CEDAR RAPIDS — Technology has made it so the plight of Black Americans no longer can be ignored.
“It is certainly a time where the cellphone is really one of the greatest civil rights tools there is,” said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska chapters of the NAACP. “The fact that we now — through video — can put some footage in front of Americans and have them undeniably look in the mirror and confront themselves is huge.”
Bystander video taken of the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked Black Lives Matter movement protests across Iowa and the nation. Black leaders, including Andrews, Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker and Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague, spoke about the movement and the demands for change during a panel Friday during the The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Conference.
Walker called 2020 an “inflection point” for the nation and compared the widely available and disseminated videos of Floyd’s death to the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the powerful images of his open casket funeral.
“We’re having that again,” Walker said. “The ubiquitous use of social media has allowed Americans ... to get an unfiltered look at what has been happening to Black Americans since, quite frankly, Black Americans have been in the country,” Walker said.
Those images prompted Teague to think about himself and his Black friends and family. He said difficult conversations have started and continue to this day.
“Here in Iowa City, the energy still is high,” Teague said.
Leaders in Iowa City and Linn County have worked with protesters toward meaningful change. Conversations have led the Iowa City Council to vow to restructure the police department toward a community policing model, among other initiatives. Cedar Rapids is working to establish a citizens’ review board.
Efforts to address inequality have been going on at the state level for years, Andrews said. Through their work, the NAACP has seen about 20 policy and legislative changes in Iowa in the last five years, she said. Legislative priorities for the coming year include anti-racial profiling legislation, particularly as it relates to traffic stops.
“You have to have a starting point,” she said. “We look at one of the starting points as the initial contact (with police). Racial profiling is a huge area where we are seeking legislative gain.”
Unlike with some policy changes, the panelists said they are benefiting from not having to research the issues related to Black Americans and run them through committees, commissions and staff.
“In this instance, we know where the issues are,” Teague said. “We just need to talk about solutions and move from there ... We’re going to continue this.
There have been setbacks, however. The panelists condemned President Donald Trump’s recent executive order impacting diversity training, as well as his refusal to condemn white supremacy during a debate with former Vice President Joe Biden.
“What that does, the folks who look at people like me and Mayor Teague and sister Betty Andrews as less than ... it gives them a place to stand, it justifies these beliefs that are harmful,” Walker said.
But even as those diversity training efforts are halted, Andrews said there are plenty of ways to stay involved and support Black lives, regardless of your skin color.
“Oftentimes, the question is asked, ‘What shall I do? How can I join the movement?,” Andrews said. “The answer is educate yourself.”
Andrews recommended learning about racial issues such as implicit bias and seeking out conferences such as Iowa Ideas and the upcoming Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities, which is being held virtually on Oct. 29.
“There are opportunities,” she said. “Get connected. Reach out to any of us on this panel. Take it upon yourself to move your understanding forward.”
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