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Marion after Black Lives Matter protests: Alliance for Racial Equity wants to engage residents

City continues to address issues months after protests

Protesters run July 6, 2020, to catch up while holding a Black Lives Matter banner during a march held by the Marion All
Protesters run July 6, 2020, to catch up while holding a Black Lives Matter banner during a march held by the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity at the Marion Fire Department. People gathered to show support for fellow Black community members who marched through Marion before putting forth six demands for ending systemic racism within the city and county governments. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Editor’s Note: After video last summer captured the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests for social justice reverberated across the country, including in the Corridor. Local governments and school districts made promises about how they would respond to the calls to eliminate systematic racism. Now months later, here are updates on where these public agencies stand.

» Read more from: Cedar Rapids | Iowa City | School districts

MARION — The Marion Alliance for Racial Equity listed six demands for racial justice to the city in July and in response, Marion’s Community Equity Task Force was established the next month.

The group’s six demands were to establish a citizens’ police review board; decriminalize marijuana; make city departments more inclusive and diverse; open doorways to make voting easier; hire a mental health liaison with police for crisis calls; and for Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden to resign.

Create mental health liaison with police

In October, the Marion City Council voted to approve an agreement between the police and Foundation 2 to embed a crisis counselor within the department.

“I know the one demand we have gotten traction on is the mental health liaison,” said Janessa Carr, co-founder of the alliance. “We know that things were already in the works, but we really pushed that.”

Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said as the counselor continues to get to know the community, the position will prove a big help.

“Early returns are quite positive,” he said. “They’ve helped with a suicide call and a repeat offender got mental health resources instead of dropped off at jail.”

Make city departments more diverse

Last year, alliance co-founder Sophia Joseph said Black people were “not treated in the same respect and consideration” as white people when trying to navigate city departments.

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Pluckhahn said the city conducted implicit bias training in 2019, but said the city has additional work to do.

“We want to bring more form and structure to inclusivity,” he said. “We want to figure out how to do better recruitment to bring in more diverse voices. There would be a lot of benefit, but it’s going to take some time and practice to reach people where they are.”

Create a citizens’ police review board

Last year, the alliance said establishing a review board for the police department could reduce racial profiling.

While only about 2.5 percent of Marion’s population is Black, Black people account for 16 percent of police use of force incidents.

Pluckhahn said the city hasn’t moved forward with anything yet as the Community Equity Task Force is just getting organized.

“It’s still pretty early,” he said. “There’s definitely an undercurrent of discussion getting it going.”

Decriminalize marijuana

Pluckhahn said Marion police have stopped approaching minor marijuana possession as a primary offense, which he said is as far as the city can “probably go without a change in the state law.”

Joseph said that decriminalizing marijuana will have to be worked on “as a coalition with other groups.”

“We’ve talked about it with ACLU. But the city can speak out and make a statement or changes,” she said.

Pluckhahn said the City Council has yet to make any kind of official statement on the issue.

“I think they would be looking for a recommendation to come from the task force.”

Open doorways to easier voting

Last summer, the alliance listed accessibility to voting as a concern for the organization. Joseph said the organization would like to see Marion support a change at the state level to make online voting possible.

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Joseph said the conversation around voting needs to change — that if people can sign up for Social Security and file taxes online, then they should be able to vote online as well.

Pluckhahn said while the city doesn’t have control over hours of elections or how voting can be accessed, the city does have a role in making sure voting facilities are accessible.

“Public transportation is something we need to look at,” Pluckhahn said. “If you depend on that and the bus route stops at 8t but voting ends at 9 and you don’t get off work until 7:30, can you get to the polls on time? There are things to look at for us to bring economic equity.”

Improving public transport is a multi-jurisdictional issue, as Marion contracts with Cedar Rapids Transit to provide its busing.

Resignation of Linn County Attorney

The final demand on the alliance’s list last year was calling for Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden to resign.

Joseph said that though a resignation is unlikely, the alliance hopes someone will run against Vander Sanden,

Vander Sanden, a Democrat, was elected in 2010 and has run unopposed in every election.

Pluckhahn noted that the fate of the county attorney, who is elected in a countywide vote, is outside the city government’s jurisdiction.

Comments: (319) 398-8255; gage.miskimen@thegazette.com

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