By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
The Montclair Township Council has approved a resolution endorsing the “New Jersey Reparations Task Force” bill, which if passed will create a committee to conduct research and develop recommendations to address the generational harms caused by New Jersey’s role in slavery and its legacy of systemic racial discrimination.
The bill is being sponsored by seven state senators, including Nia Gill of Montclair (D-34), and was introduced in January 2020. It has garnered support from local organizations such as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair and Montclair AAPI.
The Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, which will be hosting a virtual presentation on March 2 on the need for reparations, commended the township for supporting the bill.
“Plagued by the enduring history of the systemic legacy of slavery in New Jersey, it is one step toward repairing our broken state,” Sammler-Michael told Montclair Local.
She said the congregation is working on a local comprehensive reparations campaign, as well as supporting the state-level movement. The congregation’s Undoing Racism Team, which was formed 30 years ago, is involved in this campaign, she added.
“[The team] recognizes that New Jersey, referred to as the ‘slave state of the North,’ has one of the widest racial wealth gaps in America,” Sammler-Michael said. “New Jersey’s white residents boast a median net wealth of $106,210, compared to a jaw-dropping $179 for Black and Latinx residents. An examination of this history of oppression will further help develop the understanding of and need for reparations.”
According to a report from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, in 2020 the median white household wealth in New Jersey was $352,000, versus $6,100 for Black households and $7,300 for Latino households.
In a statement in support of the reparations task force published in February, AAPI Montclair, a grassroots organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander residents formed last year, said the organization will join a coalition led by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in support of the legislation.
“This process is critical in educating New Jerseyans about the deep and often forgotten history of slavery and its aftermath of structural racism, and beginning the process of repairing that harm,” the statement reads. “California recently became the first state to pass reparations task force legislation; New Jersey should be the second.”
California’s reparations task force met for the first time last June. It has nine members, from diverse backgrounds, to represent the interest of communities of color throughout the state.
In New Jersey, the task force would consist of 11 members, four legislators and seven public members.
Three of the members would be appointed by the governor, and eight by the Legislature’s leadership. Four of the public members would be appointed through recommendations from organizations that focus on “civil and human rights, social and economic justice and equality, reparations and other issues concerning the African-American community.”
During the Feb. 23 council meeting, the resolution passed with five votes in favor and two abstentions, from Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager and Deputy Mayor William Hurlock, who said they supported the resolution but abstained from voting because the resolution was sent to the council at the last minute.
Third Ward Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams, in supporting the resolution, said the information provided in the resolution was well-thought-out and explained the history of slavery and New Jersey’s involvement.
“The most important point perhaps is that what it does is it creates an opportunity to study and develop proposals with regard to reparations,” Price Abrams said. “I think the legacy of slavery is something we can’t quantify what that would be. First of all, they are only going to be recommendations, so that they can then be given proper consideration as to what may be passed as a policy in the future. So, in that way I feel comfortable to lend my support to this tonight.”
Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings, who presented the resolution along with Mayor Sean Spiller, said the legislation has garnered local support.
“We in Montclair, as some of the callers [into the meeting] had said, pride ourselves on diversity and pride ourselves on supporting those who need help the most. And I think in this particular case, that’s all we’re doing.” Cummings said. “I think this one has local support from the organizations that all of us support. And I think it’s something that we should pass.”
Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo also shared his support during the meeting.
“There were also things done throughout our history that are really unfair, but it’s time to have this commission, not just research it, but to do something,” Russo said. “I’m all for having the commission. I’m going to support this.”
Hurlock said he needed more time to look at the resolution before voting in favor of it.
“That doesn’t mean, ladies and gentlemen, that I’m passing on it one way or the other. I just got this an hour ago to be able to look at it. I like to read things before I vote. That’s where I’m coming from,” he said.
Schlager echoed Hurlock.
“I wish I had more time to look at this because it is very important, but I really haven’t been able to read it,” she said.
Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis wrote in an email to Montclair Local he is supporting the resolution and the bill.
“I think it takes a lot of courage to unabashedly pursue justice like this. To me, Black Lives Matter can’t just be a slogan. It has to be a demonstration,” Yacobellis wrote. “The African American experience in this country has known everything from enslavement to brutality and all things in between. While words are important for healing, we all know that actions speak louder.”
The Senate version of the bill is in the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee. Its companion bill has been referred to the Assembly State and Local Government Committee.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair will be hosting its virtual presentation on March 2 from 7 to 8 p.m. The discussion will help define and explore the need for reparations, the impact on citizens and the importance of passing the bill.