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Two Truth And Reconciliation Commissions Organizing In Iowa City

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Kate Payne / IPR
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More than 100 people gathered in a park in downtown Iowa City Thursday night for a meeting of the Peoples Truth & Reckoning Commission, a group founded by activists who have split off from the City of Iowa City's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Iowa City’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission resumed its operations Thursday night, after a temporary suspension put in place by city officials was lifted. At the same time, local Black Lives Matter activists held an organizing meeting for their own Peoples Truth & Reckoning Commission, which organizers say is necessary in order to facilitate more robust conversations and healing around legacies of racism in the community.

On Thursday night in Iowa City, two different truth and reconciliation commissions held organizing meetings to help focus their work to facilitate community truth-telling, education and healing. Both groups were established following last summer’s protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which were led by organizers with the local group Iowa Freedom Riders.

IFR activists successfully pushed for the city to establish its own TRC, among a slate of other steps. Now the group is establishing its own independent commission after public meetings grew strained and dysfunctional and amid accusations that an elected official mistreated activists and members of the public.

More than 100 gather for Peoples TRC

Speaking to reporters ahead of the Peoples TRC event Thursday night, IFR organizer Raneem Hamad, who had been a member of the city’s TRC, says that she has no interest in reengaging with the city’s process, which she called “illegitimate."

“Their TRC is really illegitimate. It’s not for the people and it’s not accountable. Like it can’t be held accountable by the people. So in my eyes, that’s not a truth and reconciliation commission because it’s going to be telling the city’s truth. It’s telling the city council’s truth,” Hamad said.

“The moment that past commissioners tried to push into … be more radical in terms of how they were going to pursue these truths, council immediately pulled the plug on the TRC,” Hamad added. “So I think that really proves that this … the city council's TRC project is not a legitimate process that is actually going to deliver the truth and the justice that our community needs or wants."

More than 100 people gathered Thursday night at Chauncey Swan Park in downtown Iowa City, directly across the street from the Iowa City City Hall, to learn more about the Peoples TRC and to provide input on its formation.

Hamad said the timing and location of the event were intended to send a message to the city officials gathered at their own meeting right across the street.

“It is a message that we're here at the same time and the same day that the city council's TRC is reconvening again,” Hamad said. “We are starting a commission … the true truth and reckoning commission that is going to be accountable to the people.”

IFR leaders say they intend to ‘let the people decide' how the commission should be structured, who its members should be and what its responsibilities should be moving forward.

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Kate Payne / IPR
Supporters of the Peoples Truth & Reckoning Commission light candles at a memorial constructed at a park in downtown Iowa City.

Organizer Ala Mohamed envisions a broad and sweeping mission for the group to not only be a venue for airing grievances and sharing stories but for proactively addressing basic community needs that she says are not being met by more traditional government agencies or service organizations.

“How can we build a revolutionary movement in our community?” Mohamed asked the crowd of supporters. “We need to mobilize and build a mass movement including building a survival foundation like food co-ops, reclaiming buildings for our community cultural centers, housing the poor and those who feel unsafe at home. We need to start a local coalition against police and actively work to defund them.”

Organizers handed out paper forms to the crowd Thursday night to gather feedback on what they say will be a “non-hierarchical” process of establishing and directing the commission. More discussion is planned for the group’s next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, April 29 at Wetherby Park in Iowa City.

Meanwhile, city TRC officials apologize, urge the public to reengage

At the same time, the Iowa City City Council held a joint meeting with the city’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, welcoming the new members who are replacing those who resigned in recent weeks. City officials gave an overview of the technicalities of participating in public meetings and discussed commission members’ work to draft bylaws.

Councilmembers had acknowledged that a lack of formal training and lack of bylaws hamstrung the original commission’s early operations and contributed to the dysfunction at past meetings, which were bogged down by internal conflict and at times devolved into shouting matches.

Activists had accused former city TRC Chair and current Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter of harassing members of the public during commission meetings, accusations which Porter has denied. Porter has since resigned from the commission.

Current city TRC Chair Mohamed Traore took the opportunity Thursday night to apologize for the conduct at past meetings and to urge members of the public to reengage with the commission’s work.

City Council Work Session of April 15, 2021

“I would also just like to take this time to just apologize to anyone that may still feel that they were disrespected by this commission in the past. If anyone does feel that way, I would like to personally apologize from the bottom of my heart for that,” Traore said, “and to say that we are still looking to speak to anyone and everyone who would like to work with this commission.”

Councilmember Janice Weiner, who was instrumental in drafting the original resolution, made her own apology to commission members Thursday for a lack of city support in the group’s early days.

“I would also like to, at least from my part, personally apologize for not giving you everything you needed at the beginning and for anything that we did that contributed to difficulties during the first months of it. That was never my personal intent. I don't think it was the intent of council,” Weiner said. “I wish this commission only success because I think we can only really learn and grow as a community from what you are undertaking.”

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague, who had been critical of the commission during a past meeting when officials made the decision to temporarily suspend it, gave his own message of support for the group’s work moving forward.

“For those that are continuing this work, whether you're on the commission or not, this is very, very meaningful work. It’s heart work, not hard. It’s heart work. Thank you all so much,” Teague said. “We are looking forward to seeing fantastic things that will bring us to those goals that we want to achieve within our city. Thank you so much for your dedication and your work.”

Following the joint meeting, city TRC commissioners held their own separate meeting where they discussed the development of a land acknowledgment statement that would be read at public meetings and events to honor and recognize the Native peoples whose land Iowans currently occupy.

The commission is slated to continue meeting every other Thursday at 7 p.m., with the next meeting scheduled for April 29.

IPR's Grant Gerlock contributed reporting to this story.