Several members of a state-mandated Reparations Task Force accused the California Department of Justice (DOJ) staff of overreach over the removal of agenda items and the refusal to facilitate public hearings on Saturdays.
Assembly Bill 3121 requires the DOJ to provide administrative, technical, and legal assistance to the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The task force, which held its first meeting June 1, has two years to draft an apology to the descendants of slaves and recommend ways the state might to compensate them.
Kamilah Moore, task force chair, claimed at a two-day virtual public hearing last week the DOJ overstepped its bounds when staff removed two items from the Sept. 23 and 24 meeting agenda. One allowed for a discussion about who would qualify to receive any possible reparations, and the other a discussion about potential subpoena powers of the task force to call witnesses.
“And so, we are working on meeting with more higher ups. We’re working on meeting with the Chief of Staff upon his office and [Attorney General Rob] Bonta himself and Secretary [of State] Shirley Weber to address these issues,” Moore said.
Task force member Lisa Holder, a civil rights attorney, said both items should have been on the September public hearing agenda.
“I talked to the witnesses about that, and their thoughts about how we should be utilizing our subpoena power strategically to get information that will buttress our ultimate recommendation,” Holder said. “I do think that in the next meeting, we should have a plenary session where we have an opportunity to not only talk about the subpoena power and how we may want to strategically use it, but also to get a primer from the DOJ on what that subpoena power entails,” she said.
Amos Brown, a seasoned civil rights activist and vice chair of the task force, chided Deputy Attorney General Sarah Belton and asked that the Moore be given the respect she deserves as task force chair.
“We are a task force was created to do a job. And we should not … be disenfranchised in exercising our legal authority,” he told Belton. “If there is some reason that staff feels certain things shouldn’t be done, just say it. Talk to us. But, I think it’s a bit much for an arbitrary decision to be made without any discussion.”
Brown pointed out that “attempts have been made to speak to the attorney general and higher ups” about the matter, but they have taken an “evasive posture.”
State Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) questioned whether the DOJ has veto power over the Reparations Task Force agenda.
“I’m going to place a personal call into Attorney General Bonta and get clarity on this issue, because it makes no sense really. No disrespect to staff, but I’ve served on plenty of boards, and I’ve never known where staff has veto power over either elected or appointed board in setting an agenda,” Bradford said.
“I’m really troubled by that,” he said. “Either we’re the body … empowered to move this task force forward and set our own agenda to address what AB 3121 said we should do, or it’s the DOJ, and I don’t think that’s what the bill stated. …We shouldn’t have to go through these maneuvers to put something back on the agenda that we originally agendized for a meeting.”
Saturday Hearings Denied
Brown also criticized the attorney general’s office and DOJ for ruling out the possibility of holding some public hearings on Saturdays to accommodate a greater number of working people.
The DOJ denied the request due to budget constraints, overtime costs, and staffing limitations, Belton said.
“Ms. Belton, I consider that to be very unreasonable,” Brown said.
“We are concerned about righting a wrong,” he said. “We’re not saying every weekend there will be a meeting but … there ought to be at least one or two meetings that would fit the schedules of the oppressed.”
Quoting a line from the poem, “The Present Crisis” by abolitionist James Russell Lowell, Brown asked Belton to tell state Attorney General Rob Bonta, “New occasions teach new duties,” and “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”
“We deserve consideration,” he said.
Holding a town hall on the weekend “to accommodate the people is not asking much,” he said. “They ought to be heard. … They’re the locked out. They’re the left behind.”
If there were an earthquake, “everybody would run to the rescue,” Brown said. “And, you know, this thing of race, oppression, bigotry, and unconstitutional acts against black folks is a fault line … of seismic proportions.”
“The civil rights movement came from the bottom up, not from the top down, and that’s not to negate or disrespect resources, knowledge or whatever comes from wherever. But we don’t need to be treated like we are children or that we don’t have the capabilities for self-governance,” he said. “We know how to behave, and we know how to govern.”
Both Moore and Bradford said they shared Brown’s sentiments.
“As an individual who’s been elected for 22 years, I think public input is critical. And to silence that voice, whether unintentional or not, by saying that we can’t hold some kind of meeting on a weekend, I find is somewhat insulting especially in light of our current budget situation,” Bradford said.
He paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words at the 1963 March on Washington, when King said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Bradford said there is “no way I’m going to believe that the vaults of California can’t afford to hold a Saturday meeting over the next two years.”
During public comments, several participants also expressed support for holding Saturday meetings.
Seven more public meetings are planned. The next one is slated for Oct. 12 and 13.