Argument at California reparations hearing shows toll of talking about racism, members say

California Dept. of Justice

Emotions came to a head during a public hearing on California’s reparations task force Saturday, when two men began to argue and had to be separated. While the argument tipped into more personal territory than about public policy, task force member Cheryl Grills said she saw the confrontation from the dais as the manifestation of the tension building across months of public testimony.

“If you understand stress, you can understand a lot of what was happening in that room that day,” said Grills, a clinical psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Public hearings on the issue of reparations have not gotten into fisticuffs, but they have been highlighted by Black people stepping to the podium or calling in by phone to express the depths of their emotions about how slavery has impacted them generations later, how important reparations are, and in what form they should come. Some have tried to go beyond the allotted two minutes to speak. Some have talked over others. Some have broken the rules and spoken in person and then called in to speak a second time.

The task force will present its recommendations for reparations in the state by July 1. There’s a final public hearing in Sacramento scheduled for June 26.

“It’s a lot, I’ll tell you that,” said Tony Allen, an Oakland native who attended the public hearing on Saturday. “I went to one in Sacramento, too, and it’s the same thing: Black people upset about what slavery has done to us in this country. You think you have a great point and you sit there for an hour and you keep hearing all these sort of desperate pleas or cries. They’re talking about jobs and prisons and communities and land and feeling displaced. It’s hard to not get mad. You don’t go there mad, but I’m not surprised when you get mad because you’re talking all day about the bad stuff that happened to your people.”

Grills said many who speak at the public hearings bottled up their perspectives on racism and reparations and the harms of slavery — on themselves and the Black population at large — for years. Sharing their intense feelings in a public forum can be emotional as well, she said.

The reparations hearings have been the place to air deeply felt grievances and pain because “America has never given us that forum,” Grills said.

Author “Zora Neale Hurston said, in essence, that there’s nothing more painful than having an untold story buried deep inside of you,” she added. “That’s the situation for Black folks. This assault has been going against people of African ancestry, where for hundreds of years, they’ve been in a world that profoundly devalues them. If you’ve gone through all this time of not being heard, at some point you’re going to be angry. And then at these hearings, we’re trying to make sense out of something that actually has no logic to it, has no justifiable rationale to it. So, at some point, you want the world to acknowledge that, yes, this happened, and this hurt me. And it comes out in many ways.”

Donna Hammond, of Richmond, said she attended a hearing in Sacramento in March with the intention of observing. But the more she heard from people on the first day, the more inspired she was to share. On the second day, she said she called in from home to share her support of the task force for taking on such an arduous job.

“I didn’t realize it would be an emotional experience; I’d never been to a public hearing before,” Hammond said. “But I can’t lie, it got to me. Hearing how many different ways slavery harmed us has been crazy. Stuff I didn’t think so much about. I’ve learned a lot. And it’s been painful.”

The emotions behind the many testimonials have worked the other way, too. More than a few people were offended by Saturday’s confrontation and left, Grills said.

“It doesn’t matter what the argument was about, it was not the place to have it,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that the rest of the community was still watching and a number of people have been dissuaded from the toxic nature. They’re like, ‘I can’t be a part of that. I get enough of that in my daily life.’ And I’ve watched that side of it with great sadness.”

Ultimately, Grills said the public hearings have been an invaluable asset for the task force and Black Californians.

“America has essentially tried to dismiss or erase the truth about who we are and what was done to us, and so when you feel a glimmer of hope when you’re able to publicly tell your story,” she said. “Reparations mean at least there’s an attempt to get the wrongs righted, to get people to see you, to hear you — and to get some of that by speaking at the hearings can offer some personal reflection that always needed to be released. And that’s a good thing.”

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