On Jan. 8, the City Council’s Ad Hoc Diversity Committee held a meeting at Pheasant Ridge Center on the west side of Iowa City to gather information about the state of transportation and police enforcement for three segments of the larger community: youths and Sudanese and Latino immigrants.
More than 50 men, women and children attended and shared concerns about gaps in transportation services, police neighborhood surveillance and police interactions, putting racial relations in Iowa City under heavy scrutiny.
The meeting was part of a larger group of meetings hosted around town by the city’s committee, and Ad Hoc Diversity Committee member LaTasha Massey used the term “growing pains” to express the complex relationship between Iowa City’s minority communities, city government and majority populations.
Synthesizing concerns voiced by minority and immigrant communities, Massey said, “There definitely are issues when it comes to how we treat people of color. As a city, we need to stand up and say we are going to accept everyone.” “At the end of the day,” Massey added, “it is about community relationship building.” While pockets of people are advocating for better relations between majority and minority communities, Massey noted that the majority of Iowa Citians are not willing to act to make things different.
In regards to transportation, participants at the Pheasant Ridge meeting spoke about the difficulties faced by students on the west side of town; the need for additional morning, night and weekend bus service; as well as the need for additional routes to decrease travel time.
Massey reported that responses from the other meetings revealed the need to extend Saturday services and to create Sunday routes. She noted that the city’s current transportation system, a hub model where lines converge at the downtown interchange, is hopelessly embroiled in a Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. mentality that may serve the majority but also excludes a growing number of Iowa Citians. For example, the current transportation infrastructure could require a two hour commute for a Kirkwood student living in the Pheasant Ridge Apartments or a second-shift Procter & Gamble employee residing in the Forest View Trailer Court on the northwest side of town.
Massey pointed out that it is hard to convince Iowa City Transit or people who work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and are happy with the current bus service to advance public policies and invest in rethinking a transportation infrastructure. For Massey, the committee’s transportation recommendations to the council should focus on the need for nuanced tweaking of services at specific times, the streamlining of routes and the development of community-building peer mentoring programs for youth riders aimed at increasing ridership safety and fostering a sense of youth ownership of public spaces.
As the Pheasant Ridge meeting transitioned from transportation to policing, Latino and Sudanese immigrants spoke about the need for police to do a better job dealing with their communities by building relationships and understanding cultural differences.
Irund A-Wan arrived in Iowa City 12 years ago to study civil engineering at the university. He likes the Iowa City-Coralville area for its safety, as well as for its educated and open-minded people; however, in terms of the relationship between law enforcement and the Sudanese community, A-Wan said, “There is room for improvement, particularly in Iowa City.”
A-Wan sees a need for better translation services, multi-lingual community education about legal rights and education of police in the diversity issues that impact local immigrant communities. He notes that officers are often not patient with communication issues, which leads non-English-speaking communities to feel as though they receive unacceptable treatment.
Marcella Marquez has lived in Iowa City for 10 years and is a member of the grassroots organization the Immigrant Voices Project (IVP). At the Pheasant Ridge meeting, Marquez reiterated A-Wan’s concerns. Using a translator, she told a story about being stopped by police because her current car registration sticker wasn’t covering her older ones. When she asked the officer for a translator, four more police cars arrived. Unnerved, her children, in the car with her, began crying—and still she waited for the translator.
“This is my home and I love it,” Marquez said. “My children have been raised here, and I want my children to be good citizens who are educated.” Still, she has the perception that minorities are targeted by the police. She described the daily sight of the one to four police cars sitting at the single entrance and exit to her neighborhood.
Maria Cachua, a 10-year Iowa City resident and IVP member, and Fanai Cruz, a 13-year Iowa City resident and IVP member, said experiences with police surveillance—such as police cars hanging out when they are arriving to and leaving from their English class at a neighborhood church—feel like intimidation and contribute to the perceptions that certain low-income neighborhoods that are home to many immigrants are being over-policed.
Ann Hassan, who came to Iowa City from Sudan seven years ago and attended the meeting to translate for her parents, agreed with community perceptions about police surveillance. And, although she has been in this community for a while and will remain here to begin her first year at the University of Iowa in the fall, she is not invested in Iowa City because she feels that since she arrived, she has been treated like a second-class citizen. She put it bluntly when she said, “Americans think foreigners are stupid.” While she appreciates Iowa City’s safety, she added, “People seem afraid, like they’re not used to diversity. That’s what I don’t like about here.”
At the Pheasant Ridge meeting, community members spoke about feeling dismissed when they complained to law enforcement about issues such as the over-response of police (multiple squad cars responding to minor incidents) in their neighborhoods. Their stories suggested that the main objection by law enforcement officials to their anecdotal and perceptual data was akin to Stephen Colbert’s explanation of “truthiness”—although such experiences may feel like profiling, that explanation doesn’t stand up to the verifiable facts. This response devalues minority experiences of Iowa City’s racial politics and instead puts the onus on minorities to provide “facts” that would support bona fide claims of racial discrimination.
Pheasant Ridge forum attendees expressed the desire for competent policing that accepts the truths of Sudanese and Latino experiences in Iowa City. Such culturally competent policing would require an understanding of the larger national and historical contexts in which relations with minority and immigrant communities in Iowa City evolve. Attendees’ comments about gaps in transportation services and their shared sense that the police are not serving Sudanese and Latino communities exposed both tensions between different communities in Iowa City, as well as the shared values of wanting to create a city where one can work, be safe and be treated with respect. To build such a city would require a willingness of the majority to actively examine deep-rooted racial, cultural and economic patterns that exist in cities all over America and continue to shape policy and perceptions even here, in Iowa City.
Raquel Lisette Baker is pursuing a PhD in English Literary Studies at the University of Iowa, specializing in Postcolonial Studies. She is currently working on her dissertation about representations of whiteness in black literatures.
Photo via thinkbicycles.org