116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In the time since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, social justice movements across the United States and in other countries have formed and reformed to in efforts to gain visibility for their ideas and their goals.
In Iowa, two groups, by way of example — only some 30 miles apart — have taken different approaches.
And though both the Advocates for Social Justice in Cedar Rapids and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Iowa City have common, high-level goals, the organizations differ.
The Cedar Rapids group is a not-for-profit, and the other a temporary commission appointed by the Iowa City Council, and they have taken different approaches in pushing for change.
Advocates for Social Justice
Before the Advocates for Social Justice, there was the Iowa Justice Alliance, formed in the wake of the officer-involved shooting of Jerime Mitchell of Cedar Rapids during a November 2016 traffic stop. A subsequent grand jury cleared the Cedar Rapids police officer of wrongdoing in the accident that left Mitchell paralyzed.
That grand jury decision was the impetus for forming of the Justice Alliance.
“This movement, hopefully, will be a catalyst that will facilitate meaningful conversations,” Stacey Walker, a Linn County supervisor and member of the nascent organization, said in January 2017.
Semi-closed meetings followed with city officials, local law enforcement and Sean Berry, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa. The Justice Alliance ultimately put together a list of 12 steps for addressing social justice.
In April 2021, the city’s insurance carrier reached an $8 million settlement with Mitchell before his lawsuit went to trial. The police officer, Lucas Jones, was fired in the summer of 2020 over another incident; he is appealing that dismissal.
By early June 2020, after Floyd’s death, Tamara Marcus, Leslie Neely and Nicole LeGrand organized Cedar Rapids’ first peaceful protest, drawing more than 2,000 people.
Forming something such as Advocates for Social Justice was not on their minds.
“I think it just kind of happened because we weren’t getting anywhere with elected officials,” co-founder and board president Tamara Marcus said. “We needed a structure to allow us to continue to push forth our demands.”
Even after certain elements of change found support with the Cedar Rapids City Council, the local movement’s cautious optimism for systemic change was fragile, she said.
“We didn’t have faith it was enough,” she said.
The first of the organization’s seven demands was met in February 2021, when the Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously voted to create the second citizens’ police review board in Iowa, appointing its nine members in June.
“What we’ve learned is that without that pressure, nothing happens,” ASJ board Vice President Amara Andrews said. “Police reform has been talked about for years. It wasn’t until protests and our seven demands that anything happened.”
Organization leaders had started out meeting with city officials weekly, but in July 2020 Mayor Brad Hart emailed the ASJ, saying the city would be discontinuing any additional negotiations as the meetings’ purpose — “to fully understand the demands” — had been accomplished.
“We did move forward with them,” Hart said, adding that ASJ’s input was critical. “After seven hours of meetings, we said (we understand the demands) and said we needed to get the community involved to move these forward.”
The meetings, he said, were ended after ASJ demanded their members be included in furthering progress on the demands to the exclusion of other community members.
“We were not getting anywhere raising voices back and forth … on who’s going to be on” the task force, he said.
Hart said the city has either finished or has made progress on most of ASJ’s demands. He said some demands — such as abolishing qualified immunity for law enforcement — requires changes at the state level.
Iowa lawmakers this year approved a “back-the-blue” ill that increases protections for police officers against some lawsuits.
As for the citizens’ police review board, Hart said information from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement advised that forming the board too quickly would run the risk of failure.
With ”cities that have done it too quickly, they don’t get community buy-in and they fail,” he said.
The seven demands
City officials have not met with the ASJ since that email. Andrews has since announced her candidacy for mayor, and Marcus announced her run for City Council’s District 3.
“It has been disheartening to enter a battle when the idea was for us to work together,” Andrews said. “The whole point of this was to make our city better. It was surprising to encounter such pushback.“
Andrews said 30 Cedar Rapids community leaders collaborated to create a list of issues they thought were the most important. A survey later sent to the group helped rank top demands, narrowing them to seven — which became the ASJ’s demands.
“It was purposeful, not arbitrary,” Andrews said, with a focus on priorities that could feasibly be accomplished or gain progress.
And with little division among activists from the outset, the ASJ leaders said their ability to form a strong alignment early on was critical.
“We were not tied to other movements, like defunding the police,” Andrews said. “We did not want to push that agenda in Cedar Rapids. … We were thinking about what our specific community needs are (without being) influenced by other movements.”
Their next priority is decriminalizing minor marijuana crimes and other lower-level offenses.
Andrews, who has a law degree, said success on that front could happen through city-level avenues, such as strengthening the Linn County Attorney’ Office’s marijuana diversion program.
The ASJ also plans to lobby the state Legislature for change.
The ASJ’s five other demands, in addition to a police review board and the decriminalization of minor marijuana offenses, were:
- Making significant investments in diversity, equality and inclusion with training and recruiting.
- Banning the use of lethal law enforcement restraining techniques such as chokeholds and knee-to-neck maneuvers, and strengthening existing use-of-force standards
- Imposing strict body camera provisions with law enforcement
- Making negotiations between municipal authorities and police unions public
- Abolishing qualified immunity for police officers.
Cedar Rapids Police Department policy already bans lethal restraint techniques such as chokeholds and knee-to-neck maneuvers.
And in 2018, the city adopted policy stating that “officers shall activate their cameras to record all contacts with citizens in the performance of official duties.”
A citizens’ police review board — intended to build better bridges between the community and law enforcement officials — held its first meeting on July 22.
Marcus has a few suggestions for citizens seeking to take on similar efforts in their communities.
“It’s not a moment, it’s a movement,” Marcus said — advising those seeking change to take care not to burn out.
She said ASJ is proof that grassroots organizing can make a difference.
“If you genuinely care about an issue and are passionately committed to making change, you can really get other people to give a damn,” she said.
“We’ve assembled the people (elected officials) should be talking to,” Marcus said. “This should be viewed as a resource.”
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an ad hoc commission, was approved by an Iowa City Council resolution in September 2020.
Over the course of the summer of 2020, first-year city council members Janice Weiner and Laura Bergus created a resolution that create the commission and allow it to have a flexible mission, with adjustments along the way — one of the biggest differences from the ASJ’s seven demands.
“It’s an unusual process because (the city council) didn’t have staff or the city attorney write it,” said Weiner, an at-large city council member. But “this isn’t something you create completely out of whole cloth — there are experts.”
The two council members consulted with Eduardo Gonzalez of George Mason University, where a center has experience supporting truth and reconciliation organizations. The pair tried to ensure a structure that would mirror the Black, Indigenous and people of color communities in Iowa City.
“We tried to give this ad hoc commission as much independence as we could,” Weiner said.
But between the commission’s first members being appointed in November 2020 and the commission’s second chairman being appointed in March 2021, there were some big bumps in the road.
Three months into the commission’s existence, initial chairwoman Royceann Porter, a Johnson County supervisor, resigned as chairwoman amid accusations of hostility and later resigned from the commission altogether.
Three more resignations followed, prompting the Iowa City Council to suspend the commission from March 17 to April 15. The nine-member council’s suspension was followed by more resignations, including Raneem Hamad, who went on to help form the Iowa Freedom Riders.
“Obviously, there were some serious challenges,” Weiner said. “It appears they didn’t agree on what rules of the road they should follow. It was being pulled in different directions.
“I think everyone wanted to accomplish meaningful change. People had very different ideas of how to get there and what that would or should look like.”
Weiner was one of only two city council members to vote against TRC’s suspension.
“I really wanted to give them a vote of confidence they could do this,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t get it right at the beginning, but that doesn’t mean you quit. It means you learn from mistakes and improve things going forward.
“It’s normal for these things to be very messy at the beginning, and it was OK to essentially have to try again and reboot it.”
The new iteration of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has adopted bylaws, has a request for proposal out for a facilitator and has been replenished with new appointees that Weiner believes will keep the commission on “an even keel.”
A budget for operational expenses is in the works — with commissioners in mid-July saying they wanted to be paid for their meetings, which can last for four to five hours.
And the Iowa City Council soon may consider an extension to the commission’s end date now that all nine commissioners have been seated, according to Chairman Mohamed Traore.
“Nothing’s ever perfect, but at the end of the day we’re driving forward and looking to support members of the community sharing their grievances,” Traore said.
He noted the TRC’s collaboration with the Catholic Worker House’s fund for workers affected by COVID-19 as one example of how the council is making positive strides since the dust has settled.
What others called turmoil, he called differences in opinion. The suspension, he said, helped the TRC.
“It just took some time to understand what we were truly there for,” Traore said. “We were writing our statement of mission and purpose just as we were beginning.”
While taking a hard look at Iowa City’s history, the TRC’s second chairman said he would like to take a holistic look at how to drive change — not just within Iowa City, but with influence on other interconnected cities in Johnson County.
Potential recommendations could include eliminating the mine-resistant ambush protected, or MRAP, vehicle used in law enforcement; ideas to support sustainable economic development; encouraging ways to promote citizens’ needs at different stages in life; and promoting more support for women- and minority-owned businesses.
He also hopes to make more progress in “fact finding and truth telling” in areas of policing education, youth engagement, housing, health care, sustainability, public trust and collaboration between government entities.
With Iowa Freedom Riders, a non-governmental social justice organization, holding its meetings at the same time as the TRC meetings, it may take time to rebuild trust with people of color in the community.
“I’m sure some of those barriers will come (down) with time. It seems part of it was distrust with city government,” Traore said. “ I can see the reasoning for them having that distrust. I’m praying that the time comes to build a larger coalition to advance needs.”
Iowa Freedom Riders’ Hamad, who could not be reached for comment, had choice parting words for the TRC.
“The sad but unavoidable fact is that the TRC is limited to telling truths that the (city council) wants to hear,” she said in her March 25 resignation letter.
While Traore conceded the vigor of direct action can run the risk of being bogged down by the procedures of the commission, “it’s important because the devil truly is in the details.”
And as members volunteer, connect with businesses and make their faces known in the community, he believes the TRC can work past any distrust
Other city and county commissions, Traore said, should understand the importance of listening to the ideals and needs of its constituents — something that distinguishes doing what’s best alongside the people from doing what’s best for the people.
“We may not have the most robust set of recommendations by the time we’re finished, but there’s nothing bad about having (another iteration of) the TRC take on work down the line,” he said.
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