Iowa black leaders in their own words: the fight for racial justice

Yena Balekyani, of Des Moines, Iowa, speaks a gathering announcing the Plan for a More Perfect Union proposal on the ste
Yena Balekyani, of Des Moines, Iowa, speaks a gathering announcing the Plan for a More Perfect Union proposal on the steps at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday, June 4, 2020. Lawmakers and community members gathered on the steps calling for a ban on police chokeholds, make it illegal to rehire police fired for misconduct and allow the Attorney General to investigate police misconduct. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — They watched the video that shocked a nation. They watched the protests erupt across the country, including throughout Iowa. They marched with those protesters.

And here, these black leaders from across Iowa provide their perspectives, describe the thoughts they have had and the emotions they have experienced during these past few weeks of unrest across the nation.

On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man from Minnesota, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Floyd’s death sparked outcry and protests nationwide as black Americans — and many others — renewed their calls for racial justice.

The Des Moines Bureau interviewed six black leaders from across Iowa to get their perspectives on the events starting with and since that fateful day. These are their words, edited only for brevity and clarity.

Q: What thoughts and emotions did you experience when you saw the George Floyd video?

(Stacey Walker is a black man, a Linn County supervisor and a prominent figure in Democratic politics. He also serves on a task force for criminal justice reform created by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and former candidate Bernie Sanders. Walker wished to make clear his viewpoints represent his feelings, and not the views of the task force.)

Walker: These videos, these images we see on what is becoming an all-too-frequent occurrence, I don’t believe African-Americans have become desensitized to this experience, even with its frequency increasing. So every time you see this, it’s another traumatic experience that you have to sort of go through the entire process of shock, of deep sadness, of grief, of outrage. … It is a traumatic experience every time. And it’s just hard. I don’t have the appropriate words to explain that kind of trauma, that persisting trauma.

(Phyllis Thede is a black woman and a Democratic state legislator from Bettendorf.)


Thede: You hearken back to the days when things have happened before. And you think to yourself, “Here we go again.” It was frustrating to watch that. … That image says to me, “You’re still less than.” It’s so degrading. It’s so heart-wrenching. That man lost his life because of a man who appears to not care. That was awful. That was absolutely awful.

Q: What is your perspective on the protests that have taken place across Iowa, most of which have been peaceful demonstrations but some of which have included violence and vandalism. And what was it like being a part of those protests?

(Ako Abdul-Samad is a black man and Democratic legislator from Des Moines.)

Abdul-Samad: It was like being on a roller coaster that you didn’t know if they have brakes on it. You didn’t know if there was an ending that could even stop it. That’s what it was like. And you think of the most dangerous roller coaster in the world: that’s what we were on this (past) weekend. And we didn’t know whether we were going to come off that roller coaster alive.

(Ras Smith is a black man and Democratic legislator from Waterloo.)

Smith: I struggle with the term “peaceful protest” because inherently, almost by definition, protests shouldn’t be peaceful. Protesting is an expression of discomfort, of anguish. But what I saw last week was a protest of fear, of sadness, of injustices long not solved. So I can say we had an aggressive, assertive protest that was non-violent. But to think that we were singing “Kumbaya” and holding hands would be a misclassification. And I don’t want to misrepresent the anger and the drive. I mean, man, you can see it in people’s eyes.

This is changing. We want change, and this is different. … While we may not have been all high-fives and handshakes, our eyes are set on and our gaze was set on accomplishing something. Unfortunately we’ve seen some turn in some of our protests, but we know that those individuals’ goal is to distract from our overall goal and our message. So we try not to give them any life or relevance.

(Monique Scarlett is a black woman and school board member from Sioux City. She also co-founded Unity in the Community, which works to build relationships between the community and local law enforcement.)

Scarlett: I also participated in one of the very first protests here in Sioux City, right after (Floyd’s death), and I walked in as an observer, trying to talk with some young folks. Because I know they’re angry. So protesting is not wrong. It’s when protesting goes wrong with violent destruction — that I do not condone. … We just hosted (Thursday) a unity in prayer.

And we had all law enforcement, our Woodbury County Sheriff’s Department, Sioux City Police Department, Unity in the Community, and our local chapter of the NAACP. We all came together with all of the base leaders and citizens, and we stood on the law enforcement building stairway, and it was beautiful. I mean it was beautiful. And I watched people cry, I watched people laugh. So our focus is definitely in the right place.


(Betty Andrews is a black woman from Des Moines and president of the Iowa and Nebraska chapter of the NAACP.)

Andrews: I was just talking with young people about how change happens. Sometimes when you think about, even in the Bible, it talks about how God out of the darkness brought change. So change sometimes starts with chaotic, messy circumstances. And then it begins to organize, and order comes in, and processes for change, and people understand and work together. And so that’s what we expect.

Walker: This explosion of energy that we are seeing across the country represents the unheard voices of black Americans crying out for freedom and justice across centuries. While the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd serve as critical flashpoints, it’s impossible to articulate the totality of atrocities committed against black Americans with any one march or any one protest.

And I think the outrage that has embroiled much of the country manifesting itself in these protests reflects those facts, and it reflects the fact that this is about much more than just the deaths of the three aforementioned individuals. It’s an eruption of raw emotion stemming from generations of systemic oppression.

Q: We’ve been here before: a black person dies while being arrested or in police custody, the nation expresses outrage or grief, and then the world moves on with no changes taking place. How critical is it that this time is different, that meaningful change comes out of this moment?

Smith: It’s life or death, man. It can be life or death. We’ve seen these restraint tactics of a (police chokehold) can be life or death. Hiring an officer with a checkered background who has a past of severe and racial misconduct can be life or death. Not allowing the (state) attorney general to investigate a case of police murder or police shooting, it robs families of justice. Action is needed now because it’s life or death. That’s the reality of it for some of us. And that’s why the sense of urgency is there, because we know what the ramifications are if it doesn’t take place.

Scarlett: This time is a little bit different, and the reason why I say that is because of the younger generation, as they are saying, ‘We will not take this treatment anymore.’ … I am asking the president of the United States to send the right message (about) racial injustice, and to create a plan (for) how we’re going to change this. Because if these orders are not given, I have an uncomfortable feeling that these young people are then going to go out and take justice.

And we don’t want that because that could go either way. It could be positive or it could be negative. Because they are tired of the (lack of) urgency. … We can no longer be oppressed by the past. We have to remember the past, but we can’t let the past keep us in bondage. We have to focus on the future of the freedom. And so that is where these young people are at now. They are the future. So they’re saying, “You’re not going to oppress us anymore. We want our freedom. We demand our freedom. And by any means necessary we are going to get our freedom and our justice.” So leaders have to be sensitive, and we have to listen to the cries of the community.


Thede: I’m grateful in a way because with all this coming out, you can’t turn back. You got to move forward now, you know what I mean? So all the bad stuff that’s happening, we can’t close our eyes anymore. And that’s a good thing. That’s a huge thing.

Abdul-Samad: A lot of good was done. A lot of individuals expressed who they were. They got a chance to see what could be done. And now we got to show them the fruit. They planted the seed; we got to show them the fruit. And then we got to make them part of that fruit and picking the fruit. If we do that, all this was worth it. If we don’t do that, we’ll be back again.

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