St. Petersburg City Council approves ‘reparations’ to address structural racism

The reparations would come in the form of investment in affordable housing, educational opportunities and economic development.
City and community leaders showed solidarity with protesters on June 3, 2020, outside St. Petersburg City Hall. On Thursday the City Council accepted a study of structural racism commissioned in May.
City and community leaders showed solidarity with protesters on June 3, 2020, outside St. Petersburg City Hall. On Thursday the City Council accepted a study of structural racism commissioned in May. [ KATHRYN VARN | Times ]
Published Dec. 10, 2021|Updated Dec. 10, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — A majority of St. Petersburg City Council members voted this week to create a program of reparations to address decades of structural racism that they acknowledged lingers in the Sunshine City and leads to disparate lived experiences for Black and white residents.

Those reparations would not come in the form of payments to individuals or families. Rather, they would come through investment in affordable housing, educational programs, economic development and other efforts aimed at ensuring Black residents enjoy the same opportunities and benefits of their white neighbors.

Council members voted to accept a report that identified and examined systemic racism affecting all aspects of living in St. Petersburg, from housing and health care, to the legal system and employment opportunities. It recommended that the council initiate “action steps to provide reparations.”

Some of those involved in the study commissioned by the city said they didn’t need to open a history book or examine data. They had lived it, and continue to live it.

Beyond its program of reparations, the report offered a series of recommendations both concrete and symbolic.

“With the recommendations before you and the resolution, there’s pain on those pages,” Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, the city’s director of urban affairs, who helped present the study’s findings on Thursday.

The $50,000 study was commissioned in May and conducted by the University of South Florida. Its recommendations include acknowledging the historical and modern-day impact that structural racism has had on the lives of Black residents, creating an equity department in the mayor’s office and creating a permanent resident race equity board.

“This presentation is not just another PowerPoint,” said Ruthmae Sears, the study’s lead investigator. “It is a summary of the lived experiences of the community of people of color. The community asks that the City Council take action and catalyze long overdue systemic change.”

Some in the audience celebrated the vote in the halls, their cheers echoing in the council chambers.

Council member Robert Blackmon asked for details about reparations, specifically how that would be defined and what dollar amount would be attached. He questioned how the city could implement creating an equity office after two charter amendments — one that would have created a chief equity officer position and another that would have set aside designated funding to support that new role — were voted down last month in the city election.

Council chairperson Ed Montanari asked how the council could legally implement reparations. He said he had a problem with the “fundamental fairness” of someone moving to the city and having to pay for the mistakes of someone from before they were even born.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said the reparations language was left open intentionally. City attorney Jackie Kovilaritch explained that no specific project or expenditure was up for approval but they are in the planning process and will be evaluated by the city’s legal department before being presented to council members.

Montanari and Blackmon, along with council member Gina Driscoll, voted no. Driscoll said that she hoped to get more information on how present-day policies are racist so those could be addressed, and that the city already has current programs in place to right the wrongs of the past.

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“It sounds like some of this work has already started, it’s just that we’re not calling it that,” she said.

Council member Brandi Gabbard said the council must acknowledge past board decisions and “sins of the past.”

“I don’t see fear,” she said. “What I see is opportunity to do better.”

Meanwhile, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who recounted her uncles taking her to the fair as a child and fearing for her safety, said it was important for the city to learn about its history in order to move forward.

“You know, everybody always says that they want to make things right,” she said. “And I’m going to say, how long do we have to wait? We have been waiting. Voting for the structural racism study, voting for this resolution, is the step in the right direction.”