Update: Tom Gill resigned from the city council on Friday, June 17, hours after the publication of this article.
During the public comments period of the Coralville City Council’s Tuesday Zoom meeting, multiple residents inquired about the city’s efforts to oversee and potentially reform the Coralville Police Department, as protesters have demanded.
Twice, Councilmember Tom Gill interrupted responses to these questions from his fellow city councilmembers by pointing out there was a work session slated to discuss issues of racial justice following the meeting.
One member of the public had written in to thank Mayor John Lundell and Councilmembers Meghann Foster and Mitch Gross for delivering speeches at a June 22 rally of local Black Lives Matter (BLM) advocates at S.T. Morrison Park, but wondered why they didn’t stick around for the march afterwards. As Foster replied, saying she did stay long enough to have meaningful conversations with local people of color, Gill loudly interrupted.
“Mayor, Mayor, this is public comment! Not speeches,” he said, slamming something down on his desk.
Lundell did move on to a different comment, but Gross returned to Gill’s outburst. “Listen, Tom, Meghann and I were invoked in the public comments. When we’re asked a question about that, we have a right to respond and that’s OK for us to do.”
Gill, a dentist currently serving his fifth consecutive term on the Coralville City Council, didn’t offer a retort, instead waiting until the end of the meeting to explain his “volatile” behavior. It was provoked by his distaste for Black Lives Matter, he said.
You’re probably wondering why I’ve been so volatile tonight. It’s because of BLM. And BLM, to a lot of people, is a great organization. But BLM to me is a bunch of criminals, and I have zero tolerance for criminals. And the reason I did not make it to that Sunday event was when John called me and asked me, I said I’d be happy to on the condition that there was no criminal activity. That night there was criminal activity. And that’s why I have zero tolerance for BLM. I’m sorry, but I will fight you to my living end. I do not tolerate criminal activity. Don’t look the other way, it is criminal activity. Thank you.
Asked by the Press-Citizen what “criminal activity” he was referring to, Gill said he was upset by the graffiti left around Kinnick Stadium and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on June 6 following a march by the Iowa Freedom Riders. (IFR has frequently discouraged demonstrators from spray painting.) He also clarified he wasn’t calling “the whole Black Lives Matter group criminals.”
Following his comment during the meeting, other councilmembers spoke up in defense of Black Lives Matter both locally and nationally.
“I want to go on record and say that I think that the work that the Black Lives Matter is doing is really important work,” Foster said. “I think that we need to make sure that we are focusing on the important issues that are facing the Black community. I can say I don’t like talking about this a whole lot because I don’t like centering my experience as a white person, but I can say that that phrase means a lot to me being the parent of a Black child. That means so much to me to hear that statement and to see this work moving forward. It’s not just because of my child or my family that this is important; it’s for everybody’s kids and everybody’s family.”
After making an impassioned plea for the public to reject COVID-19 disinformation and wear face masks, Councilmember and nurse Jill Dodds praised both the Coralville Police Department and those involved in conversations surrounding racial equality. (She said data released to her by the CPD, which will soon be made public, has reassured her that CPD have a good reputation when it comes to fair policing.)
“As long as I’m an elected official,” said Gross, Mayor Pro Tem and interim assistant principal of Northwest Junior High School, “and as long as I’m in an administrative role of the only majority minority [secondary] school in this district, to me, Black Lives Matter means making sure that people of color have the social and the economic and the political leverage to thrive in our communities. For too many years that’s not been the case and that’s why I strongly support that movement.”
“I’ll just go on record, too, as being very supportive of the BLM efforts in our community and across the area,” Mayor Lundell said before closing out the meeting. (Gill supplied the motion to adjourn).
Gross offered a more pointed criticism of Gill’s sentiments in an interview with the Press-Citizen. “I was greatly disappointed by the racist comments that my colleague made about Black Lives Matter. To label a movement that is fighting for justice and against 400 years of systemic bigotry, to deem that criminal is so unfortunate.”
Gill, for his part, said he believes support for police reform will weaken after the election in November. He is less enthusiastic than his colleagues about instituting the demands of protesters — including forming a citizens review board, banning chokeholds and publishing the police department budget — as the Iowa City Council has resolved to do.
“People live in Coralville because it is Coralville,” Gill said. “They live in Coralville because it is not Iowa City.”
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council decided to strongly encourage mask-wearing among residents, and expressed hope that Gov. Reynolds would permit local ordinances soon. Their COVID-conscious Fourth of July fireworks display was a success, they agreed, and Gross said locals, including an emergency room doctor, have thanked the city for opening the Coralville Pool, because it’s safer for swimmers than the alternatives, rivers and lakes.