It’s the night before Americans choose either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to be their next president—but one group, gathered in a black church in Brooklyn, is asking voters to reject both candidates.
“We have a job tomorrow,” shouted Viola Plummer, the evening’s MC and co-founder of the December 12th Movement, a radical black nationalist group based in New York. “We got a big message to send.”
Plummer and other members are urging attendees to write in “Reparations Now” on their ballots come Tuesday. She yells out “Reparations!” over affirmations from the all-black crowd of 80, who respond with phrases like “black power” and “aché,” an affirmation that refers to divine mystical energy.
“Trump was right about one thing: The election is rigged,” said Assemblymember Charles Barron, one of the evening’s speakers and a Democrat who represents East New York. “We call them Republicrats.”
The December 12th Movement’s name comes from a large anti-racist rally that took place on Dec. 12, 1987, when protesters rode buses from New York City to Orange County in upstate New York, according to Omowale Clay, a co-founder of December 12. There, they protested against the Ku Klux Klan and accused the Orange County Sheriff’s Office of racism. Before the group’s official founding, December 12th organizers worked with other black grassroots organizations, and many were part of the Civil Rights Movement, Clay told me.
But its members are a controversial lot. Plummer, who Barron employed, was reportedly fired after she threatened the “assassination” of a councilman and refused to apologize. For his part, Barron was ejected from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 State of the State address for heckling.
On Monday night, the voice of James Brown can be heard throughout the packed church, singing “I’m black and I’m proud.” December 12th organizers are sharing their Election Day plans to write in “reparations.” The evening’s distinguished speakers, nearly all men, echo each other: Neither Clinton nor Trump will truly serve black Americans, so use your vote to make a statement.
“I’m a spiritual man,” Barron said, “but if the devil were running against Hillary Clinton, I still wouldn't vote for her to stop the devil.”
Starting in 1991, December 12th started focusing on reparations as its main cause as a “natural outgrowth of our human rights work,” Clay said. He added that the group was a prominent voice during the United Nations-led World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. The conference produced the “Durban Declaration,” which called for “just and adequate reparation” for victims of racism. One year later in 2002, December 12th organized a march for reparations in Washington D.C., which attracted thousands of people.
The idea of reparations for black Americans didn’t start in 1991, though. Just after the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15 promised 40,000 ex-slaves “40 acres,” but the order was later overturned by President Abraham Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson. The Civil Rights Movement also saw many calls for reparations. In 1955, an activist in Harlem, affectionately named Queen Mother Moore, founded the Reparations Committee of Descendants of United States Slaves. And in 1989, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced a bill for a commission to study reparations, which has never seen the light of day.
Then in spring 2014, The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” a deeply reported essay that outlines all the reasons black Americans deserve to be compensated, including slavery, Jim Crow laws, and job and housing discrimination. Coates’ essay caused a stir, reigniting the conversation around reparations in mainstream media.
For December 12th, Monday night is less about substance and more about symbolism. Towards the end of the evening, co-founder Plummer opens up the floor for questions.
“When we say ‘reparations now,’ what are we asking for?” one attendee asked.
“Tomorrow, when you write in, it’s not detailing; it’s making a statement at the New York state level,” Plummer responded. “We first have to have a collective move.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.