CEDAR RAPIDS — Meisha Walker, 27, has celebrated Juneteenth since she was a child. As a biracial woman, with a white mother and a Black father, the lifelong Cedar Rapids resident said the holiday commemorating when slaves finally were freed in 1865 is special to her.
And she was hardly alone Friday in celebrating the holiday outside the African American Museum of Iowa. Organizers of protests that have attracted thousands this month in Cedar Rapids to call for police reforms and systematic changes against racism propped up tents to showcase Black artists’ work, offer food, listen to music and update the crowd of more than 150 people on their local efforts to effect change.
Walker, a mixed media artist, was among the crowd to display her work and to be a role model for Black artists.
“Growing up as a mixed kid, I would never believe any of this,” Walker said through tears while standing outside the museum as raindrops slipped off the edges of a plastic tent above her. “ ... You don’t want anybody to go through what you went through, so it means a lot to see people out here and aware.”
Protests across the nation after Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed May 25 by a white police officer have drawn more attention to the holiday, and to the oppression Black Americans face.
Before arriving at the museum, protesters marched in light rain from Cedar Rapids City Hall with a new chant: “Happy Juneteenth.” For the marchers, Friday marked a victory as the Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously backed a resolution supporting the seven demands for police reform advanced by local Black Lives Matter protest leaders.
“The fight’s not over,” organizer Chuck Crawley said. “We’ve got to keep pushing. But what I want you all to be clear of is that we have seen over the last three weeks that the power is within the people.”
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After more than two weeks of talks between organizers and city officials, the council moved Friday to declare its support for the Advocates for Social Justice group’s priorities, including forming an independent citizens’ review board of police, significantly investing in diversity, equity and inclusion and banning chokeholds.
Other points urge the city to decriminalize minor marijuana crimes, impose strict body camera provisions, make negotiations between law enforcement and municipal representatives public and abolish qualified immunity for officers.
Police Chief Wayne Jerman, speaking Friday about the department’s ongoing efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, said this marks progress toward shared goals of “respecting the dignity and the rights of all individuals.”
Mayor Brad Hart and Jerman last week announced plans to form a police review board, though they say city officials are further studying which of several models would best fit Cedar Rapids.
Department policy bans chokeholds and knee-to-neck maneuvers, and emphasizes de-escalation techniques. Jerman said the department has also strengthened its policy to make it clear that officers must intervene when they see another officer using excessive force.
The chief noted that the city already has implemented implicit bias training and other tools to invest in diversity, equity and inclusion. And the city’s body camera policy has earned a near-perfect score upon review by the American Civil Liberties Union and U.S. Department of Justice, he said.
The council’s resolution, which passed with an amendment proposed by council member Tyler Olson, acknowledged those existing efforts and focused on the three demands that have seen less progress.
Several council members noted some of those demands — to lessen criminal penalties for marijuana possession, abolish qualified immunity and make negotiations between police officers and elected municipal officials public — would take state or federal law changes.
Olson said the amended resolution puts in place a process for the city to work on the items.
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“We’ve watched as people gathered, marched, knelt and laid down in our community’s streets,” he said. “We have listened to the hurt, anger, the chants of ‘Black lives matter,’ the cries of ‘I can’t breathe,’ and the hope that this time is different and will result in meaningful change. ... Now is the time for action.”
Hart said there initially was language in the resolution vowing discussion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting about establishing a process to move swiftly through these issues, which he said indicates “commitment to take action and to take action quickly.” But that language did not make it into the final version while officials work out more details.
“Dealing with police brutality, police reform and other policing policies, the Cedar Rapids City Council wants our community to know that we ... and the entire city team, are united and fully committed to addressing the list of priorities provided by citizens involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Leader Nicole LeGrand, 30, said the advocates will make sure the council moves forward on the demands. However, leaders had hoped the council would outline a clear process to act on the demands by Friday.
Protest leader Leslie Neely, 31, said the group is watching the pace of progress in Iowa’s other metropolitan areas, such as Des Moines and Iowa City, to make sure the pace of advancements in Cedar Rapids is on par.
“These places are moving things through rather quickly, so ... we don’t agree that a two-month deadline is acceptable,” Neely said, adding that she opposed Hart’s earlier idea to form a task force to contemplate police reform. “We think that it can happen faster because it’s happening faster in other places.”
The community needs to keep the pressure on city officials, said protest leader Tamara Marcus, 28, who has been part of talks with city officials.
“We as a group are taking this moment to celebrate because I consider this a small victory,” Marcus said of the council resolution. “However, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and so I think that it’s important for us to celebrate but it’s also important for us to contextualize.”
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