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Racial Justice

Iowa City Temporarily Suspends Truth And Reconciliation Commission, Following A String Of Resignations

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Matt Alvarez
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IPR file
Black Lives Matter protestors chant outside of the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City last June.

Following three hours of debate and public comment, the Iowa City Council voted to temporarily suspend the city’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Tuesday night, following a string of resignations and complaints of persistent dysfunction during the group’s meetings. The creation of the commission to facilitate frank conversations around systemic racism was among a slate of commitments the city made in the wake of last summer’s racial justice protests.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission cannot continue operating as it has, the Iowa City Council decided at a meeting Tuesday night, voting five-to-two to suspend the commission until April 15.

Mayor Bruce Teague said he remains committed to the goals of the TRC and to dismantling systemic racism, but says the commission has developed into an “unsafe space."

“This grieves me to my core that I as a Black sitting mayor have to come before this council and ask for a suspension. There’s a lot of things that have happened within this TRC that we cannot deny,” said Mayor Bruce Teague. “What I've seen on…develop through the TRC has been unbelievable on various terms.”

"This grieves me to my core that I as a Black sitting mayor have to come before this council and ask for a suspension. There’s a lot of things that have happened within this TRC that we cannot deny."
-Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague

The group that had been charged with fact finding, truth-telling and reconciliation has itself devolved into dysfunction, internal conflict ad bitterness, councilmembers said Tuesday. The suspension follows the resignations of four people associated with the group, which had been “plagued with strife and distrust," in the words of former Commissioner T’Shailyn Harrington.

Current commissioners and community advocates urged the council to give new leadership a chance, arguing that the departure of the former commissioners has significantly improved operations.

“Over the last two weeks, the TRC has had more communication with one another and more teamwork than we have had over the last 12 weeks prior,” said TRC Commissioner Amel Ali. “I'm actually really sad that instead of reaching out to commissioners and helping guide us over the last few months, you're choosing now to make a decision to temporarily pause.”

Iowa City City Council Meetings | March, 16, 2020

Newly-selected commission Chair Mohamed Traore said the suspension could further enflame tensions with activists who have called on the city to more aggressively address systemic racism.

“At this time I believe it is safe to assume that you all essentially had your mind made up before this meeting began. Your intention is to suspend or disband the commission and start anew with a process you can more closely control,” said Traore.

“I just hope that you…that you have carefully considered that your decision may…what your decision may bring,” he added. “Community participation and truth and reconciliation will not, shall not be completely on your terms. It will be on ours.”

"I just hope that you…that you have carefully considered that your decision may…what your decision may bring. Community participation and truth and reconciliation will not, shall not be completely on your terms. It will be on ours."
-Mohamed Traore, Chair of the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Some lambasted the council for even considering the suspension, arguing it’s a breach of faith with the scores of activists and protestors led by the Iowa Freedom Riders who took to the streets last summer and ultimately prompted the creation of the TRC and other policy changes.

“This agenda item alone is a slap in the face to our community,” said Maya Sims, a University of Iowa student. “The mission of the TRC is arguably the most important work in this community going on right now. To suspend it would be to suspend the justice this city so desperately deserves.”

Aaron Page, a human rights attorney and instructor at the University of Iowa, acknowledged that the energy that came out of last summer’s protests was “intense," but told the city council it’s that public interest and engagement that can “make change happen."

“That energy is precious. We're lucky to have it. We're fortunate to have it. And we ought to be treating it with great respect,” Page said. “And I do worry…I know other people have mentioned, I really worry that the damage that this vote could do, whatever the council intends.”

"That energy is precious. We're lucky to have it. We're fortunate to have it. And we ought to be treating it with great respect [...] I do worry…I know other people have mentioned, I really worry that the damage that this vote could do, whatever the council intends."
-Aaron Page, human rights attorney and University of Iowa instructor

Almost three months in, councilmembers said the commission has not yet been able to tackle its “substantive work," and has instead been bogged down by personal conflicts and struggled with the fundamentals of running public meetings. Some former commissioners have placed the blame for this on the council itself, which didn’t establish bylaws and basic ground rules for the group.

Councilmember Susan Mims said the open-ended nature of the commission, which was intended to promote institutional independence, now seems to have been a critical flaw.

“I think in hindsight that probably was a mistake,” Mims said. “They kind of started with no structure and I think when you take that lack of structure and you take such a…a topic that is so emotional, so emotionally charged and hard to work with, that's been…that's been a real challenge.”

Councilmember Laura Bergus, who along with Councilmember Janice Weiner were integral to the development of the TRC resolution, said it’s not clear to her what the best way forward is.

“We're hearing from people…from different sides all saying that the council set this commission up for failure,” Bergus said. “And now, when we consider intervening, we’re…that also isn't acceptable or wouldn't be a trusted response.”

"They kind of started with no structure and I think when you take that lack of structure and you take such a…a topic that is so emotional, so emotionally charged and hard to work with, that's been…that's been a real challenge."
Iowa City City Councilmember Susan Mims

“It's hard to see any kind of path forward when those are our options,” Bergus added. “It's hard to know what the next steps could be.”

Charlie Eastham with the Black Voices Project, which includes former commission chair and Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter, urged the council to disband the TRC and start from scratch with new members.

“We now see the commission floundering and it is time for you to step in,” Eastham said. “We’re calling on you to disband the commission, start over with clear parameters for the structure and scope of commission.”

Councilmember Pauline Taylor echoed the proposal, which the council rejected. The six remaining members will stay on, but official operations will pause until the group once again has 9 members.

The City Council is taking applications to fill the vacancies through March 30 and appoint new members on April 6, with plans for a joint meeting between the commission and the council soon after.

"The mission of the TRC is arguably the most important work in this community going on right now. To suspend it would be to suspend the justice this city so desperately deserves."
-Maya Sims, University of Iowa student

In the meantime, the city has received offers of help from officials affiliated with two outside organizations with experience working on truth and reconciliation commissions or community mediation: the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation at George Mason University and the Divided Community Project at Ohio State University.

Page urged city officials to lean on the expertise of outside organizations to help guide the commission’s work moving forward.

“We really just are really just scratching the surface of the resources we have in the community, and the university, nationally, internationally. There's a lot of interest out there,” Page said. “There's a lot of support that can be built into the process.”