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Community Land Trusts Are a Model for Reparations

In a racialized economy, land trusts and cooperatives offer a lasting form of reparations, say activists.

In a racialized economy, land trusts and cooperatives offer a lasting form of reparations, say activists.

This year has already seen more Democrats talking about reparations than ever, including several running for the presidency. Now, rather than writing checks to individuals, more and more people are talking about collective strategies for repair and reparation. Community land trusts, cooperatives and mutual housing associations, for example, might offer a way to transfer some long-promised land and rights to Black communities while making today’s housing economy less speculative.

Joining us to discuss those possibilities are Katherine Franke, author of a new book, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition; Cathy Albisa, co-founder and executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative; and Jaritza Geigel, senior organizer for Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded and led by homeless people which advocates for social justice on issues like housing and what they call the shelter-industrial complex. The interview that follows has been edited for clarity and length.

Laura Flanders: When we’re talking about reparations for slavery, some might say, “Well, wasn’t there reconstruction? Didn’t slavery end?”

Katherine Franke: Well, in your middle school social studies class, or your history class, you get the story of, “We fought a Civil War over slavery, the slaves were freed, there was reconstruction that sort of rebuilt the economy of the South. And then, here we are today and that’s all that was owed.” But what actually happened is that people were emancipated, were freed from slavery into a condition of abject poverty, into a kind of world where white supremacy and violent racism still structured their lives. And part of what I wanted to do with Repair is return to that history, and illuminate the ways in which even northern military officials saw it as necessary to provide reparations in the form of land to freed people — both as a way to recognize the horrible torture, theft, rape, death, separation of families that structured slavery, but also to make freedom a reality, a practical reality for freed people to have some resources as they began and rebuilt free lives. So, we’ve done it in this country, but we don’t know it. Part of what the book is designed to do is repair that history … to bring us back to that period and see that this was doable then, and it was seen as necessary to what it meant to emancipate free people.

Now, Jari, to you. You work with people that are dealing with very urgent needs and concerns. Does this history resonate? Does it have life today?

Jaritza Geigel: Absolutely. I look ambiguous, but being a Black young woman myself and understanding my heritage, my ancestry and where it all leads to, we’re living in modern day colonial times where people are being displaced, or actually, land being stolen and is still continued to be occupied to this day by the descendants of European settlers and the impact of that, right? So, I’m now in Bushwick; that has been gentrified for over the last 20 years. And any month now, you can be priced out. I’ve had to watch many family members move out of the neighborhoods and go to surrounding areas, like Jersey City, to try to go to more affordable places. And then, you’re even beginning to see those surrounding areas becoming even more priced out because of gentrification. Folks are continuously being displaced, and then either entering the streets and trying to survive that, or entering the shelter-industrial complex that really is not a home. And it hasn’t really guaranteed any real sustainable pathway for folks getting out of shelters and back into permanent housing, let alone having ownership over those homes.

I’m hearing a lot of resonance here. Cathy, your organization recently released something called the “New Social Contract” that knits together a picture of the future that could be different. But how do you connect to this history?

Catherine Albisa: What I’d like to start with is some of the concepts that struck me most powerfully in Katherine’s book, because I was really excited as I was reading it. Part one of our New Social Contract work is land, housing and natural resources. We work with Picture the Homeless on some of these issues, really advancing the notion of community control and collective ownership of land. For those who don’t know, a community land trust is land that is owned collectively, but the houses are owned individually by families. And so they are building equity, are building wealth, but you’re doing so outside of the speculative economy. There is a contract, there’s an agreement amongst all the neighbors, residents, the community land trust, to keep the housing permanently affordable. This is what prevents the ongoing displacement that you were describing.

Now what struck me about Katherine’s book is I was reading two concepts that, for me, knitted together why this is such a powerful conversation, and how important it is now in order to really rethink how we talk about land, housing and even natural resources. Katherine talked about recovering possible futures. The idea that there were people even then who knew this was the right thing to do. To give reparations — to give it in a concrete form of land, the land people had been working for years, if not generations. It was abruptly cut off by the white supremacy that pushed us off that path. And to recover that possible future.

The other concept she talks about in the book is that we need to understand the difference between history and memory. So, we’ve relegated it to history, but we haven’t really embedded it in our cultural memory. So how can you fix something if you have collective amnesia and you refuse to face it? Excavating and recovering this memory, making our history and our memory whole again, allows us to think about this model in a real way. It would be really wonderful as a form of reparations, but it would actually be good — as most things are that are just — for the entire country.

So, let me come back to you, Katherine. If people do have a memory, they have a memory that people were intending to do something along the lines of repair, and were stopped, as Cathy just said. This didn’t happen.

Franke: Well, it actually did in the Sea Islands area, and then in another area just outside of Vicksburg. Land was seized from the Confederate plantation owners when they fled, and then it was explicitly and intentionally reallocated to free people in 40-acre units, which is where we get that term today of “40 acres and a mule,” with the understanding that this is how you’ll begin your new lives on this land. And actually, the general’s order that allowed for those allocations barred white people from entering those communities. The idea was, “You people need to heal. And you’re going to heal and empower yourselves, separate from white people.” It was a beautiful and exciting idea. But as soon as Lincoln was assassinated, the new president came in, took all that land back, and gave it to the former slave-owners. And then it was required that free people enter into year-long labor contracts with the people who had owned them before. So they re-instituted a form of legalized slavery, just under another name.

With the Black codes, and so on.

Franke: With the Black codes, and all of that. So, as Michelle Alexander talks about in The New Jim Crow, the seeds of that were taking place in the immediate post-war period. But for a little window of time, there was a whole other model.

That window did extend in certain parts of the country with the growth of Black towns that were pretty successful until massive white backlash and white supremacist violence moving right through to the 1920s, even into the 1950s.

Franke: Absolutely. There were a few towns, largely African American towns of free people, sort of peppered through the South. But by and large, those communities of Black people were driven out through lynching, from straight up murder with a gun, through racial terror that took place in what we think is this period of wonderful reconstruction. It actually was a period of racial terror that drove what we understand to be the Great Migration of formerly enslaved people, African Americans to the North, to being locked into multigenerations of real poverty. So if people had land, had the ability to build firm economic lives in the immediate post-war period, we would see the economy in a very different, racially stratified way today. And what we’ve done instead is lock people into this sort of permanent condition of poverty — which, because we haven’t acknowledged this collective responsibility, we individualize it, as if it’s each Black person’s fault.

Do you want to talk a little bit more about those two models that are central to your story? The Sea Islands in South Carolina and Davis Bend?

Franke: Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the Confederacy, and his brother owned a huge plantation right outside of Vicksburg. And as soon as General Grant moved into that area with the Northern troops, and all of the white people, the Confederates, had to leave, Black people took over. They ran the plantations; they were allocated land. It was explicitly understood that this would be a kind of Black haven, a haven of an experiment in freedom. A similar thing took place in the Sea Islands. All of the white people fled when the Northern troops came in, and the Northern military saw a kind of human horror that shook them to their core. They faced what slavery looked like, the kind of condition that enslaved people presented themselves to the Northern military; sick, hungry, with no clothing. They were so incredibly moved that they said, “We have to do something to repair this situation. It implicates us. Mere emancipation is not enough.” And so, 40-acre plots of land were allocated to families. And what’s really interesting is that folks tended to live in collective units, not just nuclear families, because that’s how they had been living before. And also, the way that slavery split families up, there were complicated kinship relationships….

Survival strategies, too.

Franke: Absolutely. And so the idea that we would today return to that idea of collective community ownership reflects also what was going on in that period.

It’s hard, Jari, not to think of the “what ifs.” Are there what ifs running through your head as you hear these stories? And did you know them? I didn’t know them.

Geigel: Going back to when, as you were saying, Black farmers in the South really kind of started this whole thought process of community living, and community land trusts…. This is something that’s possible. This is one out of many tools that our communities can benefit from…. This is not a new concept. People across the country are using this form as a way to maintain affordable ways of living right now.

Cathy, you wanted to come in on this?

Albisa: I do, because I think the other thing that it should cause us to think about is sort of interrogate what we think of as “freedom.” You make a distinction in the book, Katherine, between being free and being freed. So people were freed, but they weren’t free. And none of us are free right now, right? Not in this economy and not in this political system. The collectivity that was being practiced in those two spaces — the Sea Islands and Davis Bend — that was a form of being free, not just freed. And the collectivity we can practice today, you had mentioned our New Social Contract project. If you look at all five prongs, it’s a way of acting collectively, so we can actually be free…. One is absolutely impossible without the other.

There was a white supremacist backlash then; this feels like a white supremacist revival moment now. What makes you think this conversation is ripe for this second?

Franke: Well, we’ve never experienced a period where white supremacy didn’t structure our political, economic, legal lives. What I find surprising … is that the issue of reparations is actually a legitimate conversation right now. You’ve noted there’s been a bill introduced into Congress year after year, after year. Not to deliver reparations, but just to study it. And they couldn’t even get a hearing on it. The bill [had] a hearing. Every person who’s running for president from the Democratic Party is talking seriously about reparations. Actually, if they don’t have a position on that, they look like they’re not with the program. So to say that white supremacists won’t have a reaction to these proposals and to the serious consideration of reparations would be to ignore the power of white supremacy. But something has broken out here.

But apology without action wouldn’t be enough.

Albisa: Right. Apology without action wouldn’t be enough, and action has to actually address the underlying structures because our society, our economy, our politics, is structured in a highly racialized way. It affects all people of color, but it is really, in my opinion, centered around anti-Blackness. And we cannot leave out the project to wipe out Indigenous people too…. And that has been our historic wrestling. How do we square that circle? We cannot square it until we do what you were talking about — have a serious reckoning with it, engage it and respond to it, both on the level of narrative and on the level of structure.

Franke: But I also think it’s essential that white people take responsibility for the advantages that we have been born into. So it’s not only an issue of addressing the disadvantage that African American people have had in this country, but the fact that we’re seeing the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth taking place right now as people of my parents’ generation are dying. And we’re dropping the estate tax so that the accumulated advantage, wealth … is all built on the fact that there was property, there was economic advantage that was part of what it meant to be white in this country that we have to take responsibility for. Which is why I recommend in my book that we raise the estate tax considerably, and we tax what I think is a windfall for people like me, and use that money to fund what a substantial reparations project would look like.

It’s on this issue of wealth, property ownership, and ability to make decisions around property and inheritance that you really see the legacy of slavery…. Well that’s where some of the reparations might come in.

Albisa: I also just wanted to point out that while community land trusts and other shared equity models are a very small slice of our housing in the country, there are 200 community land trusts around the country, and there have been some around for decades. What’s important to know about them is they work spectacularly well overall. When the foreclosure crisis hit, the community land trusts were barely touched. The foreclosure rate in community land trusts were very, very tiny. If you subsidize a family for buying a home in a community land trust, 90 percent of them are still in their private home five years later. If you subsidize a family to buy a home in the private market, only 50 percent are in their own home five years later. So we know the model works. This is not a theory; this is not an experiment. This is something that’s been done for a long time. What we need is the political commitment to take land out of the speculative economy, and create stability and thriving neighborhoods.

Franke: Well it’s happening in different communities in different ways. New York, particularly in Manhattan and Harlem, is a very dense place, where gentrification sort of structures the real estate market entirely. So, to hold back a couple of buildings is a big thing, but it may not be transformative in the community. But if you go to Jackson, Mississippi, where they’re also experimenting a lot with community land trusts, what they’re doing there, as in Detroit and other cities, where there are just vast parts of the city that have been abandoned. There are no services, there’s no one living there, or very few people living there. It’s a way to recapture those communities. Not through gentrification, not through what you see in so many cities where they build a new downtown, and then the yuppies come back from the suburbs, and then all of the folks who were living there have nowhere to go and end up in shelters. What you’re doing is you’re repairing the very idea of the city itself, through community land ownership and community control, rather than real estate developers who have no investment in the long-term health or culture of a city.

We have a practice nowadays of saying, “What do you think is the story the future will tell of this moment?” In a nutshell, what do you think?

Albisa: I think the future is for us to write. They talk about the history [that] bends towards justice, but it’s not a law of physics. It depends on the kind of commitment and energy that we put into it. But I know the future people are working very hard to write. And in that future, we are sharing risk — it’s income solidarity, it’s risk solidarity, it’s public responsibility to meet basic needs. It’s collective community control. And it’s really a new vision of democracy, where democracy is not just showing up at the ballot box, which not even that’s working these days. But it’s beyond the ballot box. It’s democracy beyond elections, where people actually have agency to shape their lives, their institutions and their country.

Geigel: Echoing all that. I think folks have had enough. The energy is there, I think, the more we intentionally begin to really center … this anti-Black narrative. And I think that the moment we continue to really put Black issues at the heart of all the issues that we’re talking about, then we’ll actually see some changes begin to happen.