Best of the CRANDIC Spotlight: Iowa Freedom Riders

Protesters march in Iowa City despite the rain, June 4, 2020 — courtesy Ofer Sivan

The Iowa Freedom Riders were voted Best Social Justice Advocate in Little Village’s 2020 Best of the CRANDIC awards.

“What do we want?” “JUSTICE!”

“When do we want it?” “NOW!”

Hearing chants like these in downtown Iowa City became the norm this summer as demonstrations for racial justice became a daily or weekly presence.

Leading these marches and rallies was a group founded by several former West High students, many of whom attended protests in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s murder on May 25. They sought to organize and call for change in the Iowa City community; in early June, the group began calling themselves the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR) after the 1961 Civil Rights group the Freedom Riders.

Protesters and Iowa State Troopers on Dubuque Street, June 4, 2020 — courtesy of Ofer Sivan
Protesters form a circle in an Iowa City intersection during a march on June 3, 2020. — courtesy of Hannah Green

“We saw that our calling was to do something not only for Black Lives Matter but also to better the community, because we say Iowa City is this liberal bubble, but it’s not,” said Ala Mohamed, an IFR organizer and senior at the University of Iowa. “There are internal problems that we need to fix and work on to better Iowa City.”

Issues central to IFR’s mission include abolishing the police, providing equitable housing and increasing visibility of people of color, Mohamed said. The group, predominantly led by college-aged students, has engaged with Iowa City Council and the Iowa City Community School District’s board to advocate for underserved demographics. They’ve also used social media to uplift local organizations like CommUnity and the Center for Worker Justice.

A memorial for Breonna Taylor on the Pentacrest, June 5, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village
People lay flowers at a memorial for Makeda Scott, Sept. 25, 2020 — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

What they’re most renowned for, however, is their work in the streets. Since June, IFR has held events ranging from marches on Interstate 80 to memorials to letter-writing sessions. These protests, Mohamed said, have led to changes, including the Iowa City Council creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to oversee restorative justice efforts.

Though cold weather and COVID-19 surges have made organizing in-person protests more difficult, Mohamed noted that IFR’s work is far from done. She said the group will continue engaging others via social media and build coalitions with other Black Lives Matter-affiliated groups across the Midwest.

Hundreds gathered at the Pentacrest on May 30, 2020, to protest racism and killing of George Floyd. — Jason Smith/Little Village
Protesters returning to the Pentacrest following a march led by the Iowa Freedom Riders, Aug. 28, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

Six months after Floyd’s death, IFR expects their work to continue as long as there remains a hunger for reform in Iowa. “I’ve seen the community really cares and wants to change, and that’s why they’re out there protesting,” Mohamed said. “In order to keep that momentum going, the community’s going to have to also see that change starts with them as well, not only just IFR, because we wouldn’t have made it to where we are without the community.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 289.

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