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Turnout surges for Cedar Rapids rally and march

'People are finally coming together'

CEDAR RAPIDS — For eight minutes and 46 seconds Saturday, thousands of people lay down on downtown’s First Avenue — their hands behind their backs, blocking traffic and making their voices heard.

“Say his name!” they chanted, invoking the name of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man killed by a white police officer on May 25 who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes

Lying in the street, protesters shouted his final words, “I can’t breathe,” as a protester counted off the seconds through a megaphone.

They said his name — George Floyd — but they also said the peaceful protest Saturday evening was about more than one person.

“It’s about everyone who lost their lives because of racism and hatred,” Louise Johnson said at a rally in Greene Square before the march. “It’s time we stand up and show the world that we need to fight, and fight until justice is won.”

Johnson’s remarks followed comments by her son, Jerime Mitchell, who was shot and paralyzed by white Cedar Rapids police Officer Lucas Jones after a Nov. 1, 2016, traffic stop in which Jones said he was caught in the door of Mitchell’s pickup as he tried to flee.

Jones was also one of two Cedar Rapids officers involved in the Oct. 20, 2015, fatal shooting of Jonathan T. Grossman, 21. He was cleared in both cases and returned to active duty.

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Mitchell spoke from his wheelchair, saying he hadn’t planned to talk but drew strength from the crowd.

“I just pray these police start policing themselves,” he said, adding that no matter what someone had done, it is a judge, not an officer, who should mete out justice.

Johnson called on the crowd to continue fighting after the day’s rally was over.

“Justice is not going to come by saying we want justice,” she said. “We have to get out and work for it.”

Organizers of the event laid out a list of demands, including a creation of a citizen’s review board for police, banning the use of chokeholds, decriminalizing marijuana and other low-level drug offenses and abolishing qualified immunity for police officers, among other things.

They said they hope negotiations on those demands will start as soon as Monday between the city and activists.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman was part of march, at one point kneeling with the crowd.

“It means something that he is here, but it will mean more when he agrees to move forward with meaningful police reforms,” said Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker.

When he spoke, Jerman called the killing of Floyd “horrendous ... inhumane” and said he embraces calls for change.

He should be ready to answer the call Monday or protests will resume until Officer Jones is no longer on the force, said Chuck Crawley.

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“It doesn’t stop here,” Crawley said at the conclusion of the protest. “We are ready to march until he’s gone.”

And if officials aren’t ready to talk, “we’ll be back Tuesday and we’re not going to just march around the block.”

For many marchers, the reforms would impact their daily lives. Several said they or their loved ones had experienced harassment by police.

“I’m tired of being treated like I’m not human. I’m tired of people who look like me dying by police because we don’t have the complexion for the protection,” said Godfrey Mitchell, 44, of Cedar Rapids, no relation to Jerime Mitchell.

Paki Williams, 28, of Cedar Rapids, said she was marching for her children.

“I have two little boys and I don’t like everything that’s going on,” she said. “I need to make sure they’re safe, and I want to make sure they’re being protected, not hurt, by the people who are supposed to protect them.”

Melissa Grimsinger of Walker came with her children because “I want them to stick up for all people. I’m not going to let them thinks this is OK.”

Taylor Scudder, 25, of Iowa City, said she was marching for her students at Northwest Junior High School in Coralville. She had also spoken at a march in Iowa City earlier Saturday and planned to head there after the Cedar Rapids event for her third protest of the day.

“I am tired, but I am not going to stop doing the work,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by several others.

“Don’t walk away and say you can’t do something,” Anthony Arrington said. “The answer is us. We can’t wait on other people.”

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His appeal to the crowd to “get to the ballot box” was similar to other speakers’ advice to register to vote.

“Black votes matter,” one speaker said.

For many, the rally that brought so many people, races and ethnicities and ages together offered encouragement.

Lori Holman of Marion came to “stand as allies and supporters” of the black community.

Her friend, Erica Zito of Cedar Rapids, agreed that the community needs to stand with African Americans and against police brutality.

There’s much to be done to eliminate racism in the community, Zito said, recounting how at previous rallies she’s heard people refer to protesters as “thugs.”

“Everyone is tired of what’s going on, but people are finally coming together to say this can’t happen any more,” said Alex Hoffner of Central City, who has been to previous protests at the Cedar Rapids Police Station. He called on “the good cops to weed out the bad cops.”

Friends Nicole LeGrand, 30, Leslie Neely, 31, and Tamara Marcus, 28, all of Cedar Rapids, organized the event. They have ever done anything like this before, they said, but after the death of Floyd and with protests sweeping the nation, they felt compelled.

“We were like, ‘Nothing ever happens here. We feel like there’s not a big gathering or movement for black life in the city,” Neely told The Gazette before the protest. “I want people to know that black lives matter, I want this to be something that is as important to them as it is important to me.”

They created a Facebook event, thinking a few friends would join them. On Saturday, thousands showed up.

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Neely said they hope to continue working with other activists for sustained change in Cedar Rapids. They want people to stay engaged.

“I hope that they realize that their voice matters and they can be impactful and they can incite change. It just takes one more person to tell a friend, to write a congressman. They can do something,” she said.

It was a “beautiful” event, Crawley said as he tore down the sound system, but it is unfortunate that it took another black man’s death to make it happen. If organizers had tried to do something on the scale of this rally for Jerime Mitchell, the city would not have allowed it, he said.

“But it’s cool now. It’s trending,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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