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High school students urge community to unite against hate following election

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Students and community members march from the Pentacrest to the Iowa City Council chambers. The students wanted to bring their compliants to the city council members after feeling ignored by faculty and staff at the local high schools. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann

Students and community members march from the Pentacrest to the Iowa City Council chambers. The students wanted to bring their compliants to the city council members after feeling ignored by faculty and staff at the local high schools. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (More photos below) — photo by Zak Neumann

Students from Iowa City’s City High School and West High School organized a march against hate Tuesday night. The students initially called for a march after multiple alleged incidents of hate based on race, religion, gender and sexuality had occurred on their campuses. The students said this past election cycle has emboldened hatred from their peers towards various marginalized groups.

The route began at Robert A. Lee Recreational Center, where they asked community members to meet, went through the Ped Mall to the Pentacrest and ended at the Iowa City City Hall, where students and community members voiced their grievances to Mayor Pro Tem Kingsley Botchway II.

Organizing the masses

The march took place on the sidewalks and pedestrian areas, in contrast to the Nov. 12 protest, which temporarily blocked I-80. Community Outreach Officer Henry Hopper estimated about 600 people participated in Tuesday’s march.

Royceann Porter — who said she is affiliated “with everyone: Black Voices, Center for Worker Justice, NAACP” — said the event was completely based on the students’ experiences and desire for change.

“Immigrants are being told to go back to their country, they’re getting racial slurs,” Porter said. “Young people did this, and we’re here to support them.”

Students from City and West high schools address hundreds of people gathered for their anti-hate march outside Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center. The students said they organized the march after multiple instances of harassment went ignored by faculty and staff at the high schools. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann

Students from City and West high schools address hundreds of people gathered for their anti-hate march outside Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center. The students said they organized the march after multiple instances of harassment went ignored by faculty and staff at the high schools. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

Immigration and race at the forefront

Many in attendance were immigrants and first generation citizens. Ana Cano and Grace Ordaz, who translated for Cano, attended with their children — Angel, age 6, Azul, age 6, and Sherlyn, age 4.

“We want a peaceful place for our kids and community,” Cano said.

She said that she attended the march to stand against racism encouraged by Trump’s campaign and election.

“Our kids have rights and must learn to fight,” Ordaz said. “Most of our kids are worried about what will happen to their parents.”

A recurring narrative throughout the evening was students being told to “go back home” or “go back to their country.”

Organizer Raneem Hamad, 16, said that young men in a jeep drove past her, telling her to “go back home,” before driving away laughing.

“People I called friends on November 7 were not my friends on November 9,” City High freshman Mariam Keita, 15, said.

Asma Ali, an Arabic language teacher at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and friend of a Sudanese American family who reported receiving a racist note the week prior, greeted the crowd with “Asslamu alakum” or “Peace be upon you.” She encouraged citizens to see the immigrant community as a boon that adds diverse activities and perspectives to the city as a whole.

“We send [our kids] to you. Let them be in the community,” Ali said. “We have jobs…we pay taxes, and we are here to support minorities.”

Asma Ali speaks alongside student organizer and West High senior Jade Merriweather on the Pentacrest. She encourages the community to welcome immigrants into the community as an opportunity to learn from each other. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann

Asma Ali speaks alongside student organizer and West High senior Jade Merriweather on the Pentacrest. She encourages the community to welcome immigrants into the community as an opportunity to learn from each other. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

Additionally, City High freshman and organizer Anthony Murphy, 14, came out as bisexual to the crowd, which was met with support from his friends and applause from the crowd. His mother, Nicole Bernabe was brought to tears and voiced her support and admiration for her son.

“It’s amazing. This is the future. I’m so proud of him and this,” Bernabe said. “If this is our future then we are heading in the right direction.”

Contrasting voices

Some onlookers were less enthusiastic about the march, and some passing cars yelled in support of Trump. Michael Helmich, a University of Iowa freshman, said that while people had the right to assemble, it seemed futile.

“I just think you go into something like an election and if the outcome isn’t something you like, it’s silly to protest,” he said.

However, Helmich did praise the peacefulness of the march.

“I’m glad to see it’s this rather than going in the streets, hitting cars or throwing trash cans,” he said. “This is how you protest. People need to take notes.”

City Council reacts

As the protesters gathered outside Iowa City Hall, they were joined by council member Rockne Cole. Cole said he was “in awe, just so inspired” by the students’ leadership. Cole said he looks forward to working together to support one another against hate, to put forth a “positive agenda for community.”

“There is zero tolerance for hate, and I’m proud of their advocacy. I’m looking forward to their leadership in a future capacity. I’d love to serve with them,” Cole said.

Once inside the chambers, Botchway addressed the marchers with statements of solidarity.

“We have been disheartened by the bigotry and hate across the country,” he said. “We are a community that values diversity and inclusivity.”

Lujayn Hamad and fellow students lay out a list of demands to the Iowa City Council. The list included immediate and long-term steps toward making their schools more inclusive and safe. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann

Lujayn Hamad and fellow students lay out a list of demands to the Iowa City Council. The list included immediate and long-term steps toward making their schools more inclusive and safe. Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

As the public comment session began, the students organizers Lujayn Hamad, Jade Merriweather and T.J. Murphy presented a list of immediate actions and long-term programs they want put in place to increase inclusivity and diversity awareness at local high schools.

The students demanded clear, written support from faculty, a guarantee to provide an adequate response in light of complaints, procedures to ensure students are aware of their rights and resources, access to mental health professionals and mandatory diversity and sensitivity training for students and faculty.

Community members also reiterated their concerns. Ali invited the council members to reach out to the Sudanese community to understand their culture, ideas and activities for a greater sense of unity. Other community members, including local resident Caroline Kennedy and University of Iowa Associate Law Professor Paul Gowder voiced concerns about the hiring process of a new Iowa City police chief and it’s effect on marginalized communities.

Iowa City School Board Member Phil Hemingway spoke on his own behalf after the protesters. He said that he wanted students to feel that their voices were and continue to be heard and he apologized for not fulfilling that goal. He also said that the school board president, Chris Lynch, has already confirmed that they would address the students’ concerns at their next meeting.

Organizers urged participants to show up next Tuesday, Nov. 22 for the school board meeting taking place at 6 p.m. at the Iowa City Community School District’s administration building.


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About The Author

Kelli Ebensberger

Kelli Ebensberger is Little Village's copy chief and community manager. Contact her at kelli@littlevillagemag.com.

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