22.5% of the population in 2000 to 16.9% in 2017.
CBS 2 paid a visit to the home of one of Evanston’s longtime residents, Toly Walker, as she was preparing Thanksgiving dinner.
“Despite the fact that I was born and raised here, and I live here, and I’m raising my kids here, I could not afford to buy here,” Walker said.
And Walker, who has two masters degrees, acknowledged that this puts her in a better position than many. “What about people who don’t? So they can’t live here as homeowners? They have to rent forever? That’s discouraging, and it’s angering, and it should anger everyone if you believe in equity.”
The reparations fund is mostly the brainchild of Evanston alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who acknowledged that the idea is controversial. She declared on the measure’s passage: “I’m offering no apologies. This is for black Evanston residents…. It is going to bring the impact our community that is overdue and is well-deserved.”
Simmons points to Evanston’s legacy of “redlining,” a policy through which American cities in the 20th century segregated neighborhoods on a racial basis and provided better services to white neighborhoods than black. “We were intentionally targeted,” she said, according to CBS 2. “The law, the policy, the actions, the culture of the community, intentionally excluded black residents.”
Revenues in the fund will encourage black-owned business start-ups and assist longtime residents like Walker. Although the city is anticipating legal fights over allocation of the funds, Simmons said she hopes the idea will be exported to other municipalities around the country facing similar dilemmas.
“This is the first that I’ve heard of in the nation,” she said. “I’m hoping that it will be a model that other localities will explore.”
Reparations & Cannabis
Evanston’s local Patch reports that actor and activist Danny Glover has been announced as the keynote presenter at an Evanston town hall meeting next week to discuss the reparations program. The event will be the culmination of a two-day visit to Evanston by commissioners from the National African American Reparations Commission, or NAARC, at the invitation of Simmons.
This is a particularly bold step for Evanston, as reparations and cannabis are each proverbial hot-button issues, both locally and nationally. The Evanston Review notes that many other Chicago suburbs have voted not to allow recreational cannabis dispensaries within their limits.
This June, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize adult-use cannabis, and the second (after Vermont) to do so by an act of the state government rather than by popular referendum. The law, which was supported by Gov. JB Pritzker, takes effect on Jan. 1, when the first retail sales are expected. But localities have the power to opt out of permitting sales.
Evanston currently has one medical marijuana dispensary, and Simmons says that the city is slated to have three. One of those listed is an outlet of the chain Verilife, which is one of eight new dispensaries just approved around the state, and is expected to serve the adult-use market, Chicago 5 reports.
There was controversy last year when New York’s progressive gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon used the word “reparations” for her proposal for a cannabis legalization policy designed to address the racial injustices of cannabis prohibition. A group of black pastors issued a letter blasting her use of the word as “clueless” and making light of the long struggle to redress the legacy of slavery. Nixon clarified that she meant reparations for the racial iniquities of the War on Drugs, not slavery.
Other prominent cannabis activists — such as Kassandra Frederique, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance — openly embrace the term “reparations” in the context of cannabis legalization, viewing the drug war abuses as part of a larger historical continuum stretching through slavery, Jim Crow and practices such as redlining.
In 2016, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent called on the United States to make “reparations” to African Americans, citing “the legacy of… enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality.”
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