BERKELEY — Three white women dressed in all-black skirts, pants and sheer veils solemnly walked single-file down San Pablo Avenue one recent Thursday morning, drawing quizzical stares as they maintained their steadfast silence.

Bicyclists turned their heads, a mother pushing a baby stroller snapped a cellphone picture and motorists did double-takes as the women continued their measured pace, heads bowed, hands clasped together as if in prayer, followed by a male “ambassador” wearing a shirt that read “40 Days of Mourning and Returning.”

Their journey to Oakland that July 23 day would cover nine miles, taking about six hours.

The walkers belong to a group called “Reparations Procession 2020.” It’s an exclusive group, with 50 or so members described by one organizer as “justice-oriented white folks.”

But there’s a reason behind the exclusivity: The group’s mission is to collect and give reparations to Black and Indigenous people who historically have been exploited by white people, therefore that responsibility should fall on the white people who perpetrated the wrongs.

They do so anonymously because not taking credit for the funding is part of their atonement.

“In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, all this incredible energy was activated, much of it in the white community in the Bay Area that I haven’t seen in my lifetime,” said one organizer, who asked that his name not be published.

“We wanted to do something that was concretely useful,” he said, describing the daily processions from Berkeley to Oakland that started on the Fourth of July as the embodiment of grief and action.

“Grief for what our ancestors have done, and what we failed to do to make things more humane and just,” the organizer said.

And “action” in the form of collecting reparations money from fellow white people to distribute evenly between two community-based organizations, Black Solidarity Fund, which supports black business owners, and The Sogorea Te Land Trust, which works to return Ohlone land to Indigenous stewardship.

Although the group isn’t affiliated with any religious organization, the 40 daily processions it decided to make is symbolic of the number of days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness resisting the devil’s temptations.

Before starting the 20th procession on July 23, the three mourners and ambassador stood in front of a small makeshift altar at the Berkeley Shellmound, a site considered sacred by the Ohlone people. Inside an abalone shell on the altar (an old milk crate covered with a black T-shirt) were pieces of leaves and flowers picked up by previous mourners, several bird feathers and a single white paper flower inside a vase.

The ambassador read a poem by Irish poet John O’Donohue while a mourner knelt, her head bowed touching the earth to acknowledge the land and bones of the Ohlone people literally beneath their feet. She picked up the white flower, which later would be added to other white flowers from previous processions for a 40-flower bouquet.

Then the journey began, with the mourners wearing all-black funeral attire, the lead one holding the white paper flower removed from the vase. Nine miles later they arrived at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, where Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a transit officer in 2009. There, the lead mourner placed the flower on a memorial dedicated to Grant, adding to the growing bouquet.

Each time the group raises $25,000, another mourner will join the three who have been taking turns on the daily pilgrimages. As of Friday, the group had collected more than $67,000.

On behalf of the processions group, Oakland-based nonprofit East Point Peace Academy collects the reparations through a GoFundMe site, which states: “We offer reparations as an act of restitution, not as an opportunity to bring attention to ourselves. For this reason, we request that everyone who offers reparations here does so anonymously.”

Kazu Haga, whose name is associated with the fundraising page, said he helped connect the group with the two organizations that will receive the funds.

Reparations Procession 2020 intends to continue the daily treks until it collects $1 million or finishes the 40th procession on Aug. 12, whichever comes first. “One million dollars is a high dream,” the organizer said. “But in the Bay Area, it’s a drop in a bucket when you think about how much money is in the bay.”

The ambassador said his role is to follow the mourners and answer questions along the way from curious onlookers. He also hands out fliers and carries a backpack with water, snacks and first aid in case it’s needed by the mourners.

In a phone interview, a mourner said when she’s walking, she thinks about the land beneath that was stolen from the Ohlone people and reflects on how her family history played a role in perpetuating social injustices. Her great-grandfathers were high-ranking law enforcement officers in the South from the 1920s to 1970s, for example. “Almost as if my walking is atonement for some of their actions.”

The group reached out to Black and Indigenous leaders in the community to get their feedback on the planned processions, and ultimately received their blessing.

“By no means do we believe that personal reparations offerings represent a substitute for the larger, systemic forms of reparations that also need to happen,” one of the organizers recently wrote.

“We’re not going to wait for a state policy or governmental decree to finally say yes to the longstanding call for reparations,” the organizer said.

Corrina Gould, co-founder of The Sogorea Te Land Trust, which is made up of Ohlone women who work to reclaim their ancestral land, said the reparations help their cause.

“It’s a visual way to see and engage in conversation and begin to talk about the really horrific history that people don’t generally talk about,” she said. “It’s something they’re moving towards to repair some of the damage.”

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Author: Angela Ruggiero

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