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Palm Springs Leaders Put Reparations Plan For Evicted Black And Latino Families On Hold

A vintage black and white photo of a small house on fire.
One of the homes that were burned down during the clearing out of Section 14 in the 1960s.
(City of Palm Springs)
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Plans for a reparations program to recompense Black and Latino families forcibly evicted from their Palm Springs homes decades ago have put on hold.

The Palm Springs city council last week voted 3-2 to not move forward with a one-year, $500,000 contract with Columbia University to conduct historical research on the mass evictions and help develop a reparations program for families who lost their homes in the neighborhood known as Section 14.

Citing concerns over cost and the researchers’ objectivity, the three councilmembers who killed the contract with Columbia decided to focus for now solely on historical research, not reparations.

The lawyer representing the evicted residents and their descendants called the council vote “offensive” and vowed to continue fighting for compensation.

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Palm Springs Mayor Grace Elena Garner, who voted in favor of the Columbia contract, said she is “very concerned that this will continue to go on and on and never actually be resolved.”

A ‘city-engineered holocaust’

Section 14 is a one-square-mile area adjacent to downtown Palm Springs that was once home to about 1,000 people, mostly non-white residents who could not own property elsewhere. They built homes on plots of land leased short-term from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, on whose reservation much of Palm Springs sits.

Between the 1950s and 1960s, Section 14 residents were forced out and their homes destroyed as the area became more attractive to developers, especially after a 1959 federal law made long-term leases on tribal land possible. The city worked with court-appointed conservators to carry out the evictions.

Residents were not paid for their losses. A 1968 report from the state Attorney General’s office characterized the operation as a “city-engineered holocaust.”

Last year, a group of former residents and descendants filed a claim against Palm Springs; their attorney cited damages possibly exceeding $2 billion.

The city formally apologized to Section 14 survivors in 2021. Late last year, Palm Springs put out a request for proposals for “reparations program services” and received two bids, one from Columbia University.

Putting the brakes on reparations

The proposal called for a consultant to examine and verify the historical context of what occurred; it also called for “developing a reparations program to enhance the quality of life for those affected by this displacement.”

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That second part has now been put on hold. Amid questions from various councilmembers about the cost of reparations, the objectivity of the researchers, and whether the former residents of Section 14 could prevail in court, the council voted last Thursday to scrap the existing request for proposals and start over.

The city now plans to issue a new request for proposals seeking a contractor to focus exclusively on the historical research portion, then afterward decide how to proceed with reparations.

“With no disrespect to anybody, I don’t think the [request for proposals] was written correctly,” Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Bernstein, one of the contract’s three opponents, said at the meeting. “Because we should have set it up just to have objective historical context in the beginning, as one proposal.”

Councilmember Ron deHarte, who also voted against the contract, said he felt the existing request for proposals made it appear that “step two,” meaning a reparations program, was already a given.

“It gives an impression that we are doing step two before we are doing step one,” he said.

The three councilmembers who voted not to move forward with the contract said while they support the Section 14 families and the need for reparations, they want more information before they move on.

‘The city cannot afford a $2 billion payment’

Bernstein also expressed concern about the potential cost of reparations.

“Obviously, the city cannot afford a $2 billion payment because there wouldn’t be a city,” he said.

Councilmember Lisa Middleton asked City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger what the former residents’ chances might be of prevailing in court if the case went to litigation.

Ballinger responded that based on the time that has elapsed, along with a 1960s state “test case” in which the court found the city “had not done anything wrong” — the odds would be in the city’s favor.

“I think that the claimants would have a difficult time obtaining a judgment against the city,” Ballinger said.

Middleton joined Bernstein and deHarte in voting against the Columbia contract.

‘This story is not going away’

Areva Martin, the attorney representing the former residents, told LAist the group plans to continue pursuing its legal claim.

“This story is not going away,” she said. “And the city is either going to pay these families something, they are going to recognize them and make them whole, or they're going to spend millions of dollars in taxpayers' dollars in protracted litigation.”

Martin stressed that the story of Section 14 is extensively documented. Besides the 1968 state Attorney General’s report, she noted that “the facts about what happened in Section 14 are … contained in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.”

She added: “There are no disputes about the facts. And now, to say, ‘We want to start over,’ not do reparations, just bring in a local historian to tell us what happened — it's so disingenuous. It’s so offensive to these families.”

Martin said she and the former Section 14 residents and descendants plan to meet later this month to discuss next steps.

“The ball is in their court,” Martin said, referring to the city. “And we are sick of the platitudes. We're sick of the false statements about wanting to do the right thing."

Rejecting an accusation of bias

Linda Mann, adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, would have led the team working on the research and reparations program had the contract been awarded.

She told LAist she was disappointed, especially since much of their work would have been what city officials said they want more of: research.

“Part of that would also be vetting the descendants and survivors of Section 14,” Mann said, adding, “there was a requirement for community engagement, so dialogue, bringing all stakeholders together to explore this history and to better understand [it] from different perspectives.”

Mann works with the African American Redress Network, a collaboration between Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center.

She balked at the suggestion from some councilmembers that her team’s work could be tainted by bias. In the council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Bernstein called the organizations “effectively advocates for reparations, so I don’t find that they are going to go into this with complete objectivity.”

Mann said her group’s work is “grounded in the respect and defense of human rights. And I would say that that doesn't mean that we're biased, but that we're guided by those principles. And advocating for the protection of those rights is not a bias.”

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