116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Over a year ago, thousands of people lay down on downtown’s First Avenue E — their faces to the pavement, hands behind their backs, stalling traffic — for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
For at least that amount of time, George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, struggled for air in May 2020 as white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck and, a jury later ruled, murdered him. The killing ignited a wave of protests across the nation and in Cedar Rapids for police reform and against racial injustice.
In Cedar Rapids, Tamara Marcus, Leslie Neely and Nicole LeGrand organized that first peaceful protest that drew more than 2,000 people June 6, 2020. Little did the three co-founders of the Advocates for Social Justice know then that their group would grow from a protest movement to a not-for-profit organization that would lead the local charge for racial equity — a journey that has since inspired some members to vie for City Council seats.
Separately but simultaneously, Amara Andrews — who is now the vice president of the advocates’ board and a Cedar Rapids mayoral candidate — and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker had organized a meeting with a group of about 30 local Black leaders to discuss policy changes they could press the city to make. Andrews said she knew the three protest organizers needed to be involved in those meetings, and so their paths collided.
The initial brainstorming session prompted the group to think about what this moment and energy surrounding reform called for, Marcus said.
“You don't really get to be in the majority like that very often,” Marcus said. “It was just kind of beautiful utopic imagery that was being created by all of our shared frustration, but also a vision for what could be.”
Those talks resulted in the creation of seven demands for police reform, chief among them establishing a citizens’ police review board of local law enforcement.
Several city officials began meeting June 9 with the advocates. To keep the sense of urgency, the advocates set a deadline for Cedar Rapids leaders to commit to the priorities. They wanted to stand before Cedar Rapids residents by Juneteenth — the anniversary of the day the last slaves in the United States learned June 19, 1865, they had been freed — to celebrate progress on their demands.
After several talks between organizers and city officials, the nine-member council met that deadline to back the advocates’ demands, unanimously supporting a resolution to commit to the seven priorities.
But not long after this sign of unity between city officials and advocates, talks over the demands turned contentious. Advocates decried the city’s initial plan to create a task force — including some of the Advocates for Social Justice members, but also made up of others in the community — to further review the formation of a review board. The advocates felt that the move was an effort to silence their voices and slow-walk reform, and the city later opted not to create a task force and instead gather public input.
The advocates’ collaboration with some city officials soured last July, when Mayor Brad Hart informed the group by email that those city officials did “not plan to be part of any additional negotiation meetings” with the advocates because the purpose of those talks — to “fully understand the demands” — had been accomplished. From there, the city’s Community Development staff took the lead on working with the advocates to form the citizens’ panel.
This experience played a key role in compelling Andrews to challenge Hart for the city’s top elected position, she said.
“When I talk about why I'm running for mayor, part of it is certainly the frustration that I felt personally when we were trying to negotiate with the city and feeling like our leadership wasn't willing to listen to community members and really shut the door on us,” Andrews said.
Marcus, who is challenging council member Dale Todd for his District 3 seat representing downtown, said she felt similarly. It was their first real experience engaging with local officials, and she felt officials were too apathetic.
“For everything to just crumble before it even really began, it was really disheartening to see that, and also, you kind of lost a bit of faith in the process, because I do believe that there's a great trust put into elected officials,” Marcus said. “At some level, you're giving up a sliver, a piece of your rights because you've decided that you can trust the person to do the right thing on your behalf.”
In hindsight, Hart said, “I could have handled ending that meeting differently, and that would have alleviated maybe some of the tension that was created, but luckily that tension went away pretty quickly” when city staff, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and advocates worked to craft an ordinance for the citizens' review board.
"We all want each other to be safer we all want each other to be happier and healthier and kinder, and so it's just a matter of listening to people long enough to figure out what their version of that looks like and trying to find a way to get there.“ — Tamara Marcus, Advocates for Social Justice co-founder
Despite the sometimes contentious engagement with city officials, Andrews and Marcus said their work with Cedar Rapids Community Development staff helped them learn a lot, too, and resulted in what they expect will be a strong citizens’ review board.
"We know at the end of the day we all want the same thing,” Marcus said. “We all want each other to be safer we all want each other to be happier and healthier and kinder, and so it's just a matter of listening to people long enough to figure out what their version of that looks like and trying to find a way to get there.”
Campaigning as Black women
As Andrews and Marcus forge ahead on the campaign trail, propelled by their experience pushing for reform in the last year, they said they will seek to find common ground in the community and center those voices in their work.
“I am running because I am feeling bold and courageous like to my core, and I want to do what is ethically and morally correct and not willing to back down from that,” Andrews said. “ … If we believe in these basic tenants of equality and opportunity for all people, then I think that we can move forward.”
If elected in November, the two would make Cedar Rapids history as the first Black women on council.
Marcus said some have expressed to her that candidates should be chosen based on merit and not identity.
While she considered that a fair point, Marcus said, “I think it's also important to consider that what really that means is that there's been no woman, no Black woman elected to City Council is that that perspective has never existed within any of our local policies or any of our systems, and that group of people has never been represented in local government.”
Sometimes, Andrews said, it seems her race and social justice advocacy create a perception that she is a single-issue candidate. But she sees her perspective as a member of a minority population as a strength of her candidacy, because equity is at the forefront of her decision-making.
Besides Andrews and Hart, Women Lead Change Chief Executive Officer Tiffany O’Donnell is running for mayor in the Nov. 2 election.
Seeking equity for all
It took the advocates organizing protests, contacting city officials and conducting hours of research to drum up support for the seven demands — and they say there still is work to be done to fully see those through.
Cedar Rapids officials have continued working on those priorities. But roadblocks remain with some demands, such as abolishing qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields law enforcement officers from some lawsuits, as well as decriminalizing minor marijuana offenses. Contrary to what the group advocated, the Iowa Legislature passed and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law last week a “back the blue” bill that among other things codifies qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
Beyond the group’s seven priorities, those who spoke with The Gazette said the Advocates for Social Justice has made Cedar Rapids more unified and prompted — to some extent — a reckoning with systemic racism.
Walker, the county supervisor, said such talks about police reform had gone on for decades in Cedar Rapids. The advocates were the group to begin to achieve that change.
“That’s powerful,” Walker said. “I certainly see parallels between what is happening around the country with other organizations like ASJ and the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the young leaders who powered that movement ought to be proud and ought to be encouraged by that.”
“We can’t wait for these culminations of people rallying in our streets to recalibrate.” — Cedar Rapids City Council member Ashley Vanorny
Council member Ashley Vanorny, who has attended several of the advocates’ events and is seen as their key ally on council, said the review board will help the city work on some challenging topics, such as remnants of enslavement, systemic racism and cultural misunderstanding by the majority population.
But “we can’t wait for these culminations of people rallying in our streets to recalibrate,” Vanorny said. Across all facets of the city, she said Cedar Rapids must constantly evaluate that systems not only work for the majority, but for everybody.
“I hope the community understands that certainly I’m committed, but I hope that they can rest if they get tired but not quit, because there’s a lot of work to be done and I need their help — and we all do on council, in our community — to stay engaged as they were and help us drive the change that we need collectively,” Vanorny said.
Hart said the events of the last year have taught him about the need to “remember how long the struggle has been for equity” and to keep learning.
“I'm really proud of the community,” Hart said. “I'm proud of ASJ for bringing (these issues) forward. It wasn't always easy, but the end result is what I think we're all looking for.”
For the city, he sees the hiring of a diversity, equity and inclusion manager — who Cedar Rapids still is recruiting after restarting the search — as the next step. The citizens’ review board’s formation was just the beginning.
“There's a lot more work we need to do, and to the extent that I can play a role in that locally, I'm absolutely willing to listen and do what I can so that everybody in Cedar Rapids feels like you're being treated equally, they all have a chance to have a great life and to be part of our community,” Hart said.
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