The Reparations Movement: An Assessment of Recent and Current Activism

Yusuf Nuruddin interviews veteran activist attorney, Muntu Matsimela, and veteran activist scholar, Sam Anderson, organizers of the Reparations Mobilization Coalition, for their analyses and candid impressions of the current status of the reparations movement. This interview was conducted on December 15, 2002 through the courtesy, and via the recording studios, of WBAI Pacifica Radio in New York City.

Yusuf: In assessing the current status of the reparations movement, we should give a little historical background, beginning with the Durban Conference of August 2001. Muntu, you attended this conference. So, first give us your impressions of Durban and then we’ll move forward to where we are today.

Muntu: Durban, that is, The World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Other Related Intolerances [WCAR] was essentially a three-year process where people met in large gatherings called prep-cons [preparatory conferences]. These were regional meetings that occurred in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia. There were also inter-session meetings where everybody-all the various regions-met at the same time. These were held at the United Nations in Geneva. I participated in WCAR activities and speaking in various preparatory conferences starting around December 2000. And then I attended a large gathering, specifically for the African and African Descendant Caucus, which was held in Vienna April 27-29, 2001. Then I was in the second inter-session preparatory conference in Geneva, in May 2001. Then of course, I went to Durban, for the conference itself, which was essentially in two parts. The first part was the Non-Governmental Organization [NGO] conference, from August 27 to September 1; then came the government portion of the WCAR, September 1-8. I participated in the full range of those discussions, both the NGO and the government portions of the conference, and the various committees and activities, largely through the African and African Descendants Caucus, which was a group of Africans throughout Africa and the diaspora who built an alliance through the WCAR process and unified with various other coalitions and groups-indigenous groups, social movements, and regional coalitions and alliances.

The WCAR allowed the critical issues of trans-Atlantic slave trade, systemic slavery, systemic racism, and colonialism to be brought to the world stage by African people and people of African descent. Really, largely for the first time, they were taken seriously, even though it was a major struggle throughout the three-year process for those issues to be discussed qualitatively. Ultimately, we prevailed in having them discussed, and in getting UN member-states as well as hundreds of NGOs from around the world to participate in this discussion. What was achieved was unprecedented in terms of the level of unity, the level of respect and consideration that was given to issues of trans-Atlantic slave trade, with slavery being declared a crime against humanity. This declaration was one of the primary goals of the African and African Descendant group. The unity that we forged with our brothers and sisters from Africa, from the motherland, on the question of colonialism and then systemic racism brought the diaspora together in a way that was unprecedented. It turned strategically and tactically on building coalitions, on lobbying the other member- states of the UN. Subsequently, after the WCAR was over, a number of the groups, particularly African/African-descendant groups, created a strategy to continue the work. Out of Durban came the African and African Descendant Caucus international steering committee, of which I became a member, as well a strategy to have a follow-up conference in Barbados in October 2002.

Yusuf: I would like to ask you about role that the United States played-or failed to play-in the conference. There has been a rapid acceleration in world events since August 2001, and our memories might be cloudy about pre-9/11 events. So first of all, refresh our memories about the composition of the U.S. government’s delegation to the Durban conference. Do I remember correctly that President Bush refused to attend, but that he sent Secretary of State Colin Powell, and that Powell basically played a negative role in terms of creating disunity around the question of reparations?

Muntu: Well, actually the Secretary of State was not sent. The President of the United States never had any intention of going to the World Conference Against Racism even though many heads of state did come to it. But, in the main you had heads of state as well as the foreign ministers; the Secretary of State would have been a high-level delegation. Up to the last couple of months, the U.S. government tried to make it appear as if it was still unsettled whether or not the Secretary of State would attend the Durban conference. But ultimately they decided against it and sent a delegation of low-level bureaucrats and other individuals, which was really insulting. Some government members-some members of Congress-attended as members of the U.S. delegation, but it was clearly very low-level in comparison to the full delegations that were sent by most of the world. The United States never supported the World Conference Against Racism, as we understand.

This was the third UN conference against racism. The first one was in 1978, which the U.S. boycotted. The second was in 1983, and again the U.S. boycotted. It threatened to boycott the 2001 conference in Durban, but because of the pressure that was being put on them, they ultimately did send a delegation. But they were clearly opposed philosophically and politically to the issues, particularly to the fact that people of African descent were going to insist that their issue of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and of reparations was going to be raised qualitatively and categorically. The U.S. government continuously opposed having that issue discussed at the World Conference, and did everything they possibly could for two years to put pressure on various governments – particularly African governments-not to discuss the issue of reparations, not to discuss the issue of the trans-Atlantic slave trade being a crime against humanity. They put economic and political pressure on these governments, and overtly tried to keep the American people from even knowing about the WCAR, which was their real strategy in order to prevent any kind of qualitative discussion in the media and throughout the country on the issues that would be covered at the Durban conference.

Yusuf: One of the charges in the mainstream press was that the Palestinians were “disrupting the conference” because they kept insisting that the conferees and official conference documents adopt the language that “Zionism is racism.” Can you comment on that?

Muntu: First of all, that never happened. But what was clear was that the U.S. government was using that as a red herring. It was using the issue of the so-called “link” that was being made between Zionism and racism, which they maintained would be raised at the World Conference. It was really just a smokescreen. Their real opposition was to the issue of reparations being discussed fully and completely by member-states, by their allies, by their friends, by people who oppose U.S. policies in the world. The Palestinian people came obviously to deal with the issue of their condition in Palestine, their condition with respect to their 50-year struggle for self-determination, for an independent Palestinian State. They did equate Israeli occupation with the occupation that occurred during Apartheid in South Africa, and they talked about the conditions of racist treatment, disparate treatment, human rights violations that occur repeatedly on the West Bank. These were the issues they raised. But they did not come with any strategy to block discussions. They were fully respectful during the entire conference. Yasser Arafat, by the way, spoke at the opening ceremony of the Roundtable with a number of heads of state.

The Palestinians had issues that they were raising. They were a very public force, a very vibrant force in the NGO conference as well as the government portion of the conference, but at no time was the issue of Zionism as racism raised in any way that elevated it as a central issue. This never occurred. In fact, when it was raised, it was raised by the U.S. government, not at Durban but in the media during the months leading up to Durban, in effect, as a rationale or pretext for them bowing out and not attending, not sending a full delegation. And then ultimately, the U.S. government officially pulled out of the World Conference Against Racism. I think it was around September 3 that they pulled their delegation out and left-according to them-based on this issue. And it was an absolute lie, an absolute falsehood. That issue was never raised to any controversial level. In fact, it wasn’t raised at all. We never heard about it, we never discussed it during the whole course of the World Conference Against Racism in any way shape or form. Yes, the Palestinians had their agenda as they should have had, just as a host of people from all over the world brought their issues, as did various organizations-NGOs, Jewish NGOs, as well as organizations representing Israeli Government-they all came. And so you’d think that this issue had some prominence-some ascendancy-and it was absolutely not true.

Yusuf: Would you care to comment on the group known as the Durban 400 and what impact they had on the conference, if any?

Muntu: The Durban 400 was the group of Africans and African Descendant people from the United States largely led by the December 12th Movement. December 12th was leadership of Africans, African-descendants in general who had been engaged in organizing and mobilizing for the World Conference Against Racism since the very beginning, actually since 1997. They were one of the first groups to promote the conference here in the States. Also included in that was the Chicago-based chapter of the National Black United Front and Dr. Conrad Worrill. So you had the two groups, Chicago and New York, that is, the National Black United Front and the December 12th Movement, who were the organizers of the Durban 400. Given that D12 had consultative status with the UN and with the Organization of African Unity, and had been going back and forth to Geneva and to Africa for about 10-12 years and had substantial experience in lobbying and working with the various diplomats and government delegations at the UN, their experience was used and well received. They put together the Durban 400 as their own organizational process and they brought that group of people to the WCAR, largely to lobby the government portion of the conference-not to participate in the NGO portion of the conference, which many people felt was an error on their part. But they participated fully in the government portion, lobbying Africans, lobbying the various countries, the various groupings or alliances of governments around the world. And together with the African and African Descendant Caucus, we represented a formidable force-building alliances, building joint strategies with the various indigenous movements, the various peoples participating in the conference. So I would say that the Durban 400 had a significant role to play in bringing the issue of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the issue of systemic racism, of slavery and reparations, the rights of the descendants of these atrocities, of these crimes against humanity-they played a major role in bringing those issues formally to the WCAR.

Yusuf: What role, if any, did Silas Muhammed and the Lost/ Found Nation of Islam play on an international level in terms of reparations?

Muntu: Well, Silas’s group, the Lost/Found Nation of Islam, of course were at the WCAR, but not visibly. They participated, they supported the work that was done by the African and African Descendant Caucus, and we generally worked together because we all had the same agenda. We all had the strategy to get the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to get slavery, and to get the issue of reparations adopted formally by the WCAR. I don’t know the specifics of their participation, but I do know that they were there, and given the fact that they had been involved in the UN process for a number of years prior to the Durban conference, I’m sure they were consistent in their work and efforts.

Yusuf: On this question, I’m going to turn to Sam. I want to know what impact September 11 had on derailing the movement for reparations.

Sam: The September 11 incident had, what I sensed, the effect of a temporary setback. We, meaning the Reparations Coalition, had been planning a conference for November 2001. And we felt prior to September 11 that there would be most likely 600 to 800 people that would show, and we had a little over 300 people that showed. But by December there were a number of things up and running around about the issue of reparations in North America and then by the winter, obviously, with the development of the corporate lawsuits and so forth, reparations in terms of Black America was back high on the agenda. A lot of people were fearful of traveling during the few months right after September 11, because of the kind of high-security madness that was occurring on airplanes and so forth. But I think that folks got to realize that the issue of reparations was so important that the need to communicate and travel turned out to be much more urgent than being afraid of what the state was going to do in terms of the clampdown with the security apparatus and the anti-terrorist nonsense. To make a long story short, September 11 was, for me, a 60- to maybe 80-day slowdown of the reparations momentum. But after that, it really picked up again across the country.

Yusuf: The reason I ask the question is because the sense that I received from a lot of activists was that they were all fired-up to make this a major issue . make a major activist onslaught and put pressure on the governmen. make reparations the burning issue of 2001. And because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the nation’s attention was focused elsewhere and reparations just got “lost in the sauce,” so to speak.

Sam: Yes, on one level, in terms of the media, yes. In terms of the media, definitely it got “lost in the sauce” for a few months. But in terms of the actual work on the ground by various organizations, on college campuses, within organized labor, within the religious community, the reparations movement has continually grown since September 11.

Yusuf: Now, you were one of the major organizers behind the Reparations Mobilization Coalition, and I wanted you to give us a history of that group, including the November 2001 conference you mentioned.

Sam: Well, the Reparations Mobilization Coalition felt that it was important to come together to deal with the issue of education at the grassroots level around reparations; to begin to create a mobilization effort at the grassroots level nationwide. And we felt that it was very, very important that the basic education-what is reparations, why we should be demanding reparations, how we should go about struggling for it, and what form reparations should take-had to be addressed on the grassroots level. So, we called the conference to bring together as many as possible of the brothers and sisters who were working in and around the issue of reparations, to begin to address those questions. The other factor that we included in the development of the conference was the international character of the reparations movement in the 21st century. The reparations movement, as Muntu pointed out in terms of the WCAR, is an international struggle, and we in North America are merely part of that worldwide struggle. So we had Black people from other parts of the world who also were able to come and participate in this, particularly from England and out of the Caribbean and South Africa, which was essential to the whole development of our follow-through, what we planned to do afterwards.

The other thing we realized was that we also need to begin work on creating a National Reparations Congress, where we would invite all the reparations groups and key individuals to come together, to be able to have a united front strategy and tactic around the struggle for reparations. We realize that when we throw the net out there very wide, there are a number of people, a number of organizations, who would not necessarily come into that fold, but we understand that the majority of our brothers and sisters doing reparations work would come together on that. So that’s something that we are currently looking at developing and possibly having a National Reparations Congress in 2004.

Yusuf: How does the work of the Reparations Mobilization Coalition differ from that of N’COBRA [National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America]?

Sam: We’re focusing on three major things right now. One is grassroots education and mobilization through developing in conjunction with the Global African Congress (a post-Durban, post-Barbados formation)-a reparations primer, an inexpensive little book on reparations that would be used throughout North America, primarily at this stage to inform people on the basics. Second is the work of informing organizations and reparations activists on the importance of building the National Reparations Congress, hopefully in 2004, if we can begin to mobilize on a strong level in 2003. Third, since the reparations struggle is a full-time struggle, we realize that if we don’t have organizers and an office with all the necessary 21st-century equipment and full-time staff, the movement will be stunted at best. So we have to raise the necessary money. We cannot move in 2003 without having a central place, a telephone, staff, travel expenses, material to work out of the office, etc. etc. The reparations movement would only be rhetorical and symbolic if we don’t have that. So those are the three things that we’re really concentrating on for the next couple of years.

Yusuf: What about the difference between your work and that of N’COBRA?

Sam: N’COBRA’s work is, right now, primarily geared to develop a presence in 2003 within the halls of Congress. In other words, what they’re doing at this point-besides some basic grassroots mobilization and creating chapters throughout the country-is planning a major lobbying effort to be directed at elected officials, with a particular focus on getting the HR40 bill-the John Conyers bill to study reparations up and running. I was at a meeting yesterday with N’COBRA people in New Jersey, and this is what they had laid out as one of their primary objectives of work. And I think the other level of work-which is secondary, if not tertiary-is building the Global African Congress in North America, since Sister Dorothy Lewis, who’s their national president, is also the U.S. representative to the international steering committee of the Global African Congress that came out of Barbados.

Yusuf: Let me ask a question for Muntu since you brought up the issue of legislation. I also want to bring up the issue of litigation and since Muntu is a lawyer I want to ask him about those two issues. I want to talk about the recent and very prominent lawsuit brought by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann. And I’d like you make the distinction between the legislative efforts and the litigation efforts and just how you see the direction of either one of those.

Muntu: Well, the lawsuit initiated by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann as a class-action plaintiff is a lawsuit against corporations, specifically insurance companies like Aetna, and railways like CSX. In the lawsuit, as you know, the charge is-

Yusuf: I think Fleet Boston is the third.

Muntu: Fleet Boston is another one-that they benefited from slavery, that is to say, that the corporations that they were, prior to the name change, during the period of slavery, benefited and profited from slavery in various ways. Like Aetna Life actually wrote insurance policies that protected the slave traders in terms of their property and so on the slave ships during the Middle passage. So these corporations are being sued in a class-action lawsuit, the class being all African descendants from slaves. And again, the litigation strategy is part of the panorama, or overview, of the various approaches to the issue of reparations. Lawsuits, by their very nature, give exposure to the issue they indict the proper targets that they expose-in a way which is formal and official. And it brings attention to the issue in a way that’s unique to litigation, in this country and around the world. Indeed much of the motivation-aside from the broad political implications of having the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery being declared crimes against humanity, with reparations being owed to the descendants of these crimes and atrocities-in effect had to do with the legal ramifications, in that for crimes against humanity as declared by international law, there is no statute of limitations. Thus one’s standing becomes a proper issue within the context of crimes against humanity.

Other lawsuits are being prepared by N’COBRA-reparations lawsuits, some of which will be against corporations as well as the government. The reparations lawsuits are being filed by the Reparations Coordinating Committee, which is a group of attorneys led by prominent litigators such as Charles Ogletree, Johnny Cochrane, and William Gary. Those lawsuits, as I understand, will in fact be against the United States government. So again, we see in the Reparations Mobilization Coalition-in issues that Sam and I have been raising, in the course of our speaking around the world and in this country, at various conferences and at all kinds of events and gatherings-that litigation, the legal strategy with respect to reparations, is an important strategy. But it is one that has its limitations as well. And those limitations are largely based as we understand the way the court system works on an issue of reparations. Given the nature of the issue, particularly when you’re talking about reparations for crimes against humanity, for slavery, for ill-gotten gains from slavery, from the labor of slaves-not to even go into all of the very, very important related issues of dehumanization and degradation, physical harm, mass rape, mass murder, mayhem, mischief, destruction of culture, historical memory-given all these things, we see litigation (legal strategy) as one of several strategies that must be utilized in an overall reparations strategic program. And we see litigation just as we see legislation, both of which have clear limitations.

All litigation is going to wind up in the Supreme Court, if the Supreme Court chooses to hear it. That is to say, it will be taken to the Supreme Court by either side: by the plaintiff, that is to say the class of Africans that the reparations lawsuits-and they all are class-action lawsuits-represent; or by the defendants, whether corporate entities, estates, or state or federal government entities. The legal expertise on both sides will be very high. So, the Supreme Court will obviously do one of three things. First they’ll decide either to hear it, or not to hear it, in which case they’ll send it back to the local court or U.S. Court of Appeals, or the original court where it was heard. If they hear it, they will probably decide against it. If they don’t hear it, they may indeed make a decision that they do not have the jurisdiction to hear issues of reparations because it represents largely a political issue and must be resolved not by the judiciary, but by the legislative branch of the government, and they will in fact send it to Congress for its ultimate decision.

So, within the context of strategic approaches to the reparations movement, we place political mobilization of the great numbers of our people and allies and supporters in this country as the essential ingredient, the essential factor in achieving reparations. One approach impacts on the others. And so that’s the way we see litigation. We think that all litigation has an initial impact, and the nature of litigation is that these things go into virtually a cave for years while they’re going through the court system, and reparations lawsuits take many years for resolution one way or the other. But the political mobilization is a day-to-day reality that must go forward to build a political movement, and the movement impacts on how the courts indeed will eventually look at the issue. This is not to say that it may be a determining factor, but clearly it’s a factor and ultimately, the legislative branches of government are obviously 100% impacted by political mobilization on these issues. So, here it is. And of course, the international is the other area that we see as critical and that we identify within the reparations movement.

Yusuf: Two questions then. First of all, numerous plaintiffs are bringing various test cases to various court jurisdictions and ultimately maybe to the Supreme Court. Isn’t there a sort of weakness in this strategy since, on a national movement level, there really isn’t a coherent, systematic or uniform method of filing these litigation cases?

Muntu: I agree. Clearly, that’s the reason why-in the Reparations Mobilization Committee-we raise, as Sam spoke to, the need for a Congress in 2004. I would hope we would have one next year [2003], quite frankly. That’s a national congress on reparations where we’ll have a democratic assembly. A cross-section of our community in this country will come together and essentially decide what will be the program of the reparations movement and how we would impact all of the various areas of strategy, of mass mobilization, international strategy, litigation, the legal strategy and legislative strategy such as the issue of HR40, which many of us support. Indeed, we all support HR40 although we may have different opinions as to its strategic importance at this time. But also, state legislative reparations initiatives will be going on in various state jurisdictions throughout the United States. So a congress would be a way of consolidating this strategy within legal strategy.

Obviously, some people think that having multi-litigations or multi-litigants on reparations is a positive thing. That’s one school. The other school feels that it creates confusion, chaos, division within the overall reparations movement. Obviously a family of African-Americans-people of African descent-in the US, may identify, for example, an estate, where they trace their family and determine that it profited by having slaves and being slave owners, and choose to sue that estate. Of course, they have the right to do that. But having this myriad of litigations-with respect to corporations or corporate entities as well as other governmental entities-by various plaintiffs that are not part of a unified cohesive plan that’s based on strategic unity and alliance of the reparations movement, I believe is an error and in effect can do more harm than good.

Yusuf: I said I had two questions. The second one is and I want to ask you first and then Sam, since you talked about the political character of reparations and the political mobilization that’s necessary, how do you see reparations in relation to the civil rights struggle that Martin Luther King led and the human rights struggle that Malcolm X talked about?

Muntu: First of all, clearly Malcolm supported reparations, so Malcolm was one of the primary and more prominent leaders in our history who raised the issue of human rights. And they even counterposed the human rights issue-the human rights aspect of our movement-to its civil rights aspect. Malcolm saw human rights as a higher level of political mobilization for Black people in this country because it took our struggle outside its purely domestic context and put it in an international arena. He saw it as the proper forum when an entire people are oppressed by a government and cannot get any redress from the judiciary and criminal justice apparatus of that government. They must go to another forum, and that forum, he believed, was the world forum of the United Nations, the World Court, and the international community. And so, he elevated human rights strategically above civil rights.

But clearly, reparations as a movement, as an issue, has been around-was being raised officially-for at least 140 years in this country, in various ways: in courts, in Congress, in the Senate, in the late 19th century and early and mid-20th century, by many different people-very prominent people, Queen Mother Moore, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, a number of people of various organizations and various times. The Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and so on, raised the issue of reparations throughout the 60s and 70s and 80s, and various groups as we know them today are prominent in the reparations movement. Malcolm saw human rights as the most strategic forum for the issue of our movement, and reparations would have clearly fallen into that category. We see reparations as being both a civil rights issue and a human rights issue. When we were in Durban, the national civil rights organizations-for example the Black Leadership Forum, which encompassed the NAACP, the Urban League, SCLC-all supported the various points that were being put forth by the African/African Descendants Caucus: the trans-Atlantic slave trade being declared a crime against humanity; slavery; systemic racism, colonialism and the right of its descendants to be compensated for those atrocities. All these organizations saw it as a civil rights issue because it talked about systemic racism-structural racism-as it occurs: the ongoing damages that came out of slavery, that came out of Jim Crow, that came out of US apartheid. And if you fight, if you’re a civil rights activist, if you’ve been involved in the Civil Rights movement, all those issues are raised within the universe of the reparations issue. So, there’s a direct relationship-an inextricable link-between civil rights and human rights; and reparations encompasses both of them.

Yusuf: I want to ask the same question, basically, to Sam. What I want you to comment on is the fact that the Civil Rights movement sought certain political gains and political rights, but it really didn’t do anything in terms of economic justice and how reparations actually fulfills that mission.

Sam: Well, my comment. I think you answered it in your question: the Civil Rights movement really was a limited movement and it didn’t address the issues of economic justice nor the issues of-as Brother Muntu pointed out-the past crimes against humanity. The Civil Rights movement had really reached its point of exhaustion with Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action in practice, when we look at it objectively, impacts white women more than any other sector of the labor force. So for many of the “civil rights organizations,” reparations was and is the logical next step for them to take. And I think that’s one of the reasons why they were there in Durban supporting the struggle for reparations, and today, many of the organizations do that, either indirectly or directly.

I think another factor-which Muntu has pointed out-in terms of the struggle for human rights that is also very central to our struggle today is the issue-two issues-one around political prisoners and prisoners in general; and the other around education. The United Nations last year-in October through January-had a special researcher on education come to the United States to see whether education in this country had any human rights violations. And this European woman came-right after 9/11-and literally the experience in traveling across this country blew her mind. She wrote a very powerful indictment of various human rights violations around education, and the central piece of this was the issue of racism, white supremacy: systematically making sure that people of color-particularly African Americans and Latinos-were undereducated and/or mis-educated. In fact she did two documents: one formally for the United Nations, and the second one informally, on the devastating education disparities she found in New York City. These kinds of documents, in terms of our mobilization /education work, could be used to bring people around to understanding that when we struggle for education we can no longer just be confined to the issue of civil rights, narrow legal issues; there is a serious human rights violation: the mis-education/undereducation of Black people is a criminal act. And this mis-education/undereducation is a state-sanctioned process. So I think that the motion now coming in 2003 around certain issues that were at one point looking like civil rights is now going to be a struggle around human rights.

The other thing I wanted to point out around the education issue is the end of Affirmative Action as we know it, at the university level, and then the systematic reversal-or the attempt to reverse-every single aspect of Affirmative Action when it comes to people of African or Latino descent. The University of Michigan case, the cases that are developing in Texas and so forth, are cases where the right wing, the rabid racists, are trying to undermine and reverse what little gains happened for Black people and Latinos under Affirmative Action. Similarly, within the job market also, we are beginning to see the reversal. And so, many organizations and individuals who are working around civil rights are beginning to see that it’s important to take it beyond that level of civil rights-so confining in the international arena for the human rights struggle.

Yusuf: You had mentioned political prisoners. Do you want to elaborate on that issue?

Sam: Very simply, our political prisoners-Black political prisoners in this country-are our freedom fighters; they were fighting for the freedom of our people. Historically, if we didn’t have the vestiges of slavery-i.e. racism and racial oppression and class oppression in the Black community-we would not have the need for freedom fighters. So it’s one of those demands that we feel is central to the development and actualization of reparations: the freeing of our freedom fighters, the brothers and sisters who were out there in the forefront, struggling for our freedom and got swept up by the counter-intelligence program and imprisoned on trumped-up charges most, if not all of them, imprisoned for longer than any Mafia character or corporate crime-person that might have been imprisoned at that same time. We say that the time is now that they should be released without any fallback or anything, but with compensation for all the time they have spent in prison. In other words, they’d be released not with just ten dollars in their pocket but with all the compensation that’s necessary for them to survive in the future and for the criminal act of criminalizing them and putting them in prison.

Yusuf: Thus far we’ve been linking reparations to the Black Liberation Movement or the social movement for justice among African Americans. But can we talk about the proletarian character of reparations and why this is really a working-class agenda and why the Left in general-white or black-should support reparations?

Sam: Yes. Historically, the vast majority of Black people-90% and at one point 100% almost-were in fact the working class in this society during the time of slavery. We were the laborers, and at the same time we were capital. We were the people who were at the primary point of production of almost everything in North American society. So historically, people of African descent have been at the center of the working class in this society. Post-slavery, similar things developed in terms of the vast majority of Black people being in the working class at various levels. And in the present stage, because of racism-systemic, institutionalized, state-sanctioned racism-we have the vast majority of our people in highly underdeveloped, depressed communities and in extremely low-paying positions within labor, and because of that, we are not able to actualize our potential-our great potential. The issue of class discrimination in this society is exacerbated within the Black community because of the issue of racism-systemic, institutionalized racism-that keeps us from advancing in any sectors of the working class or beyond. All skilled labor positions are defined in racial terms, and those of us who are able to get into labor positions, when we do have the skills, are there because of the struggles of our people within organized labor and within the State and Federal legal apparatus. That’s one thing. The other thing-which is very, very fundamental for us to continually acknowledge-is that 90 to 95% of Black people in the United States are in the working class, in spite of what they may see on television or in the movies or in magazines. We are in the working class; the vast majority of us who are in that working class are, in fact, working. Even though there is a high unemployment rate, we are working. But we are working, as I stated earlier, in the lowest positions. We are racially discriminated against within the labor force and that is a vestige, a holdover, or an evolution from the days of slavery.

Yusuf: I have basically two more questions and either one of you can handle them. The first one is about the August 17th [2002] “Millions for Reparations” march on Washington and the second one is about the Barbados Conference. Sam, do you want to handle the march on Washington and maybe Muntu can handle the Barbados Conference?

Sam: Yeah. Very succinctly, the August 17th march on Washington was a good idea that was underdeveloped. And by that I mean the organizers needed to realize that we needed more time to mobilize people. They-meaning the December 12th Movement and the Chicago grouping of the National Black United Front-made the call right after returning from Durban in 2001, for the demo to happen in 2002. We needed more time, particularly with the 9/11 event, like I said, setting us back a month or two. And the other factor was that there was really no formal coalition work in organizing for that rally; people and organizations had to go to D12 or to the Black United Front and work within their definitions of things. The reparations movement by its very nature demands coordinated work, cooperative work, coalition work. This was not forthcoming in the development of the August 17th effort, and when it did happen it was at the very last minute, within a month before the development because then, at that point people in D12 and in the Black United Front realized that they didn’t have the money, the resources, or the human power to pull off a major demonstration in Washington DC. We, the Reparations Mobilization Coalition, supported it with great reluctance, but felt that it was important that we try to help out in various ways to get people there. But the main thing was that when you’re doing something as large as a march on Washington for reparations, you need to spend the time with all the different constituencies in bringing them together into one united march-organizing or rally-organizing committee. And everybody would have an input into that.

The last thing I want to say is that there was absolutely no mobilization effort in the Black community in Washington DC. That was an absolute no-no; we never ever should go into Washington DC and try to organize something about Black people without spending considerable time mobilizing in the Washington-Baltimore area. It just didn’t happen. There were forces there who would be able to bring out probably at a minimum 10,000 Black people just in that area, if it was done from the early stages. But it didn’t happen. So, we learned from that. We learned seriously from that, and we move on from there and understand that any major public outcry or demonstration for reparations we do on a coalition basis and we do it in a systematic way and we take our time to do it. We don’t rush into it unless it’s an emergency; then there’s a whole other level of strategy and tactic that we work on.

Yusuf: Thank you. I want to ask this last question to Muntu. I just want to ask you about the conference in Barbados, unless you had any comments on the march on Washington.

Muntu: Well, I think Sam said basically everything that I thought was important to say about the mobilization. I just think that reparations is an issue that demands national unity. A cohesive, unified strategy built on a broad consensus draws a full spectrum of our community because it impacts every single individual in our community. Therefore, you don’t even make a call until you get that consensus. You have to have a unified strategy to build a movement. That would then allow you to make the kind of accurate evaluation-an assessment of your resources, of your organizational infrastructure capabilities, your mobilization capabilities. And then, when you’re able to make that accurate assessment, then you’re able to logistically determine dates and times that are consistent with that assessment and don’t come out there prematurely which then is reflected in low turnouts. You cannot have national mobilization on reparations where you’re addressing a community of millions and millions of people and have small turnouts. It’s just not something that makes political sense.

As for the Barbados Conference, it was an African and African Descendants conference, a follow-up to the World Conference Against Racism. It’s seen as a conference for reparations, even though myriad issues were incorporated: healthcare, education, globalization issues, issues of gender, issues of criminal justice, international community justice issues; youth, organizing and mobilizing youth and other key constituencies in our community. The conference took place October 2-6, 2002. Barbados activists, in alignment with elements of the Barbados government, gave full support for the venue. This was the first major global conference of Africans and people of African descent since Durban.

When we’re going to talk about something like a world conference, objective and scientific evaluation and assessment is absolutely important. That is to say, you must do feasibility studies; you must do objective assessments of the capacity of organizations, the capacity of venues, the politics of a given country where the conference is being held, the geopolitical issues that may impact the conference at any given time; and then you make a determination about when and where you will try to mobilize and organize a world conference. It was critical that these things be done and I would just say as a general criticism that that was not done to the extent that was necessary for the mobilization in Barbados. The conference in Barbados occurred, there were a number of key issues of discussion, most of which I listed. All were discussed and there were working groups in each area. Those working groups met throughout the conference and made critical resolutions and reports and drafts on things that were discussed and agreed upon. There were approximately 800 people in attendance, with maybe 1,000 the first evening.

Again, the weaknesses I think were because of the resources. We needed probably something in the neighborhood of $750,000 to $1,000,000 to have a conference of that nature. We have to bring people from throughout the African diaspora, and as we all know, our people do not have the capacity to participate in a global conference without some financial assistance. That was one of the objectives of the conference, but because a number of things including reliance on certain funding promises made by the Barbadan Government never reached fruition, it fell through. As a consequence, we weren’t able to get participation from African Latin America, Afro-Latin American countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, Columbia, Honduras, Costa Rica. Even countries in the Caribbean were not able to send people. Also unable to go were many Afro-Europeans, with the exception of those from the UK, who sent a large delegation.

Yusuf: What we heard through the Black news media those of us who were not able to attend was that the conference fell into chaos over the question of whether whites should be excluded. Was that a major factor?

Muntu: I don’t know if “chaos” is the word I would use. I think “controversy” would be much closer to the actual set of circumstances. Clearly, political decisions were made that did not lend clarity but lent confusion to the process. Indeed, a decision was made at the beginning of the conference that was raised by, in particular, certain delegations to the congress about participation of non-Africans. Clearly, this issue should never even have been discussed because the conference had already invited. First of all, it was a conference [not only] for Africans and people of African descent, but also for their friends and supporters, their allies. If you looked at our website on the conference in Barbados, it clearly stated this fact. You cannot invite people to a global conference-have them come hundreds of miles, some even thousands of miles-and then disinvite them after they arrive. So that clearly was a fundamental error in my opinion, and I am a member of the Global African Congress, the organization that was founded in Barbados. I’m also a member of the international steering committee that was elected there. And so, you have an issue that created a lot of controversy and bad feelings, and clearly overshadowed all of the very, very positive, progressive, and, in fact, radical discussions that took place.

I think that this is going to be an ongoing dynamic and discussion that we must see as a protracted issue. Clearly some people have identified it as critical-as pivotal, in fact-to the creation of the Global African Congress. Obviously, it’s very important that it get resolved. But the process by which it gets resolved, discussed, dialogued on, I think is as important as the issue itself. My position was that that question should never have been taken to a plenary session, should never have been voted on, that this contradicted earlier decisions made by the leadership. Although I was a prominent member of the International Coordinating Council, I was not at the conference at the time that decision was made. Unfortunately, I came one day late. I clearly would have opposed the decision, and I might have had some impact on its outcome. So, in any event, we have an issue.

First of all, let me say that African people, people of African descent-given our history of repression, exploitation, our history of being kept out, left out of various forms of apartheid, racism, institutional racism etc.-have a need for meetings and conferences where we feel free to discuss sensitive issues that reflect the centuries of pain that our people have gone through. And often the only way you can have these discussions is behind closed doors. That’s not an issue here. It’s not an issue about whether or not we have a right to closed meetings, whether we have a right to call a conference where just people of African descent are participating. We have absolutely that right. The issue here is when you have a global conference-people coming from all over the world-we often will utilize, given our level of resources, venues that belong to governments or entities that have formal rules and regulations that they must adhere to on inclusiveness etc. Where the international media, where various prominent international institutions-the United Nations as well as governments and their delegations are attending-, can you make decisions like that on the fly? And the answer to that, in my opinion, is “Absolutely not.” And I disagree with the decision 100%. There are people who think that this decision represents the historical moment for the dynamic of building a global Pan-African organization; I disagree. I think that we will discuss this issue critically, and it must be discussed because I think that ultimately the decision is going to be that all our conferences will be open unless we predetermine them not to be so and give forewarning, promotion, and establish that fact in an open way so that people will know what to expect prior to any decision that they may make to attend.

Yusuf: Thank you very much. Are there any closing comments from either one of you (because I’ve asked most of my questions)? Any particular directions that you want to see in the reparations movement?

Muntu: No. I just think that the reparations movement ebbs and flows; that we may be in a period that reflects some degree of stagnation. I think it’s critical to understand that the reparations movement, as Sam laid out, must have an official, formal office that addresses the work full-time; that employs a professional and efficient staff who are paid a level where they can really work with commitment and dedication without having to worry about the basic things like benefits, etc. etc. All these things must be incorporated in an organization that will dedicate itself to building the reparations movement. That organization has to have proper funding. It must be able to employ a sufficient number of staff both domestic, local and global. Strategies would be entertained by such an office, things that we’ve talked about over the course of this discussion. If you have that office, then these periods of lull or stagnation will not occur because you’d be building on a grassroots level the kind of effort in contacts, information, and educational processes that must go down. The reparations movement will only mushroom-will only expand exponentially-if you have the proper organizational mechanisms in place.

Yusuf: I just want to ask Sam if he had any closing statements. Thank you, Muntu.

Muntu: Thank you, brother.

Sam: I concur with Muntu on that, and I think that another factor is, as we said, we see the reparations movement as a political movement, and in that context, we see the impending war in the Middle East as something that as reparationists, we’re in opposition to, with specific reference to U.S. imperialist military bases being placed in Africa, and the use of Black people from the United States as cannon fodder in this up and coming war.

Yusuf: It’s interesting, the one word I haven’t heard all night is “genocide,” a word we used to use a lot, and I was wondering.

Sam: Right, that’s right. The old question of genocide. It’s still as true in the present as it was in the past.

Muntu: We think that the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq justifiably [at first] for the invasion of Kuwait, but that those sanctions on Iraq are in effect a form of reparations payment by the Iraqis, which have caused the deaths of almost a million people in Iraq since 1990, and that they should cease; that the U.S. government’s war against Iraq in 1990 caused the death of 200,000 Iraqis; that the United States and Great Britain its running dog have been bombing Iraq, imposing a no-fly zone in violation of international law, and that this should cease; that in fact, they owe the Iraqi people reparations. The U.S. government owes the Iraqi people reparations. And if they invade and attack Iraq, they will be war criminals who should be tried and convicted in international criminal court, and in addition to being held to all criminal sanctions due, should also be forced to pay reparations to the people of Iraq who probably will lose somewhere between a half a million and a million people if this war occurs. The U.S. government is looking for every phony pretext to denounce the UN inspectors because, as we now realize, it never really supported the process of the United Nations utilizing inspectors. This was just a ruse to appear as if they were being reasonable by going through the UN Security Council. So, in effect, they’re just waiting for some phony pretext and obviously they’re going to create their own to go forward with this invasion. Their refusal to acknowledge their criminal past and history against people of African descent in slavery, systemic racism, ongoing violations of our human rights, and their failure to pay us reparations is in direct contradiction to their phony and hypocritical pronouncements about the alleged human rights violations and indeed even the documented human rights violations of the Iraqi government against its own people.

U.S. imperialist war is an enemy of people of African descent. As Sam laid out, they use the military bases that they have in Africa for their whole strategy of world military domination. We oppose them. We oppose them going into Africa. They owe the whole continent of Africa reparations. We think that this country must give up its warmongering, neo-fascist policies that are coming out of the White House. The Bush Administration should apologize to people around the world that they have consistently oppressed, exploited and subjected to massive systemic terrorism and human rights violations, and they must apologize to people of African descent in this country.

Yusuf: In that context, can you comment also on the impact of the PATRIOT Act, Homeland Security and the suspension of civil liberties on the reparations movement, and how this impact should be viewed by black activists in particular and black people in general.

Muntu: Any reparations movement is a movement that criticizes the history of the U.S. government; it criticizes policies of the last four centuries. It speaks to the issue of civil rights violations, the issue of human rights violations against people of African descent. The Homeland Security Act essentially penalizes those who criticize the U.S. government. It violates our civil liberties, and surely they would see that the reparations movement would be diametrically opposed to the implementation of the Homeland Security Act, the various laws that they’ve implemented in the INS against immigrants, these violations of immigrant rights, these mass deportations, these arrests without charges that have been occurring since 9/11. When we came out of Durban, we were involved in a movement that would expose the history of the United States, the history of its domestic terrorism against people in this country, against African people in this country. So the Homeland Security Act and the various related laws that they have passed since 9/11 we see as a direct attack on people of African descent to, in effect, repress our demand for reparations, to repress our criticism of the U.S. government, and to try to push the movement and the motion on reparations aside.

Yusuf: Thank you.

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