‘It hurts, it really does’: Advocates for Social Justice feel silenced as Cedar Rapids starts process of forming police review board

Leslie Neely, who was part of organizing the June 6 protest in Cedar Rapids, and Cedar Rapids resident Jorel Robinson read off a list of seven demands they and other community members want to see implemented in the city. June 6, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Members of the Advocates for Social Justice (ASJ) said they feel their voices are being silenced after virtually meeting with city officials last week to discuss how to move forward with establishing a citizens review board in Cedar Rapids.

The grassroots group has been meeting with city leaders over the last few weeks to discuss their seven demands and has also organized three protests in Cedar Rapids. The Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously backed the seven demands during a special meeting on June 19.

One of the most important demands of the group is for the city to form an independent citizens review board.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman and Mayor Brad Hart announced on June 12 the city is working on establishing a review board and details are being worked out. Because research still needs to be done, neither provided specific information on when the board might be formed or who would serve on the board.

Representatives from ASJ had a meeting last Friday with Mayor Hart, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Councilmember Dale Todd. Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker also participated in the meeting, which was conducted via Zoom. The recording of the meeting was shared with Little Village and posted online.

During the June 26 meeting, Hart said he expects the city council to establish a community task force “to research and develop and make a recommendation for the policy and structure for a citizens review board.” The task force would not choose who serves on the citizens review board, but rather the best way to put together a citizens review board for the city of Cedar Rapids, according to Hart.

Hart said the task force would include members from the community and ASJ would have more representation than any other group. Todd said the task force would have up to 18 people.

“We’re looking for a broad cross section,” Todd said. “That would include gender balance, that would include young and old, predominantly African American. I think in order to get a good cross section you’re probably looking at about 17, 18 people — somewhere around there.”

ASJ members repeatedly asked to be part of the selection process, and requested city leaders keep them abreast of who they are recruiting for the task force, but those names were not revealed.

The task force would have 45 to 90 days to develop a final report and would meet once every two weeks. Hart said task force meetings would be public.

Protesters on First Avenue in Cedar Rapids, June 6, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

ASJ members said they felt like the decisions being made were done in secret without input from them and that it was repeating work the group had already done.

“You have a group of people who represent the community and who are certainly dedicated to these issues and want to work together on getting this done,” Amara Andrews said during the meeting. “So, it feels a little bit like a slap in the face to, as I said, sort of unilaterally decide who’s going to be on this task force when you have a group of people who are already willing to do the work and who are working on it.”

Andrews mentioned that members of the group have already started researching citizens review boards across the country and have begun outlining what one should look like in Cedar Rapids. She said putting together a task force and having public meetings is how things have been done traditionally, and “we know that does not work.”

“There’s a sense of urgency now because of all that’s going on, and because of the movement we have here in Cedar Rapids that really is demanding for change quickly and in a different way than we’ve seen it done in the past, and so that is also my reservation with having this task force,” Andrews said. “It sounds very dilatory. It sounds like it’s going to take a really long time to get things done when, as I said, we already started to put this together as a group.”

“We are your task force — simple as that,” Anthony Arrington, another ASJ member, said.

Supervisor Stacey Walker said what’s happening gets at the root of systemic oppression.

“You’ve got a group that’s representing black leaders and black people in this community trying to engage in a process that will result in meaningful police reform. This group here is begging and pleading with the mayor to be a part of that.”

“It feels like being disenfranchised. It feels like having your power taken away from you, and you not being allowed a voice,” Andrews added. “As I sit here, it hurts. It really does. It really hurts to know that we’ve been doing all this work and the only reason we are here today is because of the work that we have all been doing for weeks now, and for years, frankly.”

City Manager Pomeranz said he and other city officials believe strongly in making the seven demands a reality.

“We do not want to be part of any systemic racism and that is not us,” Pomeranz said. “It’s shown that it has existed and so no one can deny that it is in our culture and in our society, but we want to be part of the solution, and we want to do the right thing.”

Over the weekend, ASJ created a fundraiser with a goal of raising $150,000 to fund future protests, personal protective equipment and other supplies for organizers and attendees, a bail fund for protesters and artist compensation for a Black Lives Matter mural on 19th Street and Bever Avenue. More than $6,000 has been raised as of Tuesday morning.

The group also has another protest planned for Friday, July 3. The protest is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. but the location has not been announced yet.

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