116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa has a way of trying to separate itself from the history and lasting legacy of racism in this country. We forget that Missouri was a compromise, that cross burnings have taken place in our state as recently as 2016, that 19th street Southeast was the red line in Cedar Rapids. A local business that allowed me into the shop displayed a confederate flag on a tool bench. These have also been sold by a vendor at the county fair, adorned the back of pickup trucks, waved in the breeze from a home where my child was invited to attend a graduation party.
Where the brazen displays of barely veiled anti-Black racism most often take root around here is in the comments section of news stories and police department social media posts. This week, the Cedar Rapids Police Department requested assistance from the public in identifying some individuals who were present at the tragic shooting that occurred at the Taboo Nightclub in April.
The post did not indicate what role these individuals may have played or that they are suspects. The local social media court of public opinion, however, exploded with incendiary commentary, arguments over the legality of the CRPD deleting comments, and questions about the grammatical acumen of those weighing in. As is typical of these exchanges, several individuals suggested there must be some link to Chicago.
For years, I have heard of the mythical Chicago billboards. “They advertised welfare and government subsidized housing on billboards right next to the projects!” Some will even go so far as to insist that their brother’s roommate’s uncle absolutely witnessed these advertisements with his own eyes.
In reality, billboards were placed in Chicago by the Iowa Department of Economic Development in an attempt to reclaim professionals and Iowa college graduates from the brain drain that plagues our state. They made no mention of government assistance programs whatsoever, nor were they directed at individuals in need of financial support. It is difficult to maintain a population of educated young taxpayers in Iowa when there is a nearby metro with higher wages and more amenities, and this has been the case for so long that an entire urban legend has sprung from deep within the collective need to locate a scapegoat rather than acknowledge and address our own flaws.
No one is confused by what “people from Chicago” means. No one is unaware of the underlying insinuations when the word “thug” is used.
When the horrific Taboo shooting took place, one of the most common lamentations was “this is not who we are,” or “this is not the Cedar Rapids I remember.” Last year, a local teen murdered his parents and sat on the front steps of their family home wearing their blood and bodily fluids until authorities arrived. The story didn’t make national headlines. I do not recall public outcry at the tarnishing of our community reputation when a 20-year-old Cedar Rapids man allegedly murdered his parents and his sister last June. Not even the trial for a drug-related homicide carried out down the road from the Lighthouse Inn Supper Club and televised in full brought such heated social media commentary about thugs and gangs and nearby urban areas. Why is the violence so much less controversial when the public perception is that it was homegrown?
When a tragedy happens, a trauma response might be a desire to dissociate the community that we love from the event and those involved — but we cannot heal what we will not acknowledge. It is a sad but unavoidable truth that the structural oppressions that have impacted the entirety of this country — including Chicago — also occurred in Cedar Rapids. The housing discrimination, the criminal justice inequities, the employment and income disparities, the opportunity gap, the brutal physical violence visited on Black people in this country have also happened here. This is not only Cedar Rapids — this is the nation. Perhaps best stated by the simple quote: “Racism is not the shark, it is the water.” Study after study after study has demonstrated a link between structural racism and firearm violence, but much like those billboards the data seems to get lost in the legend.
We are all part of this community. Now is a great time to support the work to end gun violence.
Here are some places to start: