© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Thousands Rally In Cedar Rapids, Asking For Specific Reforms

Thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Cedar Rapids on Saturday, to call for policing reform, justice and equity for black Americans. They also laid out specific demands for local officials, and urged Iowans to hold their elected leaders accountable in November.

People of all ages filled the streets as they marched from Greene Square to the Linn County Courthouse, before lying face down in the middle of First Avenue with their hands behind their backs for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Protesters counted out the seconds to memorialize George Floyd, the 46-year-old Minneapolis security guard and father whose killing by a white police officer was filmed by a bystander, and has spurred waves of sustained protests across the country.

“I can’t breathe,” protesters cried, echoing Floyd’s pleas as the officer pinned him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck and his hands in his pockets.

The crowd took up entire city blocks as they marched, at times disrupting vehicle traffic as they walked and chanted.

Cedar Rapids resident Steven Shelby, who is black and the father of four kids, says it’s been heartening to see the response from so many in the city to call for specific action and urgent change, and to see protests spreading across the country. But he says that dating back to Rodney King in 1991, he’s seen too many officers go unpunished for their unjust actions, even when their actions are filmed.

“I’m just scared and nervous every time my kids go out the house,” Shelby said. “It could happen to anybody.”

Local community organizers and elected officials rallied the crowd before they marched, including Chair of the Linn County Board of Supervisors Stacey Walker, the first black man to hold that office.

Walker told the demonstrators he’s calling on police officers across Iowa to refrain from using tear gas against peaceful protesters.

“I’ll be sending a formal letter to all police chiefs in the state of Iowa making this request that they ban the use of chemical agents against peaceful protesters,” Walker said as people cheered. “Because if we are expected to remain peaceful, then we should be able to do so and be free from harm.”

Unlike at other protests in other cities, there seemed to be limited police presence at the event Saturday, apart from a few officers helping redirect vehicle traffic away from the marchers. Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman addressed the crowd and said he’s willing to talk with “anyone” who will help bring about police reform.

“The fact that [Floyd] was killed by a police officer, the very person sworn to protect him, is what brings us here today. It is why I embrace this call for change, and it is why we need to change,” Jerman said.

But for some in Cedar Rapids, real and lasting damage has been done by law enforcement officers, and trust is not easily restored. Jeremie Mitchell, who was left paralyzed from the neck down after Cedar Rapids Police Officer Lucas Jones shot him during a traffic stop, told the crowd that too often officers take extralegal action because they “fear for their life," taking lives in the process.

“I know policing is a hard job. But if you feel like you fear for your life every time you open that door to go to work, then maybe you shouldn’t be a police officer,” Mitchell said. “I fear for my life. George Floyd feared for his life. Mike Brown feared for his life. Breonna Taylor feared for her life. Walter Scott feared for his life. Ahmaud Arbery feared for his life. We fear for our lives too.”

Organizers of the protest Leslie Neely and Jorel Robinson laid out specific demands they want Cedar Rapids officials to address, including establishing a citizens’ review board, banning officers’ use of chokeholds, significant investment in diversity, inclusion and de-escalation training, and decriminalizing minor marijuana crimes and other low level offences, among other demands.

“We think this is important and it gives us a foundation to move forward and to really make some changes, Cedar Rapids. And make it so that we all feel included and all feel safe when an officer pulls us over or asks us a question,” Robinson said.

“We expect these negotiations to begin on Monday,” Neely added.

Saturday March in Des Moines

Protests in Des Moines continued for the ninth day Saturday, with hundreds of people joining a march from the Wells Fargo Arena to the State Capitol, carrying signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.”

Speaking on the Capitol steps, Lori Young of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement called on the Des Moines City Council to pass a ban on racial profiling by police officers.

“We want a strong racial profiling ban that has some teeth to it,” she said. “Don’t come to us with no mess, no watered down ordinance.”

The city council plans to vote on the ordinance Monday. Iowa CCI and other groups are pushing for more accountability measures in the proposal such as requiring data collection for all traffic stops.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter
Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa