Guest Columnist

Politicians' racist dog whistles obscure activists' historic contributions

Iowa BLM 2021 legislative agenda: Marijuana legalization, maternal care, police reform

A protestor holds up a drawing of George Floyd as they face of against law enforcement officers, including officers from
A protestor holds up a drawing of George Floyd as they face of against law enforcement officers, including officers from the Iowa State Patrol, during a protest march in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, June 11, 2020. Protestors marched from the Pentacrest to the First Avenue interchange of Interstate 80 in Coralville, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As the 89th Iowa General Assembly began this year, a disturbing narrative emerged in the opening statements of leaders at the Capitol.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and state legislators sought to obscure the accomplishments and downplay the influence of Iowa’s BLM activists in 2020. Elected officials used racist dog whistles like “riots” and “civil unrest” to demonize activists and mislead Iowans about the nature of the protests last year. State Sen. Zach Whiting went as far as to invent a story about a summer protest endangering legislators that he has since admitted was fabricated.

In all their statements, these leaders omitted an important truth: the efforts of Des Moines BLM, Iowa Freedom Riders, Cedar Valley BLM, Advocates for Social Justice, Ames BLM and other groups organizing for Black lives were responsible for two of the most significant pieces of policy in the last year, the voting rights executive order and the More Perfect Union Act. The former restored voting rights to Iowans who have served felony sentences and the latter included a ban on the use of chokeholds by police officers, among other measures.

We at Des Moines BLM plan to pick up exactly where we left off. At the beginning of the 2021 session, our coalition of BLM organizations across Iowa released a list of our legislative demands.

• Marijuana legalization: A top priority entering this session is the legalization of cannabis and expungement of all cannabis-related records. Iowa has the fifth most severe racial disparity for cannabis-related arrests in the entire nation. Black people in the state are 7.3 times more likely to receive a cannabis charge than their white neighbors, and there is an extensive log of racial profiling lawsuits that reveal how Iowa police officers disproportionately pin fabricated marijuana charges on Black residents.

The legalization of cannabis would disrupt Iowa’s police officers’ attempts to camouflage their discriminatory practices. An expungement of records would ensure that anyone caught in the teeth of this aggressively punitive criminal justice system because of a cannabis charge won’t be unfairly disadvantaged when attempting to apply for employment, loans, housing and education.

Iowa’s legislature must follow the lead of the 16 states that have already legalized this plant, and the 13 other states where marijuana has been decriminalized. Anything less than the legalization and expungement of records will signify the aiding and abetting of discriminatory and violent police departments in Iowa, as they continue to wage a war of oppression inherited from their predecessors in the civil rights era, and from slave patrols and white supremacists who birthed modern law enforcement in America.

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• Maternal care: Another of our legislative goals is to improve the state of maternal care for Black Iowans. In 66 of Iowa’s 99 counties, no OB-GYN practitioner is available. In fact, Iowa has the worst ratio of obstetricians to people in the entire country. These gulfs in access to adequate services only widen for Black birthing people in Iowa, who are 6 times more likely to die during or shortly after childbirth than white Iowans.

We envision a future that includes a higher quality of peripartum and postpartum care for Black folks, compassionate care providers, and affordable insurance coverage of this care. For this reason, our coalition supports the reintroduction and passing of the Healthy Moms and Babies Act and the Iowa Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The Healthy Moms and Babies Act would guarantee that approved safety bundles are used to save lives during deliveries, and adjust Medicaid rates to reimburse hospitals for their care. The Iowa Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would bring Iowa level with its neighbors, Minnesota and Nebraska, in requiring employers to provide legitimate accommodations for members of their workforce who are pregnant, including guaranteed time off for medical appointments.

• Police reform: Lastly, it is critical to our coalition that the state greatly expands on the minimal reforms to policing that were included in last year’s More Perfect Union Act. One of the largest obstacles that stands in the way of legitimate accountability in our police forces is the Iowa Peace Officers Bill of Rights. This piece of the Iowa Code excludes police officers from the laws they are supposed to enforce every day. It gives any officer who has had a complaint filed against them the opportunity to read through a written summary of the investigation, as well as access to relevant resources before being interviewed.

The protections provided by this rule delegitimize the entire internal investigation process. There is no reason a civilian accused of domestic assault is immediately interrogated, while a police officer facing the same accusation is given the chance to create an alias or back story before being questioned. The Iowa Legislature must immediately move to repeal Iowa Code 80F.

It’s paramount to our coalition that legislators pass bills this session which improve the standard of living for Black Iowans, and begin to dismantle the racist criminal justice institutions that inordinately harm Black communities.

Luke Bascom and Indira Sheumaker are members of Des Moines Black Liberation Movement.

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