The Octavius V. Catto Memorial outside Philadelphia City Hall (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Philadelphia officials are open to exploring how the city could take action on reparations, a spokesperson confirmed to Billy Penn after a rally called for a formal task force on the issue.

Around 25 people gathered Thursday morning outside City Hall. Standing next to the statue of Octavius Catto, a prominent Black civil rights leader assassinated in the 1870s, they joined the Philly chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) to demand a Philadelphia Reparations Taskforce and Commission.

“One of the main objectives [would be] to study the history of the slave trade and institutionalized racism here in Philadelphia, and even to before the founding of Pennsylvania,” Breanna Moore, co-chair of N’COBRA PHL, told Billy Penn.

Historical findings would inform recommendations on how to “create specific repairs for each specific harm, all the way from slavery to a present day harm that is still being done,” Moore said.

Councilmembers Cindy Bass and Jaime Gauthier, were at the City Hall rally, along with their former colleague Derek Green, who is running for mayor.

On the eve of the rally, Green became the first mayoral candidate to officially back a reparations commission, calling on Mayor Kenney to establish such a body. “Racial justice is not possible without economic justice,” he said. Though he did not provide details, he suggested reparations could be funded via the establishment of a Philly public bank and the legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth.

Mayoral candidate Helen Gym met with N’COBRA PHL before she resigned from City Council, according to Moore, who said the lawmaker indicated support for a reparations commission.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration recently held a weeklong seminar examining reparations via Philly’s faith community, and is open to implementing something more formal, according to spokesperson Sarah Peterson.

“We are open to exploring options, whether that be a task force or a commission on reparations, and will continue gathering necessary information as well as having internal conversations to identify an appropriate path forward,” Peterson said.

N’COBRA advocates for reparations benefitting what it defines as the “descendant group” — Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the U.S.

Local opinion polling on reparations isn’t available, but multiple surveys show less than 30% of Americans in favor of reparations for slavery. Black Americans’ support for reparations, however, has consistently surpassed 75%.

“The worst thing about this conversation is that those who tell us to ‘just move forward’ don’t seem to recognize or acknowledge the fact that slave owners were paid reparations for the loss of slaves at the end of slavery,” Councilmember Bass said Thursday morning. “It is time for us to have this very difficult conversation through whatever means necessary.”

Reparations are also a potential anti-violence solution, said Andre Simms, executive director of DayOneNotDayTwo, which advocates for non-carceral approaches for youth misbehavior.

“You hear the phrase ‘Hurt people create more hurt people’ — but healed people heal people,” Simms said. “If we take the reverse approach and focus on transformative justice and responding to harm in ways that repair and restore, you’re going to create that in the culture.”

Philadelphia already requires firms doing business with the city to disclose any profits derived from chattel slavery, and incorporate financial reparations into their business model.

Though the ordinance has been on the books since 2005, it’s rarely enforced, speakers noted on Thursday. A formal commission could help change that.

“This reparations commission is about us getting into offices, getting our departments together, getting our money together, our ecosystem together, our families together, our education together, our connection to the land together, our relationship with God back together,” said Rashaun Williams, the other co-chair of N’COBRA PHL.

N’COBRA PHL will be hosting a Black History Month conference for Black Philadelphians, and Williams encouraged residents to get excited for the work.

“It’s about us coming forward, doing what we’re here to do, remembering who we are,” Williams said, “never forgetting that.”

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Jordan Levy

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...