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In Iowa City, Action On Systemic Racism Comes With Conflict

Thousands of racial justice protestors took to the streets of Iowa City in the wake of George Floyd's murder. During one late night march, state and local police fired tear gas and flash bangs into the crowd, a use of force that's considered "unprecedented in recent memory" in the city.
Kate Payne
Thousands of racial justice protestors took to the streets of Iowa City in the wake of George Floyd's murder. During one late night march, state and local police fired tear gas and flash bangs into the crowd, a use of force that's considered "unprecedented in recent memory" in the city.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Iowa City. And in the year since, local leaders have taken some concrete steps to meet their demands of addressing racial injustice. But action on systemic racism in the state’s most liberal city has not come without conflict, with some activists stepping back from the city’s efforts.

One year ago this week, hundreds of racial justice protestors marched down Dubuque Street in Iowa City towards the Interstate 80 interchange.

They chanted “hands up, don’t shoot” and were met by a line of local and state police officers.

They planned to disrupt interstate traffic as a way to draw attention to racial injustice. Police body cameras show what happened next: officers fired rounds of tear gas and flashbangs into the crowd, terrifying protestors, some of them choking and gasping for breath in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

The use of force against protestors in the state’s most liberal city was “unprecedented in recent memory”, horrifying activists and city leaders.

Tear gas has been shown to cause short and long-term health effects, and has been linked to increased risk for contracting pneumonia, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses.

Mayor Bruce Teague said he was “heartbroken” by the police use of force against the protestors.

“They have a right to be out there and they have a right to speak their voice,” Teague said the day after the incident. “We as a community, we really need to hear their message.”

The next night, city officials marched with the protestors to show their support.

June 3, 2020, BLM protests at Dubuque Street - front line police perspective

Protestors helped shape Iowa City’s groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Later that month, in June of 2020, the city council passed a 17 point plan in response to the protests, which were led by a group called the Iowa Freedom Riders.

Among the efforts that IFR helped shape was establishing a truth and reconciliation commission. The effort aimed at documenting and dismantling racial injustice in the city is thought to be the first of its kind in Iowa.

But the TRC’s work was soon sidelined by infighting. After a string of resignations, the city forced a temporary cooling off period in March. In response, IFR leaders who had shaped the city’s TRC started their own People’s Truth and Reckoning Commission.

IFR leader Raneem Hamad told reporters in April she has no plans to reengage with the city’s work.

“This is the true truth and reckoning commission. This is the real TRC,” Hamad said. “It is for the people, made by the people and will do what the people wants to happen. And the city council’s TRC has proven itself contrary to all of those points.”

After resignations, protestors establish their own People’s Truth and Reckoning Commission

In the weeks since, the people’s TRC has held meetings for residents to share their grievances and connect with local organizers.

Activists with the group have criticized the city and local service providers for letting vulnerable people fall through the cracks. They’ve also lambasted efforts by the city to dispatch trained mental health professionals along with law enforcement officers on certain calls for service, characterizing the step as an expansion of policing into social services.

Members of the group have taken it on themselves to lend support to people in need, protesting at an eviction hearing and at a workplace accused of wage theft.

“We envision holding space where community can raise these grievances and acknowledge them and then also figure out ways to build direct action around those issues and build power between ourselves,” Hamad said.

IFR leaders declined to be interviewed for this story.

Complaints about officers’ treatment of people of color persist

Meanwhile, the work of the city’s TRC continues, though it’s still largely in a planning stage. Despite the conflict, the city’s commission chair Mohamed Traore says he’s proud and supportive of the People’s TRC.

“The goal is true freedom for all, true liberation for all of us, true justice and being all seen as equal under the law,” Traore said. “It's not a competition for me. If they get there first, then that means we all got there. If we get there first, that means we all got there.”

Officials in the city have faced a stream of criticism for not doing more to combat inequality. Residents continue to raise concerns about officers’ disproportionate treatment of people of color.

In March, a Black resident filed a federal civil rights complaint against Iowa City and Johnson County, after the charges against him were dismissed. A federal judge characterized his arrest as a story of "walking while Black.”

Last month, residents on the south side of Iowa City, home to many families of color, spoke out against city police officers deploying a military-grade armored vehicle to deliver warrants in the area.

Councilmember acknowledges distrust of the city is an issue

City Councilor Laura Bergus acknowledges that distrust of the city is an issue. She says that among the sources of conflict is a fundamental disagreement on the government’s role in public safety.

“It’s a common theme in abolitionist belief or understanding that organization of community safety has to happen outside of the government. That the government cannot provide it,” she said. “I believe the government is obligated to provide it.”

Bergus herself recently called on her colleagues on the City Council to engage in a serious conversation about the possibility of abolishing the city’s police force. A majority of the council spoke against the proposal, with Councilor Susan Mims arguing that “human nature” necessities a police force.

Teague, the mayor, said even the word abolish is “dangerous."

“I am not at all in agreement with utilizing the word abolish,” Teague said.

In a request for comment on this story, City Manager Geoff Fruin said the city is proud of the steps it’s taken so far and remains committed to further action.

“The City of Iowa City remains firmly committed to our efforts to end systemic racism,” Fruin’s written statement reads in part. “Progress on the journey will rarely be easy, but the City will continue to welcome difficult conversations, listen to the voices of our community, learn from past mistakes, and pursue new opportunities to serve all residents equitably and with great care and compassion.”

Bergus acknowledges that activists have played a key role in creating the urgency for policy change.

“There’s still an eagerness and a willingness to have difficult conversations, to talk about what still needs to change, to hold ourselves up to other communities and see how we're doing,” Bergus said. “I think that's pretty remarkable.”

Bergus says she’s hopeful those difficult conversations will continue. Advocates hope concrete action and meaningful reform will follow.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter