Government

More powerful words from a powerful moment in Iowa

State lawmakers united to pass racial justice legislation

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bipartisan legislation June 12 in Des Moines banning most police chokeholds and addressing
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bipartisan legislation June 12 in Des Moines banning most police chokeholds and addressing officer misconduct. The signing took place one week after a group of Democratic lawmakers and activists stood in a similar spot, outlining demands to address police violence following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Olivia Sun/Des Moines Register via AP)

The legislation was described as historic, and the commentary on multiple occasions matched the significance of the moment.

It was a remarkable 90-plus minutes Thursday evening as state lawmakers unanimously approved racial justice legislation. The gravity of the moment did not escape those legislators who spoke about the proposal. The remarks — there was no actual debate, at least not in the purest sense of the word — were often insightful, introspective, heartfelt and emotional.

We covered Thursday’s events, including some of the most powerful testimony from state legislators. If you missed that coverage, we encourage you to find it online or in Friday’s print editions: It’s worth the read.

But there was so much more than what could fit into that story, so I wanted to share some of that here.

I wrote previously that Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, a Democrat and a black woman from Des Moines, recalled portraying civil rights icon Rosa Parks in a local community theater production. She said one line from that performance has always stuck with her: “Sometimes the Lord chooses us for special things.”

Gaines said she has been thinking about that line in recent weeks after the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Gaines said her faith has led her to believe that perhaps Floyd was chosen by a higher power to serve as a spark for the calls for the advancement of racial justice that have become so prevalent since his death, and helped lead to the legislation that passed this past week in Iowa.

“George Floyd has become a special person in death because he, as a symbol of life, is saying, ‘We don’t have to wait anymore. The time is now,’ ” Gaines said Thursday on the House floor. “As I close, I will say sometimes the Lord chooses us for special things. ... George Floyd is bigger in death than in life, and I think there’s a rhyme and reason to it.”

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Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat and a black man from Waterloo, described Thursday’s events as bittersweet because of the injustices that led to the moment. Smith, like many other lawmakers who spoke Thursday, cautioned that the bill was merely a first step, and that much work ahead remained.

“The work ahead is plentiful, but I have so much hope,” Smith said. “I’m hopeful because this time in Iowa we stepped up and made real change.”

Rep. Matt Windschitl, the Republican House majority leader from Missouri Valley, described watching Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad participate in the protests in Des Moines and attempt to keep them peaceful while reaching out to the young, black Iowans passionately demanding change. Windschitl recalled watching Abdul-Samad address a young protester who said he just wanted his voice, his concerns, to be heard.

Windschitl expressed his admiration for Abdul-Samad’s efforts, and had a stirring message to him, the protesters in the streets and the Black Lives Matter protesters who watched Thursday’s events from the House and Senate galleries.

“Is this a solution to every problem we have, every injustice? No. But it’s a damn good start. And we can move forward from here, and we can do so united as Iowans, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation. We can move together as people who care about one another and want the best for our fellow man,” Windschitl said. “Rep. Abdul-Samad, Rep. Smith, I have the utmost respect for you and for your colleagues. I appreciate that you have stepped into the fray and tried to help. We also want to help, and we’re here. And to all the folks in the gallery, anybody who might watch this later, hear this later, to that young man who was talking with Rep. Abdul-Samad: We hear you. We hear you and we want justice for everyone. Everyone.”

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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