DES MOINES — Outside the Iowa Capitol, Yena Balekyani, a black woman from Des Moines who has been participating in protests for racial justice, had a message as she called for new state laws to address the issue.
“I am holding you guys accountable. I will be here,” Balekyani said. “And if this is not passed, I will be in the streets. We will be out here every single night until black lives matter again.”
Inside the Iowa Capitol, when asked how important it is for her to sign racial justice legislation into law this session — which likely will end in the next couple of weeks — Gov. Kim Reynolds touted criminal justice reform measures her administration has undertaken and is working on, but seemed to manage expectations for any new laws this year.
“We’ve made some significant steps. But we have a ways to go. And it’s going to be important that we have meaningful and thoughtful conversations, that we continue to look at what we have done, (and) where do the gaps continue to exist,” the Republican governor said. “We’re not going to fix this overnight. But we need to listen we need to understand, and we need to demonstrate that we are making progress along the way.”
Balekyani spoke about her experiences during a news conference hosted by Statehouse Democrats on the western steps of the Capitol, the site of multiple protests over the past week.
Nightly protests have broken out across Iowa and the country after George Floyd, a black Minnesota man, died after a white police officer held him in a choke hold by kneeling on his neck.
Democrats introduced a package of legislative proposals to begin addressing the racial justice issues being raised by the protesters: a ban on police use of choke holds or neck restraints, making it illegal to rehire law enforcement officers who were previously fired for misconduct or using excessive force, and giving the state attorney general and local county attorneys the authority to investigate police misconduct.
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Rep. Ras Smith, a black state lawmaker from Waterloo, said Democrats in the Iowa House have presented the proposals to Republicans who are in the majority and thus set the policy agenda.
“We have had conversation, and our goal is to continue to push forward with pressure to make sure that those conversations manifest themselves in to real action,” Smith said.
Later Thursday, at a news conference inside the Iowa Capitol, Reynolds noted the work done by her administration’s task force on criminal justice reform, which will continue to meet.
Reynolds also has championed a proposal to amend the state constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who complete their sentence. That proposal has been amended by lawmakers to require felons pay fines and restitution before having their rights restored — a stipulation advocates decry as a poll tax.
But that task force’s work is focused on criminal justice reform, not other issues of racial equality that the protesters want addressed.
“We must work hard to identify the cracks in the system that perpetuate practices that continually victimize black communities and brown communities as well from any form of police violence and brutality,” Balekyani said. “Everyone has a part in this change, and our lawmakers here have the responsibility to make sure that legislation represents and protects groups that for years have not had the privilege of protection.”
On Wednesday, Democrats in the Iowa Senate pressed majority Republicans in that chamber whether they plan to advance racial justice legislation. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, a Republican from Ankeny, noted the felon voting legislation and said he welcomes the introduction of any proposals, but that none have been brought to him and none were in the works.
“Any of the members who are interested in this, I am happy to look at any specific proposals you bring forward. I have not seen any of those yet,” Whitver said.
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Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said she would be willing to work with Whitver on legislation.
Legislators just resumed the session Wednesday after an 11-week break during the COVID-19 pandemic. They expect to finish the session within the next couple of weeks.
During Thursday’s news conference, held as a bright sun shined on the Capitol, Smith — who represents the city with the largest share of black residents in the state — said legislative action this session is critical.
“The sweat of my brow is not because of this heat, it’s because of the anger that I have inside because of a lack of action,” Smith said. “No legislation is going to bring back George Floyd. That’s hard for me, because I want to fix it. But this is where we start. This is where we start to turn that apathy of the some in to the action of the many.”