Council agrees to move forward with direct compensation, other measures for losses suffered by Black community

The Palm Springs City Council on Thursday agreed to move forward with much of a nine-point plan put forth by members of the Black community to compensate victims, descendants, and others for the atrocities in Section 14 that led to a loss of generational wealth. Exactly how the city and community move forward is to be determined.

“I don’t think we deserve thanks for doing what is necessary and what is right,” said Mayor Pro Tem Grace Garner during deliberations following public testimony. “You all who are here and who called in and commented and experienced this trauma are owed thanks for continuing to be in our community.”

“What was striking in the comments was that people came here for a better life, and because of the systems that were still in place in California, you were forced to live on this land,” Garner continued. “And then when you were forcibly removed from those properties, you again had to deal with trauma in not only losing your homes but being forced to find a new place to live … That trauma doesn’t just end with the people who were there. That continues. It carries through generations.”

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At issue here is the forced removal of many minority families from a one-square-mile section of land in the heart of the city — known as Section 14 — following a 1959 federal act that allowed tribes to enter into 99-year leases. White Palm Springs business owners sought those leases to develop the land and had court-appointed conservators manage the finances of individual tribal members. They then set about terminating land leases for families and evicting them from the land, often with little notice, if any.

Last year, elected officials issued a formal apology and voted to move forward with removing the statue of the mayor at the time from in front of City Hall. They also asked staff to explore reparations for surviving members of families who were kicked out. Last week, city staff issued a report following an April 11 meeting with representatives from the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood, and Where is My Land, a nonprofit organization that works with the descendants of families whose land was wrongly taken.

Among the proposals put forward — outlined in the staff report here — are payments to direct survivors and assistance in building housing and providing access to education for descendants and “the community at large” that suffered long-term damage due to the city’s participation in the destruction of the community.

On Thursday, there was broad support among Council members to center the city’s reparations around housing since it was housing that was lost. They directed city staff to move forward on working with the community to determine what that looks like, as well as determining exactly what monetary compensation looks like for direct survivors. That process is expected to take several months.

“It has been noted over and over again that the land was the land of the Agua Caliente tribe,” said Mayor Lisa Middleton in response to some critics of the compensation plan. “But the homes that were built were not. Those were homes that were built by families.”

“Of all stories I’ve heard, no one has come forward and said it was untrue that it was city employees who lit the fires, that it was city employees who were driving the bulldozers,” Middleton added. “That’s something we did. We have a responsibility to make amends for what we did.”

Earlier in the evening, three dozen current community members and others turned out in force to voice support for the reparations. There was no opposition. Those who spoke relayed memories of pioneering parents who moved here in hopes of a better life but found racism just as rampant. Some told of seeing their homes burning in the distance as they walked home from school and smelling “the all-too-familiar stench of racism” coming from the smoke.

“You engineered destruction of our community,” said Gloria Holland Thompson, a member of the Section 14 Survivors. “We were pushed, bulldozed, and burned out with no eviction notice.”

They also heard from Kavon Ward, CEO of Where Is My Land, which is assisting the Section 14 Survivors group. She urged city officials to “complete the assignment” and provide meaningful restorative justice measures to a community still suffering from the actions of decades ago.

“Section 14 survivors have survived a lot,” said Ward. “Something is not enough. This country has expected us to be happy with the scraps they’ve thrown our way for far too long. I hope, and I pray, that you choose to be on the right side of history and do what you say you will do to assist the victims of harm.”

Palm Springs would not be the first jurisdiction in the nation to attempt to compensate Black victims of racial injustice. For example:

  • In 1994 Florida became the first state to pass a reparations law, acknowledging the harm done when in 1923, a mob massacred Black residents in Rosewood, Fla., burning it to the ground.
  • In Chicago in 2015, a $5.5 million reparations measure attempted to compensate 57 victims — nearly all Black men from the city’s South Side — who said the police had beaten, shocked, suffocated, and psychologically tortured them to obtain confessions.
  • Last year in Evanston, Ill., the city offered $25,000 to a small number of eligible Black residents for home down payments, mortgage payments, or home repairs. The program was criticized as nothing more than a housing voucher program as it failed to give its intended beneficiaries total control of the funds.

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