In the weeks leading up to what would be an emotionally charged D.C. Council hearing, droves of community members took to group email lists, social media, local radio programs and the streets in support of a bill that would alleviate Sankofa Video Books & Cafe’s property tax burden.
On Monday, longtime Sankofa patrons, artists, authors and activists flooded Room 500 of the Wilson Building in anticipation of their chance to make their case, in person, to the five members of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Business & Economic Development through which the legislation would have to go.
Much to the chagrin of some public witnesses, only Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairperson of the business and economic development committee, attended the hearing. Despite her visible disappointment in that outcome, Sankofa co-owner Shirikiana Aina Gerima railed against the forces she said preclude her and her husband Haile from fulfilling long-term goals for heir store — including ADA accommodations, HVAC upgrades and a stronger infrastructure to support independent artists.
“Our intention is to grow and the possibilities have increased,but that attempt gets undermined with each property tax increase,” Gerima told McDuffie in her support of The Mypheduh Films DBA Sankofa Video and Books Real Property Tax Exemption Act, introduced by D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) in January.
“We have managed to stay in the black and are current with our taxes — but with sacrifice,” Gerima said. “We could be more effective in inspiring young people and bringing generations together had not had to pay such a heavy burden all these years — one that’s getting heavier and heavier.”
On Saturday, public frustration with Sankofa’s probable closure reached its apex during the #DefendSankofa outdoor concert on the front steps of the Georgia Avenue establishment. We Act Radio’s Kymone Freeman, lead coordinator of the event, likened the property tax increases to cultural genocide in his impassioned cry for community support.
Later that evening, revelers danced to the stylings and sounds of JusPaul and The Bruvaz, Alison Carney and DJ Lance Reynolds of WPFW-FM’s “House of Soul” program. On Monday, hours before the start of the hearing, the Malcolm X Drummers performed in front of the Wilson Building in solidarity with Sankofa.
Other voices at Monday’s council hearing included Eurica Huggins of the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute, Gregory Carr, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, Alexis McKenney, community organizer from Bread for the City, Acklyn Lynch, Ayanna Gregory and Paul Coates, founder of Black Classic Press and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ father. They spoke to Sankofa’s relevance to people of African descent running out of places to safely affirm their cultural identity.
“Sankofa is a meeting place where people from everywhere can be free to explore and debate the historical and contemporary issues that affect our communities,” Huggins, a District resident of more than 30 years, told McDuffie as she explained how Sankofa allowed ADACI to host cultural programs in its establishment since opening in the late 1990s.
“Washington, D.C. is pretty unfriendly and unaffordable to nonprofits,” she said. “The Gerimas never hesitated to open their space. It’s never been a question of what you can afford, but how soon can you present your work and how can it help our community.”
Sankofa’s property tax burden, currently at $30,000, has increased by 25 percent over the past decade, Gerima told McDuffie in her testimony. By October, that amount would more than likely increase to $33,000, she said.
In order to become law, the Mypheduh Films DBA Sankofa Video and Books Real Property Tax Exemption Act must pass through the Council’s Business & Economic Development Committee and the Council’s Committee of the Whole, before going to Mayor Muriel Bowser and through a congressional approval process.
Sankofa, named after the Gerimas’ critically acclaimed 1993 film about the return to one’s African identity, attracts authors, poets, academics and other intellectuals, many of whom feature their work in the store and make presentations before live audiences.
In recent years, as other businesses along Georgia Avenue and in the Shaw area struggled to meet increasing financial burdens, the Gerimas upgraded Sankofa’s sound system and invested in the construction of an outdoor deck in the back of the store for outdoor movie nights and rentals.
However, without the passage of tax abatement bill, these and other efforts to keep up with the rate of change in the Shaw area will be futile, Florida Avenue Grill owner Imar Hutchins warned McDuffie and Nadeau in his public testimony on Monday. Nadeau, not a member of the Council Committee on Business & Economic Development, walked into the council chambers shortly after the start of the hearing.
“Small businesses that make up the fabric of D.C. are disappearing. They’re going out quietly,” Hutchins said on Monday, at times alluding to what he described as the more than 400 percent property tax increase that has affected his business.
“With them, we lose not only the jobs they represented but the cultural continuity. That’s why this case is so important,” he continued. “Sankofa should be thought of as representing other businesses that didn’t ask for help, that didn’t know how to mobilize people in a room to write the council, or were too embarrassed by their situation until they struggled in solitude and went away.”