Letter to the editor from the Iowa Freedom Riders: Why we continue to protest

Protesters returning to the Pentacrest following a march led by the Iowa Freedom Riders, Aug. 28, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

We are members of the Iowa Freedom Riders, a multi-racial collective of BIPOC individuals, white allies and other marginalized groups who believe in the Black Lives Matter ideals that have been highlighted throughout the country this summer. When the nation watched George Floyd’s murder on video, several of us went to Minneapolis to join the protests. We were inspired by the ways in which the community mobilized, and saw the city council working with the community to make systemic change. We knew that a movement like this was possible and necessary in Iowa City — many of us knew firsthand from our experiences as young Black people in Iowa City that this progressive community can also be blind to the effects of racism on BIPOC people who live here.

For weeks this summer, we marched every single day. We were joined by many more people who shared their personal experiences of not feeling protected by a system that claims to protect and serve everyone. We worked with other community organizations to form demands around our message and our movement, and brought those demands to the City, County and State. We recognized that as youth organizers, we needed to find others with policy experience, and worked with lawyers and academics. It is beautiful that this collective of youth activists, academics, community organizers and groups that have been leading change in various ways have come together to mobilize for change for Black lives. We moved from marches and protests to an organized and intentional push for policy change within our community, and celebrated the first step of that change when the 17-point resolution passed the City Council.

Protesters march on 1st Avenue in Coralville, Thursday, June 11, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

So with all of that progress, why did protests begin again two weeks ago? We returned to the streets because we were grieving and angry that in the midst of this national reckoning, another Black man in Kenosha named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back, entering a vehicle with his children, in a routine police interaction by a system that claims to protect and serve everyone. We returned to the streets because here at home, a judge ruled that the Iowa City police had stopped, searched, used a stun gun, and arrested a Black man leaving Hy-Vee without cause and based on racial profiling. We returned to the streets because after our City voted unanimously in June to restructure the police and redirect funding toward mental health professionals and transformative justice, it was considering a police request for $300,000 for updated tasers, a form of violence that would most likely be used on BIPOC bodies. Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the City to appoint a committee to recommend concrete police changes.

We are proud of the steps toward progress, but we will not sit down and be quiet, because police brutality didn’t just end when we passed a resolution. Every day brings more trauma from new examples of violence and indifference for Black lives. In our recent protests, white supremacists used their cars as weapons to attack protesters two days in a row. The first attack got some press attention, but the next night, a police officer was on the scene as a couple tried to back their car into the crowd, yelled “white power,” and threw a root beer bottle at protesters. The police officer did nothing. Who were they protecting?

Protesters marching in Iowa City on Aug. 28, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

Meanwhile, when a few peaceful, unarmed protesters expressed their grief and frustration with paint, the response from police was swift, aggressive and severe. Armed police shoved one of our members off her bike. Four police cars intimidated another young Black protester by following her car all the way to North Liberty in broad daylight. There was little attempt to understand why people were still coming out to protest or to hear the reasons for their anger and pain.

Their focus on graffiti and isolated incidents are distractions from the movement. Because, at the heart of the BLM ideology is the rejection of state powers and the myriad ways they are abused. The police have always protected the American ideal of capitalism and the idea that property is more important than people. If this feels foreign to you, please read MLK’s Where Do We Go from Here (particularly the second half) and Chapter 4 of Trumpet of Conscience.

When the police or a councilor focus on an alleged thrown water bottle instead of the organizers who were directly harmed by police violence, then they are not supporting Black lives matter. When they ask “why are you still angry?” before considering the events of Kenosha, Wisconsin and ICPD’s violation of Chris Kelly’s Fourth Amendment right, arresting him for walking while Black, then they are not supporting Black lives matter. When they ask “why graffiti?” before they ask “why put young BIPOC people through the emotional, psychological, physical and sexual violence of going to jail?” then they are not supporting Black lives matter. We hit roadblocks to our goal when our city does not pause to ask about the harms that come from sending young BIPOC people to jail over crimes that do not injure other human beings.

Remember, our work will not stop until we have emboldened a society to solve social questions and social problems through resources and compassion instead of through police and jails. That is abolitionism.

We are well aware that it takes more than protests alone to win change. For months, we’ve been meeting with City Council members in Iowa City and Coralville, officials and equity committee members in the Iowa City Community School District, individual citizens from all over the city, and university professors. We have been working tirelessly to meet with the amazing community organizations that fight for Iowa City residents every day with housing assistance, mental health care, crisis response, food security, substance use, and domestic and sexual violence agencies. These agencies play a critically important role in reimagining what transformative justice can look like.

A memorial for Breonna Taylor on the Pentacrest, June 5, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

We envision building up Iowa City’s base of resources to make them massive, unquestionable pillars of safety and health for all members of our community. The stolen lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Elijah McClain and the countless other names erased in history have proven to us time and time again that the policing system in this country does not provide that safety. IFR is asking our community to push the boundaries of its imagination, to collectively work to envision and realize a world where we treat each other with care and compassion instead of subscribing to the white supremacist, punitive system that is the prison industrial complex.

We believe that our community can find ways to solve social problems through resources and compassion instead of through police and jails (please listen to Dr. Angela Davis discuss this idea here). Here’s an interesting fact — if we returned the police budget to 2011 funding levels, it would still be the highest funded department in city government, but would free up as much as $5 million for other essential services.

We demand a city that focuses on its most vulnerable citizens. That means that instead of sending badges and guns to a mental health call like last week in Coralville, we respond with a professional mental health worker and compassion. That means that no longer will someone wait to see a therapist in Iowa City. That means that when someone doesn’t have a roof over their head and they would like one, it’s there. That means that when one of our undocumented residents wants a lawyer and a social worker, there is no wait.

A memorial to Makeda Scott on the Pentacrest. Aug. 30, 2020. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

If you share our values, then we welcome the chance to work with you. Our network is growing, welcoming people who are students and grandmas, white and multiracial, religious and spiritual, with gender and without. This is the Civil Rights moment of this generation — a defining moment — and it’s time that we demand freedom from state violence and a fair allocation of resources that allow our most vulnerable citizens to thrive.

To all of those people out there who have been unloved by power: we see you, we got you, we love you and we will never stop fighting for you. And that will never come with the condition of protesting in a way that makes us feel comfortable.

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