Truth and Reconciliation and Reparations in Providence

David Hammons’ 1990 work, African American Flag, a reworking of the Stars and Stripes in the UNIA-ACL’s Pan-African colors, adorned the hat of Sen. Harold Metts at the Mayor’s press conference on July 15

Yesterday, I attended Mayor Jorge Elorza’s press conference in Dexter Park. In much of the press coverage, both before and after the event, it was billed as a press conference about reparations – but the announcement was distinctly not just about reparations. The Mayor laid out that reparations for Black and Indigenous people was the final in three steps, and that recommendations for how reparations should be done would arise out of the first two steps: truth-telling and reconciliation.

To me, this sounds a lot like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If you’re not familiar with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, then allow me to explain. These commissions are a restorative justice way of reacting to widely practiced human rights abuses. The most famous commission was the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that looked to address apartheid after the apartheid regime has fallen. Other examples include one in South Korea which examined Japanese occupation and the dictatorship period in that country; and one in Peru that sought to reconcile the country about the abuses committed by its dictatorship and its Maoist insurgency.

Plenty of other examples exist. They’re widely used. In the early part of the 2000s, Greensboro, NC had such a commission, examining the events of the Greensboro Massacre and continued discrimination in that city (though, its recommendations were ultimately ignored by the city).

A TRC often allows victims and perpetrators to tell their stories without fear of retaliation; the former can often seek restitution, and the latter can seek amnesty (neither is necessarily granted it). Testimony can be heard privately or openly. And it’s not a certain process: there are ongoing debates about how effective TRCs actually are in setting past abuses right.

Now, a TRC is not exactly what’s laid out in the Mayor’s announcement. I want to be clear about that. But the Mayor’s “process” seems largely similar in its goals: to bring out the truth, reconcile the people to the facts, and to ultimately provide restitution to the victims. This is just and right.

The “truth-telling” part of this will be a difficult process. There are plenty of people who will not be happy to learn a fuller history of Providence. A lot of this challenges the nice story of Rhode island we’re taught; that of Roger Williams setting up a tolerant state while being good to Natives, and a state that progressively got more free. It means grappling with state heroes like Thomas Dorr, who deliberately excluded demands for the equality of Black citizens from demands for greater political equality during the Dorr Rebellion. As Keith Stokes brought up at the conference, it also means dealing with the deliberate destruction of black neighborhoods in the early 19th Century. And that’s to say nothing of the redlining and gentrification processes that continue today; as well as a whole range of experiences I am unequipped to articulate.

There will also be those who are likewise entitled to restitution of some sort that may feel excluded. The destruction of Providence’s Chinatown and the exodus of its Chinese community is largely unrecognized today. The ongoing injustices heaped upon Providence’s Southeast Asian and Hispanic communities need to be dealt with. And we can expand further to talk about the history of Providence’s LGBTQ+ community and what might be done to address discrimination towards and within that community.

The Mayor made clear that the process would be open to other groups, but the focus will be on Black and Indigenous residents. Even within that, there will definitely be discussions about to what degree should Providence should or should not distinguish between families whose ancestors were brought to Providence after 1696, or migrated from the South during the Great Migrations, or came more recently from Cape Verde and the African and West Indian diaspora communities. The process should open many non-Black eyes to the multiplicity of the Black experience within the city.

The focus on Black and Indigenous experiences and provisions for reparations is long overdue, and should absolutely take precedence and be the foremost. And as Councilor Mary Kay Harris has said, “reparations” is a word with a specific meaning, and to begin a process that is ultimately aimed at reparations is to commit to a specific course of action. As residents of the City of Providence, we need to hold our political leaders to account.

This is going to be thorny politics. There are those who suggest that the Mayor is only doing this for cynical political reasons as he eyes statewide office, but I fail to see a way that this is politically advantageous for the Mayor. If even the Speaker of the House is ignorant of fundamental facts of Rhode Island history, imagine how the white community in the rest of the state is going to see this. Truth and reconciliation and reparations are going to force long-overdue and often painful reckonings. Reckonings that should already have happened, and have already been avoided by those with the power to avoid them.

There will also be questions of whether this will be enough, or whether this will be a way of using money to ignore fixing systemic issues. There are plenty of times in American history where payments have been used to entrench unjust power systems.

Let me close by suggesting that perhaps the work of truth-telling and reconciliation should not terminate with reparations for Providence’ Black and Indigenous communities. There are many truths that Providence has yet to hear about itself, and much work to be done to reconcile many of us to those truths.

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