116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It was the feel-good hit of last summer.
With Black Lives Matter protests swelling across the nation and outside the Iowa Statehouse, lawmakers swiftly and unanimously passed a package of policing reforms in a remarkable moment of bipartisan cooperation. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the bill in bright sunshine on the Capitol steps, surrounded by young activists, Black community leaders and lawmakers.
Everyone vowed it was only the beginning.
Unfortunately, by the time lawmakers returned in January, dark clouds had rolled in.
In between there was an election campaign where President Donald Trump, strongly supported by Iowa Republicans who run the Statehouse, assailed Black Lives Matter as a threat to America. Scary, violent protesters would be marching into the quiet suburbs any minute now, Trump warned.
Republicans argued, without evidence, that the November election was stolen from Trump. They blamed fraud in large urban areas, which happen to be where people of color make up larger segments of the electorate.
And, of course, they needed to deploy twisted, hyperbolic accounts of the summer protests as a weak, whataboutist answer to the deadly Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.
One lawmaker, Sen. Zack Whiting, R-Spirit Lake, claimed that protesters outside and inside the Statehouse last year where such a dire threat that he had to be 'whisked off the floor of the Senate” while wondering if he and his fellow lawmakers would 'have to shoot our way out.” He described the Capitol as 'under siege.”
He later conceded no such threat existed. But this was hardly the beginning of a feel-good sequel.
Reynolds tried to straddle the fence. In her Condition of the State speech, she called both for a ban on racial profiling by police and a series of 'Back the Blue” initiatives expanding protections for police and creating harsher criminal penalties for protesters.
Naturally, GOP lawmakers scrapped the racial profiling bill and embraced Back the Blue proposals.
One bill, Senate File 534, expands and toughens numerous crimes and penalties. For example, it expands disorderly conduct to include making a 'loud and raucous” noise in the vicinity of any residence or public building which causes unreasonable distress to the occupants. It also makes it a crime to disrupt any lawful assembly or meeting and to deface an American flag with the expectation doing so will provoke trespass or assault. These are simple misdemeanors.
The bill also expands the definition of criminal mischief in the second degree and makes it a Class D felony. The broader definition includes damaging, altering or defacing publicly owned property, including monuments and statues. Or maybe trampling government geraniums. Who knows?
And anyone accused of criminal mischief can be held for 24 hours.
It would be an aggravated misdemeanor to interfere with 'public disorder control.” Blocking a road or sidewalk would be a serious misdemeanor, as would being present at an unlawful assembly. But drivers who injure protesters blocking a street would receive some liability protection.
The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency concludes, given racial disparities that already exist, the expanded crimes and tougher penalties will disproportionately affect Black Iowans.
So the response to protests calling for an end to systemic racism in our justice system is a bill that makes the system and situation worse. We already have criminal penalties for violence, vandalism and rioting. But this is designed to send a different message.
If you dare to protest, watch your step or we'll throw you in jail. Either way, it's best to just remain silent. Statues and monuments commemorating our democratic ideals are more important than the ideals themselves.
Maybe we could seek to change our institutions from the inside through training, tough discussions and education?
No, that's too divisive, according to lawmakers.
Republicans also are pushing a bill, House File 802, which would prohibit any diversity training in schools, colleges and government entities that includes 'divisive concepts.” The vague legislation would appear to ban, or at the very least discourage, training that tackles issues such as implicit bias, systemic racism and white privilege. The bill targets training curriculum that makes anyone 'feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
The bill basically seeks to reinstate the Trump administration's defunct ban on diversity training.
Who knew the same folks who smashed public sector unions, trampled women's reproductive rights and have repeatedly made it harder to vote are so sensitive to divisive concepts?
So Iowans pushing for racial justice should think twice about protesting. And the injustices they're fighting, including pervasive, systemic racism in our governing institutions, aren't really legitimate in the eyes of GOP lawmakers. Just talking about them makes white people uncomfortable.
Throw in a Republican-approved bill allowing landlords to deny housing to people who receive federal housing vouchers, Statehouse indifference to a pandemic killing and hospitalizing Black and Hispanic Americans in disproportionate numbers and an election bill approved by lawmakers who still think urban voter fraud helped steal an election.
We have legislative leaders eager to attack fake injustices - Marxist boogeymen, nonexistent election fraud, discomforting diversity training and an endless list of trumped-up grievances against universities, public schools, transgender Iowans and the libs.
They are adamant they're not racists. And yet they cater to the white supremacist elements of their Trumpian party.
They lack the courage to confront real injustice. The privileged and the fragile can't handle the truth. Sorry, I don't mean to trigger anyone.
And, sadly, given all of the legislative action this session, that golden moment last summer has dissolved into a mirage.
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