The movement to pay reparations to African Americans for slavery has not picked up much political momentum in this country.
Backers of the idea say slavery is America’s equivalent of the holocaust, worthy of payments to make up for generations of human horrors.
In cities across the country Wednesday, about 70 people sat on street corners asking people to pay reparations…right there, on the street. They collected money from white people and handed it on to black people.
The organizer of the event is Damali Ayo, a performance artist in Portland. Colin Fogarty caught up with her outside Nordstrom in downtown Portland.
The crosswalks that surround Pioneer Courthouse Square represent cross sections of Portland. Shoppers pass dollar bills to valets. Construction workers buy coffee.
Men in suits and women in dresses look down at the brick sidewalk as a MAX line edges through the streets.
Nearly everyone here is white. But sitting against the wall of Nordstrom is a fashionably dressed African American woman, with a cardboard sign.
Damali Ayo: “I hold a sign that says reparations accepted here. And I accept reparations from white people as they come by. And they put the money in my can. And then I pay that out to black people as they come by. Would you guys like to pay some reparations today?”
Man: No, I’m OK.
Damali Ayo: “Well you’re OK. But that’s not the point really?”
To artist Damali Ayo, this isn’t panhandling for survival, nor does she consider it a political protest. It’s a performance piece. Ayo has been doing this since 2003. Now, she’s organized dozens of people in cities from California to Connecticut, asking the same question to passers by.
Damali Ayo: “Hi would you like to pay some reparations today? People act like I can’t see them. I see you. If you put your head down, I can still see you.”
Colin Fogarty: “Why should people pay reparations?”
Damali Ayo: “I think that it does something to say, yeah, we’re accountable for our history. We’re accountable. I was thinking, recently I was listening to an article about the holocaust and how people talk about the Nazis and how they were so evil and how they were animals and how could do they do that. I mean, look at our own history. We don’t talk about the white slavers that way. We give them the benefit of humanity. So I don’t think we’ve owned up to it. And when you put your money down…we know in this country, when you put your money down, you’re owning up to something. You’re in. And so that’s what this is for.”
As we talk, two women from Nordstrom come out to kick Damali Ayo off the property.
Woman: “I represent Nordstrom here. I can’t have you sitting up against our wall or soliciting in front of our doors.”
Ayo stays put for awhile. But before she goes, she convinces one white man to give her some change. Later, Ayo finds an African American woman and gives her the money.
Damali Ayo: [to the woman] “White people have been paying me reparations. And I can give you some money that I have. No. no. It’s not my money. It’s white peoples’ money.”
Damali Ayo: “And that’s what I love the most about this piece is that anybody who walks by I don’t have to talk to them, I don’t have get money from them, they all have an experience with it. And they’ll go home and say, 'Frank, I saw the weirdest thing today.' And they’ll hopefully have a conversation, which is what I think art should do.”
Damali Ayo has panhandled for reparations in more diverse cities than Portland, including New York and Boston. She says in Portland, though the reactions she gets are the most extreme…ranging from accepting to angry.