About 15 minutes into Saturday’s march in Cedar Rapids, protesters stopped at the intersection of 19th Street and Bever Avenue. They used chalk to draw and write various messages in the outline of #BLM, an emblem for Black Lives Matter.
Twenty minutes later, the protesters stopped again. This time it was at the intersection of 15th Street and First Avenue. They laid down for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the same amount of time Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin had his knee pinned down on George Floyd’s neck. It was mostly silent, but at seven minutes and 30 seconds hundreds of people yelled out “Mama” just as Floyd did before he died.
Saturday’s protest in Cedar Rapids was the second one organized this month by the grassroots group Advocates for Social Justice. Hundreds of people showed up at Bever Park to hear from speakers and march. It was a diverse crowd — from a woman in her 80s, who has been protesting for decades, to small children, attending the protest with their parents.
As the protesters marched down Bever Avenue, some people who live on the street stepped out of their homes to cheer and raise their fists in solidarity.
More than 2,000 people showed up to the group’s protest a week before on June 6. In the week between the two protests, organizers started meeting with Cedar Rapids officials to discuss their seven demands for change, which include forming an independent citizens review board, strengthening use-of-force standards, imposing strict body camera provisions and abolishing qualified immunity for officers.
The group started a petition online “to further demonstrate to our public officials how important this issue is to their citizens,” according to Facebook post on Sunday morning. As of Sunday afternoon, more than 500 people have signed.
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman announced on Friday the city is working to establish an independent citizens review board. While specific details still need to be worked out, Jerman said he hopes that whatever is decided will be presented to the city council and become part of the city code.
Councilmember Dale Todd, who spoke at the protest in Bever Park prior to the march, was asked by an organizer if he supports the seven demands.
“If anybody tells you the Cedar Rapids City Council is not on board with these demands, send them to me,” Todd said. “We want to get this done. We need your help, but there is no opposition to getting this thing done. As I said, using the words of Spike Lee, we want to make sure we get this thing right. I don’t think we’re gonna have another chance to do it. Now is the time.”
Todd also talked about defining moments and how the killing of George Floyd will be this generation’s defining moment. Todd tied the killing and the protests it has generated to the importance of voting. Voting was theme at this protest, just as it was the previous week’s protests. Voter registration tables were set up at both events.
“One of the reasons why this guy is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is because we didn’t vote,” Todd said about President Donald Trump, who has been vocal opponent of the protests across the country. “We didn’t vote.”
“That goes both ways because we didn’t give you a compelling reason to vote, but if there’s ever a more compelling reason, this is the time.”
State Rep. Liz Bennett and former Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloren were also present on Saturday.
Bennett addressed the crowd in Bever Park, and referenced the bill that unanimously passed at the end of last week by the Iowa legislature, that institutes some reforms in policing practices. The bill prohibits police chokeholds in many circumstances, requires implicit bias training every year and bans hiring officers fired due to serious misconduct. It also allows Iowa’s Attorney General to investigate instances where a law enforcement officer has killed someone.
“That’s a very important first step towards justice reform,” Bennett said about the bill. “Perfect? No. But a really important first step.”
“It is time for action, and it’s been time for action for 400 years.”
The crowd also heard from Antonio Chalmers, who was asked by organizers to read a poem he’d written.
“When I got the call this morning to read something that I wrote, my immediate answer was no,” Chalmers said. “I’m just not in a good mental place with everything that’s going on right now, but then I look in the crowd, and I see all these people out here that are joining for a cause that’s much bigger than myself and any individual. It’s something that we’ve been fighting for a long time, so it was only right.”
Chalmers dedicated his poem to George Floyd and Rekia Boyd. Boyd was 22 years-old in 2012, when she was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in Chicago. The officer was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter, but a judge found him not guilty after a non-jury trial in 2015.
“How can you wear a hat saying let’s make America great again, but it’s only ever been great for people with greater skin? Nothing new that just the way it’s been. They sat on a man’s neck for writing a bad check. I didn’t know a misdemeanor should lead to a man’s death,” Chalmers said, reciting his poem.
“So police these neighborhoods with people from these neighborhoods. Instead, you’re sending in the ones afraid of us, that hated us. The same type these kids dream of being when they grow up kill their father within minutes when they show up.”