Staff Columnist

Which will prevail in Cedar Rapids, hope or history?

Darshaun Smith of Cedar Rapids carries a Black Lives Matter flag while marching with during a rally organized by Advocat
Darshaun Smith of Cedar Rapids carries a Black Lives Matter flag while marching with during a rally organized by Advocates for Social Justice in Cedar Rapids on Friday, July 3, 2020. The group marched from Monroe Park to the home of Cedar Rapids mayor Brad Hart in the hope of meeting with him to discuss the citizens’ police review board. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Advocates for Social Justice have been organizing Black Lives Matter protests in Cedar Rapids and are leading the charge for policing reforms in the city. One of their main demands is the creation of a citizens’ review board to investigate complaints against police.

City leaders say they’re supportive. Great. But instead of seizing on the urgency of a historic moment for racial justice, they’ve tapped the brakes.

First, officials wanted to appoint a task force to design the review board structure. A panel to create a panel. Then, last week, they pivoted to a 90-day process including gathering public input through various vehicles online and in person.

Advocates, who were doing the work and pushing hard for change, now feel sidelined.

Sidelined, as a critical public policy decision is being formulated in Cedar Rapids? Where would they get that idea?

Maybe it was during the long, uphill effort it took just to get the city to come to terms on a plan to make recommendations from the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force, or SET, more than a thick plan sitting on a high shelf.

Perhaps it was last fall, when residents of the Rompot neighborhood couldn’t convince the council to reject Cargill’s plan to put a rail yard in their backyard and near an urban fishery.

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It was just a couple of years ago when the Cedar Rapids School Board voted to approve a sweeping facilities master plan, crafted mostly behind closed doors, potentially closing several neighborhood schools. When residents blindsided by the process asked for a 90-day delay, the board said “No.”

Before that, back in 2012, it was the closing of Polk Elementary, a neighborhood school near Coe College. A sham facilities planning process led to the preordained decision to close Polk in the face of opposition from the neighborhood and throughout the community. The closure vote came as the district settled into its massive, new administration building.

In 2011, landlords and real estate interests convinced the City Council to abandon civil rights protections for recipients of housing assistance. The city’s Civil Rights Commission worked for more than a year to enact “lawful source of income” protections, but the council shelved the idea.

Councils and boards come and go. But what doesn’t seem to change is that activists and advocates don’t fare so well against the powers that be, whether they be elected officials or the usual suspects who influence city policies, developers, large business interests, etc. In more than one of these instances, people of color were among those trying to be heard, in vain. The track record is damning.

It’s easy to see how some Advocates for Social Justice who know the history would fear being sidestepped by local leadership. And in this case, their lives are at stake. So being sidelined is unacceptable and unjust.

But these advocates are organized, and will keep the pressure on. And the City Council may still fully embrace its generational chance to attack the racism permeating our criminal justice system. They may make a new kind of hopeful history this time.

Gather public input. But don’t squander this moment.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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