Letter to the editor from Janice Weiner: Some thoughts on the protests

Janice Weiner, Thursday, Oct 10, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

By Janice Weiner, Iowa City Councilmember

Let me start with some context: We are in the midst of one of the worst COVID outbreaks in the state, this country and the world. To bring our infection rate down, we have to rally all levels of government, all segments of our community, to work together. We need to have our infectious disease medical experts and public health speaking.

And because of the pandemic, we have businesses hanging on by a thread.

And we have thousands of families trying to figure out how they are going to get their kids educated this year.

And we have so many people hurting because they have lost jobs because of COVID and we are working hard to help them.

And we have the BIPOC community at greater risk than others of getting COVID.

And we have expressed our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and made it clear through our June 16 resolution and our work since then that we take the challenge of addressing systemic racism very seriously. We mean it. We work on this every single week –– most of us, every single day.

And people have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights. Absolutely. We saw the pain and anger and anguish that erupted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. We wanted to provide space for people to express that during the summer protests.

The stated goals of our Black Lives Matter movement focus on improving this community and moving it forward — improving policing, shifting funds to our nonprofit community, expanding affordable housing. They also want the community writ large to become educated on systemic racism and what needs to change. These are all goals to which we on Council are fully committed. No matter what happens, we will continue to pursue the goals that we articulated in our June 16 resolution. These are incredibly important for our city and our society — for our collective future.

Here’s the deal for me: When you spray paint, you damage small business owners who are already struggling to survive. You may not know who they are, what their values are and who their employees are. You may be hurting people in the community, in a wide range of businesses, who fundamentally support your cause.

Graffiti spray-painted on the MidWestOne Bank Building, Aug. 30, 2020. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Every time you tag property and people express their opposition to it, or their unhappiness, the question is posed: Is property more important than lives? Let’s be honest: the tagging is being done purposefully. It’s not spontaneous. So to me, that’s not the right question. The question now is: How is this sucking away resources and goodwill and creating wedges in the community? How will this potentially risk conflict that is counter to our goals? And how, without businesses that pay more in property taxes than home owners, will we find the money to do any of these things to which we collectively aspire?

Education is key: And yet I can’t help but think that the message we should be sending to children and young people is not spray-painting graffiti with crude language. You want to improve this community — let’s work on that together. I don’t believe it helps our mutual goals to suck up resources and time when we all have so much on our plate; when the money that goes into spray paint and the resulting clean-up could be going to healthcare or food for people who are hurting.

The final report on the 21st century policing put out by the task force under the Obama administration focuses, among a number of goals, on the need to build trust. My background in diplomacy tells me that the way forward is to build trust — create incremental, step by step confidence-building measures. What the report says is that, in our context, that confidence-building takes the form of procedurally just behavior, which is based on four central principles:

Treating people with dignity and respect;

Giving individuals “voice” during encounters;

Being neutral and transparent in decision making; and

Conveying trustworthy motives.

This is for everyone. We all make mistakes, none of us are perfect. We need to be able to move forward, build trust and get things done at the same time as we deal with all the rest of the major issues that are facing our city.