CEDAR RAPIDS — Kossi Gbemou tells a joke he has heard many times: “In Africa, if the police stop you, when you reach for your pocket, they are happy. In America, if the police stop you and you reach for your pocket, they are defensive.”
In other words, he explains, in many countries, police expect a bribe as a quick way to get out of a ticket or smooth over trouble. In the United States, trying to bribe an officer could mean an extra charge.
And in America, he wants newcomers to know, don’t reach for your pocket until the officer tells you to.
Gbemou is a member of the Cedar Rapids-based Wake Up For Your Rights — started by immigrants to help immigrants, especially those who are part of an influx to Cedar Rapids from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and other African nations in the last decade.
With police-involved shootings and related protests prevalent in the national news recently, Gbemou said group leaders have heard from constituents that they’re worried. They don’t want something like that to happen here.
“Watching these events, people not fluent in English are scared,” organization founder Esaie Toingar said. “To take that fear away, we have to build trust and let them know the police are there for their safety.”
To that end, Wake Up for Your Rights is working to communicate with local immigrant populations about “dos and don’ts” when interacting with police and has also reached out to the Cedar Rapids Police Department about ways to break down communication barriers. Organizers have been distributing fliers and are hoping to hold a soccer tournament in the coming weeks where police and immigrants can interact in a positive way.
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The “dos” on their list include things like “do place both hands on the steering wheel until instructed to retrieve your license” and “do ask for a lawyer if arrested.”
The “don’ts” include “don’t get out of your car” unless told and “don’t attempt to flee.”
Those are things that might not apply in other countries, Gbemou said. In his home of Togo, for example, drivers get out of their cars immediately when stopped.
Gbemou and Toingar, who is originally from Chad, stressed they’re acting proactively and that they aren’t aware of any issues between Cedar Rapids officers and members of African immigrant communities.
“The police in Cedar Rapids are doing good, but we never know,” Toingar said. “We can’t wait until there is something wrong. The best way is to prepare and find out how we can avoid it.”
The potential for miscommunication can be paired with deep-seated mistrust of the authorities, especially for people who fled conflict or persecution in their own countries, he added.
That’s not a hypothetical. Cedar Rapids police Sgt. Cristy Hamblin, who oversees community outreach, cited a case where two young men, originally from East Africa, saw a Cedar Rapids police car that was on the lookout for suspects in a crime. The men ran, and the police chased.
“They’d been taught, run when you see the police. In America, running — that’s a sign you’ve done something wrong. They had nothing to do with the crime. They said they were afraid,” Hamblin said.
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The men were not arrested and were given an explanation for the stop, Hamblin said, but the incident illustrates the need for communication.
Many of the local African families live on Cedar Rapids’ southwest side and have children attending Hoover Elementary School. The school puts on Sunday evening discussions for immigrant families covering various topics, and Cedar Rapids police Lt. Tobey Harrison has met with families there to discuss their concerns. Hamblin has also met with women’s groups through churches.
“Some of the women were raped by police, beaten by police before they came here,” she said. “When I walked in, you could see the apprehension in their eyes.”
Toingar said such conversations are needed and can make the entire community stronger. He wants not only immigrants to know the “dos and don’ts” of police interactions, but the police to have the understanding of why someone might flee, or to be patient if someone’s English is not good.
“We want to get to know each other, to take away that fear when you meet the police,” he said. “And we want the police to learn more about immigrants.”