Public Safety

Marion Black Lives Matter group making 6 demands of city leaders

Alliance for Racial Equity to meet with City Council

People block an intersection July 6 along Highway 151 during a march held by the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity. Peop
People block an intersection July 6 along Highway 151 during a march held by the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity. People gathered to show support for Black community members and to issue demands for racial justice reforms. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

MARION — As a Cedar Rapids Black Lives Matter group — the Advocates for Social Justice — gained momentum, Marion residents wished for the same activism in their community.

Last Monday, a group called the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity marched for the first time to make six demands heard.

Janessa Carr, 31, a Black woman in Marion and an organizer with the alliance, said the narrative in Marion is that it is a safe, welcoming and inviting community.

“For white people that may be their reality, but that is not the reality of people of color,” Carr said. “I want Marion to be a place where people of color can come and feel like they are included, they are heard, and they don’t have to deal with covert or outward racism.”

The Marion Alliance for Racial Equity met Wednesday evening with the Marion Civil Rights Commission to discuss the group’s demands.

The alliance is planning to meet with the Marion City Council later this month.

• In Cedar Rapids: Seven demands for city leaders

• In Iowa City: More than a dozen demands

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Here is the group’s six demands:

1. Issue: Establish a citizens’ police review board.

Status: Organizers say establishing a board of citizens to review police conduct in events of use of force could reduce racial profiling.

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

“We’re talking about an enormous disproportion there,” said Sophia Joseph, 37, of Marion, an alliance organizer. “The police chief will talk about how they haven’t had a lot of complaints of excessive force used, but it’s because people just move away. Racial profiling is running them out of town, whether that’s the intent or not.”

Last month, Marion Police Chief Mike Kitsmiller told the City Council he didn’t see the need for a review board, but would consider it if there was significant demand from residents.

Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said there is “definitely interest” from the Civil Rights Commission in creating a citizens’ review board that has a clear mission and “contributes to making things better,” although it is a decision left up to the council.

2. Issue: Decriminalize marijuana.

Status: In marijuana possession cases, a Black person in Iowa is 7.3 times more likely than a white person to be arrested, according to an ACLU study of national law enforcement data.

While the City Council does not have the authority to decriminalize marijuana, Pluckhahn said the council could vote to support changes at the state level.

“It might be something added to an advocacy campaign or lobbying platform,” he said.

3. Issue: Make city departments more inclusive and diverse.

Joseph, whose husband is a Black man, said Black people are “not treated with the same respect and consideration” as white people when trying to navigate city departments.

“They don’t feel like it’s their job to help you,” she said of the employees. “It’s so deeply rooted, I’m not sure they know it’s happening.”

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The alliance wants the city to invest in eight hours of internal bias training for everyone who works there.

Investing in implicit bias training would be fairly easy, Pluckhahn said. Through the Marion Public Library, the city has access to a “tremendous amount” of training materials at no cost, he said.

“Then you’re just talking about staff time.”

4. Issue: Open doorways to make voting easier.

Status: Accessibility to voting is a “huge concern” for protesters, Joseph said. Joseph said they would like Marion to support a demand at the state level to make it possible to vote online.

Absentee ballots are not enough, Joseph said.

While Pluckhahn said this demand seems aimed at the state and federal government, he would be interested in addressing other barriers to voting, like transportation.

“Transportation is an issue,” Pluckhahn said. “The public transportation system traditionally shuts down at a certain time of night, and if someone works late and is dependent on public transportation to go vote, they may not be able to.”

5. Issue: Mental health liaison with police for crises calls.

The alliance wants a mental health liaison to respond to calls with the Marion police officers — someone who is not in uniform or a trained officer — to de-escalate mental health crisis calls.

The Marion Police Department currently is in negotiations with Foundation 2, a nonprofit human services agency that offers mobile crisis services, to add a 24/7 mobile crisis unit to the department, Kitsmiller announced last month.

While no formal agreement has been drafted, Pluckhahn said this could cost the department $65,000 a year.

6. Issues: Linn County Attorney must resign.

Joseph said County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden is “not ready to solve the problems he’s created,” which is why the alliance has called for him to step down or not run for reelection.

Last Monday in an email to The Gazette, Vander Sanden said he could not respond to this demand because he had not been contacted by protesters about it.

Joseph said it would not be productive if the group called him and asked him to resign.

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“Racial disparities have occurred on his watch,” she said. “When he’s addressed about it, he blames Black people ... It’s inherently racist to blame the victims.”

The demand is an “intensely political issue,” Pluckhahn said, which is outside the city’s control.

“I don’t have a sense of how the City Council would come down on that,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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