‘Come off the sidelines’: Cedar Rapids rally addresses what it means to be an effective ally in the fight for social justice

People rallied at Greene Square Park on Saturday, April 24, 2021, to hear from a number of speakers about how to be an effective ally and what comes next in the movement for racial justice. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

People gathered at Greene Square Park in Cedar Rapids on Saturday afternoon to listen to speakers urge white allies to elevate the voices of Black people and other people of color, and discussed what it means to be an effective ally in the movement for racial justice.

The “Calling All Allies: A Rally to Unite” event featured more than a dozen speakers who commented on the progress that has already been made but also mentioned how there is still more work to be done. The rally was organized by the Advocates for Social Justice, We Are CR and the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity.

Nearly a year ago, ASJ organized their first protest, which was also held at Greene Square Park. Over 2,000 people showed up to protest police violence and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The Cedar Rapids protest was one of hundreds across the country and the world.

Early last week, a jury found former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. The other three former officers are scheduled to go on trial in August.

Speakers during Saturday’s rally cautioned against viewing the verdict as justice.

“I’ve been trying to find the right words to unite us, but George Floyd is still gone,” said Janessa Carr, co-founder of the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity. “Can we stay with that truth for a moment — George Floyd is still gone. I sympathize when we feel as though justice was served when we reached a verdict, but George Floyd is gone and a cop is locked up. Is this justice?”

ASJ member and mayoral candidate Amara Andrews said she hopes the verdict sends a message that officers who abuse their power will be held accountable. (Andrews had a campaign booth at the event but during her speech mentioned that she is not at the event as a candidate but as an activist and advocate for social justice.)

Andrews called the verdict a small win but said people can’t let it sidetrack them.

“We must continue to fight for justice,” Andrews said. “… During the same week that we saw a police officer found guilty, for the first time in my memory, for brutalizing a Black man, we saw at least three Black and brown souls lost at the hands of the police.”

ASJ member and mayoral candidate Amara Andrews urged individuals to be an ally, someone who “utilizes their privilege to help others stand for those who are marginalized and take action to dismantle the systems that oppress us.” April 24, 2021. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Jonathan Heifner, a pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, said the optimism that some white individuals felt after the verdict is a lesson for white allies.

“We need to recognize how deeply we are embedded in a world that allows us to be so damn optimistic and naïve and that pacifies us with solutions that are less than justice,” Heifner said. “What I heard from those who could see more clearly is that it will take far more than one guilty verdict before justice is enacted upon an unjust system.”

The system is “broken beyond repair” because there is no repairing or reforming a system that was designed to oppress people of color, Supervisor Stacey Walker said. Instead, the system must be deconstructed and recreated with “equity and restorative justice as your guiding lights.”

Walker also reminded individuals that there is “no such thing as ally fatigue” or doing too much.

“All of this every single day is a heavy burden. It’s a trauma that we carry deep in our souls, and you all here today have committed to lessening the load, to sharing the burden,” Walker said. “You will do this by using your voice, using your privilege in committing to doing the hard things. I hear too many excuses from allies — you must be all-in. You must be there when they call on you because this isn’t a part-time job. This isn’t something we dabble in from time to time.”

“We are Black 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, which means we are staring down racism 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We need allies who are ready and willing to stand with us in that fight.”

“We need allies who are ready to put pressure on our mayor and city council. We need allies who are ready to get in some good trouble, and we need allies who are ready to proclaim loudly for the entire community to hear that Black Lives Matter,” Supervisor Stacey Walker said during the April 24, 2021, rally at Greene Square Park. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Paula O’Loughlin, provost and dean of faculty at Coe College, offered three reflections on what it means to be an ally: Allies should recognize their privilege every day, call out individual and systemic racism, and use their voices to uplift the voices of people of color.

“White privilege equals responsibility,” O’Loughlin said. “To be an ally in the struggle for a just world means to be support. If we are allies, we need to be there when it’s not convenient, when it’s not easy, when it means something.”

Being an effective ally also means taking time to pause before making a judgment, Anne Harris Carter said. Harris Carter encouraged individuals to go beyond attending rallies and protests and speak out against racism and oppression in day-to-day life.

“Since you’re here today, I am assuming positive intent and calling on you to move to another level of allyship,” Harris Carter urged. “Come off the sidelines, if that’s where you’ve been. Write an op-ed. Contact an elected official. Contact them all. Use your voice.”

Anne Harris Carter performed “Amazing Grace” during the April 24, 2021, rally at Greene Square Park. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Speakers brought up the progress that has been made on the city and state level, while also making it clear that there is more work to be done.

Last June, the Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously backed ASJ’s seven demands for police reform. And earlier this year, Cedar Rapids became the second city in the state of Iowa with an independent citizen review board.

ASJ co-founder and city council candidate Tamara Marcus praised the work of advocates in accomplishing these feats but also brought up the challenge of getting a seat at the table.

ASJ members felt silenced last summer during early discussions with city officials, who later said they didn’t plan to “be part of any additional negotiation meetings.” ASJ then began meeting with city staff to continue working on recommendations for the citizen review board.

“Just imagine how much quicker we could have accomplished that if we had the leaders that did not stand in the way of progress,” Marcus said. “Fighting for just a seat at the table, just to be heard, could have been directed to something incredibly more constructive. Our elected officials should represent us and not ignore us, especially when we are fighting for our lives.”

State Rep. Liz Bennett, who represents District 65, said it has been “an extraordinarily horrible session” in the Iowa Legislature because “any time there’s progress, there will be a backlash.”

Democratic state Rep. Liz Bennett was one of a dozen speakers during the rally at Greene Square Park on April 24, 2021. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Earlier this month, ASJ organized a protest in Des Moines calling on state legislators to stop a series of bills moving through the Legislature. An 18-year-old high school senior was arrested during the peaceful protest after allegedly tapping a state trooper on the arm.

ASJ intern Harold Walehwa, who helped organize the protest, said “harmful bills” passing through the legislature are the “epitome of systemic racism.”

ASJ interns Angelina Ramirez (left) and Harold Walehwa (right) spoke about how to be an effective ally, as well as how to contact state legislators about a number of “harmful bills passing through the Iowa Legislature at alarming rates.” April 24, 2021. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Walehwa said ASJ has been primarily focused on HF 802 and SF 342. HF 802 would restrict how “divisive concepts” are handled in training on diversity and implicit bias. It also restricts how issues of racism and sexism can be discussed in classes at the state’s public universities and colleges, as well as in all of Iowa’s public schools.

SF 342 would increase qualified immunity for law enforcement, protect drivers who run into protesters blocking a highway, withhold state funds from communities that defund the police, as well as add or increase penalties for a number of crimes.

Saturday’s hour-and-a-half-long rally ended with attendees joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome,” a song that was an anthem during the Civil Rights Movement.